This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

October 2002


29 October 1740:   James Boswell, biographer of Samuel Johnson, born.

Though most famous today for the success of his “presumptious task” of writing the biography of the English dictionary writer Samuel Johnson, James Boswell is nevertheless an interesting Scottish figure in his own right.

Boswell enjoyed an early lesson in practical politics. Turning five at the outset of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s 1745 Jacobite revolt, young Boswell was part of a family prominent for its loyalty to the Hannoverian King George II. But playing the contrarian, Boswell sported a white cockade and went about praying for the success of the Stuart pretender James III. Rather than upbraid the child, his uncle General Cochran instead simply gave the boy a shiny new shilling to pray for King George, which Boswell did. He never forgot the incident. “So you see,” he would sum up the story years later, “Whigs of all ages are made the same way.”

But the white cockade was by no means the end of Boswell’s rebellious streak. Pressured to study law in order to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Boswell was instead drawn towards literary pursuits and made his way south to take part in London’s lively cultural scene.

There he struck up a friendship with Dr. Samuel Johnson, then hard at work compiling the first dictionary of the English language. Such a friendship seemed improbable in view of the irascible Johnson’s oft stated antipathy to Scotland and all things Scottish, and indeed Boswell frequently had to defend his homeland against the doctor’s witticisms. But he could hardly deny Johnson’s wisecrack that the Scotsman’s best prospect was the road to England, as Boswell had taken that very road himself. He could only bide his time and await a chance to take Johnson on that same road heading in the opposite direction.

The thoroughness of Boswell’s biographical masterpiece The Life of Johnson gives many the impression that he lived as an inseparable sidekick to Johnson, when in fact Boswell lived mainly in Edinburgh and enjoyed Johnson’s company only over the course of a dozen or so visits to London, plus the famous Highland vacation he cajoled the Englishman into in 1773. While Boswell’s London sojourns resulted in his biography of Johnson, the trip to Scotland prompted each of them to write his own book. Together the two accounts, Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles and Boswell’s Tour to the Hebrides, are a remarkable account of how two outsiders, and Englishman and a Lowlander, were introduced to and gained a measure of sympathy for Scotland’s native Gaelic culture. It was also a portrait of that culture as it struggled to survive in the wake of the post-1746 repressions.

What isn’t so well known is that Boswell’s sympathies extended well beyond Scotland. In 1765 he went to Corsica and, bearing a letter of introduction from the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, became a friend of the Corsican leader Pasquale de Paoli, who was then leading a liberation struggle against the Genoese. When the French later invaded and took over Corsica for themselves, Boswell played host to the now-exiled Paoli when the Corsican hero visited Scotland.

Boswell remained a partisan of the Corsican cause, even to the extent of showing up outlandishly dressed as a Corsican freedom fighter (complete with musket) at, of all things, a celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday at Stratford-on-Avon in 1769.

The remarkable story of Boswell’s and Johnson’s trip to Scotland will be covered in a future installment of This Month in Celtic History.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2003 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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