The Anthropology of Natural Scarcity in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland

  • Charles H. Hinnant


Part of the continuing fascination of Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland may lie in its singularity.1 It asks to be read not as a conventional topographical guide but as an extended essay in cultural investigation and interpretation. As such, it is probably a companion to the theory of travel writing that Johnson put forth more than a decade earlier in Idler, No. 97. In that essay, Johnson attacks what he regards as the predictable narratives and generalized decor of most travel books and advocates the careful description of men and manners.2 Travel writing emerges in his view as the product of a differential analysis in which knowledge is acquired through the comparison of different cultures. Elaborating on this principle, Johnson holds that:

every nation has something peculiar in its manufactures, its works of genius, its medicines, its agriculture, its customs, and its policy. He only is a useful traveller who brings home something by which his country may be benefited; who procures some supply of want or some mitigation of evil, which may enable his readers to compare their condition with that of others, to improve it whenever it is worse, and whenever it is better to enjoy it. (Idler, Adventurer, 300)


Oral Tradition Material Progress Antiquated Life Feudal System Western Island 
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  1. 1.
    For a discussion of the contemporary recognition of the originality of Johnson’s Journey, see Clarence Tracy, ‘Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland: A Reconsideration’, Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 58 (1967) 1596–8.Google Scholar
  2. A. J. Youngson, in Beyond the Highland Line, Three Journals of Travel in Eighteenth-Century Scotland (London: Collins, 1974) p. 11, describes Johnson’s Journey as ‘in many ways the best book about Scotland in the eighteenth century’.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Johnson’s extensive acquaintance with the travel literature of his age has been convincingly demonstrated by Thomas Jemielity, in ‘Doctor Johnson and the Uses of Travel’, Philological Quarterly, 51 (1972) 450–2. Jemielity also provides a useful summary of Johnson’s theory of travel in Idler, No. 97 (pp.453–5).Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Patrick O’Flaherty, ‘Johnson in the Hebrides: Philosopher Becalmed’, Studies in Burke and His Time, 13 (1971) 1986–2001. Rejecting the notion of Johnson as anthropologist, O’Flaherty seems him ‘as a class-conscious Tory imposing his own preconceptions upon primitive Scotland’ (p. 1999).Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Patrick Cruttwell, ‘“These are not Whigs”: 18th Century Attitudes toward the Highlanders’, Essays in Criticism, 15 (1965) 398, 401;Google Scholar
  6. Donald Greene, Samuel Johnson (Boston: Twayne, 1970) pp. 169–75. There is some generic confusion as to the more precise definition of Johnson’s activity in A Journey. Thus, for example, several critics have compared his investigations to that of a ‘modern sociologist’. See Jemielity, ibid., p. 458; Tracy, p. 1600;Google Scholar
  7. and Greene, in ‘Johnsonian Critics’, Essays in Criticism, 10 (1960) p. 479. Johnson differs from modem sociologists, however, in his preoccupation with a culture that is clearly alien and more backward than his own. By contrast, Johnson was obviously reluctant to write about Wales or contemporary France (see, Jemielity, ibid., pp. 457–9). The term ‘cultural anthropology’ is perhaps the most satisfactory description of Johnson’s work.Google Scholar
  8. R. N. Kaul in ‘A Journey to the Western Islands Reconsidered’, Essays in Criticism, 13 (1963) 343, describes the Journey as the work of a ‘social anthropologist’. Although a part of social anthropology overlaps with cultural anthropology, Johnson seems much more interested in material culture than in contemporary social structures and institutions. On the difference between the two disciplines,Google Scholar
  9. see Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘The Place of Anthropology in the Social Sciences’, in Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963) pp. 356–9.Google Scholar
  10. 5.
    Mary Lascelles, in ‘Some Reflections on Johnson s Hebridean Journey’, New Rambler, 1 (1961), p. 8, praises Johnson’s ‘grasp of the whole’ of Highland life.Google Scholar
  11. See, also, Thomas Jemielity’s discussion of Johnson’s ‘generalized presentation of an entire society’ in ‘“More in Notions than in Facts”: Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands’, Dalhousie Review, 49 (1969) 322–4.Google Scholar
  12. 7.
    E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (London, 1871) I, i; quoted from Claude Lévi-Strauss, ibid., p.356.Google Scholar
  13. 8.
    For a survey of the eighteenth-century anthropological texts of Montesquieu, Kames, Millar, and Condorcet, see Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, A History of Anthropological Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1981) pp. 3–40.Google Scholar
  14. 9.
    The best discussion of Johnson’s cautious and sceptical handling of evidence can be found in Francis Hart’s ‘Johnson as Philosophic Traveller: The Perfecting of an Idea’, English Literary History, 36 (1969) 679–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. See also the valuable discussions of Richard Schwartz, ‘Johnson’s Journey’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 69 (1970) 292–303;Google Scholar
  16. Thomas Curley, ‘Johnson and the Geographical Revolution: A Journey to the Western Islands’, Studies in Burke and His Times, 17 (1976) 180–96;Google Scholar
  17. and Catherine N. Parke, ‘Love, Accuracy, and the Power of an Object: Finding the Conclusion in A Journey to the Western Islands’., Biography, 3 (1980) 115–20.Google Scholar
  18. 10.
    For an interesting discussion of the ahistorical bias to which the functionalist-holistic tendency can lead in modem anthropology, see Clifford Geertz, ‘Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese Example’, in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973) pp. 142–7. I am indebted to Geertz’s discussion in my emphasis on Johnson’s attention to the disruptive and psychologically disturbing aspects of Highland life.Google Scholar
  19. 11.
    For a detailed analysis of the Journey as a romantic quest narrative, see Eithene Henson, ‘Johnson’s Quest for “The Fictions of Romantic Chivalry” in Scotland’, Prose Studies, 7 (1984) 97–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Thomas R. Preston in ‘Homeric Allusion in A Journey to the Western Islands’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 5 (1972), 545–58, has drawn attention to the Homeric framework of Johnson’s Journey.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. See, also, George H. Savage, ‘“Roving Among the Hebrides”: the Odyssey of Samuel Johnson’, Studies in English Literature, 17 (1977) 493–501.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 13.
    On Johnson’s use of the ruins as ‘a tangible symbol of deeper decay’, see John A. Vance, Samuel Johnson and the Sense of History (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984) pp. 75–80.Google Scholar
  23. 14.
    Thomas J. Jemielity, in ‘“Savage Virtues and Barbarous Grandeur”: Johnson and Martin in the Highlands’, Cornell Library Journal, I (1966) 1–12, shows Johnson’s disappointment with Martin Martin’s Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1703), for Martin’s failure to recreate Highland culture when the opportunity to do so still existed.Google Scholar
  24. 15.
    The ambivalence of Johnson s response gave rise to a debate as to whether he should be viewed as a Tory defender of the old order or an advocate of commerce and manufacture. See especially Jeffrey Hart, ‘Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands: History as Art’, Essays in Criticism, 10 (1960) 44–59; and Thomas K. Meier, ‘Johnson on Scotland’, Essays in Criticism, 18 (1968), for the first view;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. and Donald Greene, ‘Johnsonian Critics’, Essays in Criticism, 10 (1960) 476–80;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. R. K. Kaul, ‘A Journey to the Western Islands Reconsidered’, Essays in Criticism, 13 (1963) 341–50;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. and Arthur Sherbo, ‘Johnson’s Intent in the Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland’, Essays in Criticism, 16 (1966) 382–97, for the second. A recent, balanced presentation can be found in Jemielity’s ‘“More in Notions than in Facts”’, pp. 326–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 16.
    Pennant writes in A Tour in Scotland, for example, that Perth ‘as well as all Scotland, dates its prosperity from the year 1745; the government of this part of Great Britain having never been settled till a little after that time. The rebellion was a disorder violent in its operation, but salutary in its effects’, Beyond the Highland Line, p. 127. For a discussion of Johnson’s relation to Pennant, see Ralph E. Jenkins, ‘“And I travelled after him”: Johnson and Pennant in Scotland’, Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 14 (1972) 445–62.Google Scholar
  29. 19.
    Femand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II, trans. Sian Reynolds (2 vols, New York: Harper & Row, 1972) I, 25–52.Google Scholar
  30. 22.
    Hayden White, Metahistory: the Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973) p. 54. see also pp. 60–2. Johnson’s conception of history may resemble what White calls the ‘historiography of essential schism’. According to White, this historiography is characteristic of the seventeenth rather than the eighteenth century and apprehends ‘the historical field as a chaos of contending forces, among which the historian had to choose and in the service of one or more of which he had to write his history. This was the case with both the confessional historiography … and the Ethnographic historiography of the missionaries and conquistadores’ (p. 65).Google Scholar
  31. 23.
    Cruttwell, in ‘These are not Whigs’, finds a ‘continual to-and-fro movement’ throughout the Journey. ‘No sooner has Johnson said something sympathetic and admiring than he balances it with something critical’ (p. 403). For a sensitive and intricate analysis of Johnson’s shifting attitudes toward the Conquest, see John B. Radner, ‘The Significance of Johnson’s Changing Views of the Hebrides’, in The Unknown Samuel Johnson, eds John J. Burke, Jr. and Donald Kay (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983) pp. 148–9 n.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Charles H. Hinnant 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles H. Hinnant
    • 1
  1. 1.University of MissouriUSA

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