In 1773, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell embarked on a tour of Scotland together, from the cities of the Central Belt to the Highlands and Islands.

Both men recorded their experiences in published accounts that were popular at the time and are still read today. Here we join the two friends on their tour by viewing some of the places they visited – as shown in some of the artworks on Art UK.

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) c.1772–1850

Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) (after)

Pembroke College, University of Oxford

Samuel Johnson was a celebrity in his day, and is still remembered today for his A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755, and is widely believed to be the first modern English dictionary. His friend, James Boswell, the Scottish lawyer and writer, is now best known as Johnson's biographer.

It was Boswell who encouraged his friend to leave his home in London to explore Scotland with him, and on 14th August 1773, Boswell met the newly arrived Johnson in Edinburgh. They began their tour by seeing the sights of the Scottish capital, such as St Giles Cathedral. Boswell was slightly embarrassed by the appearance of the cathedral, writing that it was 'shamefully dirty'.

View of Edinburgh

View of Edinburgh 1759

William Delacour (1700–1767)

Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

From Edinburgh, the two friends travelled north towards Aberdeen, stopping along the way at St Andrews, Arbroath and Montrose. At various points in his A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, Johnson wrote about the depressed state of the towns they visited. He wrote that St Andrews was 'a city, which only history shews to have once flourished' and that they had 'surveyed the ruins of ancient magnificence, of which even the ruins cannot long be visible'.

Capriccio View of the Ruins of St Andrews

Capriccio View of the Ruins of St Andrews mid-18th C

unknown artist

University of St Andrews

In Montrose, Johnson found something else to complain about, when Boswell observed that a waiter had 'put a lump of sugar with his fingers into Dr Johnson's lemonade, for which he called him "Rascal!"'. Boswell could not resist pointing out that the landlord of this inn was English.

Throughout the journey, the pair relied on the kindness of strangers, and found themselves sleeping on feather beds in grand country houses, but also on straw mattresses, using their coats as sheets. In Aberdeen they were initially told that there was no room at the New Inn, although when Boswell was recognised as the son of Lord Auchinleck, a room with two beds was found for them. Boswell wrote that he had his bed 'wheeled out into the dining-room, and there I lay very well'.

View of Aberdeen

View of Aberdeen 1756

William Mosman (c.1700–1771)

Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

Boswell had a fraught relationship with his father, Alexander Boswell, 8th Laird of Auchinleck. James attended the University of Edinburgh at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment, but his father moved him to the University of Glasgow to prevent him from having too much fun.

The young James Boswell then fled to London – initially with the idea of becoming a monk, but also to experience the best and worst of low and high society. It was here that he was eventually pulled into the orbit of Johnson's literary circle.

James Boswell

James Boswell 1785

Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792)

National Portrait Gallery, London

Boswell and Johnson departed Aberdeen on 24th August and travelled to Inverness. During this part of their journey, they amused themselves by quoting lines from Macbeth to each one another.

Old Fort Augustus and the Great Glen

Old Fort Augustus and the Great Glen

British (Scottish) School

Highland Council

After travelling west, passing Loch Ness and Fort Augustus, they sailed from Glenelg to the Isle of Skye. While on Skye, they stayed at the home of Flora MacDonald, who had aided Bonnie Prince Charlie in his escape after the Battle of Culloden. This nineteenth-century painting by an unknown artist depicts the meeting between Boswell, Johnson and Flora MacDonald. Allan MacDonald – Flora's husband – is also depicted, and Bonnie Prince Charlie appears in a painting within the painting.

From Skye, Boswell and Johnson visited the islands of Coll, Mull, Iona, Inchkenneth, Ulva and Raasay.

Sailing between Scotland's islands in the autumn meant that the travellers often found themselves at the mercy of the weather. They arrived on Coll on 4th October but were unable to leave for nine days. This prolonged stay on Coll proved too much for the melancholic Johnson, who stated: 'I want to be on the main land, and go on with existence. This is a waste of life.'

A Sunny Day in Iona

A Sunny Day in Iona 1871

Samuel Bough (1822–1878)

The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

The two eventually returned to the mainland on 22nd October and travelled south from Oban to Inveraray. Johnson celebrated their arrival at the town's comfortable inn with a whisky, which he had avoided on the journey so far. Boswell, on the other hand, had become accustomed to a dram with his breakfast.

While at the inn they received an invitation to dine with the Duke of Argyll at Inveraray Castle. Boswell recorded that 'Dr Johnson was much struck by the grandeur and elegance of this princely seat. He thought, however, the castle too low, and wished it had been a story higher'.

Views of Inverary

Views of Inverary 1781

Adam Callander (1750–1817)

National Trust for Scotland, Culzean Castle, Garden & Country Park

Newly mounted on 'stately steeds' from the Duke of Argyll's stables, Johnson and Boswell travelled south along the west shore of Loch Lomond toward Glasgow, stopping along the way to climb Dumbarton Rock, where they 'surveyed all that was to be seen'.

Boswell went on to praise Johnson's physical efforts during the tour, writing that: 'During the whole of our tour he shewed uncommon spirit, could not bear to be treated like an old or infirm man, and was very unwilling to accept of any assistance.'

West View of Dumbarton Castle

West View of Dumbarton Castle 1788

Joseph Farington (1747–1821)

The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

From Dumbarton the two friends travelled south by coach, arriving in Glasgow on 28th October, where they visited St Mungo's Cathedral and the University of Glasgow. Johnson admired the university buildings but was dismissive of the education that could be gained there.

He wrote: 'Men bred in the universities of Scotland cannot be expected to be often decorated with the splendours of ornamental erudition, but they obtain a mediocrity of knowledge, between learning and ignorance.'

When he wrote this in his account, Johnson would have been fully aware that his own friend Boswell had attended the universities in both Edinburgh and Glasgow.

On 2nd November, Boswell brought Johnson to Auchinleck House in Ayrshire, Boswell's family seat and home of his father. Johnson admired the ruins of the old castle, which he preferred to Lord Auchinleck's modern mansion, and also appreciated the summerhouse, which was carved into sandstone cliffs on the estate.

Johnson and Boswell were to stay at Auchinleck House until 8th November, and during this time Lord Auchinleck and Johnson got into a heated argument about religion and politics. Boswell wrote: 'They became exceedingly warm, and violent, and I was very much distressed by being present at such an altercation between the two men, both of whom I reverenced.'

Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck

Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck 1754

Allan Ramsay (1713–1784)


On 22nd November, after spending some time in Edinburgh and places nearby, Johnson returned to London by coach, bringing his and Boswell's tour of Scotland to a close.

The two friends discussed their journey when they were both back in London. Boswell wrote: 'He said to me often, that the time he spent in this tour was the pleasantest part of his life, and asked me if I would lose the recollection of it for five hundred pounds. I answered I would not; and he applauded my setting such a value on an accession of new images in my mind.'

Joe Waterfield, writer, illustrator and archivist

This content was supported by Creative Scotland

Further reading

James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson LL. D., published Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, 1785

Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1775