An pub crawl across Scotland with Boswell and Johnson
James Boswell and Dr Samuel Johnson were to write some of the first accounts of the country’s inns in the memoirs of their travels.
As rural travel opened up in the late 1700s, so did the opportunity to keep travellers fed and watered with many estates opening inns to capitalise on the growing number of journeys being made across the Highlands.
Boswell, of Edinburgh and Ayrshire who once said “no man is more easily hurt with wine than I am” and Dr Johnson, were to describe in some detail their lodgings and fare.
Here we look at the inns where Boswell and Johnson stopped on their famous voyage, what they are now - and what the wandering duo had to say about Scotland’s emerging hospitality trade.
Dr Johnson arrived at Boyd’s Inn, off St Mary’s Street, on Saturday August 14 1773 to meet Boswell ahead of their tour.
Boswell wrote, “I went to him directly. He embraced me cordially, and I exulted in the thought that I now had him actually in Caledonia.”
But Johnson was not impressed by the quality of service at the first stop of the tour.
Boswell later wrote that his friend ‘asked to have his lemonade made sweeter, upon which the waiter with his greasy fingers, lifted a lump of sugar, and put it into it. The Doctor, in indignation, threw it out of the window’.
The site of the inn is now marked by a plaque at Boyd’s Entry. Several taverns were clustered in this area.
Boswell and Johnson left Edinburgh on August 18 1773, headed north through Fife and arrived in Montrose, with the town documented as “well built, airy and clean.”
Their accommodation did not make such a mark on the pair. Johnson noted: “At our inn we did not find a reception such as we thought proportionate to the commercial importance of the place; but Mr Boswell desired me to observe the innkeeper was an Englishman, and I then defended him as well as I could.”
The site of the inn, at 107 High Street, is now a furniture shop.
Boswell and Johnson arrived late in Aberdeen and stopped at The New Inn, built by the Freemasons in 1755.
“We...found the inn so full, that we had some difficulty in obtaining admission, till Mr Boswell made himself known. His name overpowered all objection and we found a very good house and civil treatment.”
The New Inn was replaced by the North of Scotland Bank, later the Clydesdale Bank, in 1839. It is now a pub again and named after its architect, Archibald Simpson.
The pair spent several days around Loch Ness, which they described as a “remarkable diffusion of water”. They marvelled at the first “Highland hut” which they came about and visited the woman who lived there. She was boiling goat flesh in a kettle when they arrived and the pair accepted a dram from her. They stopped that night at the “General’s Hut”, the shelter of General Wade who led the building of military roads in the Highlands.
“It is now a house of entertainment for passengers, and we found it not ill stocked with Provisions.”
It is said the old Foyers Hotel, now Foyers House, was built on the site of the hut.
After travelling though Glen Shiel, the pair arrived at Glenelg. While the inn there today courts great praise, Boswell and Johnson were left far from impressed at their offering in 1734. After arriving “wearing and peevish”, the found much to complain about.
“Here was no meat, no milk, no bread, no eggs, no wine. We did not express much satisfaction.”
However, the pair encountered “very eminent proof of Highland hospitality” when a man they had met earlier on their travels appeared again to give them a gift of rum and sugar.
The pair slept on a bundle of hay. Johnson wore his riding coat to bed and Boswell, being more delicate, laid hay over and under him and “lay in linen like a gentleman.”
Boswell and Johnson noted one inn at Sconser, which they recorded as Sconfor, close to the post office.
They appeared reasonably happy with their lot. “At the tables where a stranger is received, neither plenty not delicacy is wanting,” Johnson wrote.
The present day Sconser Lodge Hotel was built in 1871, originally as a hunting lodge, long after Boswell and Johnson left the island.
After heading back to the mainland after three weeks in the Hebrides, Boswell and Johnson stopped at Inverary. Then, they stayed at the The Great Inn in Inverary, which was later known as the Argyll Arms and now as the Inverary Inn.
It was “not only commodius, but magnificent. The difficulties of peregrination were now at an end.”
In October 1773 Dr Samuel Johnstone and Mr James Boswell returned to Glasgow from their tour of the Hebrides. They stayed at the Saracen Head Inn, Gallowgate, and appeared to enjoy their return to the city.
Boswell wrote: “On our arrival accounts from home, and Dr Johnston, who had not received a single letter since we left Aberdeen, found here a great many, the perusal of which entertained him much.
“He enjoyed in imagination the comforts which we could now command, and seemed to be in high glee. I remember he put a leg up on each side of the grate, and said, which a mock solemnity, by way of soliloquy, but bud enough for one to hear it; there am I, an Englishman, sitting by a coal fire.”
The dined and drank tea with professors from Glasgow University before heading off to Ayrshire, where their journey ended.