It is unfortunate that the Scots crow so loudly about Robert Burns. I get the impression they are desperate to promote some kind of indigenous culture and that Burns may as well be it. Certainly the homogenous character of Scottish heritage serves the tourist industry well, for you can buy the very same tartan-clad souvenirs anywhere in the land. It is a shame, then, that one of the Scots most colourful and entertaining writers is overlooked - James Boswell, whose dry humour, wit and temprament is certainly characteristic of Scotland, and a celebration of it.

I shall digress from the theme for a moment. Of late, I have taken to buying used, pristine Folio Society editions from a well known internet auction site. This is possibly going to end soon because I am going to buy an eReader, probably a Sony, and thereupon shall have available to me thousands of classics, fact and fiction, in one little device. One of these Folio books, which are sold very cheaply at a fraction of the original cost, is one of the Grand Tour, containing journal accounts of the wealthy classes, in France, Italy and Switzerland during the 18th and 19th centuries. James Boswell is among those included.

Boswell visited Rousseau, probably in Geneva and records it thus:

Rousseau: Do you like cats?
Boswell: No.
Rousseau: I was sure of that. It is my test of character. There you have the despotic instinct of men. They do not like cats because the cat is free and will never consent to become a slave. He will do nothing to your order as other animals do.
Boswell: Not a hen either.
Rousseau: A hen would obey your orders if you could make her understand them.

This is supposed to be a verbatim account, but what makes it interesting is that it is an account of one of the great thinkers of the age, who is mad as a box of frogs, and that Boswell was charmed into reporting it.

Back to Scotland. Boswell pursuading Dr Johnson to tour the Hebrides. There are some descriptions of their experiences of Scottish Inns, mostly negative.

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.

Johnson was a curmugeonly confirmed urbanite. He really did not naturally accomodate the challenge of rural life:

In the forenoon Dr Johnson said, 'it would require great resignation to live in one of these islands.' BOSWELL. 'I don't know, sir; I have felt myself at times in a state of almost mere physical existence, satisfied to eat, drink, and sleep, and walk about, and enjoy my own thoughts; and I can figure a continuation of this.' JOHNSON. 'Ay, sir; but if you were shut up here, your own thoughts would torment you: you would think of Edinburgh or London, and that you could not be there.'

I wonder?

1 comment:

Jim Baxter said...

'Afterwards, near Lad Lane police station a small man in black fell in with us and tapping me often about the chest, talked to me earnestly on the subject of Rousseau, a member of the French nation. He was animated, his pale features striking in the starlight and his voice going up and falling in the lilt of his argumentum. I did not understand his talk and was personally unacquainted with him. But Kelly was taking in all he said, for he stood near him, his taller head inclined in an attitude of close attention. Kelly then made a low noise and opened his mouth and covered the small man from shoulder to knee with a coating of unpleasant buff-coloured puke. Many other things happened on that night now imperfectly recorded in my memory but that incident is still very clear to me in my mind. Afterwards the small man was some distance from us in the lane, shaking his divested coat and rubbing it along the wall. He is a little man that the name of Rousseau will always recall to me.'

From 'At Swim Two Birds'

And so say all of us.