BOOK REVIEW: ‘Whiskey, Kilts and Loch Ness Monster’

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WHISKEY, KILTS, AND THE LOCH NESS MONSTER: TRAVELING THROUGH SCOTLAND WITH BOSWELL AND JOHNSON
By William W. Starr
University of South Carolina Press, $29 323 pages

Every once in a while, a writer gets a good idea, and a couple of years ago, journalist and bibliophile William W. Starr got one. Realizing that 2009 was the tercentenary of the birth of Samuel Johnson, the famed English lexicographer and essayist, Mr. Starr decided to retrace the steps of the journey Johnson and his devoted biographer James Boswell made to Scotland in 1773. We are privileged, through this delightful book, to tag along.

Mr. Starr - executive director of the Georgia Center for the Book - believed that “following Johnson and Boswell was too important and too much fun to be left solely in the hands of scholars.”

He writes, “As a longtime newspaper book editor and critic, I came to admire and respect the outstanding historians who could also write. … In nearly thirty-five years as a critic, I thought I had earned a Ph.D. in reading incomprehensibly written histories. So my approach, I vowed, would be closer to that of a good student rather than a teacher, someone constantly curious, always open to the new or unusual, alert to nuance and detail, and someone who loved a good story. It didn’t have to be absolutely true, either. Scotland, after all, is a nation all about myths.”

To a very great extent, William Starr has kept his vow, for the result is a very good story. And, frankly, your faithful reviewer doesn’t care a’tal if it is “absolutely true.” (Nor, were she still with us, would Anna Bruce, my half-Scots paternal grandmother, who could tell a good story herself.)

Of the many things that make this book fascinating reading, the main one is that Mr. Starr tells us not just what he thinks of the places visited by the Dynamic Duo, but also, through well-chosen quotes from their journals, what they thought. For example, in the Hebridean island of Skye, which Mr. Starr says was, according to most observers, “the true goal of their immense journey,” and where both learned gentlemen had a disputatious time with their hosts, our intrepid reporter got on quite well and also found the place startlingly beautiful.

Another highlight is that in the villages he visits, Mr. Starr cannot help but remark on the presence or absence of two of his favorite things: a bookstore and a place where they sell spirits (by which I do not mean smelling salts). But then whiskey is in the title.

The late-18th-century journey of Johnson and Boswell began and ended in Edinburgh. They went east, up through Dundee, St. Andrew and Aberdeen, before turning northwest. After the Island of Skye, they visited the Inner Hebrides and then coasted home through Glasgow and Auchinleck, the home of James Boswell’s father. Mr. Starr did the trip in reverse (mainly because he wanted to finish the three-month, 3,000- mile journey in the spring) but he added a foray into the Outer Hebrides and Orkney, which meant he would pass through some terribly wild and startlingly beautiful country. His accounts of wherever he stopped are all worth reading, and on occasion the quality of his prose approaches - if this is not heretical to say - that of the two masters of the English language whose journey he is replicating.

“This part of Mull,” he writes of the island on the West coast of Scotland, “defied Johnson’s desolate observations. The large tracts of moorlands nestled near the island’s highest peak, Ben More (3,169 feet), appeared in a mix of gentle colors in the subdued sunlight, and the isolation of the island became a value not a threat. There were few farms visible, only a handful of vehicles in either direction and no one in sight. The feeling was one of suddenly finding yourself transplanted to another world where you are alone and the first to see the landscape surrounding you. It was dazzling, breath-taking, heart-stopping.”

Here’s an example of Mr. Starr’s ubiquitous sense of humor: “The Scots used their drink for medicinal purposes as well. A glass of whiskey laced with linseed oil was supposed to cure a variety of ills (but probably not the taste of linseed oil). And brandy was recommended as the favorite treatment for scarlet fever. And here’s the good part: if the patient was an infant, it was urged that ‘the nurse should drink it for the child.’ Good news for nanny dear.”

Along the way, Mr. Starr touches on all the high historical points - Bonnie Prince Charlie, William Wallace, the Jacobites (and even a few digs at Mel Gibson and “Braveheart”), but it’s his dual affection for Scotland and for the work and personalities of the two great men, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, that shines through.

“Whiskey, Kilts, and the Loch Ness Monster” will take you on a great trip - and you don’t even have to leave your seat or move about the cabin.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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