The Storm

In 1773 Boswell and Samuel Johnson, the greatest English author of the second half of the eighteenth century, toured northern Scotland and its western islands, the Hebrides. The north of Scotland was known for its desolate ruggedness and the Hebrides for their treacherous seas (especially late in the year). Taking advantage of an apparent break in very rainy weather, Boswell, Johnson, and their companions venture from one island to another in a small fishing vessel.

This is Boswell as he looked at the time of his tour of the Hebrides


Background: "The Storm"

In 1773 Boswell persuaded Samuel Johnson--the famous man of letters, champion of city-life in London, and close friend--to accompany him on a tour of the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides. Both men kept journals, and both men eventually published books describing their journey.

According to Johnson, Boswell was a "most unscottified Scot" still, Boswell's Tour allows readers to view him within a profoundly Scottish setting. Although he was a "lowlander," Boswell moved comfortably among the highland society.

The Tour is filled with references to the uprising of 1745, to the heavy hand of Presbyterianism, to the men who were the driving force behind the Scottish Enlightenment, to the poverty of the highlanders, and of course to Johnson.

"The Storm" has been excerpted from the middle of the work. It demonstrates Boswell's narrative skills as well as his readiness to present unflattering descriptions of himself as long as they are part of a good story. This ability to turn self-deprecating situations into art was badly misunderstood by Macaulay during the nineteenth century and has led, in great part, to Boswell's reputation as a blithering fool. He was not.

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Commentary on The Storm

Boswell's narrative ability is his greatest strength. He can tell a most engaging story. One of the finest scenes in the Tour to the Hebrides is his description of a stormy sea-crossing from the isle of Sky to the isle of Coll. He begins his description with the rising wind, which quickly becomes violent. As the night darkens he describes the crew of the small boat, "one M'Donald, our skipper, and two sailors, one whom had but one eye." The storm eventually rages and with it the indecision over which island to head for. Boswell depicts the young Laird of Coll as the hero. "At last it became so rough, and threatened to be so much worse, that Coll and his servant took more courage, and said they would undertake to hit one of the harbours in Coll."

The narrative does not slip, however, now that the hero is identified. Boswell begins to worry about the tattered sails, and the gun powder on board, for one of the sailors has been ordered to wave a "glowing peat" as a signal to the smaller fishing boat that followed. "The sparks of the burning peat flew so much about . . . I figured that we might be blown up." Boswell even meditates upon his situation, upbraiding himself for "not having sufficient cause for putting myself in such danger." He attempts to compose himself and seeing everyone working for their safety offers to help. Coll's ready task, to hold a rope attached to the mast, and Boswell's reflections upon this task, are superb comedy.

If I had considered the matter, I might have seen that this could not be of the least service; but his object was to keep me out of the way of those who were busy working the vessel, and at the same time to divert my fear, by employing me, and making me think that I was of use. Thus did I stand firm to my post, while the wind and rain beat upon me, always expecting a call to pull my rope.

With the one-eyed sailor at the helm, they finally sight the harbor and rejoice at their good fortune. Boswell then descends below deck to Johnson whom he finds "lying in philosophic tranquility, with a greyhound of Coll's at his back, keeping him warm."

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The Storm

While we were chatting in the indolent stile of men who were to stay here all this day at least, we were suddenly roused at being told that the wind was fair, that a little fleet of herring-busses was passing by for Mull, and that Mr Simson's vessel was about to sail. Hugh M'Donald, the skipper, came to us, and was impatient that we should get ready, which we soon did. Dr Johnson, with composure and solemnity, repeated the observation of Epictetus, that, "as man has the voyage of death before him, whatever may be his employment, he should be ready at the master's call; and an old man should never be far from the shore, lest he should not be able to get himself ready." He rode, and I and the other gentlemen walked, about an English mile to the shore, where the vessel lay. Dr Johnson said, he should never forget Sky, and returned thanks for all civilities. We were carried to the vessel in a small boat which she had, and we set sail very briskly about one o'clock. I was much pleased with the motion for many hours. Dr Johnson grew sick, and retired under cover, as it rained a good deal. I kept above, that I might have fresh air, and finding myself not affected by the motion of the vessel, I exulted in being a stout seaman, while Dr Johnson was quite in a state of annihilation. But I was soon humbled; for after imagining that I could go with ease to America or the East Indies, I became very sick, but kept above board, though it rained hard.

As we had been detained so long in Sky by bad weather, we gave up the scheme that Coll had planned for us of visiting several islands, and contented ourselves with the prospect of seeing Mull, and Icolmkill and Inchkenneth, which lie near to it.

Mr Simson was sanguine in his hopes for a-while, the wind being fair for us, he said, he would land us at Icolmkill that night. But when the wind failed, it was resolved we should make for the sound of Mull, and land in the harbour of Tobermories. We kept near the five herring vessels for some time; but afterwards four of them got before us, and one little wherry fell behind us. When we got in full view of the point of Ardnamurchan, the wind changed, and was directly against our getting into the sound. We were then obliged to tack, and get forward in that tedious manner. As we advanced the storm grew greater, and the sea very rough. Coll then said, he would get us into the Sound. Having struggled for this a good while in vain, he said, we should push forward till we were near the land of Mull, where we might cast anchor, and lie till the morning; for although, before this, there had been a good moon, and I had pretty distinctly seen not only the land of Mull, but up the Sound, and the country of Morven as at one end of it, the night was now grown very dark. Our crew consisted of one M'Donald, our skipper, and two sailors, one of whom had but one eye; Mr Simson himself, Coll, and Hugh M'Donald his servant, all helped. Simson said, he would willingly go for Coll, if young Coll or his servant would undertake to pilot us to a harbour; but, as the island is low land, it was dangerous to run upon it in the dark. Coll and his servant appeared a little dubious. The scheme of running for Canna seemed then to be embraced; but Canna was ten leagues off, all out of our way; and they were afraid to attempt the harbour of Egg. All these different plans were sucessively in agitation. The old skipper still tried to make for the land of Mull, but then it was considered that there was no place there where we could anchor in safety. Much time was lost in striving against the storm. At last it became so rough, and threatened to be so much worse, that Coll and his servant took more courage, and said they would undertake to hit one of the harbours in Coll. "Then let us run for it in God's name," said the skipper; and instantly we turned towards it. The little wherry which had fallen behind us, had hard work. The master begged that, if we made for Coll, we should put out a light to him. Accordingly one of the sailors waved a glowing peat for some time. The various difficulties that were started, gave me a good deal of apprehension, from which I was relieved, when I found we were to run for a harbour before the wind. But my relief was but of short duration; for I soon heard that our sails were very bad, and were in danger of being torn in pieces, in which case we should be driven upon the rocky shore of Coll. It was very dark, and there was a heavy and incessant rain. The sparks of the burning peat flew so much about, that I dreaded the vessel might take fire. Then, as Coll was a sportman, and had powder on board, I figured that we might be blown up. Simson and he appeared a little frightened, which made me more so; and the perpetual talking, or rather shouting, which was carried on in Erse, alarmed me still more. A man is always suspicious of what is saying in an unknown tongue; and, if fear be his passion at the time, he grows more afraid. Our vessel often lay so much on one side, that I trembled lest she should be overset, and indeed they told me afterwards, that they had run her sometimes to within an inch of the water, so anxious were they to make what haste they could before the night should be worse. I now saw what I never saw before, a prodigious sea, with immense billows coming upon a vessel, so as that it seemed hardly possible to escape. There was something grandly horrible in the sight. I am glad I have seen it once. Amidst all these terrifying circumstances, I endeavoured to compose my mind. It was not easy to do it; for all the stories that I had heard of the dangerous sailing among the Hebrides, which is proverbial, came full upon my recollection. When I thought of those who were dearest to me, and would suffer severely, should I be lost, I upbraided myself, as not having a sufficient cause for putting myself in such danger. Piety afforded me comfort; yet I was disturbed by the objections that have been made against a particular providence, and by the arguments of those who maintain that it is in vain to hope that the petitions of an individual, or even of congregations, can have any influence with the deity; objections which have been often made, and which Dr Hawkesworth has lately revived, in his preface to the Voyages to the South Seas; but Dr Ogden's excellent doctrine of the efficacy of intercession prevailed.

It was half an hour after eleven before we set ourselvse in the course for Coll. As I saw them all busy doing something, I asked Coll, with much earnestness, what I could do. He, with a happy readiness, put into my hand a rope, which was fixed to the top of one of the masts, and told me to hold it till he bade me pull. If I had considered the matter, I might have seen that this could not be of the least service; but his object was to keep me out of the way of those who were busy working the vessel, and at the same time to divert my fear, by employing me, and making me think that I was of use. Thus did I stand firm to my post, while the wind and rain beat upon me, always expecting a call to pull my rope.

The man with one eye steered; old M'Donald, and Coll and his servant, lay upon the fore-castle,looking sharp out for the harbour. It was necessary to carry much "cloth," as they termed it, that is to say, much sail, in order to keep the vessel off the shore of Coll. This made violent plunging in a rough sea. At last they spied the harbour of Lochiern, and Coll cried, "Thank God, we are safe!" We ran up till we were opposite to it, and soon afterwards we got into it, and cast anchor.

Dr Johnson had all this time been quiet and unconcerned. He had lain down on one of the beds, and having got free from sickness, was satisfied. The truth is, he knew nothing of the danger we were in: but, fearless and unconcerned, might have said, in the words which he has chosen for the motto of his Rambler.

Quo me cunqeu rapit tempestas, deferor hospes.

Once, during the doubtful consultations, he asked whither we were going; and upon being told that it was not certain whether to Mull or Coll, he cried, "Coll for my money!" I now went down, with Coll and Mr Simson, to visit him. He was lying in philosophick tranquillity with a greyhound of Coll's at his back, keeping him warm. Coll is quite the Juvenis qui gaudet canibus. He had, when we left Talisker, two grey-hounds, two terriers, a pointer, and a large Newfoundland water-dog. He lost one of his terriers by the road, but had still five dogs with him. I was very ill, and very desirous to get to shore. When I was told that we could not land that night, as the storm had now increased, I looked so miserably, as Coll afterwards informed me, that what Shakespeare has made the Frenchman say of the English soldiers, when scantily dieted, "Piteous they will look, like drowned mice!" might, I believe, have been well applied to me. There was in the harbour, before us, a Campbelltown vessel, the Betty, Kenneth Morison master, taking in kelp, and bound for Ireland. We sent our boat to beg beds for two gentlemen, and that the master would send his boat, which was larger than ours. He accordingly did so, and Coll and I were accommodated in his vessel till the morning.

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James Boswell and John Johnston, The Correspondence of James Boswell and John Johnston of Grange, ed. Ralph S. Walker (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company), p. 84. 7 July 1763.

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Excerpted from The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. The date was Sunday the 3rd of October, 1773. It was getting late in the year for travel between the numerous islands that make up the Hebrides.

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Skye is the largest and most populous island of the inner Hebrides. Johnson and Boswell had been liberally entertained there.

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For as the tempest drives, I shape my way.

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