Category Archives: James Boswell

They’ve Been in Scotland Afore Ye

This weekend Dr. B., an old friend of mine who is now a university professor, is flying over from Scotland.  He will be speaking at a literary and film conference next week in Virginia. We have not seen each other in eight years, so there is a great deal of chattering on the agenda. I am lucky in that, whatever we do not finish discussing this weekend, we will be able to finish up weekend when he returns to DC for the weekend, before heading back across the pond.

Dr. B. and I have always discussed the possibility of someday taking the Camino de Santiago together, with the idea of producing a co-authored travel narrative.  We would keep separate journals of our impressions and thoughts along the way, and then exchange these at the conclusion of our trip.  And who knows? Perhaps there will be a publishable book in it.

For those who have never heard of the Camino, it is the ancient pilgrimage route to the tomb of St. James the Apostle in Compostela, in NW Spain. From the early medieval period onward, it has been one of the great pilgrimage destinations of Christendom.  There are several different routes one can take, depending on the starting point, that vary considerably in length.  I am a devout Catholic,  while Dr. B. is not of any particular religious affinity: however, as we are both fluent in Spanish, and love the history and culture of the Iberian Peninsula, it would be an interesting journey to take together, and see how we each react to the same set of circumstances.

Although it is extremely presumptuous to make this comparison, and admittedly Dr. B.’s flight over from Scotland puts me in mind of it, the idea of a pair of opposites taking a journey together and writing about the experience is reminiscent of the trip which James Boswell and Dr. Samuel Johnson took together in 1773. The men visited the Highlands and the islands of the Scottish Hebrides over the course of nearly 3 months, and wrote separately on their sometimes harrowing experiences. One thing which comes shining through in their writing however, and particularly in Boswell’s account of the journey, was that despite the difficulties of travel in the 18th century, they had a great deal of fun together.

Reading their separate accounts of the same event reveals a great deal about them both, in terms of their friendship as well as how they each perceived the world as individuals.  For example, in August 1773, the two were exploring the area around Loch Ness. They stopped by the hut of an elderly peasant woman, so that Dr. Johnson could see how the local people lived. His account of what he saw is straightfoward, and almost anthropological in tone:

When we entered, we found an old woman boiling goats-flesh in a kettle. She spoke little English, but we had interpreters at hand; and she was willing enough to display her whole system of economy. She has five children, of which none are yet gone from her. The eldest, a boy of thirteen, and her husband, who is eighty years old, were at work in the wood. Her two next sons were gone to Inverness to buy meal, by which oatmeal is always meant. Meal she considered as expensive food, and told us, that in Spring, when the goats gave milk, the children could live without it. She is mistress of sixty goats, and I saw many kids in an enclosure at the end of her house. She had also some poultry. By the lake we saw a potato-garden, and a small spot of ground on which stood four shucks, containing each twelve sheaves of barley. She has all this from the labour of their own hands, and for what is necessary to be bought, her kids and her chickens are sent to market.

With the true pastoral hospitality, she asked us to sit down and drink whiskey. She is religious, and though the kirk is four miles off, probably eight English miles, she goes thither every Sunday. We gave her a shilling, and she begged snuff; for snuff is the luxury of a Highland cottage.

Boswell, on the other hand, is not as interested in the life and habits of the Scottish peasantry, so much as he is in the opinions and reactions of his friend. This is very true in his biography of Dr. Johnson, but also the visit to this hut proved no exception. As was often the case during the course of their friendship, Boswell found a way to make Johnson laugh:

Dr Johnson was curious to know where she slept. I asked one of the guides, who questioned her in Erse [i.e., Scottish Gaelic]. She answered with a tone of emotion, saying (as he told us) she was afraid we wanted to go to bed with her. This coquetry, or whatever it may be called, of so wretched a being, was truly ludicrous. Dr Johnson and I afterwards were merry upon it. I said, it was he who alarmed the poor woman’s virtue. ‘No, sir,’ said he, ‘she’ll say, ‘There came a wicked young fellow, a wild dog, who I believe would have ravished me, had there not been with him a grave old gentleman, who repressed him: but when he gets out of the sight of his tutor, I’ll warrant you he’ll spare no woman he meets, young or old.’ ‘No, sir,’ I replied, ‘she’ll say, “There was a terrible ruffian who would have forced me, had it not been for a civil decent young man who, I take it, was an angel sent from heaven to protect me.”‘

Such contrasting accounts of shared experiences pepper these two books, and this example is by no means the end of their shared sense of humor. The two accounts are usually printed together in a single volume, so one can flip back and forth to see what each writer was thinking on the same day. For my readers who are not quite ready to tackle Boswell’s monumental biography of his friend, this travelogue may prove a good appetizer, by which you will be able to determine whether you would enjoy moving on to the main course.

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Filed under biography, Camino de Santiago, Dr. Johnson, James Boswell, literature, Scotland, travel, writing