David Bailey, freelance writer and one of my writing posse members, emailed me this note.
Somewhere, probably in storage now, I have both Dr. Samuel Johnson’s and James Boswell’s separate accounts of their travels together through Scotland. And I do mean to read them one day—though maybe my resolution to do so has been somewhat blunted by the book I’m just before recommending to you: William W. Starr’s Whisky, Kilts and the Loch Ness Monster: Traveling through Scotland with Boswell and Johnson.
Starr was a UPS correspondent before he became a writer and editor for the Columbia (S.C.) State newspaper and he’s an absolutely delightful storyteller. I’ve always admired Johnson and his dictionary and what little of him I read in survey courses. I also remember being delighted by snatches of Boswell I’ve come across. But just as little children were frightened by the good doctor, so was I and have obviously kept my distance. The same is true of Scotland, which I haven’t avoided but haven’t gone out of my way to visit. In fact, there are still a half a dozen places in front of Scotland that I desperately want to see, and I’ve always thought it would be a good place to visit in my old age. Friends have suggested otherwise, but Dr. Johnson was 64 when he visited Scotland before automobiles and peat fires gave way to central heating.
When I saw this book on the new-arrivals shelf at the library, I almost passed it by, thinking I ought to read the originals first. I’m glad I didn’t. It is at the same time, a great intro to both of the men and the country, and a wonderful, contrarian travelogue, engagingly told and masterfully constructed. This despite the fact that Starr traces their route backwards! This is just the first hint to how quirky and unpredictable a narrative Starr has given us. In addition to getting to know the pompous, brilliant and endearing Dr. Johnson, and his zealous, libertine and bibulous Boswell, Starr introduces us to dozens of characters, historical and contemporary.
But my favorite part of the book was getting to know its author through the many travails and tribulations of travel. Like the very best travel writers, he knows how to laugh at himself and his many pet peeves, and if I had a chance to meet Boswell, Johnson or Starr, I’ve got to say that I’d opt for the latter.