Journal Of A Tour To The Hebrides With Samuel Johnson

Monday, 16th August

Dr William Robertson came to breakfast. We talked of Ogden on Prayer. Dr Johnson said, ‘The same arguments which are used against God’s hearing prayer, will serve against his rewarding good, and punishing evil. He has resolved, he has declared, in the former case as in the latter.’ He had last night looked into Lord Hailes’s Remarks on the History of Scotland. Dr Robertson and I said, it was a pity Lord Hailes did not write greater things. His lordship had not then published his Annals of Scotland. JOHNSON. ‘I remember I was once on a visit at the house of a lady for whom I had a high respect. There was a good deal of company in the room. When they were gone, I said to this lady, “What foolish talking have we had!” “Yes,” said she, “but while they talked, you said nothing.” I was struck with reproof. How much better is the man who does nothing. Besides, I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made. If a man is to wait till he weaves anecdotes into a system, we may be long in getting them, and get but a few, in comparison of what we might get.’

Dr Robertson said, the notions of Eupham Macallan. a fanatick woman, of whom Lord Hailes gives a sketch, were still prevalent among some of the Presbyterians; and therefore it was right in Lord Hailes, a man of known piety, to undeceive them.

We walked out, that Dr Johnson might see some of the things which we have to shew at Edinburgh. We went to the Parliament House, where the Parliament of Scotland sat, and where the Ordinary Lords of Session hold their courts; and to the New Session House adjoining to it, where our Court of Fifteen (the fourteen Ordinaries, with the Lord President at their head) sit as a court of Review. We went to the Advocates’ Library, of which Dr Johnson took a cursory view, and then to what is called the Laigh (or Under) Parliament House, where the records of Scotland, which has an universal security by register, are deposited, till the great Register Office be finished. I was pleased to behold Dr Samuel Johnson rolling about in this old magazine of antiquities. There was, by this time, a pretty numerous circle of us attending upon him. Somebody talked of happy moments for composition; and how a man can write at one time, and not at another. ‘Nay,’ said Dr Johnson, ‘a man may write at any time, if he will set himself DOGGEDLY [Footnote: This word is commonly used to signify sullenly, gloomily: and in that sense alone it appears in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary. I suppose he meant by it ‘with an OBSTINATE RESOLUTION, similar to that of a sullen man’.] to it.’

I here began to indulge old Scottish sentiments, and to express a warm regret, that, by our union with England, we were no more–our independent kingdom was lost. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, never talk of your independency, who could let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity, and then be put to death, without even a pretence of justice, without your ever attempting to rescue her; and such a Queen too! as every man of any gallantry of spirit would have sacrificed his life for.’ Worthy MR JAMES KERR, Keeper of the Records. ‘Half our nation was bribed by English money.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, that is no defence: that makes you worse.’ Good MR BROWN, Keeper of the Advocates Library. ‘We had better say nothing about it.’ BOSWELL. ‘You would have been glad, however, to have had us last war, sir, to fight your battles!’ JOHNSON. ‘We should have had you for the same price, though there had been no Union, as we might have had Swiss, or other troops. No, no, I shall agree to a separation. You have only to GO HOME.’ Just as he had said this, I to divert the subject, shewed him the signed assurances of the three successive Kings of the Hanover family, to maintain the Presbyterian establishment in Scotland. ‘We’ll give you that,’ said he, ‘into the bargain.’

We next went to the great church of St Giles, which has lost its original magnificence in the inside, by being divided into four places of Presbyterian worship. ‘Come,’ said Dr Johnson jocularly to Principal Robertson, [Footnote: I have hitherto called him Dr William Robertson, to distinguish him from Dr James Robertson, who is soon to make his appearance. But ‘Principal’, from his being the head of our college, is his usual designation, and is shorter; so I shall use it hereafter.] ‘let me see what was once a church!’ We entered that division which was formerly called the New Church, and of late the High Church, so well known by the eloquence of Dr Hugh Blair. It is now very elegantly fitted up; but it was then shamefully dirty. Dr Johnson said nothing at the time; but when we came to the great door of the Royal Infirmary, where, upon a board, was this inscription, CLEAN YOUR FEET! he turned about slyly, and said, ‘There is no occasion for putting this at the doors of your churches!’

We then conducted him down the Post-house stairs, Parliament Close, and made him look up from the Cow-gate to the highest building in Edinburgh (from which he had just descended), being thirteen floors or stories from the ground upon the back elevation; the front wall being built upon the edge of the hill, and the back wall rising from the bottom of the hill several stories before it comes to a level with the front wall. We proceeded to the College, with the Principal at our head. Dr Adam Fergusson, whose Essay on the History of Civil Society gives him a respectable place in the ranks of literature, was with us. As the College buildings are indeed very mean, the Principal said to Dr Johnson, that he must give them the same epithet that a Jesuit did when shewing a poor college abroad: Hae miseriae nostrae. Dr Johnson was, however, much pleased with the library, and with the conversation of Dr James Robertson, Professor of Oriental Languages, the Librarian. We talked of Kennicot’s edition of the Hebrew Bible, and hoped it would be quite faithful. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I know not any crime so great that a man could contrive to commit, as poisoning the sources of eternal truth.’

I pointed out to him where there formerly stood an old wall enclosing part of the college, which I remember bulged out in a threatening manner, and of which there was a common tradition similar to that concerning Bacon’s study at Oxford, that it would fall upon some very learned man. It had some time before this been taken down, that the street might be widened, and a more convenient wall built. Dr Johnson, glad of an opportunity to have a pleasant hit at Scottish learning, said, ‘they have been afraid it never would fall’.

We shewed him the Royal Infirmary, for which, and for every other exertion of generous publick spirit in his power, that noble-minded citizen of Edinburgh, George Drummond, will be ever held in honourable remembrance. And we were too proud not to carry him to the Abbey of Holyrood House, that beautiful piece of architecture, but, alas! that deserted mansion of royalty, which Hamilton of Bangour, in one of his elegant poems, calls

A virtuous palace, where no monarch dwells.

I was much entertained while Principal Robertson fluently harangued to Dr Johnson, upon the spot, concerning scenes of his celebrated History of Scotland. We surveyed that part of the palace appropriated to the Duke of Hamilton, as Keeper, in which our beautiful Queen Mary lived, and in which David Rizzio was murdered; and also the State Rooms. Dr Johnson was a great reciter of all sorts of things serious or comical. I over-heard him repeating here, in a kind of muttering tone, a line of the old ballad, ‘Johnny Armstrong’s Last Good-Night’:

‘And ran him through the fair body!’ [Footnote: The stanza from which he took this line is: But then rose up all Edinburgh, They rose up by thousands three; A cowardly Scot came John behind, And ran him through the fair body!]

We returned to my house, where there met him, at dinner, the Duchess of Douglas, Sir Adolphus Oughton, Lord Chief Baron, Sir William Forbes, Principal Robertson, Mr Cullen, advocate. Before dinner, he told us of a curious conversation between the famous George Faulkner and him. George said that England had drained Ireland of fifty thousand pounds in specie, annually, for fifty years. ‘How so, sir!’ said Dr Johnson, ‘you must have a very great trade?’ ‘No trade.’ ‘Very rich mines?’ ‘No mines.’ ‘From whence, then, does all this money come?’ ‘Come! why out of the blood and bowels of the poor people of Ireland!’

He seemed to me to have an unaccountable prejudice against Swift; for I once took a liberty to ask him, if Swift had personally offended him, and he told me, he had not. He said to-day, ‘Swift is clear, but he is shallow. In coarse humour, he is inferior to Arbuthnot; in delicate humour, he is inferior to Addison: so he is inferior to his contemporaries; without putting him against the whole world. I doubt if the Tale of a Tub was his: it has so much more thinking, more knowledge, more power, more colour, than any of the works which are indisputably his. If it was his, I shall only say, he was impar sibi.’

We gave him as good a dinner as we could. Our Scotch muir-fowl, or growse, were then abundant, and quite in season; and, so far as wisdom and wit can be aided by administering agreeable sensations to the palate, my wife took care that our great guest should not be deficient.

Sir Adolphus Oughton, then our Deputy Commander in Chief, who was not only an excellent officer, but one of the most universal scholars I ever knew, had learned the Erse language, and expressed his belief in the authenticity of Ossian’s poetry. Dr Johnson took the opposite side of that perplexed question; and I was afraid the dispute would have run high between them. But Sir Adolphus, who had a very sweet temper, changed the discourse, grew playful, laughed at Lord Monboddo’s notion of men having tails, and called him a Judge, a posteriori, which amused Dr Johnson; and thus hostilities were prevented.

At supper we had Dr Cullen, his son the advocate, Dr Adam Fergusson, and Mr Crosbie, advocate. Witchcraft was introduced. Mr Crosbie said, he thought it the greatest blasphemy to suppose evil spirits counteracting the Deity, and raising storms, for instance, to destroy his creatures. JOHNSON. ‘Why, sir, if moral evil be consistent with the government of the Deity, why may not physical evil be also consistent with it? It is not more strange that there should be evil spirits, than evil embodied spirits. And as to storms, we know there are such things; and it is no worse that evil spirits raise them, than that they rise.’ CROSBIE. ‘But it is not credible, that witches should have effected what they are said in stories to have done.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I am not defending their credibility. I am only saying, that your arguments are not good, and will not overturn the belief of witchcraft.’ (Dr Fergusson said to me, aside, ‘He is right.’) ‘And then, sir, you have all mankind, rude and civilized, agreeing in the belief of the agency of preternatural powers. You must take evidence: you must consider, that wise and great men have condemned witches to die.’ CROSBIE. ‘But an Act of Parliament put an end to witchcraft.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, sir; witchcraft had ceased; and therefore an Act of Parliament was passed to prevent persecution for what was not witchcraft. Why it ceased, we cannot tell, as we cannot tell the reason of many other things.’ Dr Cullen, to keep up the gratification of mysterious disquisition, with the grave address for which he is remarkable in his companionable as in his professional hours, talked, in a very entertaining manner, of people walking and conversing in their sleep. I am very sorry I have no note of this. We talked of the Ouran-Outang, and of Lord Monboddo’s thinking that he might be taught to speak. Dr Johnson treated this with ridicule. Mr Crosbie said, that Lord Monboddo believed the existence of every thing possible; in short, that all which is in posse might be found in esse. JOHNSON. ‘But, sir, it is as possible that the Ouran-Outang does not speak, as that he speaks. However, I shall not contest the point. I should have thought it not possible to find a Monboddo; yet HE exists.’ I again mentioned the stage. JOHNSON. ‘The appearance of a player, with whom I have drunk tea, counteracts the imagination that he is the character he represents. Nay, you know, nobody imagines that he is the character he represents. They say, “See Garrick! how he looks to-night! See how he’ll clutch the dagger!” That is the buzz of the theatre.’