Picture of James Boswell

James Boswell

places mentioned

September 21st to 24th, 1773: Dunvegan to Talisker

Next Selection Previous Selection

Tuesday, 21st September

The uncertainty of our present situation having prevented me from receiving any letters from home for some time, I could not help being uneasy. Dr Johnson had an advantage over me, in this respect, he having no wife or child to occasion anxious apprehensions in his mind. It was a good morning; so we resolved to set out. But, before quitting this castle, where we have been so well entertained, let me give a short description of it.

Along the edge of the rock, there are the remains of a wall, which is now covered with ivy. A square court is formed by buildings of different ages, particularly some towers, said to be of great antiquity; and at one place there is a row of false cannon of stone. There is a very large unfinished pile, four stories high, which we were told was here when Leod, the first of this family, came from the Isle of Man, married the heiress of the M'Crails, the ancient possessors of Dunvegan, and afterwards acquired by conquest as much land as he had got by marriage. He surpassed the house of Austria; for he was felix both bella genere et nubere. John Breck M'Leod, the grandfather of the late laird, began to repair the castle, or rather to complete it: but he did not live to finish his undertaking. Not doubting, however, that he should do it, he, like those who have had their epitaphs written before they died, ordered the following inscription, composed by the minister of the parish, to be cut upon a broad stone above one of the lower windows, where it still remains to celebrate what was not done, and to serve as a memento of the uncertainty of life, and the presumption of man:

Joannes Macleod Beganoduni Dominus gentis suae Philarchus, Durinesiae Haraiae Vaternesiae, &: Baro D. Florae Macdonald matrimoniali vinculo conjugatus turrem hanc Beganodunensem proavorum habitaculum longe vetustissimum diu penitus labefectatam Anno aerae vulgaris MDCLXXXVI instauravit.

Quern stabilire juvat proavorum tecta vetusta,
Omne scelus fugiat, justitiamque colat.
Vertit in aerias turres magalia virtus,
Inque casas humiles tecta superba nefas.

M'Leod and Talisker accompanied us. We passed by the parish church of Durinish. The church-yard is not enclosed, but a pretty murmuring brook runs along one side of it. In it is a pyramid erected to the memory of Thomas Lord Lovat, by his son Lord Simon, who suffered on Towerhill. It is of free-stone, and, I suppose, about thirty feet high. There is an inscription on a piece of white marble inserted in it, which I suspect to have been the composition of Lord Lovat himself, being much in his pompous style:

This pyramid was erected by SIMON LORD FRASER of LOVAT in honour of Lord THOMAS his Father, a Peer of Scotland, and Chief of the great and ancient clan of the FRASERS. Being attacked for his birthright by the family of ATHOLL, then in power and favour with KING WILLIAM, yet, by the valour and fidelity of his clan, and the assistance of the CAMPBELLS, the old friends and allies of his family, he defended his birthright with such greatness and fermety of soul, and such valour and activity, that he was an honour to his name, and a good pattern to all brave Chiefs of clans. He died in the month of May, 1699, in the 63d year of his age, in Dunvegan, the house of the LAIRD of MAC LEOD, whose sister he had married: by whom he had the above SIMON LORD FRASER, and several other children. And, for the great love he bore to the family of MAC LEOD, he desired to be buried near his wife's relations, in the place where two of her uncles lay. And his son LORD SIMON, to shew to posterity his great affection for his mother's kindred, the brave MAC LEODS, chooses rather to leave his father's bones with them, than carry them to his own burial-place, near Lovat.

I have preserved this inscription, though of no great value, thinking it characteristical of a man who has made some noise in the world. Dr Johnson said, it was poor stuff, such as Lord Lovat's butler might have written.

I observed, in this church-yard, a parcel of people assembled at a funeral, before the grave was dug. The coffin, with the corpse in it, was placed on the ground, while the people alternately assisted in making a grave. One man, at a little distance, was busy cutting a long turf for it, with the crooked spade which is used in Sky; a very aukward instrument. The iron part of it is like a plough-coulter. It has a rude tree for a handle, in which a wooden pin is placed for the foot to press upon. A traveller might, without further inquiry, have set this down as the mode of burying in Sky. I was told, however, that the usual way is to have a grave previously dug.

I observed to-day, that the common way of carrying home their grain here is in loads on horse-back. They have also a few sleds, or cars, as we call them in Ayrshire, clumsily made, and rarely used.

We got to Ulinish about six o'clock, and found a very good farm-house, of two stories. Mr M'Leod of Ulinish, the sheriff-substitute of the island, was a plain honest gentleman, a good deal like an English justice of peace; not much given to talk, but sufficiently sagacious, and somewhat droll. His daughter, though she was never out of Sky, was a very well-bred woman. Our reverend friend, Mr Donald M'Queen, kept his appointment, and met us here.

Talking of Phipps's voyage to the North Pole, Dr Johnson observed, that it 'was conjectured that our former navigators have kept too near land, and so have found the sea frozen far north, because the land hinders the free motion of the tide; but, in the wide ocean, where the waves tumble at their full convenience, it is imagined that the frost does not take effect'.

Wednesday, 22d September

In the morning I walked out, and saw a ship, the Margaret of Clyde, pass by with a number of emigrants on board. It was a melancholy sight. After breakfast, we went to see what was called a subterraneous house, about a mile off. It was upon the side of a rising-ground. It was discovered by a fox's having taken up his abode in it, and in chasing him, they dug into it. It was very narrow and low, and seemed about forty feet in length. Near it, we found the foundations of several small huts, built of stone. Mr M'Queen, who is always for making every thing as ancient as possible, boasted that it was the dwelling of some of the first inhabitants of the island, and observed, what a curiosity it was to find here a specimen of the houses of the Aborigines, which he believed could be found no where else; and it was plain that they lived without fire. Dr Johnson remarked, that they who made this were not in the rudest state; for that it was more difficult to make it than to build a house; therefore certainly those who made it were in possession of houses, and had this only as a hiding-place. It appeared to me, that the vestiges of houses, just by it, confirmed Dr Johnson's opinion.

From an old tower, near this place, is an extensive view of Loch Braccadil, and, at a distance, of the isles of Barra and South Uist; and on the landside, the Cuillin, a prodigious range of mountains, capped with rocky pinnacles in a strange variety of shapes. They resemble the mountains near Corte in Corsica, of which there is a very good print. They make part of a great range for deer, which, though entirely devoid of trees, is in these countries called a forest.

In the afternoon, Ulinish carried us in his boat to an island possessed by him, where we saw an immense cave, much more deserving the title of antrum immane than that of the Sybil described by Virgil, which I likewise have visited. It is one hundred and eighty feet long, about thirty feet broad, and at least thirty feet high. This cave, we were told, had a remarkable echo; but we found none. They said it was owing to the great rains having made it damp. Such are the excuses by which the exaggeration of Highland narratives is palliated. There is a plentiful garden at Ulinish (a great rarity in Sky), and several trees; and near the house is a hill, which has an Erse name, signifying 'the hill of strife', where, Mr M'Queen informed us, justice was of old administered. It is like the mons placiti of Scone, or those hills which are called laws, such as Kelly law, North Berwick law, and several others. It is singular that this spot should happen now to be the sheriff's residence.

We had a very cheerful evening, and Dr Johnson talked a good deal on the subject of literature. Speaking of the noble family of Boyle, he said, that all the Lord Orrerys, till the present, had been writers. The first wrote several plays; the second was Bentley's antagonist; the third wrote the Life of Swift, and several other things; his son Hamilton wrote some papers in the Adventurer and World. He told us, he was well acquainted with Swift's Lord Orrery. He said, he was a feeble-minded man; that, on the publication of Dr Delany's Remarks on his book, he was so much alarmed that he was afraid to read them. Dr Johnson comforted him, by telling him they were both in the right; that Delany had seen most of the good side of Swift, Lord Orrery most of the bad. M'Leod asked, if it was not wrong in Orrery to expose the defects of a man with whom he lived in intimacy. JOHNSON. 'Why no, sir, after the man is dead; for then it is done historically.' He added, 'If Lord Orrery had been rich, he would have been a very liberal patron. His conversation was like his writings, neat and elegant, but without strength. He grasped at more than his abilities could reach; tried to pass for a better talker, a better writer, and a better thinker than he was. There was a quarrel between him and his father, in which his father was to blame; because it arose from the son's not allowing his wife to keep company with his father's mistress. The old lord shewed his resentment in his will--leaving his library from his son, and assigning, as his reason, that he could not make use of it.'

I mentioned the affectation of Orrery, in ending all his letters on the Life of Swift in studied varieties of phrase, and never in the common mode of 'I am', &. an observation which I remember to have been made several years ago by old Mr Sheridan. This species of affectation in writing, as a foreign lady of distinguished talents once remarked to me, is almost peculiar to the English. I took up a volume of Dryden, containing the Conquest of Granada , and several other plays, of which all the dedications had such studied conclusions. Dr Johnson said, such conclusions were more elegant, and, in addressing persons of high rank (as when Dryden dedicated to the Duke of York), they were likewise more respectful. I agreed that THERE it was much better: it was making his escape from the royal presence with a genteel sudden timidity, in place of having the resolution to stand still, and make a formal bow.

Lord Orrery's unkind treatment of his son in his will, led us to talk of the dispositions a man should have when dying. I said, I did not see why a man should act differently with respect to those of whom he thought ill when in health, merely because he was dying. JOHNSON. 'I should not scruple to speak against a party, when dying; but should not do it against an individual. It is told of Sixtus Quintus, that on his death-bed, in the intervals of his last pangs, he signed death-warrants.' Mr M'Queen said, he should not do so; he would have more tenderness of heart. JOHNSON. 'I believe I should not either; but Mr M'Queen and I are cowards. It would not be from tenderness of heart; for the heart is as tender when a man is in health as when he is sick, though his resolution may be stronger. Sixtus Quintus was a sovereign as well as a priest; and, if the criminals deserved death, he was doing his duty to the last. You would not think a judge died ill, who should be carried off by an apoplectick fit while pronouncing sentence of death. Consider a class of men whose business it is to distribute death: soldiers, who die scattering bullets. Nobody thinks they die ill on that account.'

Talking of biography, he said, he did not think that the life of any literary man in England had been well written. Beside the common incidents of life, it should tell us his studies, his mode of living, the means by which he attained to excellence, and his opinion of his own works. He told us, he had sent Derrick to Dryden's relations, to gather materials for his Life; and he believed Derrick had got all that he himself should have got; but it was nothing. He added, he had a kindness for Derrick, and was sorry he was dead.

His notion as to the poems published by Mr M'Pherson, as the works of Ossian, was not shaken here. Mr M'Queen always evaded the point of authenticity, saying only that Mr M'Pherson's pieces fell far short of those he knew in Erse, which were said to be Ossian's. JOHNSON. 'I hope they do. I am not disputing that you may have poetry of great merit; but that M'Pherson's is not a translation from ancient poetry. You do not believe it. I say before you, you do not believe it, though you are very willing that the world should believe it.' Mr M'Queen made no answer to this. Dr Johnson proceeded, 'I look upon M'Pherson's Fingal to be as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with. Had it been really an ancient work, a true specimen how men thought at that time, it would have been a curiosity of the first rate. As a modern production, it is nothing.' He said, he could never get the meaning of an Erse song explained to him. They told him, the chorus was generally unmeaning. 'I take it,' said he, 'Erse songs are like a song which I remember: it was composed in Queen Elizabeth's time, on the Earl of Essex; and the burthen was

"Radaratoo, radarate, radara tadara tandore."'

'But surely,' said Mr M'Queen, 'there were words to it, which had meaning.' JOHNSON. 'Why, yes, sir, I recollect a stanza, and you shall have it:

"O! then bespoke the prentices all,
Living in London, both proper and tall,
For Essex's sake they would fight all.
Radaratoo, radarate, radara, tadara, tandore."'1

When Mr M'Queen began again to expatiate on the beauty of Ossian's poetry, Dr Johnson entered into no further controversy, but, with a pleasant smile, only cried, 'Ay, ay; Radaratoo, radarate.'

Thursday, 23d September

I took Fingal down to the parlour in the morning, and tried a test proposed by Mr Roderick M'Leod, son to Ulinish. Mr M'Queen had said he had some of the poem in the original. I desired him to mention any passage in the printed book, of which he could repeat the original. He pointed out one in page 50 of the quarto edition, and read the Erse, while Mr Roderick M'Leod and I looked on the English; and Mr M'Leod said, that it was pretty like what Mr M'Queen had recited. But when Mr M'Queen read a description of Cuchullin's sword in Erse, together with a translation of it in English verse, by Sir James Foulis, Mr M'Leod said, that was much more like than Mr M'Pherson's translation of the former passage. Mr M'Queen then repeated in Erse a description of one of the horses in Cuchillin's car. Mr M'Leod said, Mr M'Pherson's English was nothing like it.

When Dr Johnson came down, I told him that I had now obtained some evidence concerning Fingal; for that Mr M'Queen had repeated a passage in the original Erse, which Mr M'Pherson's translation was pretty like; and reminded him that he himself had once said, he did not require Mr M'Pherson's Ossian to be more like the original than Pope's Homer. JOHNSON. 'Well, sir, this is just what I always maintained. He has found names, and stories, and phrases, nay passages in old songs, and with them has blended his own compositions, and so made what he gives to the world as the translation of an ancient poem.' If this was the case, I observed, it was wrong to publish it as a poem in six books. JOHNSON. 'Yes, sir; and to ascribe it to a time too when the Highlanders knew nothing of BOOKS, and nothing of SIX; or perhaps were got the length of counting six. We have been told, by Condamine, of a nation that could count no more than four. This should be told to Monboddo; it would help him. There is as much charity in helping a man down-hill, as in helping him up-hill.' BOSWELL. 'I don't think there is as much charity.' JOHNSON. 'Yes, sir, if his TENDENCY be downwards. Till he is at the bottom, he flounders; get him once there, and he is quiet. Swift tells, that Stella had a trick, which she learned from Addison, of encouraging a man in absurdity, instead of endeavouring to extricate him.'

Mr M'Queen's answers to the inquiries concerning Ossian were so unsatisfactory, that I could not help observing, that, were he examined in a court of justice, he would find himself under a necessity of being more explicit. JOHNSON. 'Sir, he has told Blair a little too much, which is published; and he sticks to it. He is so much at the head of things here, that he has never been accustomed to be closely examined; and so he goes on quite smoothly.' BOSWELL. 'He has never had any body to work him.' JOHNSON. 'No, sir; and a man is seldom disposed to work himself; though he ought to work himself, to be sure.' Mr M'Queen made no reply.2

Having talked of the strictness with which witnesses are examined in courts of justice, Dr Johnson told us, that Garrick, though accustomed to face multitudes, when produced as a witness in Westminster Hall, was so disconcerted by a new mode of publick appearance, that he could not understand what was asked. It was a cause where an actor claimed a free benefit; that is to say, a benefit without paying the expence of the house; but the meaning of the term was disputed. Garrick was asked, 'Sir, have you a free benefit?' 'Yes.' 'Upon what terms have you it?' 'Upon...the terms...of ...a FREE BENEFIT.' He was dismissed as one from whom no information could be obtained. Dr Johnson is often too hard on our friend Mr Garrick. When I asked him, why he did not mention him in the Preface to his Shakspeare, he said, 'Garrick has been liberally paid for any thing he has done for Shakspeare. If I should praise him, I should much more praise the nation who paid him. He has not made Shakspeare better known;3 he cannot illustrate Shakspeare: So I have reasons enough against mentioning him, were reasons necessary. There should be reasons FOR it.' I spoke of Mrs Montague's very high praises of Garrick. JOHNSON. 'Sir, it is fit she should say so much, and I should say nothing. Reynolds is fond of her book, and I wonder at it; for neither I, nor Beauclerk, nor Mrs Thrale, could get through it.'4

Last night Dr Johnson gave us an account of the whole process of tanning, and of the nature of milk, and the various operations upon it, as making whey, &. His variety of information is surprizing; and it gives one much satisfaction to find such a man bestowing his attention on the useful arts of life. Ulinish was much struck with his knowledge; and said, 'He is a great orator, sir; it is musick to hear this man speak.' A strange thought struck me, to try if he knew any thing of an art, or whatever it should be called, which is no doubt very useful in life, but which lies far out of the way of a philosopher and poet; I mean the trade of a butcher. I enticed him into the subject, by connecting it with the various researches into the manners and customs of uncivilized nations, that have been made by our late navigators into the South Seas. I began with observing, that Mr (now Sir Joseph) Banks tells us, that the art of slaughtering animals was not known in Otaheite, for, instead of bleeding to death their dogs (a common food with them), they strangle them. This he told me himself; and I supposed that their hogs were killed in the same way. Dr Johnson said, 'This must be owing to their not having knives, though they have sharp stones with which they can cut a carcase in pieces tolerably.' By degrees, he shewed that he knew something even of butchery. 'Different animals,' said he, 'are killed differently. An ox is knocked down, and a calf stunned; but a sheep has its throat cut, without any thing being done to stupify it. The butchers have no view to the ease of the animals, but only to make them quiet, for their own safety and convenience. A sheep can give them little trouble. Hales is of opinion, that every animal should be blooded, without having any blow given to it, because it bleeds better.' BOSWELL. 'That would be cruel.' JOHNSON. 'No, sir; there is not much pain, if the jugular vein be properly cut.' Pursuing the subject, he said, the kennels of Southwark ran with blood two or three days in the week; that he was afraid there were slaughter-houses in more streets in London than one supposes (speaking with a kind of horrour of butchering), and yet, he added, 'any of us would kill a cow, rather than not have beef.' I said we COULD not. 'Yes,' said he, 'any one may. The business of a butcher is a trade indeed, that is to say, there is an apprenticeship served to it; but it may be learnt in a month.'

I mentioned a club in London, at the Boar's Head in Eastcheap, the very tavern where Falstaff and his joyous companions met; the members of which all assume Shakspeare's characters. One is Falstaff, another Prince Henry, another Bardolph, and so on. JOHNSON. 'Don't be of it, sir. Now that you have a name, you must be careful to avoid many things, not bad in themselves, but which will lessen your character.5 This every man who has a name must observe. A man who is not publickly known may live in London as he pleases, without any notice being taken of him; but it is wonderful how a person of any consequence is watched. There was a Member of Parliament, who wanted to prepare himself to speak on a question that was to come in the House; and he and I were to talk it over together. He did not wish it should be known that he talked with me; so he would not let me come to his house, but came to mine. Some time after he had made his speech in the house, Mrs Cholmondeley, a very airy lady, told me, "Well, you could make nothing of him!" naming the gentleman, which was a proof that he was watched. I had once some business to do for government, and I went to Lord North's. Precaution was taken that it should not be known. It was dark before I went; yet a few days after I was told, "Well, you have been with Lord North." That the door of the Prime Minister should be watched, is not strange; but that a Member of Parliament should be watched, or that my door should be watched, is wonderful.'

We set out this morning on our way to Talisker, in Ulinish's boat, having taken leave of him and his family. Mr Donald M'Queen still favoured us with his company, for which we were much obliged to him. As we sailed along Dr Johnson got into one of his fits of railing at the Scots. He owned that they had been a very learned nation for a hundred years, from about 1550 to about 1650; but that they afforded the only instance of a people among whom the arts of civil life did not advance in proportion with learning; that they had hardly any trade, any money, or any elegance, before the Union; that it was strange that, with all the advantages possessed by other nations, they had not any of those conveniences and embellishments which are the fruit of industry, till they came in contact with a civilized people. 'We have taught you,' said he, 'and we'll do the same in time to all barbarous nations, to the Cherokees, and at last to the Ouran- Outangs'; laughing with as much glee as if Monboddo had been present. BOSWELL. 'We had wine before the Union.' JOHNSON. 'No, sir; you had some weak stuff, the refuse of France, which would not make you drunk.' BOSWELL. 'I assure you, sir, there was a great deal of drunkenness.' JOHNSON. 'No, sir; there were people who died of dropsies, which they contracted in trying to get drunk.'

I must here gleen some of his conversation at Ulinish, which I have omitted. He repeated his remark, that a man in a ship was worse than a man in a jail. 'The man in a jail,' said he, 'has more room, better food, and commonly better company, and is in safety.' 'Ay; but,' said Mr M'Queen, 'the man in the ship has the pleasing hope of getting to shore.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, I am not talking of a man's getting to shore; but a man while he is in a ship: and then, I say, he is worse than a man while he is in a jail. A man in a jail MAY have the "pleasing hope" of getting out. A man confined for only a limited time, actually HAS it.' M'Leod mentioned his schemes for carrying on fisheries with spirit, and that he would wish to understand the construction of boats. I suggested that he might go to a dock-yard and work, as Peter the Great did. JOHNSON. 'Nay, sir, he need not work. Peter the Great had not the sense to see that the mere mechanical work may be done by any body, and that there is the same art in constructing a vessel, whether the boards are well or ill wrought. Sir Christopher Wren might as well have served his time to a bricklayer, and first, indeed, to a brick-maker.'

There is a beautiful little island in the Loch of Dunvegan, called Isa. M'Leod said, he would give it to Dr Johnson, on condition of his residing on it three months in the year; nay one month. Dr Johnson was highly amused with the fancy. I have seen him please himself with little things, even with mere ideas like the present. He talked a great deal of this island--how he would build a house there, how he would fortify it, how he would have cannon, how he would plant, how he would sally out and TAKE the isle of Muck; and then he laughed with uncommon glee, and could hardly leave off. I have seen him do so at a small matter that struck him, and was a sport to no one else. Mr Langton told me, that one night he did so while the company were all grave about him: only Garrick, in his significant smart manner, darting his eyes around, exclaimed, 'VERY jocose, to be sure!' M'Leod encouraged the fancy of Dr Johnson's becoming owner of an island; told him, that it was the practice in this country to name every man by his lands; and begged leave to drink to him in that mode: 'Island Isa, your health!' Ulinish, Talisker, Mr M'Queen, and I, all joined in our different manners, while Dr Johnson bowed to each, with much good humour.

We had good weather, and a fine sail this day. The shore was varied with hills, and rocks, and corn-fields, and bushes, which are here dignified with the name of natural wood. We landed near the house of Ferneley, a farm possessed by another gentleman of the name of M'Leod, who, expecting our arrival, was waiting on the shore, with a horse for Dr Johnson. The rest of us walked. At dinner, I expressed to M'Leod the joy which I had in seeing him on such cordial terms with his clan. 'Government,' said he, 'has deprived us of our ancient power; but it cannot deprive us of our domestick satisfactions. I would rather drink punch in one of their houses' (meaning the houses of his people) 'than be enabled by their hardships, to have claret in my own.' This should be the sentiment of every chieftain. All that he can get by raising his rents, is more luxury in his own house. Is it not better to share the profits of his estate, to a certain degree, with his kinsmen, and thus have both social intercourse and patriarchal influence?

We had a very good ride, for about three miles, to Talisker, where Colonel M'Leod introduced us to his lady. We found here Mr Donald M'Lean, the young Laird of Coll (nephew to Talisker), to whom I elivered the letter with which I had been favoured by his uncle, Professor M'Leod, at Aberdeen. He was a little lively young man. We found he had been a good deal in England, studying farming, and was resolved to improve the value of his father's lands, without oppressing his tenants, or losing the ancient Highland fashions.

Talisker is a better place than one commonly finds in Sky. It is situated in a rich bottom. Before it is a wide expanse of sea, on each hand of which are immense rocks; and, at some distance in the sea, there are three columnal rocks rising to sharp points. The billows break with prodigious force and noise on the coast of Talisker. There are here a good many well-grown trees. Talisker is an extensive farm. The possessor of it has, for several generations, been the next heir to M'Leod, as there has been but one son always in that family. The court before the house is most injudiciously paved with the round blueish-grey pebbles which are found upon the sea-shore; so that you walk as if upon cannon-balls driven into the ground.

After supper, I talked of the assiduity of the Scottish clergy, in visiting and privately instructing their parishioners, and observed how much in this they excelled the English clergy. Dr Johnson would not let this pass. He tried to turn it off, by saying, 'There are different ways of instructing. Our clergy pray and preach.' M'Leod and I pressed the subject, upon which he grew warm, and broke forth: 'I do not believe your people are better instructed. If they are, it is the blind leading the blind; for your clergy are not instructed themselves.' Thinking he had gone a little too far, he checked himself, and added, 'When I talk of the ignorance of your clergy, I talk of them as a body: I do not mean that there are not individuals who are learned' (looking at Mr M'Queen). 'I suppose there are such among the clergy in Muscovy. The clergy of England have produced the most valuable books in support of religion, both in theory and practice. What have your clergy done, since you sunk into presbyterianism? Can you name one book of any value, on a religious subject, written by them?' We were silent. 'I'll help you. Forbes wrote very well; but I believe he wrote before episcopacy was quite extinguished.' And then pausing a little, he said, 'Yes, you have Wishart against Repentance.'6 BOSWELL. 'But, sir, we are not contending for the superior learning of our clergy, but for their superior assiduity.' He bore us down again, with thundering against their ignorance, and said to me, 'I see you have not been well taught; for you have not charity.' He had been in some measure forced into this warmth, by the exulting air which I assumed; for, when he began, he said, 'Since you will drive the nail!' He again thought of good Mr M'Queen, and, taking him by the hand, said, 'Sir, I did not mean any disrespect to you.'

Here I must observe, that he conquered by deserting his ground, and not meeting the argument as I had put it. The assiduity of the Scottish clergy is certainly greater than that of the English. His taking up the topick of their not having so much learning, was, though ingenious, yet a fallacy in logick. It was as if there should be a dispute whether a man's hair is well dressed, and Dr Johnson should say, 'Sir, his hair cannot be well dressed; for he has a dirty shirt. No man who has not clean linen has his hair well dressed.' When some days afterwards he read this passage, he said, 'No, sir; I did not say that a man's hair could not be well dressed because he has not clean linen, but because he is bald.'

He used one argument against the Scottish clergy being learned, which I doubt was not good. 'As we believe a man dead till we know that he is alive; so we believe men ignorant till we know that they are learned.' Now our maxim in law is, to presume a man alive, till we know he is dead. However, indeed, it may be answered, that we must first know he has lived; and that we have never known the learning of the Scottish clergy. Mr M'Queen, though he was of opinion that Dr Johnson had deserted the point really in dispute, was much pleased with what he said, and owned to me, he thought it very just; and Mrs M'Leod was so much captivated by his eloquence, that she told me 'I was a good advocate for a bad cause.'

Friday, 24th September

This was a good day. Dr Johnson told us, at breakfast, that he rode harder at a fox chase than any body. 'The English,' said he, 'are the only nation who ride hard a-hunting. A Frenchman goes out upon a managed horse, and capers in the field, and no more thinks of leaping a hedge than of mounting a breach. Lord Powerscourt laid a wager, in France, that he would ride a great many miles in a certain short time. The French academicians set to work, and calculated that, from the resistance of the air, it was impossible. His lordship however performed it.'

Our money being nearly exhausted, we sent a bill for thirty pounds, drawn on Sir William Forbes and Co. to Lochbraccadale, but our messenger found it very difficult to procure cash for it; at length, however, he got us value from the master of a vessel which was to carry away some emigrants. There is a great scarcity of specie in Sky. Mr M'Queen said he had the utmost difficulty to pay his servants' wages, or to pay for any little thing which he has to buy. The rents are paid in bills, which the drovers give. The people consume a vast deal of snuff and tobacco, for which they must pay ready money; and pedlers, who come about selling goods, as there is not a shop in the island, carry away the cash. If there were encouragement given to fisheries and manufacturers, there might be a circulation of money introduced. I got one-and-twenty shillings in silver at Portree, which was thought a wonderful store.

Talisker, Mr M'Queen, and I, walked out, and looked at no less than fifteen different waterfalls near the house, in the space of about a quarter of a mile. We also saw Cuchullin's well, said to have been the favourite spring of that ancient hero. I drank of it. The water is admirable. On the shore are many stones full of crystallizations in the heart.

Though our obliging friend, Mr M'Lean, was but the young laird, he had the title of Col constantly given him. After dinner he and I walked to the top of Prieshwell, a very high rocky hill, from whence there is a view of Barra, the Long Island, Bernera, the Loch of Dunvegan, part of Rum, part of Rasay, and a vast deal of the isle of Sky. Col, though he had come into Sky with an intention to be at Dunvegan, and pass a considerable time in the island, most politely resolved first to conduct us to Mull, and then to return to Sky. This was a very fortunate circumstance; for he planned an expedition for us of more variety than merely going to Mull. He proposed we should flee the islands of Egg, Muck, Coll, and Tyr-yi. In all these islands he could shew us every thing worth seeing; and in Mull he said he should be as if at home, his father having lands there, and he a farm.

Dr Johnson did not talk much to-day, but seemed intent in listening to the schemes of future excursion, planned by Col. Dr Birch, however, being mentioned, he said, he had more anecdotes than any man. I said, Percy had a great many; that he flowed with them like one of the brooks here. JOHNSON. 'If Percy is like one of the brooks here. Birch was like the river Thames. Birch excelled Percy in that, as much as Percy excels Goldsmith.' I mentioned Lord Hailes as a man of anecdote. He was not pleased with him, for publishing only such memorials and letters as were unfavourable for the Stuart family. 'If,' said he, 'a man fairly warns you, "I am to give all the ill; do you find the good", he may: but if the object which he professes be to give a view of a reign, let him tell all the truth. I would tell truth of the two Georges, or of that scoundrel, King William. Granger's Biographical History is full of curious anecdote, but might have been better done. The dog is a Whig. I do not like much to see a Whig in any dress; but I hate to see a Whig in a parson's gown.'

1 This droll quotation, I have since found, was from a song in honour of the Earl of Essex, called 'Queen Elizabeth's Champion', which is preserved in a collection of Old Ballads, in three volumes, published in London in different years, between 1720 and 1730. The full verse is as follows:

Oh! then bespoke the prentices all,
Living in London, both proper and tall,
In a kind letter sent straight to the Queen,
For Essex's sake they would fight all.
Raderer too, tandaro te,
Raderer, tenderer, tan do re.

2 I think it but justice to say, that I believe Dr Johnson meant to ascribe Mr M'Queen's conduct to inaccuracy and enthusiasm, and did not mean any severe imputation against him.

3 It has been triumphantly asked, 'Had not the plays of Shakspeare lain dormant for many years before the appearance of Mr Garrick? Did he not exhibit the most excellent of them frequently for thirty years together, and render them extremely popular by his own inimitable performance?' He undoubtedly did. But Dr Johnson's assertion has been misunderstood. Knowing as well as the objectors what has been just stated, he must necessarily have meant, that 'Mr Garrick did not as A CRITICK make Shakspeare better known; he did not ILLUSTRATE any one PASSAGE in any of his plays by acuteness of disquisition, sagacity of conjecture:' and what had been done with any degree of excellence in THAT way was the proper and immediate subject of his preface. I may add in support of this explanation the following anecdote, related to me by one of the ablest commentators on Shakspeare, who knew much of Dr Johnson: 'Now I have quitted the theatre,' cries Garrick, 'I will sit down and read Shakspeare.' ''Tis time you should,' exclaimed Johnson, 'for I much doubt if you ever examined one of his plays from the first scene to the last.'

4 No man has less inclination to controversy than I have, particularly with a lady. But as I have claimed, and am conscious of being entitled to, credit, for the strictest fidelity, my respect for the publick obliges me to take notice of an insinuation which tends to impeach it.

Mrs Piozzi (late Mrs Thrale), to her Anecdotes of Dr Johnson, added the following postscript:

Naples, Feb. 10, 1786.

Since the foregoing went to the press, having seen a passage from Mr Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides, in which it is said, that I could not get through Mrs Montague's Essay on Shakspeare, I do not delay a moment to declare, that, on the contrary, I have always commended it myself, and heard it commended by every one else; and few things would give me more concern than to be thought incapable of tasting, or unwilling to testify my opinion of its excellence.

It is remarkable that this postscript is so expressed, as not to point out the person who said that Mrs Thrale could not get through Mrs Montague's book; and therefore I think it necessary to remind Mrs Piozzi, that the assertion concerning her was Dr Johnson's, and not mine. The second observation that I shall make on this postscript is, that it does not deny the fact asserted, though I must acknowledge from the praise it bestows on Mrs Montague's book, it may have been designed to convey that meaning.

What Mrs Thrale's opinion is or was, or what she may or may not have said to Dr Johnson concerning Mrs Montague's book, it is not necessary for me to inquire. It is only incumbent on me to ascertain what Dr Johnson said to me. I shall therefore confine myself to a very short state of the fact.

The unfavourable opinion of Mrs Montague's book, which Dr Johnson is here reported to have given, is known to have been that which is uniformly expressed, as many of his friends well remember. So much for the authenticity of the paragraph, as far as it relates to his own sentiments. The words containing the assertion, to which Mrs Piozzi objects, are printed from my manuscript Journal, and were taken down at the time. The Journal was read by Dr Johnson, who pointed out some inaccuracies, which I corrected, but did not mention any inaccuracy in the paragraph in question: and what is still more material, and very flattering to me, a considerable part of my Journal, containing this paragraph, WAS READ SEVERAL YEARS AGO BY MRS THRALE HERSELF, who had it for some time in her possession, and returned it to me, without intimating that Dr Johnson had mistaken her sentiments.

When the first edition of my Journal was passing through the press, it occurred to me, that a peculiar delicacy was necessary to be observed in reporting the opinion of one literary lady concerning the performance of another; and I had such scruples on that head, that in the proof sheet I struck out the name of Mrs Thrale from the above paragraph, and two or three hundred copies of my book were actually printed and published without it; of these Sir Joshua Reynolds's copy happened to be one. But while the sheet was working off, a friend, for whose opinion I have great respect, suggested that I had no right to deprive Mrs Thrale of the high honour which Dr Johnson had done her, by stating her opinion along with that of Mr Beauclerk, as coinciding with, and, as it were, sanctioning his own. The observation appeared to me so weighty and conclusive, that I hastened to the printing house, and, as a piece of justice, restored Mrs Thrale to that place from which a too scrupulous delicacy had excluded her.

On this simple state of facts I shall make no observation whatever.

5 I do not see why I might not have been of this club without lessening my character. But Dr Johnson's caution against supposing one's self concealed in London, may be very useful to prevent some people from doing many things, not only foolish, but criminal.

6 This was a dexterous mode of description, for the purpose of his argument; for what he alluded to was, a sermon published by the learned Dr William Wishart, formerly principal of the college at Edinburgh, to warn men AGAINST confiding in a death-bed REPENTANCE, of the inefficacy of which he entertained notions very different from those of Dr Johnson.

James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (Oxford, Mississippi, 2004)

Next Selection Previous Selection