Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Sunday, 12 June 2016
1940? No, 1740
I was not aware of this portrait by Joshua Reynolds of Samuel Johnson as a wigless young man until yesterday. The curious position of his hands denotes the Tourette syndrome which he apparently had, although it was not called that until Tourette named it after himself, whenever that was. Doesn't this picture look as though it could have been painted in the 1940s?
I took Johnson's account of his travels in the Western Highlands (of Scotland) with me to Spain, and in it I found the most clear and concise explanation of how and why Highland society is like it is.
In one chapter, Johnson simply explained the combination of events set in the rugged and inhospitable country, in a way which I have never heard set out so sensibly. It has taken me years to finally half understand Highland economics and politics, and the situation up there now is pretty much the same as it was during Johnson's time, so the history still applies.
In a nutshell, long before he wrote about it, the power was taken from the feudal lairds, who were bought off by the English at a time when money was of little use in the Highlands. The English excise men were virtually powerless in a mountainous terrain in which the agile clansmen always held the higher positions in the landscape they had known since birth, and the Highlanders were well used to fending off invaders amongst their own people, building numerous forts and castles against each other, and swearing allegiance to their own chief whilst warring against another clan which may only have been twenty miles away. Even the Romans did not attempt to conquer the Scots - or even trade with them as they had done with the Cornish.
The lairds were forced to submit to the Southern kings, in return for payment as governors of their own little kingdoms, and the surrender of arms as they disbanded their little armies was part and parcel of the deal. Up until then, a laird would not set foot outside his own stronghold without a retinue of about twenty well-armed men, rattling and jangling alongside him on horseback.
The facilitation of English rule in Scotland was always carried out by the Campbells, because their seat in Inverary was on a wide plain surrounded by mountains. The position of Inverary castle was such that the various armies could be seen and monitored as they approached downwards to relinquish their arms and sign treaties. The Campells are still universally despised by the other clans, even today. The Scots have long memories.
By the time Johnson and Boswell arrived, the lairds had English accents (as they do today), and were able to entertain guests very comfortably - with wine and brandy from France, and tobacco from America - and their farms and estates were run by factors, with middlemen called 'tacksmen', who were a despised necessity then as they are today.
I love reading travel books when I am travelling - even if I am in a country which bears no resemblance to the book, and even if the book was written 200 years ago. It all helps, and there is no such thing as a relaxing holiday in my experience.