A Hero of Our Time

James Wood writes:

When Samuel Johnson, travelling in the Highlands with James Boswell, reaches Loch Ness, he is so overwhelmed by the massiveness of the landscape that the heavy order of his prose is briefly disarrayed. On his right, there are high and steep rocks, and on his left deep water laps against the bank in ‘gentle agitation’. The rocks are ‘towering in horrid nakedness’. Occasionally, he sees a little cornfield, which only serves ‘to impress more strongly the general barrenness’. As if to silence these romantic terrors, Johnson plays the calm 18th-century surveyor, and in portly periods begins an inquiry into the loch’s dimensions:

Loch Ness is about 24 miles long and from one mile to two miles broad. It is remarkable that Boethius, in his description of Scotland, gives it 12 miles of breadth. When historians or geographers exhibit false accounts of places far distant, they may be forgiven, because they can tell but what they are told … but Boethius lived at no great distance; if he never saw the lake, he must have been very incurious, and if he had seen it, his veracity yielded to very slight temptations.

(LRB 11 February 2010)