Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, by James Boswell

Friday, 29th October

The professors of the university being informed of our arrival, Dr Stevenson, Dr Reid, and Mr Anderson, breakfasted with us. Mr Anderson accompanied us while Dr Johnson viewed this beautiful city. He had told me, that one day in London, when Dr Adam Smith was boasting of it, he turned to him and said, ‘Pray, sir, have you ever seen Brentford?’ This was surely a strong instance of his impatience, and spirit of contradiction. I put him in mind of it to-day, while he expressed his admiration of the elegant buildings, and whispered him, ‘Don’t you feel some remorse?’

We were received in the college by a number of the professors, who shewed all due respect to Dr Johnson; and then we paid a visit to the principal, Dr Leechman, at his own house, where Dr Johnson had the satisfaction of being told that his name had been gratefully celebrated in one of the parochial congregations in the Highlands, as the person to whose influence it was chiefly owing, that the New Testament was allowed to be translated into the Erse language. It seems some political members of the Society in Scotland for propagating Christian Knowledge, had opposed this pious undertaking, as tending to preserve the distinction between the Highlanders and Lowlanders. Dr Johnson wrote a long letter upon the subject to a friend, which being shewn to them, made them ashamed, and afraid of being publickly exposed; so they were forced to a compliance. It is now in my possession, and is, perhaps, one of the best productions of his masterly pen.

Professors Reid and Anderson, and the two Messieurs Foulis, the Elzevirs of Glasgow, dined and drank tea with us at our inn, after which the professors went away; and I, having a letter to write, left my fellow-traveller with Messieurs Foulis. Though good and ingenious men, they had that unsettled speculative mode of conversation which is offensive to a man regularly taught at an English school and university. I found that, instead of listening to the dictates of the Sage, they had teazed him with questions and doubtful disputations. He came in a flutter to me, and desired I might come back again, for he could not bear these men. ‘O ho! sir,’ said I, ‘you are flying to me for refuge!’ He never, in any situation, was at a loss for a ready repartee. He answered, with quick vivacity, ‘It is of two evils chooseing the least.’ I was delighted with this flash bursting from the cloud which hung upon his mind, closed my letter directly, and joined the company.

We supped at Professor Andersen’s. The general impression upon my memory is, that we had not much conversation at Glasgow where the professors, like their brethren at Aberdeen, did not venture to expose themselves much to the battery of cannon which they knew might play upon them. Dr Johnson, who was fully conscious of his own superior powers, afterwards praised Principal Robertson for his caution in this respect. He said to me, ‘Robertson, sir, was in the right. Robertson is a man of eminence, and the head of a college at Edinburgh. He had a character to maintain, and did well not to risk its being lessened.’

Saturday, 30th October

We set out towards Ayrshire. I sent Joseph on to Loudoun, with a message, that, if the earl was at home, Dr Johnson and I would have the honour to dine with him. Joseph met us on the road, and reported that the earl ‘jumped for joy’, and said, ‘I shall be very happy to see them.’ We were received with a most pleasing courtesy by his lordship, and by the countess his mother, who, in her ninety-fifth year, had all her faculties quite unimpaired. This was a very cheering sight to Dr Johnson, who had an extraordinary desire for long life. Her ladyship was sensible and well-informed, and had seen a great deal of the world. Her lord had held several high offices, and she was sister to the great Earl of Stair.

I cannot here refrain from paying a just tribute to the character of John Earl of Loudoun, who did more service to the county of Ayr in general, as well as to individuals in it, than any man we have ever had. It is painful to think that he met with much ingratitude from persons both in high and low rank: but such was his temper, such his knowledge of ‘base mankind,’ † that, as if he had expected no other return, his mind was never soured, and he retained his good-humour and benevolence to the last. The tenderness of his heart was proved in 1745-6, when he had an important command in the Highlands, and behaved with a generous humanity to the unfortunate. I cannot figure a more honest politician; for, though his interest in our county was great, and generally successful, he not only did not deceive by fallacious promises, but was anxious that people should not deceive themselves by too sanguine expectations. His kind and dutiful attention to his mother was unremitted. At his house was true hospitality; a plain but a plentiful table; and every guest, being left at perfect freedom, felt himself quite easy and happy. While I live, I shall honour the memory of this amiable man.

† [Note: The unwilling gratitude of base mankind. POPE.]

At night, we advanced a few miles farther, to the house of Mr Campbell of Treesbank, who was married to one of my wife’s sisters, and were entertained very agreeably by a worthy couple.

Sunday, 31st October

We reposed here in tranquillity. Dr Johnson was pleased to find a numerous and excellent collection of books, which had mostly belonged to the Reverend Mr John Campbell, brother of our host. I was desirous to have procured for my fellow traveller, to-day, the company of Sir John Cuninghame, of Caprington, whose castle was but two miles from us. He was a very distinguished scholar, long abroad, and during part of the time lived much with the learned Cuninghame, the opponent of Bentley as a critick upon Horace. He wrote Latin with great elegance, and, what is very remarkable, read Homer and Ariosto through every year. I wrote to him to request he would come to us; but unfortunately he was prevented by indisposition.

Monday, 1st November

Though Dr Johnson was lazy, and averse to move, I insisted that he should go with me, and pay a visit to the Countess of Eglintoune, mother of the late and present earl. I assured him, he would find himself amply recompensed for the trouble; and he yielded to my solicitations, though with some unwillingness. We were well mounted, and had not many miles to ride. He talked of the attention that is necessary in order to distribute our charity judiciously. ‘If thoughtlessly done, we may neglect the most deserving objects; and, as every man has but a certain proportion to give, if it is lavished upon those who first present themselves, there may be nothing left for such as have a better claim. A man should first relieve those who are nearly connected with him, by whatever tie; and then, if he has any thing to spare, may extend his bounty to a wider circle.’

As we passed very near the castle of Dundonald, which was one of the many residencies of the kings of Scotland, and in which Robert the Second lived and died, Dr Johnson wished to survey it particularly. It stands on a beautiful rising ground, which is seen at a great distance on several quarters, and from whence there is an extensive prospect of the rich district of Cuninghame, the western sea, the isle of Arran, and a part of the northern coast of Ireland. It has long been unroofed; and, though of considerable size, we could not, by any power of imagination, figure it as having been a suitable habitation for majesty. Dr Johnson, to irritate my old Scottish enthusiasm, was very jocular on the homely accommodation of ‘King Bob’, and roared and laughed till the ruins echoed.

Lady Eglintoune, though she was now in her eighty-fifth year, and had lived in the retirement of the country for almost half a century, was still a very agreeable woman. She was of the noble house of Kennedy, and had all the elevation which the consciousness of such birth inspires. Her figure was majestick, her manners high-bred, her reading extensive, and her conversation elegant. She had been the admiration of the gay circles of life, and the patroness of poets. Dr Johnson was delighted with his reception here. Her principles in Church and state were congenial with his. She knew all his merit, and had heard much of him from her son, Earl Alexander, who loved to cultivate the acquaintance of men of talents, in every department.

All who knew his lordship, will allow that his understanding and accomplishments were of no ordinary rate. From the gay habits which he had early acquired, he spent too much of his time with men, and in pursuits far beneath such a mind as his. He afterwards became sensible of it, and turned his thoughts to objects of importance; but was cut off in the prime of his life. I cannot speak, but with emotions of the most affectionate regret, of one, in whose company many of my early days were passed, and to whose kindness I was much indebted.

Often must I have occasion to upbraid myself, that soon after our return to the main land, I allowed indolence to prevail over me so much, as to shrink from the labour of continuing my Journal with the same minuteness as before; sheltering myself in the thought, that we had done with the Hebrides; and not considering, that Dr Johnson’s Memorabilia were likely to be more valuable when we were restored to a more polished society. Much has thus been irrecoverably lost.

In the course of our conversation this day, it came out, that Lady Eglintoune was married the year before Dr Johnson was born; upon which she graciously said to him, that she might have been his mother; and that she now adopted him; and when we were going away, she embraced him, saying, ‘My dear son, farewell!’ My friend was much pleased with this day’s entertainment, and owned that I had done well to force him out.

Tuesday, 2d November

We were now in a country not only ‘of saddles and bridles’, but of post-chaises; and having ordered one from Kilmarnock, we got to Auchinleck before dinner.

My father was not quite a year and a half older than Dr Johnson; but his conscientious discharge of his laborious duty as a judge in Scotland, where the law proceedings are almost all in writing, a severe complaint which ended in his death, and the loss of my mother, a woman of almost unexampled piety and goodness, had before this time in some degree affected his spirits, and rendered him less disposed to exert his faculties: for he had originally a very strong mind, and cheerful temper. He assured me, he never had felt one moment of what is called low spirits, or uneasiness, without a real cause. He had a great many good stories, which he told uncommonly well, and he was remarkable for ‘humour, incolumi gravitate’, as Lord Monboddo used to characterize it. His age, his office, and his character, had long given him an acknowledged claim to great attention, in whatever company he was; and he could ill brook any diminution of it. He was as sanguine a Whig and Presbyterian, as Dr Johnson was a Tory and Church of England man: and as he had not much leisure to be informed of Dr Johnson’s great merits by reading his works, he had a partial and unfavourable notion of him, founded on his supposed political tenets; which were so discordant to his own, that, instead of speaking of him with respect to which he was entitled, he used to call him ‘a JACOBITE FELLOW’. Knowing all this, I should not have ventured to bring them together, had not my father, out of kindness to me, desired me to invite Dr Johnson his house.

I was very anxious that all should be well; and begged of my friend to avoid three topicks, as to which they differed very widely; Whiggism, Presbyterianism, and — Sir John Pringle. He said courteously, ‘I shall certainly not talk on subjects which I am told are disagreeable to a gentleman under whose roof I am; especially, I shall not do so to YOUR FATHER.’

Our first day went off very smoothly. It rained, and we could not get out; but my father shewed Dr Johnson his library, which, in curious editions of the Greek and Roman classicks, is, I suppose, not excelled by any private collection in Great Britain. My father had studied at Leyden, and been very intimate with the Gronovii, and other learned men there. He was a sound scholar, and, in particular, had collated manuscripts and different editions of Anacreon, and others of the Greek lyrick poets, with great care; so that my friend and he had much matter for conversation, without touching on the fatal topicks of difference.

Dr Johnson found here Baxter’s Anacreon, which he told me he had long inquired for in vain, and began to suspect there was no such book. Baxter was the keen antagonist of Barnes. His life is in the Biographia Britannica. My father has written many notes on this book, and Dr Johnson and I talked of having it reprinted.

Wednesday, 3d November

It rained all day, and gave Dr Johnson an impression of that incommodiousness of climate in the west, of which he has taken notice in his Journey; but, being well accommodated, and furnished with variety of books, he was not dissatisfied.

Some gentlemen of the neighbourhood came to visit my father; but there was little conversation. One of them asked Dr Johnson how he liked the Highlands. The question seemed to irritate him, for he answered, ‘How, sir, can you ask me what obliges me to speak unfavourably of a country where I have been hospitably entertained? Who CAN like the Highlands? — I like the inhabitants very well.’ The gentleman asked no more questions.

Let me now make up for the present neglect, by again gleaning from the past. At Lord Monboddo’s, after the conversation upon the decrease of learning in England, his Lordship mentioned Hermes by Mr Harris of Salisbury, as the work of a living authour, for whom he had a great respect. Dr Johnson said nothing at the time; but when we were in our post-chaise, told me, he thought Harris ‘a coxcomb’. This he said of him, not as a man, but as an authour; and I give his opinions of men and books, faithfully, whether they agree with my own, or not. I do admit, that there always appeared to me something of affectation in Mr Harris’s manner of writing; something of a habit of clothing plain thoughts in analytick and categorical formality. But all his writings are imbued with learning; and all breathe that philanthropy and amiable disposition, which distinguished him as a man. †

† [Note: This gentleman, though devoted to the study of grammar and dialecticks, was not so absorbed in it as to be without a sense of pleasantry, or to be offended at his favourite topicks being treated lightly. I one day met him in the street, as I was hastening to the House of Lords, and told him, I was sorry I could not stop, being rather too late to attend an appeal of the Duke of Hamilton against Douglas. ‘I thought,’ said he, ‘their contest had been over long ago.’ I answered, ‘The contest concerning Douglas’s filiation was over long ago; but the contest now is, who shall have the estate.’ Then, assuming the air of ‘an antient sage philosopher’, I proceeded thus: ‘Were I to PREDICATE concerning him, I should say, the contest formerly was, What IS he? The contest now is, What HAS he?’ ‘Right,’ replied Mr Harris, smiling, ‘you have done with QUALITY, and have got into QUANTITY.’]

At another time, during our tour, he drew the character of a rapacious Highland chief with the strength of Theophrastus or la Bruyere; concluding with these words: ‘Sir, he has no more the soul of a chief, than an attorney who has twenty houses in a street, and considers how much he can make by them.’

He this day, when we were by ourselves, observed, how common it was for people to talk from books; to retail the sentiments of others, and not their own; in short, to converse without any originality of thinking. He was pleased to say, ‘You and I do not talk from books.’

Thursday, 4th November

I was glad to have at length a very fine day, on which I could shew Dr Johnson the place of my family, which he has honoured with so much attention in his Journey. He is, however, mistaken in thinking that the Celtick name, Auchinleck, has no relation to the natural appearance of it. I believe every Celtick name of a place will be found very descriptive. Auchinleck does not signify a ‘stony field’, as he has said, but a ‘field of flag stones’; and this place has a number of rocks, which abound in strata of that kind. The ‘sullen dignity of the old castle’, as he has forcibly expressed it, delighted him exceedingly. On one side of the rock on which its ruins stand, runs the river Lugar, which is here of considerable breadth, and is bordered by other high rocks, shaded with wood. On the other side runs a brook, skirted in the same manner, but on a smaller scale. I cannot figure a more romantick scene.

I felt myself elated here, and expatiated to my illustrious mentor on the antiquity and honourable alliances of my family, and on the merits of its founder, Thomas Boswell, who was highly favoured by his sovereign, James IV of Scotland, and fell with him at the battle of Flodden field; and in the glow of what, I am sensible, will, in a commercial age, be considered as genealogical enthusiasm, did not omit to mention what I was sure my friend would not think lightly of, my relation to the Royal Personage, whose liberality, on his accession to the throne, had given him comfort and independence. I have, in a former page, acknowledged my pride of ancient blood, in which I was encouraged by Dr Johnson: my readers therefore will not be surprised at my having indulged it on this occasion.

Not far from the old castle is a spot of consecrated earth, on which may be traced the foundations of an ancient chapel, dedicated to St Vincent, and where in old times ‘was the place of graves’ for the family. It grieves me to think that the remains of sanctity here, which were considerable, were dragged away, and employed in building a part of the house of Auchinleck, of the middle age; which was the family residence, till my father erected that ‘elegant modern mansion’, of which Dr Johnson speaks so handsomely. Perhaps this chapel may one day be restored.

Dr Johnson was pleased, when I shewed him some venerable old trees, under the shade of which my ancestors had walked. He exhorted me to plant assiduously, as my father had done to a great extent.

As I wandered with my reverend friend in the groves of Auchinleck, I told him, that, if I survived him, it was my intention to erect a monument to him here, among scenes which, in my mind, were all classical; for in my youth I had appropriated to them many of the descriptions of the Roman poets. He could not bear to have death presented to him in any shape; for his constitutional melancholy made the king of terrours more frightful. He turned off the subject, saying, ‘Sir, I hope to see your grand-children!’

This forenoon he observed some cattle without horns, of which he has taken notice in his Journey, and seems undecided whether they be of a particular race. His doubts appear to have had no foundation; for my respectable neighbour, Mr Fairlie, who, with all his attention to agriculture, finds time both for the Classicks and his friends, assures me they are a distinct species, and that, when any of their calves have horns, a mixture of breed can be traced. In confirmation of his opinion, he pointed out to me the following passage in Tacitus, Ne armentis quidem suus honor, aut gloria frontis (De mor. Germ. Section 5) which he wondered had escaped Dr Johnson.

On the front of the house of Auchinleck is this inscription:

. . . Quod petis, hic est;

Est Ulubris, animus si te non deficit aequus.

It is characteristick of the founder; but the animus aequus is, alas! not inheritable, nor the subject of devise. He always talked to me as if it were in a man’s own power to attain it; but Dr Johnson told me that he owned to him, when they were alone, his persuasion that it was in a great measure constitutional, or the effect of causes which do not depend on ourselves, and that Horace boasts too much, when he says, aequum mi animum ipse parabo.

Friday, 5th November

The Reverend Mr Dun, our parish minister, who had dined with us yesterday, with some other company, insisted that Dr Johnson and I should dine with him to-day. This gave me an opportunity to shew my friend the road to the church, made by my father at a great expence, for above three miles, on his own estate, through a range of well enclosed farms, with a row of trees on each side of it. He called it the Via sacra, and was very fond of it. Dr Johnson, though he held notions far distant from those of the Presbyterian clergy, yet could associate on good terms with them. He indeed occasionally attacked them. One of them discovered a narrowness of information concerning the dignitaries of the Church of England, among whom may be found men of the greatest learning, virtue, and piety, and of a truly apostolic character. He talked before Dr Johnson, of fat bishops and drowsy deans; and, in short, seemed to believe the illiberal and profane scoffings of professed satyrists, or vulgar railers. Dr Johnson was so highly offended, that he said to him, ‘Sir, you know no more of our church than a Hottentot.’ I was sorry that he brought this upon himself.

Saturday, 6th November

I cannot be certain, whether it was on this day, or a former, that Dr Johnson and my father came in collision. If I recollect right, the contest began while my father was shewing him his collection of medals; and Oliver Cromwell’s coin unfortunately introduced Charles the First, and Toryism. They became exceedingly warm, and violent, and I was very much distressed by being present at such an altercation between the two men, both of whom I reverenced; yet I durst not interfere. It would certainly be very unbecoming in me to exhibit my honoured father, and my respected friend, as intellectual gladiators, for the entertainment of the publick; and therefore I suppress what would, I dare say, make an interesting scene in this dramatick sketch this account of the transit of Johnson over the Caledonian hemisphere.

Yet I think I may, without impropriety, mention one circumstance, as an instance of my father’s address. Dr Johnson challenged him, as he did us all at Talisker, to point out any theological works of merit written by Presbyterian ministers in Scotland. My father, whose studies did not lie much in that way, owned to me afterwards, that he was somewhat at a loss how to answer, but that luckily he recollected having read in catalogues the title of Durham On the Galatians; upon which he boldly said, ‘Pray, sir, have you read Mr Durham’s excellent commentary on the Galatians?’ ‘No, sir,’ said Dr Johnson. By this lucky thought my father kept him at bay, and for some time enjoyed his triumph; but his antagonist soon made a retort, which I forbear to mention.

In the course of their altercation, Whiggism and Presbyterianism, Toryism and Episcopacy, were terribly buffeted. My worthy hereditary friend, Sir John Pringle, never having been mentioned, happily escaped without a bruise.

My father’s opinion of Dr Johnson may be conjectured from the name he afterwards gave him, which was Ursa Major. But it is not true, as has been reported, that it was in consequence of my saying that he was a CONSTELLATION of genius and literature. It was a sly abrupt expression to one of his brethren on the bench of the Court of Session, in which Dr Johnson was then standing; but it was not said in his hearing.

Sunday, 7th November

My father and I went to publick worship in our parish-church, in which I regretted that Dr Johnson would not join us; for, though we have there no form of prayer, nor magnificent solemnity, yet, as God is worshipped in spirit and in truth, and the same doctrines preached as in the Church of England, my friend would certainly have shewn more liberality, had he attended. I doubt not, however, but he employed his time in private to very good purpose. His uniform and fervent piety was manifested on many occasions during our tour, which I have not mentioned. His reason for not joining in Presbyterian worship has been recorded in a former page.

Monday, 8th November

Notwithstanding the altercation that had passed, my father who had the dignified courtesy of an old Baron, was very civil to Dr Johnson, and politely attended him to the post-chaise, which was to convey us to Edinburgh.

Thus they parted. They are now in another, and a higher, state of existence: and as they were both worthy Christian men, I trust they have met in happiness. But I must observe, in justice to my friend’s political principles, and my own, that they have met in a place where there is no room for Whiggism.

We came at night to a good inn at Hamilton. I recollect no more.

Tuesday, 9th November

I wished to have shewn Dr Johnson the Duke of Hamilton’s house, commonly called the Palace of Hamilton, which is close by the town. It is an object which, having been pointed out to me as a splendid edifice, from my earliest years, in travelling between Auchinleck and Edinburgh, has still great grandeur in my imagination. My friend consented to stop, and view the outside of it, but could not be persuaded to go into it.

We arrived this night at Edinburgh, after an absence of eighty-three days. For five weeks together, of the tempestuous season, there had been no account received of us. I cannot express how happy I was on finding myself again at home.

Wednesday, 10th November

Old Mr Drummond, the bookseller, came to breakfast. Dr Johnson and he had not met for ten years. There was respect on his side, and kindness on Dr Johnson’s. Soon afterwards Lord Elibank came in, and was much pleased at seeing Dr Johnson in Scotland. His lordship said, ‘hardly any thing seemed to him more improbable’. Dr Johnson had a very high opinion of him. Speaking of him to me, he characterized him thus: ‘Lord Elibank has read a great deal. It is true, I can find in books all that he has read; but he has a great deal of what is in books, proved by the test of real life.’ Indeed, there have been few men whose conversation discovered more knowledge enlivened by fancy. He published several small pieces of distinguished merit; and has left some in manuscript, in particular an account of the expedition against Carthagena, in which he served as an officer in the army. His writings deserve to be collected. He was the early patron of Dr Robertson, the historian, and Mr Home, the tragick poet; who, when they we were ministers of country parishes, lived near his seat. He told me, ‘I saw these lads had talents, and they were much with me.’ I hope they will pay a grateful tribute to his memory.

The morning was chiefly taken up by Dr Johnson’s giving him an account of our tour. The subject of difference in political principles was introduced. JOHNSON. ‘It is much increased by opposition. There was a violent Whig, with whom I used to contend with great eagerness. After his death I felt my Toryism much abated.’ I suppose he meant Mr Walmsley of Lichfield, whose character he has drawn so well in his life of Edmund Smith.

Mr Nairne came in, and he and I accompanied Dr Johnson to Edinburgh castle, which he owned was ‘a great place’. But I must mention, as a striking instance of that spirit of contradiction to which he had a strong propensity, when Lord Elibank was some days after talking of it with the natural elation of a Scotchman, or of any man who is proud of a stately fortress in his own country, Dr Johnson affected to despise it, observing that, ‘it would make a good PRISON in ENGLAND’.

Lest it should be supposed that I have suppressed one of his sallies against my country, it may not be improper here to correct a mistaken account that has been circulated, as to his conversation this day. It has been said, that being desired to attend to the noble prospect from the Castle Hill, he replied, ‘Sir, the noblest prospect that a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to London.’ This lively sarcasm was thrown out at a tavern in London, in my presence, many years before.

We had with us to day at dinner, at my house, the Lady Dowager Colvill, and Lady Anne Erskine, sisters of the Earl of Kelly; the Honourable Archibald Erskine, who has now succeeded to that title; Lord Elibank; the Reverend Dr Blair; Mr Tytler, the acute vindicator of Mary Queen of Scots, and some other friends.

Fingal being talked of, Dr Johnson, who used to boast that he had, from the first, resisted both Ossian and the giants of Patagonia, averred his positive disbelief of its authenticity. Lord Elibank said, ‘I am sure it is not McPherson’s. Mr Johnson, I keep company a great deal with you; it is known I do. I may borrow from you better things than I can say myself, and give them as my own; but, if I should, every body will know whose they are.’ The Doctor was not softened by this compliment. He denied merit to Fingal, supposing it to be the production of a man who has had the advantages that the present age affords; and said, ‘nothing is more easy than to write enough in that style if once you begin’. † One gentleman in company expressing his opinion ‘that Fingal was certainly genuine, for that he had heard a great part of it repeated in the original’, Dr Johnson indignantly asked him, whether he understood the original; to which an answer being given in the negative, ‘Why then,’ said Dr Johnson, ‘we see to what THIS testimony comes: thus it is.’

† [Note: I desire not to be understood as agreeing ENTIRELY with the opinions of Dr Johnson, which I relate without any remark. The many imitations, however, of Fingal, that have been published, confirm this observation in a considerable degree.]

I mentioned this as a remarkable proof how liable the mind of man is to credulity, when not guarded by such strict examination as that which Dr Johnson habitually practised. The talents and integrity of the gentleman who made the remark, are unquestionable; yet, had not Dr Johnson made him advert to the consideration, that he who does not understand a language, cannot know that something which is recited to him is in that language, he might have believed, and reported to this hour, that he had ‘heard a great part of Fingal repeated in the original’.

For the satisfaction of those on the north of the Tweed, who may think Dr Johnson’s account of Caledonian credulity and inaccuracy too strong, it is but fair to add, that he admitted the same kind of ready belief might be found in his own country. ‘He would undertake,’ he said, ‘to write an epick poem on the story of Robin Hood, and half England, to whom the names and places he should mention in it are familiar, would believe and declare they had heard it from their earliest years.’

One of his objections to the authenticity of Fingal, during the conversation at Ulinish, is omitted in my Journal, but I perfectly recollect it. ‘Why is not the original deposited in some publick library, instead of exhibiting attestations of its existence? Suppose there were a question in a court of justice, whether a man be dead or alive. You aver he is alive, and you bring fifty witnesses to swear it: I answer, “Why do you not produce the man “’ This is an argument founded on one of the first principles of the LAW OF EVIDENCE, which Gilbert would have held to be irrefragable.

I do not think it incumbent on me to give any precise decided opinion upon this question, as to which I believe more than some, and less than others. The subject appears to have now become very uninteresting to the publick. That Fingal is not from beginning to end a translation from the Gallick, but that some passages have been supplied by the editor to connect the whole, I have heard admitted by very warm advocates for its authenticity. If this be the case, why are not these distinctly ascertained? Antiquaries, and admirers of the work, may complain, that they are in a situation similar to that of the unhappy gentleman whose wife informed him, on her death-bed, that one of their reputed children was not his; and, when he eagerly begged her to declare which of them it was, she answered, ‘THAT you shall never know’, and expired, leaving him in irremediable doubt as to them all.

I beg leave to say something upon second sight, of which I have related two instances, as they impressed my mind at the time. I own, I returned from the Hebrides with a considerable degree of faith in the many stories of that kind which I heard with a too easy acquiescence, without any clear examination of the evidence: but, since that time, my belief in those stories has been much weakened, by reflecting on the careless inaccuracy of narrative in common matters, from which we may certainly conclude that these may be the same in what is more extraordinary. It is but just, however, to add, that the belief in second sight is not peculiar to the Highlands and Isles.

Some years after our tour, a cause was tried in the Court of Session where the principal fact to be ascertained was, whether a ship-master, who used to frequent the Western Highlands and Isles, was drowned in one particular year, or in the year after. A great number of witnesses from the parts were examined on each side, and swore directly contrary to each other upon this simple question. One of them, a very respectable chieftain, who told me a story of second sight, which I have not mentioned, but which I too implicitly believed, had in this case, previous to this publick examination, not only said, but attested under his hand, that he had seen the ship-master in the year subsequent to that in which the court was finally satisfied he was drowned. When interrogated with the strictness of judicial inquiry, and under the awe of an oath, he recollected himself better, and retracted what he had formerly asserted, apologizing for his inaccuracy, by telling the judge ‘A man will SAY what he will not SWEAR.’ By many he was much censured and it was maintained that every gentleman would be as attentive to truth without the sanction of an oath, as with it. Dr Johnson, though he himself was distinguished at all times by a scrupulous adherence to truth, controverted this proposition; and, as a proof that this was not, though it ought to be, the case, urged the very different decisions of elections under Mr Greville’s Act, from those formerly made. ‘Gentlemen will not pronounce upon oath, what they would have said, and voted in the House without the sanction.’

However difficult it may be for men who believe in preternatural communications, in modern times, to falsify those who are of a different opinion, they may easily refute the doctrine of their opponents, who impute a belief in second sight to superstition. To entertain a visionary notion that one sees a distant or future event, may be called superstition; but the correspondence of the fact or event with such an impression on the fancy, though certainly very wonderful, IF PROVED, has no more connection with superstition, than magnetism or electricity.

After dinner, various topicks were discussed; but I recollect only one particular. Dr Johnson compared the different talents of Garrick and Foote, as companions, and gave Garrick greatly the preference for elegance, though he allowed Foote extraordinary powers of entertainment. He said, ‘Garrick is restrained by some principle; but Foote has the advantage of an unlimited range. Garrick has some delicacy of feeling; it is possible to put him out; you may get the better of him; but Foote is the most incompressible fellow that I ever knew: when you have driven him into a corner, and think you are sure of him, he runs through between your legs, or jumps over your head, and makes his escape.’

Dr Erskine and Mr Robert Walker, two very respectable ministers of Edinburgh, supped with us, as did the Reverend Dr Webster. The conversation turned on the Moravian missions, and on the Methodists. Dr Johnson observed in general, that missionaries were too sanguine in their accounts of their success among savages, and that much of what they tell is not to be believed. He owned that the Methodists had done good; had spread religious impressions among the vulgar part of mankind: but, he said, they had great bitterness against other Christians, and that he never could get a Methodist to explain in what he excelled others; that it always ended in the indispensible necessity of hearing one of their preachers.

Thursday, 11th November

Principal Robertson came to us as we sat at breakfast; he advanced to Dr Johnson, repeating a line of Virgil, which I forget. I suppose, either

Post varios casus, per tot discrimina rerum, †


. . . multum ille et terris jactatus, et alto. ‡

† [Note: Through various hazards and events we move.]

‡ [Note: Long labours both by sea and land he bore. DRYDEN.]

Every body had accosted us with some studied compliment on our return. Dr Johnson said, ‘I am really ashamed of the congratulations which we receive. We are addressed as if we had made a voyage to Nova Zembla, and suffered five persecutions in Japan.’ And he afterwards remarked, that, ‘to see a man come up with a formal air, and a Latin line, when we had no fatigue and no danger, was provoking.’ I told him, he was not sensible of the danger, having lain under cover in the boat during the storm: he was like the chicken, that hides its head under its wing, and then thinks itself safe.

Lord Elibank came to us, as did Sir William Forbes. The rash attempt in 1745 being mentioned, I observed, that it would make a fine piece of history. Dr Johnson said it would. Lord Elibank doubted whether any man of this age could give it impartially. JOHNSON. ‘A man, by talking with those of different sides, who were actors in it, and putting down all that he hears, may in time collect the materials of a good narrative. You are to consider, all history was at first oral. I suppose Voltaire was fifty years in collecting his Louis XIV which he did in the way that I am proposing.’ ROBERTSON. ‘He did so. He lived much with all the great people who were concerned in that reign, and heard them talk of every thing: and then either took Mr Boswell’s way, of writing down what he heard, or, which is as good, preserved it in his memory; for he has a wonderful memory.’ With the leave, however, of this elegant historian, no man’s memory can preserve facts or sayings with such fidelity as may be done by writing them down when they are recent. Dr Robertson said, ‘it was now full time to make such a collection as Dr Johnson suggested; for many of the people who were then in arms, were dropping off; and both Whigs and Jacobites were now come to talk with moderation.’ Lord Elibank said to him, ‘Mr Robertson, the first thing that gave me a high opinion of you, was your saying in the Select Society, † while parties ran high, soon after the year 1745, that you did not think worse of a man’s moral character for his having been in rebellion. This was venturing to utter a liberal sentiment, while both sides had a detestation of each other.’

† [Note: A society for debate in Edinburgh, consisting of the most eminent men.]

Dr Johnson observed, that being in rebellion from a notion of another’s right, was not connected with depravity; and that we had this proof of it, that all mankind applauded the pardoning of rebels; which they would not do in the case of robbers and murderers. He said, with a smile, that ‘he wondered that the phrase of UNNATURAL rebellion should be so much used, for that all rebellion was natural to man’.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31