In August, 1773, James Boswell finally succeeded in persuading his distinguished friend Samuel Johnson to accompany him on a tour of his native Scotland, a country for which the learned Dr. Johnson’s scorn was legendary. Boswell kept a detailed journal for most of their journey together, and he published it, in a version edited and revised with the help of the Shakespearean scholar, Edmund Malone, in 1785, as a companion volume to Johnson’s own account, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, that had appeared in 1775. Boswell’s original journal was discovered with many of his other private papers, giving the modern reader the opportunity to examine a considerably franker account than the one that was first issued to the public.
The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides is a fascinating travelogue, an unusually full record of life in the Scottish highlands and on the remote islands of the Hebrides, a character sketch of Johnson, and, like Boswell’s other diaries, a mirror of his personal idiosyncrasies. Boswell seems especially anxious to show the respect and the deference with which his friend was greeted by his countrymen; he wanted to prove to Johnson and to the world that the Scots were indeed capable of being scholars and gentlemen, closely in touch with the world of learning, and, being a Scot himself, he naturally felt pride in having the privilege of introducing so great a figure to the professors and noblemen of his homeland.
Perhaps the greatest appeal of Boswell’s account lies in the absolute naturalness of style and content. Discussion of the quality of the food and of the beds at every inn along the way is interspersed with Johnson’s comments on whatever volumes of prayers, sermons, or poems he was able to procure and with accounts of long conversations between the scholar and many of his hosts on religion, philosophy, politics, and literature. As the trip went on, Boswell tended to fall farther and farther behind in his account, and throughout the journal he casually tossed in collections of Johnsoniana after having forgotten the specific occasions of many of the doctor’s comments. He chose, too, to stop his narrative at intervals to give geographical and historical details.
Boswell is brutally frank, in his unpublished account, about the character of some of their hosts. He is relatively sympathetic when treating the weakness of Donald MacLeod, a young kinsman of the chief of the MacLeod clan of Dunvegan, on the Isle of Skye, who took their money to town to have it changed and squandered a portion of it on his own refreshment, much to his later chagrin and shame. The arrogance and lack of hospitality of Sir Alexander Macdonald, whose manners seemed to Boswell entirely out of keeping with his station in life, are treated much more harshly. Boswell gives a particularly amusing account of their visit to the duke and duchess of Argyll...
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