Journal Of A Tour To The Hebrides With Samuel Johnson

Friday, 2Oth August

Dr Shaw, the professor of divinity, breakfasted with us. I took out my Ogden On Prayer, and read some of it to the company. Dr Johnson praised him. ‘Abernethy,’ said he, ‘allows only of a physical effect of prayer upon the mind, which may be produced many ways, as well as by prayer; for instance, by meditation. Ogden goes farther. In truth, we have the consent of all nations for the efficacy of prayer, whether offered up by individuals, or by assemblies; and Revelation has told us, it will be effectual.’ I said, ‘Leechman seemed to incline to Abernethy’s doctrine.’ Dr Watson observed, that Leechman meant to shew, that, even admitting no effect to be produced by prayer, respecting the Deity, it was useful to our own minds. He had given only a part of his system: Dr Johnson thought he should have given the whole.

Dr Johnson enforced the strict observance of Sunday. ‘It should be different,’ he observed, ‘from another day. People may walk, but not throw stones at birds. There may be relaxation, but there should be no levity.’

We went and saw Colonel Nairne’s garden and grotto. Here was a fine old plane tree. Unluckily the colonel said, there was but this and another large tree in the county. This assertion was an excellent cue for Dr Johnson, who laughed enormously, calling to me to hear it. He had expatiated to me on the nakedness of that part of Scotland which he had seen. His Journey has been violently abused, for what he has said upon this subject. But let it be considered, that, when Dr Johnson talks of trees, he means trees of good size, such as he was accustomed to see in England; and of these there are certainly very few upon the EASTERN COAST of Scotland. Besides, he said, that he meant to give only a map of the road; and let any traveller observe how many trees, which deserve the name, he can see from the road from Berwick to Aberdeen. Had Dr Johnson said, ‘there are NO trees’ upon this line, he would have said what is colloquially true; because, by no trees, in common speech, we mean few. When he is particular in counting, he may be attacked. I know not how Colonel Nairne came to say there were but TWO large trees in the county of Fife. I did not perceive that he smiled. There are certainly not a great many; but I could have shewn him more than two at Balmuto, from whence my ancestors came, and which now belongs to a branch of my family.

The grotto was ingeniously constructed. In the front of it were petrified stocks of fir, plane, and some other tree. Dr Johnson said, ‘Scotland has no right to boast of this grotto: it is owing to personal merit. I never denied personal merit to many of you.’ Professor Shaw said to me, as we walked, ‘This is a wonderful man: he is master of every subject he handles.’ Dr Watson allowed him a very strong understanding, but wondered at his total inattention to established manners, as he came from London.

I have not preserved, in my Journal, any of the conversation which passed between Dr Johnson and Professor Shaw; but I recollect Dr Johnson said to me afterwards, ‘I took much to Shaw.’

We left St Andrews about noon, and some miles from it observing, at Leuchars, a church with an old tower, we stopped to look at it. The manse, as the parsonage-house is called in Scotland, was close by. I waited on the minister, mentioned our names, and begged he would tell us what he knew about it. He was a very civil old man; but could only inform us, that it was supposed to have stood eight hundred years. He told us, there was a colony of Danes in his parish; that they had landed at a remote period of time, and still remained a distinct people. Dr Johnson shrewdly inquired whether they had brought women with them. We were not satisfied as to this colony.

We saw, this day, Dundee and Aberbrothick, the last of which Dr Johnson has celebrated in his Journey. Upon the road we talked of the Roman Catholick faith. He mentioned (I think) Tillotson’s argument against transubstantiation; ‘That we are as sure we see bread and wine only, as that we read in the Bible the text on which that false doctrine is founded. We have only the evidence of our senses for both. If,’ he added, ‘God had never spoken figuratively, we might hold that he speaks literally, when he says, “This is my body”.’ BOSWELL. ‘But what do you say, sir, to the ancient and continued tradition of the Church upon this point?’ JOHNSON. ‘Tradition, sir, has no place, where the Scriptures are plain; and tradition cannot persuade a man into a belief of transubstantiation. Able men, indeed, have said they believed it.’

This is an awful subject. I did not then press Dr Johnson upon it; nor shall I now enter upon a disquisition concerning the import of those words uttered by our Saviour,[Footnote: “Then Jesus said unto them, verily, verily. I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” See St John’s Gospel, chap. vi. 5 3, and following verses.] which had such an effect upon many disciples, that they ‘went back, and walked no more with him’. The Catechism and solemn office for Communion, in the Church of England, maintain a mysterious belief in more than a mere commemoration of the death of Christ, by partaking of the elements of bread and wine.

Dr Johnson put me in mind, that, at St Andrews, I had defended my profession very well, when the question had again been started, whether a lawyer might honestly engage with the first side that offers him a fee. ‘Sir,’ said I, ‘it was with your arguments against Sir William Forbes: but it was much that I could wield the arms of Goliah.’

He said, our judges had not gone deep in the question concerning literary property. I mentioned Lord Monboddo’s opinion, that if a man could get a work by heart, he might print it, as by such an act the mind is exercised. JOHNSON. ‘No, sir; a man’s repeating it no more makes it his property, than a man may sell a cow which he drives home.’ I said, printing an abridgement of a work was allowed, which was only cutting the horns and tail off the cow. JOHNSON. ‘No, sir; ’tis making the cow have a calf.’

About eleven at night we arrived at Montrose. We found but a sorry inn, where I myself saw another waiter put a lump of sugar with his fingers into Dr Johnson’s lemonade, for which he called him ‘Rascal!’ It put me in great glee that our landlord was an Englishman. I rallied the Doctor upon this, and he grew quiet. Both Sir John Hawkins’s and Dr Burney’s History of Musick had then been advertised. I asked if this was not unlucky: would not they hurt one another? JOHNSON. ‘No, sir. They will do good to one another. Some will buy the one, some the other, and compare them; and so a talk is made about a thing, and the books are sold.’

He was angry at me for proposing to carry lemons with us to Sky, that he might be sure to have his lemonade. ‘Sir,’ said he, ‘I do not wish to be thought that feeble man who cannot do without any thing. Sir, it is very bad manners to carry provisions to any man’s house, as if he could not entertain you. To an inferior, it is oppressive; to a superior, it is insolent.’

Having taken the liberty, this evening, to remark to Dr Johnson, that he very often sat quite silent for a long time, even when in company with only a single friend, which I myself had sometimes sadly experienced, he smiled and said, ‘It is true, sir. Tom Tyers’ (for so he familiarly called our ingenious friend, who, since his death, has paid a biographical tribute to his memory) ‘Tom Tyers described me the best. He once said to me, “Sir, you are like a ghost: you never speak till you are spoken to” [Footnote: This description of Dr Johnson, appears to have been borrowed from Tom Jones, Book XI. chap, ii. “The other, who like a ghost, only wanted to be spoke to, readily answered.’ &c.