Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 September 2009
Samuel Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) represents the most famous of English encounters with Scotland at the zenith of its so-called Enlightenment, a phenomenon that goes unnoticed in the book. Recent criticism has interpreted Johnson's notorious search-and-destroy critique of “Ossian” within a larger historical agenda, the imperial restructuring of British nationality after 1707 and 1745. Johnson wields the discourses of Enlightenment – social history, political economy, anthropology, linguistic theory – even as he declines to recognize the authors and institutions that are currently producing them in Lowland Scotland. “The real imperialism of the Journey,” writes Katie Trumpener, “lies in its insistent appropriation, occupation, and emptying out” of the ideological themes of eighteenth-century Scottish writing.
Yet the tone of the Journey is more melancholy than triumphant: “We came thither too late to see what we had expected, a people of peculiar appearance, and a system of antiquated life.” Johnson's disappointment, sounded across a range of topics, inflects the scientific project that compensates for a lost world of primitive encounters: the opportunity to observe at first hand the historical transformation of a traditional society. The state of the Highlands in the wake of the '45 affords Johnson, as it afforded the Scots literati, with a case-study in wholesale social change. The center of the Journey consists of an extended philosophical essay in which Johnson weighs the material and cultural values of loss and gain in the transit of modernization.