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James Boswell's Scotland

The author of the Life of Samuel Johnson spent much of his own life trying to escape the country of his birth

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Today Edinburgh is a bustling modern city with a population of 448,000. As my train pulled into Waverley Station, I craned my neck to see the castle still perched majestically on its cliffside high above the tracks. From the station a taxi took me up a steep slope to the Royal Mile. Despite the traffic and the tourist shops, the cobblestone street and its stolid, stone-faced buildings retained an unmistakable 18th-century flavor.

Boswell’s birthplace burned down long ago, but other landmarks remain. I visited Parliament House, opened in 1639 and still the seat for the country’s supreme civil court. The exterior was redone in the 1800s, but inside the lofty Parliament Hall, I watched advocates in black gowns and white wigs pace up and down as they talked with clients beneath a magnificent arched-timber ceiling, just as they did in Boswell’s day. He often pleaded for his own clients in this hall; on many occasions the presiding judge was his father. Across the square from Parliament House, I admired the High Kirk of St. Giles, a massive, brooding presence capped by buttresses that form a gothic crown. This had been Boswell’s church, one he connected with his pious mother as well as “the dreary terrors of hell.”

The Boswells stayed in Edinburgh when the court was in session. In the spring and summer, they lived at their country estate 60 miles away. Auchinleck, a 20,000-acre holdover from feudal times, also provided homes for about 100 tenant farmers. Named after a previous owner, it had been in the Boswell family since 1504. Young James enjoyed riding with his father, planting trees and playing with the gardener’s daughter, for whom he developed a mad passion. “Auchinleck is a most sweet, romantic Place,” he wrote to a friend. “There is a vast deal of Wood and Water, fine retired shady walks, and every thing that can render the Countrey agreable to contemplative minds.” After Alexander Boswell became a judge at 46, earning the honorary title Lord Auchinleck, he built a fancy new home at his estate. Above the main entrance, he inscribed a quote from Horace: “What you seek is here in this remote place; if you can only keep a balanced disposition”—words he may have meant for his increasingly wayward eldest son.

Early on, James had served notice that he was not cut out to follow in his father’s strait-laced footsteps. Scots are well known for being torn between dour conformity and impetuous rebelliousness, a contradiction emphatically personified by Boswell father and son. When James was 18, he developed a passion for the theater and fell for an actress a good ten years older. After Lord Auchinleck banished him to the University of Glasgow, Boswell, still under the spell of his Catholic mistress, decided to convert—tantamount to career suicide in Presbyterian Scotland—and ran away to London. There he lost interest in Catholicism, caught a venereal disease and decided he wanted to be a soldier.

Lord Auchinleck fetched his son home, and there they made a deal: Boswell could seek a military commission, but first he had to study law. After chafing for two years under his father’s oppressive supervision, Boswell returned to London in 1762, intending to fulfill his military dreams. Abookseller there introduced him to Samuel Johnson, then 53 and already a formidable literary figure, who made no secret of his contempt for Scots. “Indeed I come from Scotland but I cannot help it,” Boswell stammered. To which Johnson growled: “That, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen can not help.”

It was a rocky start to what would eventually become the most famous friendship in English letters. Irma Lustig, who edited two volumes of Boswell’s journals for Yale University Press, believes Lord Auchinleck’s harshness created in his son “an insatiable need for attention and approval,” and in Johnson, almost 32 years his senior, Boswell found an answer to that need. When Boswell “opened his heart,” as biographer Frederick Pottle puts it, and told Johnson the story of his life, Johnson was charmed.

Lord Auchinleck was anything but charmed. He threatened to sell Auchinleck if James didn’t settle down, “from the principle that it is better to snuff a candle out than leave it to stink in a socket.” Knuckling under, Boswell went to Holland to continue studying law, then embarked on a postgrad grand tour of the Continent, determined to meet the leading men of his day. Though he failed to obtain an audience with Frederick the Great of Prussia, in Switzerland the brash young Scot wangled an invitation to visit philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, and in France he engaged Voltaire in a debate about religion. “For a . . . time there was a fair opposition between Voltaire and Boswell,” he noted with satisfaction.

While in Rome, Boswell posed for a painting by George Willison, which I found in Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery. There he was at age 24, round-faced with slight circles under his eyes and the faint suggestion of a smile on his plump lips. He wore a dandyish scarlet-and-yellow waistcoat beneath a green, fur-trimmed coat; lace peeked out from his cuffs. Above him, an owl perched absurdly on a branch. Somehow the painter captured the mixture of silliness and self-importance that made Boswell so engaging.

On the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Boswell got to know Pasquale Paoli, the charismatic patriot leading an insurgency against the Genoese, who then ruled the island. In Paris he learned of his mother’s death and departed for Scotland (en route, Boswell noted in his journal, he and Rousseau’s mistress had sex 13 times in 11 days). His first important book, An Account of Corsica (1768), celebrated Paoli. To Britons of the day, Corsica was an exotic and romantic destination, and Boswell’s breezy travelogue made him a minor celebrity known as “Corsica Boswell.” Nevertheless, he kept his word to his father and began practicing law. “[He] was a professional writer,” notes Irma Lustig, “but he was not, like Johnson, a writer by profession.”

After entertaining a number of matrimonial schemes involving wealthy women, Boswell again infuriated his father by marrying a poor cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, who was two years older. The couple rented an apartment from the philosopher David Hume at James’s Court, a fashionable Edinburgh address just off the Royal Mile.

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