Tag Archives: Scotland

20 June, Today this is my vocation, VII: an Island Girl prays upon a June morning.

No rainbow without sunshine! The Skye bridge is a new gateway to the isles.

Over the coming weeks, we will be introducing prayers and reflections from Alistair Maclean’s Hebridean Altars, pearls he harvested from the people of the Isles, a hundred years and more ago. This Island Girl’s prayer fits neatly into our sideways look at vocation in the everyday, as well as belonging in this month’s postings.

This day, I say to myself,
is Thy love-gift to me.
This dawn,
White with the purity of Thy mind,
I take it, Lord, from Thy hand,
and, for the wonder of it,
I give Thee thanks.
Make me busy in Thy service
throughout its hours,
yet not so busy that I cannot sing
a happy song.
And may the South wind
blow its tenderness through my heart
so that I may bear myself gently to all.
And may the sunshine of it
pass into my thoughts,
so that each shall be 
a picture of Thy thought, 
and noble and right.

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6 February: No man is by nature the property of another

Portrait believed to be of Francis Barber, Dr Johnson’s servant.

More from Lichfield’s Doctor Johnson who was against slavery all his life, when it was a matter for debate, as we shall see tomorrow. Johnson had great regard for his servant, Francis Barber, born into slavery in Jamaica. ‘Frank’ was his heir, and the descendants of his marriage to a white Lichfield woman are proud of their ancestor. Here Johnson is setting forth an argument, based upon natural law, to support another slave who was claiming freedom in the Scottish courts.

It must be agreed that in most ages many countries have had part of their inhabitants in a state of slavery; yet it may be doubted whether slavery can ever be supposed the natural condition of man. It is impossible not to conceive that men in their original state were equal; and very difficult to imagine how one would be subjected to another but by violent compulsion. An individual may, indeed, forfeit his liberty by a crime; but he cannot by that crime forfeit the liberty of his children.

What is true of a criminal seems true likewise of a captive. A man may accept life from a conquering enemy on condition of perpetual servitude; but it is very doubtful whether he can entail that servitude on his descendants; for no man can stipulate without commission for another. The condition which he himself accepts, his son or grandson perhaps would have rejected.

If we should admit, what perhaps may with more reason be denied, that there are certain relations between man and man which may make slavery necessary and just, yet it can never be proved that he who is now suing for his freedom ever stood in any of those relations. He is certainly subject by no law, but that of violence, to his present master; who pretends no claim to his obedience, but that he bought him from a merchant of slaves, whose right to sell him never was examined. It is said that, according to the constitutions of Jamaica, he was legally enslaved; these constitutions are merely positive; and apparently injurious to the rights of mankind, because whoever is exposed to sale is condemned to slavery without appeal; by whatever fraud or violence he might have been originally brought into the merchant’s power.

In our own time Princes have been sold, by wretches to whose care they were entrusted, that they might have an European education; but when once they were brought to a market in the plantations, little would avail either their dignity or their wrongs. The laws of Jamaica afford a Negro no redress. His colour is considered as a sufficient testimony against him.

It is to be lamented that moral right should ever give way to political convenience. But if temptations of interest are sometimes too strong for human virtue, let us at least retain a virtue where there is no temptation to quit it. In the present case there is apparent right on one side, and no convenience on the other. Inhabitants of this island can neither gain riches nor power by taking away the liberty of any part of the human species.

The sum of the argument is this:—No man is by nature the property of another: The defendant is, therefore, by nature free: The rights of nature must be some way forfeited before they can be justly taken away: That the defendant has by any act forfeited the rights of nature we require to be proved; and if no proof of such forfeiture can be given, we doubt not but the justice of the court will declare him free.

from “Life of Johnson by James Boswell.

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2 December: A letter to Doctor Johnson about trees.

Monymusk today has mature trees

Doctor Johnson would have been pleased to receive this letter praising his observations on the lack of trees in Scotland, but his reaction shows how human nature does not like its motivations, nor its indifference, to be challenged. We’ve seen how timber was treated as an ‘extractive industry’ with no eye to grandchildren’s future, leaving bare hillside.

“‘SIR ALEXANDER DICK TO DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON. ‘Prestonfield, Feb. 17, 1777.

Sir, ‘I had yesterday the honour of receiving your book of your Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, which you was so good as to send me, by the hands of our mutual friend, Mr. Boswell, of Auchinleck; for which I return you my most hearty thanks …

Indeed our country of Scotland, in spite of the union of the crowns, is still in most places so devoid of clothing, or cover from hedges and plantations, that it was well you gave your readers a sound Monitoire with respect to that circumstance. The truths you have told, and the purity of the language in which they are expressed, as your Journey is universally read, may, and already appear to have a very good effect. For a man of my acquaintance, who has the largest nursery for trees and hedges in this country, tells me, that of late the demand upon him for these articles is doubled, and sometimes tripled.

I have, therefore, listed Dr. Samuel Johnson in some of my memorandums of the principal planters and favourers of the enclosures, under a name which I took the liberty to invent from the Greek, Papadendrion (Father of trees).

I am told that one gentleman in the shire of Aberdeen, viz. Sir Archibald Grant, has planted above fifty millions of trees on a piece of very wild ground at Monimusk: I must enquire if he has fenced them well, before he enters my list; for, that is the soul of enclosing. I began myself to plant a little, our ground being too valuable for much, and that is now fifty years ago; and the trees, now in my seventy-fourth year, I look up to with reverence, and shew them to my eldest son now in his fifteenth year. I shall always continue, with the truest esteem, dear Doctor, ‘Your much obliged, ‘And obedient humble servant, ‘ALEXANDER DICK

Johnson observed some weeks later: “Sir Alexander Dick is the only Scotsman liberal enough not to be angry that I could not find trees, where trees were not. I was much delighted by his kind letter.”

Life of Johnson by James Boswell, via Kindle.

More about Sir Alexander Dick here.

More about Monymusk here.

image from Wikipedia by Lecored1

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30 November: St Andrew, Dr Johnson and the Scottish mission

Doctor Johnson, on his 18th Century tour of Scotland, got into a discussion about Catholics. There were thousands of Catholics in the Highlands and Islands, served by missionary priests largely trained overseas; a seminary in the Highlands was illegal and repeatedly destroyed. Johnson was misinformed about where the Catholics were, but it would not be long before many were driven out during the Clearances, though Johnson would not have seen that coming.

Roads were poor or non-existent; to cross this loch would have meant hiring a rowing boat or sailing vessel, there was no telephoning ahead to warn people a priest was coming, and he was a more or less tolerated outlaw. He was, however, a worthy son of Saint Andrew, patron of Scotland.


“There is in Scotland, as among ourselves, a restless suspicion of popish machinations, and a clamour of numerous converts to the Romish religion.  The report is, I believe, in both parts of the Island equally false.  The Romish religion is professed only in Egg and Canna, two small islands, into which the Reformation never made its way.  If any missionaries are busy in the Highlands, their zeal entitles them to respect, even from those who cannot think favourably of their doctrine.” (from “Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson)

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November 29: Doctor Johnson and the Survival Tree.

The once lone rowan, dubbed The Survivor, near Moffat is now surrounded by emerging native woodland.
The Survivor Tree

More than 200 years ago Dr Johnson was visiting Scotland, and commented often on the desolation caused by the lack of trees. It’s taken the climate emergency for action to be taken but that action is paying off. First, Dr Johnson:
“It is natural, in traversing this gloom of desolation, to inquire, whether something may not be done to give nature a more cheerful face, and whether those hills and moors that afford heath cannot with a little care and labour bear something better?  The first thought that occurs is to cover them with trees, for that in many of these naked regions trees will grow, is evident, because stumps and roots are yet remaining; and the speculatist hastily proceeds to censure that negligence and laziness that has omitted for so long a time so easy an improvement. To drop seeds into the ground, and attend their growth, requires little labour and no skill.  He who remembers that all the woods, by which the wants of man have been supplied from the Deluge till now, were self-sown, will not easily be persuaded to think all the art and preparation necessary, which the Georgick writers prescribe to planters.  Trees certainly have covered the earth with very little culture.  They wave their tops among the rocks of Norway, and might thrive as well in the Highlands and Hebrides.

He that calculates the growth of trees, has the unwelcome remembrance of the shortness of life driven hard upon him.  He knows that he is doing what will never benefit himself; and when he rejoices to see the stem rise, is disposed to repine that another shall cut it down. Plantation is naturally the employment of a mind unburdened with care, and vacant to futurity, saturated with present good, and at leisure to derive gratification from the prospect of posterity.  He that pines with hunger, is in little care how others shall be fed.  The poor man is seldom studious to make his grandson rich.  It may be soon discovered, why in a place, which hardly supplies the cravings of necessity, there has been little attention to the delights of fancy, and why distant convenience is unregarded, where the thoughts are turned with incessant solicitude upon every possibility of immediate advantage.

from “Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson)

And here is a hopeful story from Scotland; a video clip on a remarkable and inspiring tree being helped out of loneliness.

This is still a good time to plant trees in our neighbourhood.

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21 November: Peaceful tourists

After an arduous journey Doctor Johnson has arrived at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. He is made welcome by Lady Macleod, and writes:

Here therefore we settled, and did not spoil the present hour with thoughts of departure.

Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, Samuel Johnson

Johnson, of course, was not a travelling missionary, but a tourist. However, I’m reminded of Jesus’ word to the 72 disciples as he sent them out:

Into whatsoever house you enter, first say: Peace be to this house. And if the son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon him; but if not, it shall return to you. And in the same house, remain, eating and drinking such things as they have: for the labourer is worthy of his hire. Remove not from house to house.

Luke 10:7-9

And there is plenty to be said for being at peace in our surroundings. May we be welcoming, and may we be the sort of tourist or visitor who does not have hosts thinking longingly of our departure.

Photograph of Dunvegan Castle: Pam Brophy, via Wikipedia

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19 November: Unexpected Highland hospitality

The Glenelg inn today has a reputation for finie food but it was different in Doctor Johnson’s time. He and Boswell were on theway to Skye, but had to spend the night at a very poor inn, Their comfort was greatly increased by a random act of kindness.

At last we came to our inn weary and peevish, and began to inquire for meat and beds. Of the provisions the negative catalogue was very copious.  Here was no meat, no milk, no bread, no eggs, no wine.  We did not express much satisfaction.  Here however we were to stay. 

Whisky we might have, and I believe at last they caught a fowl and killed it.  We had some bread, and with that we prepared ourselves to be contented, when we had a very eminent proof of Highland hospitality. 

Along some miles of the way, in the evening, a gentleman’s servant had kept us company on foot with very little notice on our part.  He left us near Glenelg, and we thought on him no more till he came to us again, in about two hours, with a present from his master of rum and sugar.  The man had mentioned his company, and the gentleman, whose name, I think, is Gordon, well knowing the penury of the place, had this attention to two men, whose names perhaps he had not heard, by whom his kindness was not likely to be ever repaid, and who could be recommended to him only by their necessities.

Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson

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31 October: Trees of Scotland, III

Boats in Armadale Bay, Skye - geograph.org.uk - 14050.jpg

Samuel Johnson is on the Isle of Skye, still regretting and pondering he destruction of trees North of the Border. There is hope …

Armidel is a neat house, built where the Macdonalds had once a seat, which was burnt in the commotions that followed the Revolution.  The walled orchard, which belonged to the former house, still remains.  It is well shaded by tall ash trees, of a species, as Mr. Janes the fossilist informed me, uncommonly valuable.  This plantation is very properly mentioned by Dr. Campbell, in his new account of the state of Britain, and deserves attention; because it proves that the present nakedness of the Hebrides is not wholly the fault of Nature.

Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson)

Photo By Beth Loft,

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30 October: Trees of Scotland II

See the source image
Strichen or Streichton, from Wikipedia

We are still in Scotland with Dr Johnson, who again laments the lack of trees. Deforestation is not a new sin! However it is clear that something could be done about it, since two landowners were planting. There are trees around the village of Strichen today, restful to the eye and helping restore the climate.

Next morning we continued our journey, pleased with our reception at Slanes Castle, of which we had now leisure to recount the grandeur and the elegance; for our way afforded us few topics of conversation.  The ground was neither uncultivated nor unfruitful; but it was still all arable.  Of flocks or herds there was no appearance.  I had now travelled two hundred miles in Scotland, and seen only one tree not younger than myself.

We dined this day at the house of Mr. Frazer of Streichton, who shewed us in his grounds some stones yet standing of a druidical circle, and what I began to think more worthy of notice, some forest trees of full growth …

“We had now a prelude to the Highlands.  We began to leave fertility and culture behind us, and saw for a great length of road nothing but heath; yet at Fochabars, a seat belonging to the duke of Gordon, there is an orchard, which in Scotland I had never seen before, with some timber trees, and a plantation of oaks.

from “Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson.

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29 October: the Trees of Scotland

The Eildon Hills in the countryside between Edinburgh .and England

1775, and Boswell has finally brought Dr Johnson North of the Border. Here they are, very close to Dryburgh where yesterday’s image was found. The Doctor is struck by the lack of trees, felled without the least thought of future supply; he gives is thoughts on this lack of stewardship.

The Lowlands of Scotland had once undoubtedly an equal portion of woods with other countries.  Forests are every where gradually diminished, as architecture and cultivation prevail by the increase of people and the introduction of arts.  But I believe few regions have been denuded like this, where many centuries must have passed in waste without the least thought of future supply. 

Davies observes in his account of Ireland, that no Irishman had ever planted an orchard.  For that negligence some excuse might be drawn from an unsettled state of life, and the instability of property; but in Scotland possession has long been secure, and inheritance regular, yet it may be doubted whether before the Union any man between Edinburgh and England had ever set a tree. Of this improvidence no other account can be given than that it probably began in times of tumult, and continued because it had begun. 

Established custom is not easily broken, till some great event shakes the whole system of things, and life seems to recommence upon new principles.  That before the Union the Scots had little trade and little money, is no valid apology; for plantation is the least expensive of all methods of improvement.  To drop a seed into the ground can cost nothing, and the trouble is not great of protecting the young plant, till it is out of danger; though it must be allowed to have some difficulty in places like these, where they have neither wood for palisades, nor thorns for hedges.

from “Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson) 1775

Some 50 years later, Sir Walter Scott was assiduously planting trees around his estate of Abbotsford, near this stretch of the now-wooded Tweed valley. Change for the better is possible.

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