Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, by James Boswell

As I kept no journal of any thing that passed after this morning, I shall, from memory, group together this and the other days, till that on which Dr Johnson departed for London. They were in all nine days; on which he dined at Lady Colvill’s, Lord Hailes’s, Sir Adolphus Oughton’s, Sir Alexander Dick’s, Principal Robertson’s, Mr McLaurin’s, and thrice at Lord Elibank’s seat in the country, where we also passed two nights. He supped at the Honourable Alexander Gordon’s, now one of our judges, by the title of Lord Rockville; at Mr Nairne’s, now also one of our judges, by the title of Lord Dunsinan; at Dr Blair’s, and Mr Tytler’s; and at my house thrice, one evening with a numerous company, chiefly gentlemen of the law; another with Mr Menzies of Culdares, and Lord Monboddo, who disengaged himself on purpose to meet him; and the evening on which we returned from Lord Elibank’s, he supped with my wife and me by ourselves.

He breakfasted at Dr Webster’s, at old Mr Drummond’s, and at Dr Blacklock’s; and spent one forenoon at my uncle Dr Boswell’s, who shewed him his curious museum; and, as he was an elegant scholar, and a physician bred in the school of Boerhaave, Dr Johnson was pleased with his company.

On the mornings when he breakfasted at my house, he had, from ten o’clock till one or two, a constant levee of various persons, of very different characters and descriptions. I could not attend him, being obliged to be in the Court of Session; but my wife was so good as to devote the greater part of the morning to the endless task of pouring out tea for my friend and his visitors.

Such was the disposition of his time at Edinburgh. He said one evening to me, in a fit of langour, ‘Sir, we have been harrassed by invitations.’ I acquiesced. ‘Ay, sir,’ he replied; ‘but how much worse would it have been, if we had been neglected?’

From what has been recorded in this Journal, it may well be supposed that a variety of admirable conversation has been lost, by my neglect to preserve it. I shall endeavour to recollect some of it, as well as I can.

At Lady Colvill’s, to whom I am proud to introduce any stranger of eminence, that he may see what dignity and grace is to be found in Scotland, an officer observed, that he had heard Lord Mansfield was not a great English lawyer. JOHNSON. ‘Why, sir, supposing Lord Mansfield not to have the splendid talents which he possesses, he must be a great English lawyer, from having been so long at the bar, and having passed through so many of the great offices of the law. Sir, you may as well maintain that a carrier, who has driven a packhorse between Edinburgh and Berwick for thirty years, does not know the road, as that Lord Mansfield does not know the law of England.’

At Mr Nairne’s, he drew the character of Richardson, the author of Clarissa, with a strong yet delicate pencil. I lament much that I have not preserved it: I only remember that he expressed a high opinion of his talents and virtues; but observed, that ‘his perpetual study was to ward off petty inconveniencies, and procure petty pleasures; that his love of continual superiority was such, that he took care to be always surrounded by women, who listened to him implicitly, and did not venture to controvert his opinions; and that his desire of distinction was so great, that he used to give large vails to the Speaker Onslow’s servants, that they might treat him with respect’.

On the same evening, he would not allow that the private life of a judge, in England, was required to be so strictly decorous as I supposed. ‘Why then, sir,’ said I, ‘according to your account, an English judge may just live like a gentleman.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, sir — if he CAN.’

At Mr Tytler’s, I happened to tell that one evening, a great many years ago, when Dr Hugh Blair and I were sitting together in the pit of Drury-lane play-house, in a wild freak of youthful extravagance, I entertained the audience PRODIGIOUSLY, by imitating the lowing of a cow. A little while after I had told this story, I differed from Dr Johnson, I suppose too confidently, upon some point, which I now forget. He did not spare me. ‘Nay, sir,’ said he, ‘if you cannot talk better as a man, I’d have you bellow like a cow.’ †

† [Note: As I have been scrupulously exact in relating anecdotes concerning other persons, I shall not withhold any part of this story, however ludicrous. — I was so successful in this boyish frolick, that the universal cry of the galleries was, ‘Encore the cow! Encore the cow!’ In the pride of my heart, I attempted imitations of some other animals, but with very inferior effect. My reverend friend, anxious for my fame, with an air of the utmost gravity and earnestness, addressed me thus: ‘My dear sir, I would CONFINE myself to the COW!’]

At Dr Webster’s, he said, that he believed hardly any man died without affectation. This remark appears to me to be well founded, and will account for many of the celebrated death-bed sayings which are recorded.

On one of the evenings at my house, when he told that Lord Lovat boasted to an English nobleman, that though he had not his wealth, he had two thousand men whom he could at any time call into the field, the Honourable Alexander Gordon observed, that those two thousand men brought him to the block. ‘True, sir,’ said Dr Johnson: ‘but you may just as well argue, concerning a man who has fallen over a precipice to which he has walked too near, “His two legs brought him to that”— is he not the better for having two legs?’

At Dr Blair’s I left him, in order to attend a consultation, during which he and his amiable host were by themselves. I returned to supper, at which were Principal Robertson, Mr Nairne, and some other gentlemen. Dr Robertson and Dr Blair, I remember, talked well upon subordination and government; and, as my friend and I were walking home, he said to me, ‘Sir, these two doctors are good men, and wise men.’ I begged of Dr Blair to recollect what he could of the long conversation that passed between Dr Johnson and him alone, this evening, and he obligingly wrote to me as follows:

March 3, 1785.

Dear Sir,

. . . As so many years have intervened, since I chanced to have that conversation with Dr Johnson in my house, to which you refer, I have forgotten most of what then passed, but remember that I was both instructed and entertained by it. Among other subjects, the discourse happening to turn on modern Latin poets, the Dr expressed a very favourable opinion of Buchanan, and instantly repeated, from beginning to end, an ode of his, intituled Calendae Maiae (the eleventh in his Miscellaneorum Liber), beginning with these words, Salvete sacris deliciis sacrae, with which I had formerly been unacquainted; but upon perusing it, the praise which he bestowed upon it, as one of the happiest of Buchanan’s poetical compositions, appeared to me very just. He also repeated to me a Latin ode he had composed in one of the western islands, from which he had lately returned. We had much discourse concerning his excursion to those islands, with which he expressed himself as having been highly pleased; talked in a favourable manner of the hospitality of the inhabitants; and particularly spoke much of his happiness in having you for his companion; and said, that the longer he knew you, he loved and esteemed you the more. This conversation passed in the interval between tea and supper, when we were by ourselves. You, and the rest of the company who were with us at supper, have often taken notice that he was uncommonly bland and gay that evening, and gave much pleasure to all who were present. This is all that I can recollect distinctly of that long conversation.

Yours sincerely,

HUGH BLAIR.

At Lord Hailes’s, we spent a most agreeable day; but again I must lament that I was so indolent as to let almost all that passed evaporate into oblivion. Dr Johnson observed there, that ‘it is wonderful how ignorant many officers of the army are, considering how much leisure they have for study, and the acquisition of knowledge.’ I hope he was mistaken; for he maintained that many of them were ignorant of things belonging immediately to their own profession; ‘for instance, many cannot tell how far a musket will carry a bullet;’ in proof of which, I suppose, he mentioned some particular person, for Lord Hailes, from whom I solicited what he could recollect of that day, writes to me as follows:

As to Dr Johnson’s observation about the ignorance of officers, in the length that a musket will carry, my brother, Colonel Dalrymple, was present, and he thought that the doctor was either mistaken, by putting the question wrong, or that he had conversed on the subject with some person out of service.

Was it upon that occasion that he expressed no curiosity to see the room at Dumfermline, where Charles I was born? ‘I know that he was born,’ said he; ‘no matter where.’ Did he envy us the birth-place of the king?

Near the end of his Journey, Dr Johnson has given liberal praise to Mr Braidwood’s academy for the deaf and dumb. When he visited it, a circumstance occurred which was truly characteristical of our great lexicographer. ‘Pray,’ said he, ‘can they pronounce any LONG words?’ Mr Braidwood informed him they could. Upon which Dr Johnson wrote one of his sequipedalia verba, which was pronounced by the scholars, and he was satisfied. My readers may perhaps wish to know what the word was; but I cannot gratify their curiosity. Mr Braidwood told me, it remained long in his school, but had been lost before I made my inquiry. †

† [Note: One of the best criticks of our age ‘does not wish to prevent the admirers of the incorrect and nerveless style which generally prevailed for a century before Dr Johnson’s energetick writings were known, from enjoying the laugh that this story may produce, in which he is very ready to join them’. He, however, requests me to observe, that ‘my friend very properly chose a LONG word on this occasion, not, it is believed, from any predilection for polysyllables (though he certainly had a due respect for them), but in order to put Mr Braidwood’s skill to the strictest test, and to try the efficacy of his instruction by the most difficult exertion of the organs of his pupils’.]

Dr Johnson one day visited the Court of Session. He thought the mode of pleading there too vehement, and too much addressed to the passions of the judges. ‘This,’ said he, ‘is not the Areopagus.’

At old Mr Drummond’s, Sir John Dalrymple quaintly said, the two noblest animals in the world were, a Scotch highlander and an English sailor. ‘Why, sir,’ said Dr Johnson, ‘I shall say nothing as to the Scotch highlander; but as to the English sailor, I cannot agree with you.’ Sir John said, he was generous in giving away his money. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, he throws away his money, without thought, and without merit. I do not call a tree generous, that sheds its fruit at every breeze.’ Sir John having affected to complain of the attacks made upon his Memoirs, Dr Johnson said, ‘Nay, sir, do not complain. It is advantageous to an authour, that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.’ Often have I reflected on this since; and, instead of being angry at many of those who have written against me, have smiled to think that they were unintentionally subservient to my fame, by using a battledoor to make me virum volitare per ora.

At Sir Alexander Dick’s, from that absence of mind to which every man is at times subject, I told, in a blundering manner, Lady Eglingtoune’s complimentary adoption of Dr Johnson as her son; for I unfortunately stated that her ladyship adopted him as her son, in consequence of her having been married the year AFTER he was born. Dr Johnson instantly corrected me. ‘Sir, don’t you perceive that you are defaming the countess? For, supposing me to be her son, and that she was not married till the year after my birth, I must have been her NATURAL son.’ A young lady of quality, who was present, very handsomely said, ‘Might not the son have justified the faults?’ My friend was much flattered by this compliment, which he never forgot. When in more than ordinary spirits, and talking of his journey in Scotland, he has called to me, ‘Boswell, what was it that the young lady of quality said of me at Sir Alexander Dick’s?’ Nobody will doubt that I was happy in repeating it.

My illustrious friend, being now desirous to be again in the great theatre of life and animated exertion, took a place in the coach, which was to set out for London on Monday the 22d of November. Sir John Dalrymple pressed him to come on the Saturday before, to his house at Cranston, which being twelve miles from Edinburgh, upon the middle road to Newcastle (Dr Johnson had come to Edinburgh by Berwick, and along the naked coast), it would make his journey easier, as the coach would take him up at a more reasonable hour than that at which it sets out. Sir John, I perceived, was ambitious of having such a guest; but, as I was well assured, that at this very time he had joined with some of his prejudiced countrymen in railing at Dr Johnson, and had said, he wondered how any gentleman of Scotland could keep company with him, I thought he did not deserve the honour: yet, as it might be a convenience to Dr Johnson, I contrived that he should accept the invitation, and engaged to conduct him. I resolved that, on our way to Sir John’s, we should make a little circuit by Roslin Castle, and Hawthornden, and wished to set out soon after breakfast; but young Mr Tytler came to shew Dr Johnson some essays which he had written; and my great friend, who was exceedingly obliging when thus consulted, was detained so long that it was, I believe, one o’clock before we got into our post-chaise. I found that we should be too late for dinner at Sir John Dalrymple’s, to which we were engaged: but I would by no means lose the pleasure of seeing my friend at Hawthornden, of seeing SAM JOHNSON at the very spot where BEN JOHNSON visited the learned and poetical Drummond.

We surveyed Roslin Castle, the romantick scene around it, and the beautiful Gothick chapel, and dined and drank tea at the inn; after which we proceeded to Hawthornden, and viewed the caves; and I all the while had Rare Ben in my mind, and was pleased to think that this place was now visited by another celebrated wit of England.

By this time ‘the waning night was growing old’, and we were yet several miles from Sir John Dalrymple’s. Dr Johnson did not seem much troubled at our having treated the baronet with so little attention to politeness; but when I talked of the grievous disappointment it must have been to him that we did not come to the FEAST that he had prepared for us (for he told us he had killed a seven-year-old sheep on purpose), my friend got into a merry mood, and jocularly said, ‘I dare say, sir, he has been very sadly distressed. Nay, we do not know but the consequence may have been fatal. Let me try to describe his situation in his own historical style. I have as good a right to make him think and talk, as he has to tell us how people thought and talked a hundred years ago, of which he has no evidence. All history, so far as it is not supported by contemporary evidence, is romance . . . Stay now . . . Let us consider!’ He then (heartily laughing all the while) proceeded in his imitation, I am sure to the following effect, though now, at the distance of almost twelve years, I cannot pretend to recollect all the precise words:

‘Dinner being ready, he wondered that his guests were not yet come. His wonder was soon succeeded by impatience. He walked about the room in anxious agitation; sometimes he looked at his watch, sometimes he looked out at the window with an eager gaze of expectation, and revolved in his mind the various accidents of human life. His family beheld him with mute concern. “Surely,” said he, with a sigh, “they will not fail me.” The mind of man can bear a certain pressure; but there is a point when it can bear no more. A rope was in his view, and he died a Roman death.’ †

† [Note: ‘Essex was at that time confined to the same chamber of the Tower from which his father Lord Capel had been led to death, and in which his wife’s grandfather had inflicted a voluntary death upon himself. When he saw his friend carried to what he reckoned certain fate, their common enemies enjoying the spectacle, and reflected that it was he who had forced Lord Howard upon the confidence of Russel, he retired, and, by a ROMAN DEATH, put an end to his misery.’ Dalrymple’s Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. I p. 36.]

It was very late before we reached the seat of Sir John Dalrymple, who, certainly with some reason was not in very good humour. Our conversation was not brilliant. We supped, and went to bed in ancient rooms, which would have better suited the climate of Italy in summer, than that of Scotland in the month of November.

I recollect no conversation of the next day, worth preserving, except one saying of Dr Johnson, which will be a valuable text for many decent old dowagers, and other good company, in various circles to descant upon. He said, ‘I am sorry I have not learnt to play at cards. It is very useful in life: it generates kindness, and consolidates society.’ He certainly could not mean deep play.

My friend and I thought we should be more comfortable at the inn at Blackflelds, two miles farther on. We therefore went thither in the evening, and he was very entertaining; but I have preserved nothing but the pleasing remembrance, and his verses on George the Second and Cibber, and his epitaph on Parnell, which he was then so good as to dictate to me. We breakfasted together next morning, and then the coach came, and took him up. He had, as one of his companions in it, as far as Newcastle, the worthy and ingenious Dr Hope, botanical professor at Edinburgh. Both Dr Johnson and he used to speak of their good fortune in thus accidentally meeting; for they had much instructive conversation, which is always a most valuable enjoyment, and, when found where it is not expected, is peculiarly relished.

I have now completed my account of our tour to the Hebrides. I have brought Dr Johnson down to Scotland, and seen him into the coach which in a few hours carried him back into England. He said to me often, that the time he spent in this tour was the pleasantest part of his life, and asked me if I would lose the recollection of it for five hundred pounds. I answered I would not; and he applauded my setting such a value on an accession of new images in my mind.

Had it not been for me, I am persuaded Dr Johnson never would have undertaken such a journey; and I must be allowed to assume some merit from having been the cause that our language has been enriched with such a book as that which he published on his return; a book which I never read but with the utmost admiration, as I had such opportunities of knowing from what very meagre materials it was composed.

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