For the better part of 30 years, first for Time magazine and later The New York Times, Israel Shenker's beat was the world of scholarship. While other reporters chased ambulances, Shenker chased footnotes and wrote pleasant--some said superficial--stories about historians and literary researchers. Now retired from The Times, Shenker lives in Scotland, where perhaps it was only natural that he would want to retrace the path of that famous pair of travelers who, in 1773, talked and toured their way through the Highlands and the Hebrides.
The resulting, pleasantly superficial book actually has less to do with Johnson and Boswell than with the persistent Highland concerns: sheep, the Presbyterian church, the doings of the lairds, and the difficulties of making a living in a barren land. In this respect, "In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell" is similar to, and not as good as, John McPhee's "The Crofter and the Laird," a more focused modern account of rural Scotland.
Still, Shenker has a way with the illuminating detail. His book really should have one of those splendidly spacious 18th-century titles, something like "Travels in Scotland, by an Unusual Route, with a Trip to the Western Isles, containing Observations on the Church in Those Parts, with Characters and Anecdotes."
Here is Shenker amid the windswept ruins of the abbey on the island of Iona, where Celtic Christianity sheltered from the marauding Vikings a millennium ago, and where today a socialist, antinuclear community affiliated with the Church of Scotland makes its home: "Alongside the abbey stood St. Oran's Cemetery, by tradition the burial ground of more than 60 kings of Scottish, Norwegian, French, and Irish origin, the last being Duncan, victim of Macbeth . . . In the cloister was a modern statue--The Descent of the Spirit--of a Madonna and child; on the back, in French, were inscribed the words 'Jacob Lipchitz, Jew loyal to the faith of his ancestors, made this Virgin for harmony of men on earth so that the spirit may reign.' "
On Skye--surely there is no more beautifully named island--a crofter, a keeper of sheep and cows, remembers an uncle "standing silently beside the road as the sheep passed, and every so often undoing a button of his jacket. 'And every hundred would come a button was loose . . . He kept the total number going to market, and he never made a mistake . . . there was about five hundred sheep in all, Cheviots they were . . . And there was a counter beside him, taking a count of them, and he said, 'Have you got them all?' And my uncle said, 'Two missing. Maybe the shepherds have lost them in the bracken.' 'Oh never,' I said, because I thought it wasn't possible . . . Well, at the back end of the year, what came among the sheep up at the glen there but these two that were missing.' "
In Inverary, hard beside Loch Fyne, Shenker notices the monument to the dead of World War I, a statue of a kilted soldier, and the tablet that reads, "In memory of those young loved lamented here who died in their country's service 1914-1918 . . . These are they which came out of great tribulation."
Elsewhere, Shenker relates, with sensitivity and intelligence, the depopulation of rural Scotland, the bigotry and quarreling of rival Presbyterian sects, the feeble efforts to keep the Gaelic language alive, and the appalling poverty oldsters experienced in their youth. He ignores a new factor, oil, that has made Aberdeen a mini-Houston.
At the end of his journey, Shenker puzzles over what he has learned about modern Scotland. Somewhat lamely, he falls back on what Samuel Johnson himself wrote about what he learned in the Highlands: "I sometimes met with prejudices sufficiently malignant but they were prejudices of ignorance; "The clans retain little now of their original character, their ferocity of temper is softened, their military ardor is extinguished, their dignity of independence is depressed, their contempt of government subdued, and the reverence for chiefs abated;
"Who can like the Highlands?--I like the inhabitants very well."
This ending, alluding as it does to the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century, presupposes a knowledge of what historian John Prebble calls "that extended brawl known as Scottish history." A bit of a romantic escapist, as are all literary antiquarians, Shenker might have been happier in his travels if he had come upon Clan Campbell up in arms and burning crosses, led by its hereditary chief and a pipe band playing "Scotland the Brave." A romanticist, fed on Walter Scott, wants so much more than today's landscape of bed-and-breakfast cottages, bide-a-wee summer hotels, and castles run by the National Trust.
Indeed, the Highlands, as Shenker describes them when he is not talking about the incomparable scenery of loch, glen, headland and island, sound rather like the rural South in America not so many years ago, with its poverty and fundamentalist religion. The analogy is not farfetched. Shenker, like Johnson, is the city slicker who has come to observe the quaint ways of the natives. If Shenker finds ignorance today, as Johnson found ignorance in his time, it is because rural Scotland's greatest export, like that of the rural South, has always been brains. All the canny young lads and lassies have moved to the big city. Just as Boswell moved from Ayrshire to London.