Book review: “Whisky, Kilts and the Loch Ness Monster”


“Whisky, Kilts and the Loch Ness Monster”

By William W. Starr

University of South Carolina Press

223 pages; $29.95

By Larry Swindell

For the AJC

The whisky quotient is meager, kilts are glimpsed but rarely and no monster is sighted during a brief sojourn by Loch Ness. Yet the title “Whisky, Kilts and the Loch Ness Monster” is quite winning, instantly setting the reader in Scotland for the full distance. The narrative is also a winner, an unanticipated delight.

William Starr, the capricious author, is executive director of the Georgia Center for the Book in Decatur. This Starr is a distinctly offbeat character, if not quite a weirdo, and a born entertainer. His interest in Samuel Johnson and James Boswell amounts to obsession. Johnson was England’s foremost man of letters in the 18th century, the premier critic, high priest of conversation and compiler of the first great dictionary of the English language. Boswell’s fame attaches entirely to Johnson, but he makes the literary varsity because the memoir of his hero is, by consensus, the world’s finest literary biography.

Dr. Johnson bore a mild loathing for Scotland, of which his much younger friend Boswell was native. At the latter’s instigation, they journeyed together in Scotland for three months in late summer and early autumn of 1773, when Johnson was 64 and Boswell only 33. There was some reliance on horses and primitive transportation modes but the travelers essentially were partners in a walkathon, each up to its physical demands. Each also contributed a memoir of their perhaps unprecedented feat of tourism. Starr read the accounts and was properly regaled.

Starr’s engaging conceit was to retrace the Johnson-Boswell journey, committing three months for a task joyous in memory. Starr flew to Edinburgh and drove to Stirling Castle to initiate the pilgrimage. Besides retracing the Boswell/Johnson steps comprehensively, he also visited the Outer Hebrides which the literary titans missed.

Starr’s narrative is enriched by dollops of Scottish and English history, and further ennobled by ardent searching into the hearts and minds of his subjects. He remains a slight distance from the imposing Johnson and draws much closer to Boswell, very nearly delivering an affectionate mini-biography.

The author occasionally will risk parody. When the Royal Bank of Scotland demands $10 to cash Starr’s traveler checks in pound sterling, Starr finds another bank willing to cash his checks for nothing. He imagines what Boswell and Johnson might have written in their respective books over such an incident.

Johnson: “Sir, disagreeableness need not deter us. It is the pebble in the shoe that may be removed with but a gentle shake.”

Boswell: “I could not conceive of a more onerous action to confront; you did well to move on to that place where you will be well received.”

“Whisky, Kilts and the Loch Ness Monster” is a one-of-a-kind travel book. Of all countries in the western world, Scotland may have changed least over the passing centuries and decades, particularly in terrain. Starr gives us the Scotland of today, quite similar to the country Johnson and Boswell scouted, not only in its eternal hills but in such a city as Inverness.

Success in travel – and in travel books – is the benefit of a charming guide. William Starr’s beguiling light touch inhabits every page. The reader who believes he doesn’t like Scotland may change his mind, as Dr. Johnson surely did.