Boswell and Johnson in Scotland

August 3, 2020

A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland
Samuel Johnson
(Penguin Classics, 1984) [1775]
120 p.

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
James Boswell
(MacMillan, 1936) [1785]
425 p.

I had desired to visit the Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland, so long, that I scarcely remember how the wish was originally excited; and was in the Autumn of the year 1773 induced to undertake the journey, by finding in Mr. Boswell a companion, whose acuteness would help my inquiry, and whose gaiety of conversation and civility of manners are sufficient to counteract the inconveniences of travel, in countries less hospitable than we have passed.

So began the famous journey that would carry the two companions first to Edinburgh, then north to Inverness, across the north, and to a sojourn of several months in the Hebrides. After returning home Johnson penned his fine book containing observations on the lands they had passed through, and Boswell, choosing the better part, penned his fine book containing observations on Johnson.

We may forget that the Scottish Highlands, at that time, were far removed, not just geographically, but culturally, from the London that Johnson knew. He may have professed that the country was one which could no longer satisfy those “whose curiosity pants for savage virtues and barbarous grandeur”, but by and large it was wild country, in which civilization, as Johnson recognized it, had a slender foothold, here and there, in the homes of Scottish Lairds. He had desired to visit, but was not strongly tempted to remain:

“Nobody born in any other parts of the world will choose this country for his residence.”

Nonetheless, his book is full of pithy observations on the beauty and merits of Scotland. The book might be profitably scoured by the Scottish tourism board in search of good pamphlet copy, as Johnson expounds on, for instance, the forests of Scotland:

A tree might be a show in Scotland as a horse in Venice.

or, on the charm of the landscapes:

An eye accustomed to flowery pastures and waving harvests is astonished and repelled by this wide extent of hopeless sterility.  The appearance is that of matter incapable of form or usefulness, dismissed by nature from her care and disinherited of her favours, left in its original elemental state, or quickened only with one sullen power of useless vegetation.

or, on the attractions of Scottish religion:

The malignant influence of Calvinism has blasted ceremony and decency together; and if the remembrance of papal superstition is obliterated, the monuments of papal piety are likewise effaced.

or, on the local produce grown by Scottish farmers:

Of vegetable fragrance or beauty they are not yet studious.  Few vows are made to Flora in the Hebrides.

or, on the Gaelic tongue:

It is the rude speech of a barbarous people, who had few thoughts to express, and were content, as they conceived grossly, to be grossly understood.

Johnson’s book, in fact, reads something like an anthropological study, albeit an unusually eloquent one, as he takes an interest in the beauty of Scottish women (“The ladies have as much beauty here as in other places”), marriage practices (“The question is, How many cows a young lady will bring her husband.”), and the veracity, or not, of second sight.

Interspersed with these observations are bits of advice for other travellers, including some that might surprise:

No man should travel unprovided with instruments for taking heights and distances.

Perhaps the most interesting stage of the journey for me was their visit, brief as it was, to Iona, which endeared itself to me when I visited many years ago. Johnson stated, far better than I could, why he honoured the place:

Whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.  Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue.  That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!

The Scottish sojourn came to an end eventually, and Boswell reports Johnson’s reaction when, for the first time in a long time, they saw again one of the signs of civilization: wagon tracks.

As we walked up from the shore, Dr Johnson’s heart was cheered by the sight of a road marked with cart-wheels, as on the main land; a thing which we had not seen for a long time. It gave us a pleasure similar to that which a traveller feels, when, whilst wandering on what he fears is a desert island, he perceives the print of human feet.

And so it was that Johnson returned, a little like an exile coming home, to the bosom of London and the English way of life.

These books are intermittently informative, but consistently rewarding, and the latter principally on account of Johnson. As in his Life Boswell captured many aphorisms and judgments, “of rich and choice expression”, uttered by his companion in the course of their travels, and preserved them for our benefit. I’ll conclude this post by sharing a few samples from the crop.

[On forgetfulness]
I mentioned to him, that a worthy gentleman of my acquaintance actually forgot his own name. JOHNSON. ‘Sir. that was a morbid oblivion.’

[On Homer]
JOHNSON. ‘…There are in Homer such characters of heroes, and combinations of qualities of heroes, that the united powers of mankind ever since have not produced any but what are to be found there.’

[On politeness]
He insisted that politeness was of great consequence in society. ‘It is,’ said he, ‘fictitious benevolence. It supplies the place of it amongst those who see each other only in publick, or but little. Depend upon it, the want of it never fails to produce something disagreeable to one or other. I have always applied to good breeding, what Addison in his Cato says of honour:

Honour’s a sacred tie; the law of Kings;  The noble mind’s distinguishing perfection,  That aids and strengthens Virtue where it meets her.  And imitates her actions where she is not.

[On authority]
Dr Johnson observed, that there had been great disputes about the spelling of Shakspear’s name; at last it was thought it would be settled by looking at the original copy of his will; but, upon examining it, he was found to have written it himself no less than three different ways.

[On human nature]
Lady M’Leod asked, if no man was naturally good. JOHNSON. ‘No, madam, no more than a wolf.’ BOSWELL. ‘Nor no woman, sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, sir.’ Lady M’Leod started at this, saying, in a low voice, ‘This is worse than Swift.’

[On wickedness]
Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to every thing.

[On Leibniz]
No, sir, Leibnitz was as paltry a fellow as I know.

[On observing the Sabbath]
He said, ‘I do not like to read any thing on a Sunday, but what is theological.’

[On being the subject of controversy]
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.’

[On shame]
Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.

[On historical understanding]
The distance of a calamity from the present time seems to preclude the mind from contact or sympathy.

[On the value of money]
There are some advantages which money cannot buy, and which therefore no wise man will by the love of money be tempted to forego.

[On power and wealth]
Power and wealth supply the place of each other.  Power confers the ability of gratifying our desire without the consent of others.  Wealth enables us to obtain the consent of others to our gratification.  Power, simply considered, whatever it confers on one, must take from another.  Wealth enables its owner to give to others, by taking only from himself.  Power pleases the violent and proud: wealth delights the placid and the timorous.  Youth therefore flies at power, and age grovels after riches.

[On traditions, written and not]
Written learning is a fixed luminary, which, after the cloud that had hidden it has past away, is again bright in its proper station.  Tradition is but a meteor, which, if once it falls, cannot be rekindled.

[On books and language]
There may possibly be books without a polished language, but there can be no polished language without books.

[On wonder]
None but philosophers, nor they always, are struck with wonder, otherwise than by novelty.

[On civility in argument]
Treating your adversary with respect, is giving him an advantage to which he is not entitled. The greatest part of men cannot judge of reasoning, and are impressed by character; so that, if you allow your adversary a respectable character, they will think, that though you differ from him, you may be in the wrong. Sir, treating your adversary with respect, is striking soft in a battle.

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