‘This Wide Extent of Hopeless Sterility’: Samuel Johnson, Frank Fraser Darling, and a Grim Weekend in the Scottish Highlands

In 1773, one of England’s most celebrated literary figures, a then 64-year-old Samuel Johnson, walked from London to Glasgow. It’s testament to just how much Johnson accomplished in his career – completing what is widely considered the first modern dictionary, the first edition of Shakespeare’s collected works, as well as his biographies of England’s greatest poets, and innumerable stories, poems and essays on British fiction – that such a feat achieved by a man of Johnson’s age and weight is largely ignored. In fact, there is no report of his journey from London to Glasgow – it seemed even Johnson himself perceived the crossing of England secondary to what followed. With his great friend James Boswell, Johnson then ventured into the wildernesses of the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides on an 83-day voyage, and produced a nuanced, complicated and riveting account of the trip. It was published as A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland two years later.


Dr. Samuel Johnson, one of English Literature’s greatest thinkers.

It’s obvious to most that Johnson didn’t have the most cordial of relationships with Scotland. He was an avowed conservative and imperialist, whose view of the Scottish was notoriously memorialised in his Dictionary entry for “oats”: ‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’. The events of the 18thcentury no doubt fed into Johnson’s xenophobic sense of superiority. The decisive English victory at Culloden in 1745 had shattered Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion and defeated the last Stuart claimant to the throne, and the consequences were severe. Highland culture (the tartan clothing, bagpipe music and everything else plastered over Visit Scotland adverts today) was effectively criminalised. The Highland clans were stripped of their arms and quickly moved off their ancestral lands. For Johnson, then, a renowned advocate of empire visiting almost two decades later, it would be easy for the reader to anticipate a scornful tone of imperial superiority. However, despite its moments of contemptuousness, the Journey remains, at its heart, a deeply divided text, and nowhere is that illustrated more fascinatingly or enigmatically than in Johnson’s treatment of the Highland landscape.


An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745, by David Morier

I had never been to the Highlands when I read Johnson’s account of his travels but had read about it several times. I had always imagined them as a kind of Narnia, an unspoilt ranging mountainous wilderness, thronging with wild, untamed rivers and deep expansive forests. I can’t actually recall seeing many cinematic representations of them as a kid, with the exception of two mostly unremarkable children’s films, Pixar’s Brave and a Second World War retelling of the Loch Ness myth, The Water Horse. For better or worse, these were the only Highlands I had known, until I came across the work of renowned Scottish conservationist Frank Fraser Darling. To the shock of most of his peers in the 1950s, when Britain’s conservationist movement started taking shape, Darling pronounced the Highlands and the Hebrides as ‘largely a devastated terrain’, ‘wet deserts’ bereft of any biodiversity and emblematic not of raw, untamed natural beauty, but of ecological ruin.[1] As further biologists and naturalists have shown since, Darling was right. The Highlands as we know them are not, strictly speaking, natural at all. Through a process of deforestation that began with the Neolithic people 10 000 years ago, and was accelerated by attempted conquests by the Romans 2000 years ago and the English in the 17th and 18th centuries, Scotland’s true ecological landscape is all but obliterated. Except for a few remnants, the Great Caledonian Forest, a vast forest which once covered the entire country, is now bare, barren and incapable of supporting even a fragment of the biodiversity it was once thought to have done. The Highlands therefore occupy two conflicting positions in the British imagination. On the one hand, they are some of Britain’s most sublime and romanticised landscapes, made famous by tourism posters, Instagram photographers and Hogwarts castle’s mountainous backdrop in the Harry Potter films. However, they have a hidden side; they are also the scene of ecological and cultural devastation, beginning with the deforestation of the Highlands and ending with the Clearances of the Highland clans in the 18th century. This obviously raises several difficult questions that deserve essays of their own, perhaps most conspicuously: what should society do when desires to preserve “natural”, aesthetic beauty actually collide with desires to cultivate healthy ecosystems? However, the mere fact that Darling’s findings are still so arresting 63 years later is something in itself. It is clear that to most of us Britons, myself included, that the Highlands, and more broadly mountains in general, inspire awe and wonder. They remain sources of beauty, whereas the prospect of a giant, all-encompassing forest unsettles us. After all, the hills and lakes of Hogwarts’ grounds are aestheticized, whereas the enormous forest that encircles the grounds is literally forbidden; a place of darkness, danger and the unknown. The radical conception of the Highlands and the commonality of language between Darling, the ground-breaking 20th century biologist, and Johnson, the conservative 18th century literary critic, is something that fascinates and unsettles in equal measure. Whilst Darling was appalled at the revelation that the Highlands were not really ‘natural’ at all, but an example of what deforested landscapes such as the Amazon might someday look like as well, Johnson was similarly unnerved by the appalling ruin wrought on the Highland clans he encountered. Whether consciously or not, Johnson linked the fate of Highland independence to the ecological ruin of its natural areas, echoing the Roman historian Tacitus, writing about Scotland 2000 years earlier: ‘They make a desert, and call it peace’.[2] Despite the Highlands’ reputation as unspoilt wildernesses of tranquility, both Frank Fraser Darling and Johnson considered them deserts, although Darling used the word in an ecological context, in contrast to Johnson, who used the metaphor of desertification of the land to illustrate the desertification of Highland culture.


Sir Frank Fraser Darling.

Coming across the Journey in my final year of university and finding, in many ways, such a distinctly unromantic account of a landscape that is so often held up as the U.K.’s most sublime example of wilderness, I couldn’t get Johnson’s writing out of mind. Ignoring Defoe, Swift and Pope, I devoted my essay to the Journey and it remains, for me, one of my proudest pieces of university writing. As my friends will happily verify, I wouldn’t shut up about Johnson and his preoccupation with Scotland’s lack of trees for about three months. Reasoned at least partially as a means of finally purging the Journey from my repertoire of small-talk topics, I decided to finally go to the Highlands myself. I had won a grant through the Jonathon Conville Trust, a fantastic organisation that provides heavily subsidised mountaineering training courses to young people. Too often mountaineering and the outdoors remain the preserve of the wealthy, but the Conville courses are an excellent resource to anybody looking to gain experience without spending an entire month’s paycheque. I cannot recommend them highly enough. I was going to learn some invaluable winter skills, which may have saved my life later that year in the Bridger Range of Montana. Above all, I was finally going to see the place that had inspired one of the most provocative pieces of literature I had come across in my entire degree.


Wondering just exactly we’d got into.

Aviemore was hidden amongst snow and darkness when I stumbled off the train that night. Huddled for warmth inside, of all things, an Australian-themed restaurant, I waited for the bus that would drop us off at our mountaineering hut in the heart of the Cairngorms for the night. Somewhere, standing sentinel above the strangely alien evergreen forests surrounding the valleys, the vast landscape that had so deeply shocked Samuel Johnson waited, sharpening its fangs in an icy, mountainous world of 60 mph winds and -20° C wind-chill. Johnson had wandered across this place, centuries ago, and was so profoundly shocked and disturbed by it that what many consider his most distinctive quality as a writer, his need for comprehensive certainty, actually eluded him. The morning of our first day in the Cairngorms, I could easily sympathise with Johnson’s impression of a savage and unforgiving landscape. I had always considered things like Hydroflasks a waste of money, designed chiefly to mark their owners as adventurous outdoorsy people, but for the first time ever, I was cursing myself for not bringing one. It was so cold that if you didn’t drink all your water (or in my case, scalding hot Ribena) in the first two hours, it would freeze solid and dehydration suddenly became a real worry. The snow that had been dumped on Aviemore the night before had piled high in waist-deep drifts, blown against mountain ridges, and was now relentlessly blasting our faces raw as we climbed higher into the hills. The most mundane of tasks now were being microscopically planned out ahead of time. Should I take a photograph? Am I in a safe place to stop? If so, do I need to take off my outer gloves to press the shutter button? How can I position myself so that my backpack won’t be filled with snow while opened? How can I keep the snow from blowing into the lens? Rugged mountains progressively began to peek through the thick shroud of mist and snow, and the winds picked up. The elements in these mountains were amongst the most savage conditions I had encountered, perhaps only comparable with a tormenting morning on Grand Teton when fearsome winds and frozen fingers forced us to abandon our ascent. I looked around at my companions; all looked as if our faces were the exterior walls of cheap housing developments that had recently been subjected to intensive sandblasting. One unfortunate bloke had deigned to forgo a winter hat in favour of his climbing helmet and was sporting a disturbingly icy forehead, which so alarmed our instructor that he immediately began to chisel his head clean. I think most of us in the first day of hiking would concur with Johnson: this was a pretty savage part of the world.


One of many windy, sunless hours on Cairn Gorm.

Johnson is unquestionably savage himself in his reaction to the craggy nothingness of landscape in the Highlands. Some critics, notably Brian Hickman, have attempted to make sense of Johnson’s almost instinctive sense of revulsion at the Highlands’ ‘uniformity of barrenness’ by rationalising that Johnson simply has a ‘preference for tamed cultivated landscapes’.[3] Hickman’s assertion is partly valid; Johnson famously values cultivation, and he does concede just before his pronouncement on the Highlands that his eye is ‘used to flowery pastures and waving harvests’.[4] However, his reaction to its ‘hopeless sterility’ is so visceral, even horror-struck, that it surely signifies something deeper than simply difference of taste.[5] To fully understand Johnson’s shocked response to the famously rugged Highlands, it is worth examining the value he places on trees in Scotland. ‘From the bank of the Tweed to St Andrews I had never seen a single tree’, he observes, and later jokes that ‘a tree might be a show in Scotland as a horse in Venice’.[6] After ‘two hundred miles in Scotland’ Johnson claimed to have come across ‘only one tree not younger than myself’.[7] Why are trees so important to Johnson? In the opening of ‘Aberbrothic’ he defines their two main functions as ‘shelter’ and ‘timber’.[8] Trees are resources, he seems to imply, for refuge and fuel, and by extension, industry and advancement. Yet Scotland seems utterly empty of such resources, and this profoundly disturbs Johnson. It is no surprise to see Johnson emphasise the need for resources, the underpinnings of civilised society, but his sorrowful tone when it comes to an absence of ‘nature’ is very surprising. Although Freya Johnson might argue his description of the Scottish wilderness to be a comic representation of ‘a barren, treeless landscape’ – which he certainly does joke about at times – his response to wilderness in the passage ‘Anoch’ is far from light-hearted.[9] He professes himself ‘astonished and repelled’ by what he sees in the Highlands: ‘this wide extent of hopeless sterility’ and proclaims it ‘incapable of form or usefulness’.[10] His use of ‘hopeless’ seems especially poignant, as it connotes a sense of permanence on the scene. However, ‘sterility’ carries equally melancholic undertones, as Johnson mourns the impossibility of natural growth alongside men’s failure to find uses for the land. His later condemnation of the landscape as ‘dismissed’ from nature’s care and ‘disinherited from her favour’ suggests that he sees the landscape of the Highlands as completely antithetical to his idea of ‘nature’. Even if almost certainly by chance, the eco-critical currency of Johnson’s opinions of the Highlands cannot be overstated. More than any other, this passage appears almost as an 18th century precursor of Frank Fraser Darling, and the unnatural ‘wet deserts’ he would encounter in the Highlands 170 years later.

Up on the ridge of Cairn Gorm, I was also sympathising with Johnson. My face was red raw, and my fourth and final pair of gloves had given in and soaked through. My water bottles had frozen as stiff as my fellow hikers’ conversation. The only sound was the screaming winds and the still slightly ominous creaking crunch of our crampons biting into the ice. Somewhere down in the valleys, our ride home waited with the promise of hot soup and a cup of tea. Right now, it was nowhere to be seen. The fresh snow that had been dumped on the west side of the mountains was being picked up and blown straight at us. As we fumbled with our ropes and began chiselling into the hillside with our ice axes to prepare belay anchors, I couldn’t help but agree with Darling – how on earth could anything beyond grass and heather grow in this place? I dug a hole in which to store my backpack to prevent falling down the ridge and rummaged around for a frozen mars bar. We made our way down into the valley and, after isolating a section of snowpack and finding that its upper layer slid straight off at the first sign of pressure, we concluded that, though speedy, an avalanche would not be our preferred route down. After finding an alternate route down and seeing a member of our team slip and demonstrate an inch-perfect self-arrest with her ice axe, we piled into our minibus and made our way back to the hut. I shared some of Johnson’s conflicting emotions, as I laid awake in my bunk that night. I had been exhausted, soaking wet and frozen that day in the mountains, but at the same time, the craggy mountains of the Highlands and the great white expanse of snow covering everything as far as the eye could see could not have failed to move me. It was a land of simultaneous beauty and horror. The Romantics called such a feeling ‘the sublime’, but that term always seemed to me to be used exclusively when describing a strange, unknowable, but ultimately natural phenomenon. What so unnerved me was that the landscape of the Highlands is not, as Darling and his successors have proven, strictly natural at all. It is an ecological ruin. But it is not only the ecosystem of the Highlands that has disappeared. Its people, too, are no more. When you visit the vast plains and mighty hills of the Highlands, you cannot help but feel the same sense of irreconcilable, riven conflict exemplified by the Journey. Those enormous, empty mountains are beautiful, yes – and yet they are the site of aeons of boundless, incomprehensible environmental destruction and human suffering. Johnson was an avowed imperialist, and yet his account of the Highlands resonates not with triumph, but absence, emptiness, and silence. He seems acutely conscious of the fact that in his interactions with the Highland people, he is cataloguing a culture that already, in 1783, was vanishing. Johnson’s frustration with Gaelic and Erse languages might not just stem from xenophobia, but from his realisation that he is ill-equipped to translate and conserve a part of this culture. If anything, his profound sadness at the Highlands’ lack of trees might symbolise, as other critics have suggested, his desperation to save within the Journey’s pages a small part of a world destroyed by consequences of the beliefs he subscribes to. Johnson may arrive in Scotland trumpeting English triumph, but by the end, the reader suspects Johnson’s beliefs have been shaken – in fact, he may believe that imperialism has made Scotland worse. All the while, the great emptiness of the Highland landscape evoked by Johnson presses in, a repellent manifestation of the oblivion that will soon destroy the Highlanders’ way of life, and soon will come for Johnson as well. When I finished the Journey last year, the bleak and silent mountains of the Highlands accentuated the sense of silence and emptiness that Johnson leaves to his reader, most notably in ‘Ostig in Sky’. Silence and emptiness, of course, mean very different things in the outdoor community, to hikers and climbers like myself. Too often, in our rush to disassociate from suburban existence we prescribe these characteristics to wild places, when truly wild places are buzzing with life. If a landscape such as the Highlands, is truly empty, it is arguably not natural at all. And yet we still flock from our towns to the Highlands, and other places like it, in droves, most of us (myself included until recently) unaware that we’ve exchanged one wasteland for an aesthetically more pleasing one. The conventional contrast between urban wasteland and natural wilderness is broken apart. Instead, I couldn’t help but feel that the contrast had been supplanted by a strange paradox: that the urban wasteland I had left behind contained far more life than the natural wasteland I was climbing in.


Hard as it is to believe, I took this photo right before lunch.


I’m glad I went to the Highlands, not least because the skills I learnt on those snowy ridges have already been invaluable to informing my decisions in less than optimal conditions during subsequent trips to the mountains. However, I’d be deceiving myself if I pretended that my desire for more winter experience was the only reason I decided to go to the Cairngorms in the middle of January. Johnson’s mesmeric Journey had been rattling around in my head for the best part of three months, and I was determined to form my own conclusions from its silent, haunting plains, the sharp fangs of the mountains rearing out of the hills, the howling winds on those treacherous ridges. I think, based almost entirely on Johnson’s aghast reflections on what he encountered in Scotland, I had expected find the Highlands as bleak and blank as Johnson or Darling, but instead I found myself still intermittently awed by the landscape’s starkness. Ultimately, the Highland landscape will always have a reputation for sublime beauty – the seemingly endless parade of slickly edited drone videos that plague my Facebook timeline demonstrate that – but the more that we can learn about the history of the Highlands’ ecological and cultural clearances, the more richly we can experience them, and perhaps, one day, the better-equipped we will be to reconcile the Highlands once and for all in the British imagination.


[1]Frank Fraser Darling, West Highland Survey: An Essay in Human Ecology, quoted in an extract from James Hunter’s ‘Wilderness with People: Conservation and Development in the Scottish Highlands’, John Muir Trust Newsletter, 1 (1985), p.5 <https://www.johnmuirtrust.org/assets/000/002/589/DOC260917-26092017114947_original.pdf?1506686923>%5BAccessed 6November 2017].


[2]Tactitus, p. 30.

[3]Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, (London: Penguin, 1984), p. 60,

Brian Hickman, ‘Lofty Hills Streaming with Water-Falls: The Tourist Landscape of Johnson and Boswell’, in Travel, Tourism and Art, ed. by Tijana Rakić and Jo-Anne Lester (New York: Routledge, 2016), p. 39.


[4]Johnson, p. 60.

[5]Johnson, p. 60.

[6]Johnson, p.39.

[7]Johnson, p. 47.

[8]Johnson, p. 39.

[9]Freya Johnson, ‘Diminishing Returns: “A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland”’, in Oxford Scholarship Online <http://www.oxfordscholarship.com.bris.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199251827.001.0001/acprof-9780199251827-chapter-4>%5Baccessed 8 November 2017].

[10]Johnson, p. 60.

© Finn Maunder and ‘The Dirtbag Dilemma’ 2018. This content is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Finn Maunder and ‘The Dirtbag Dilemma’ with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

One thought on “‘This Wide Extent of Hopeless Sterility’: Samuel Johnson, Frank Fraser Darling, and a Grim Weekend in the Scottish Highlands

  1. Wow. You put a lot of time into research for this….. makes your personal experience even more poignant….. what a beautiful desolate terrain….. thanks for sharing

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