Tuesday, 29 December 2020

"A Vile Country": Dr Johnson on Scotland and Scots

The writer Samuel Johnson, AKA Dr. Johnson (1709-1785), is best known today for his celebrated Dictionary of the English Language. First published in London in 1755, it is often called "Johnson's Dictionary." The dictionary was warmly received and proved highly influential in shaping the modern English language. (Image: Johnson in 1775, by Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Some of Johnson's definitions were witty. His definition of lexicographer poked fun at himself: "a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the significance of words."

Other definitions conveyed his prejudices. An example is monsieur: "a term of reproach for a Frenchman." Johnson, in common with many English folk at the time, had no love for the French, with whom they were often at war. 

The English were almost as contemptuous of the people of Scotland, with whom they had been united in 1707 into a new country, Great Britain. The Union was an uneasy one for many years. 

Several rebellions arose in Scotland seeking to restore the exiled Catholic Stuarts to the throne of both kingdoms, occupied since 1714 by the German Hanoverians, Georges I and II.

The last and most dangerous of these "Jacobite" Risings began in 1745. An army made up mainly of Highlanders led by Prince Charles Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") defeated a Hanoverian army at Prestonpans. 

The Jacobites quickly seized Edinburgh, and marched into England. They came within striking distance of London at Derby before turning back and facing final bloody defeat at Culloden Moor in April 1746. It was the last battle fought on British soil. (Image: Battle of Culloden, by David Morier, 1746)

The Highland army's incursion into central England had terrified and outraged many English people, including Johnson, himself a sentimental Jacobite. 

The English viewed the Highland Scots with their plaids and Gaelic language as uncouth, dirty, and savage. The romantic Highlander of the novels of Sir Walter Scott would not appear until decades later. The cartoon below, "Sawney in the Boghouse," gives an indication of how contemporary Englishmen viewed the barbaric Highlander. 

Johnson shared these views. Perhaps it is not surprising that he  used his dictionary to convey them. His definition of 
oats is classic: "a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland is used to support the people."

Here, Johnson was parroting the conventional English view of the Scots as an impoverished and oppressed people, who might, if given their way, reduce the English to the same level. That view had some merit: Scotland was poorer than England, and its political system was more authoritarian. 

Yet the idea that Scots could impose an authoritarian system on England was far fetched. Incidentally, many American colonists shared that view, which contributed to the drive for independence. 

The American cartoon below, from 1775, shows Scots Lord Bute and Lord Mansfield tyrannizing Americans. backed up by the Catholic Church (the monk) and the British army. 

It was a conspiracy theory worthy of QAnon. Bute had been out of politics for ten years by this point. Chief Justice Mansfield had no say over colonial policy, but he had declared slavery in England illegal in 1773, which made him a tyrant for American slaveholders. 

Johnson eventually softened his views on Scotland and its people, though he always enjoyed a dig at them. His circle of friends came to include some Scots he admired, including poet James Beattie. His best friend in his later years was Scots lawyer James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck. (Image: James Boswell, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1785)

In 1763, Boswell went to London, hoping to get a commission in a Guards regiment and enjoy the capital's culture (and women). He was quickly exposed to anti-Scottish sentiment. 

In his journal he recorded how he went to Covent Garden Theater one evening to see a comic opera. Just before the overture began, two Highland officers entered, the crowd began to chant, "No Scots! No Scots! Out with them!" 

Boswell was outraged. The officers had just returned from the successful siege of Havana. At that moment, he wrote, "I hated the English. I wished from my soul that the Union was broke and that we might give them another Battle of Bannockburn.... The rudeness of the English vulgar is terrible."

After this encounter, it may come as some surprise that Boswell sought out the acquaintance of two Englishmen men famed for their anti-Scottish prejudices: John Wilkes and Johnson. 

Except for their antipathy to Scots, the two can hardly have been more different. Wilkes was a libertine radical and demagogue. Johnson was straight-laced, pious, and socially conservative.  

Wilkes was "very civil" when they met. He even invited Boswell to call on him. Boswell's first meeting with Johnson was less auspicious: 

Johnson: I understand, Sir, that you are from Scotland.

Boswell: I am indeed, but I cannot help it.

Johnson: That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help. 

This was how one of the most famous friendships in British history began. Johnson and Boswell became boon companions, eating, drinking, and conversing together. 

"Bozzy" would later write a biography of his friend, The Life of  Samuel Johnson (1791). Many critics consider it the greatest biography ever written in English.

The pair spent many an evening in animated conversation with other members of Johnson's circle. The "Club" as it is sometimes known, was the idea of Johnson's friend, painter Joshua Reynolds. (Image: A Meeting of the The Club. Johnson is second from left, Reynolds is third, with ear trumpet.)


Its members included some the greatest minds of the day including actor David Garrick, orator Edmund Burke, and writers Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Sheridan. Scientist Joseph Bank and historian Edward Gibbon also attended meetings from time to time. Another Scot, Adam Smith, was a later member. Johnson never liked him because he contributed little to the conversation. 

Boswell recorded many of the exchanges at these meetings. On occasion, Johnson's prejudices against Scotland rose to the surface. A famous such occasion was when the group was discussing "noble prospects" or beautiful views. Johnson quipped, "the noblest prospect a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England."

Here, Johnson, joking or not, was reflecting a very real concern in England at the time. Many people complained that a plague of greedy, half-starved Scots was invading their country, snapping up plum jobs and rich heiresses. People often compared the Scots immigrants to a plague of locusts, as reflected in this cartoon of 1796, "A Flight of Scotchmen":

The poet Charles Churchill, a collaborator with Wilkes, wrote a pastoral in which he characterized Scotland as a land where half-starved spiders preyed on half-starved flies. 

The comparative poverty of Scotland was a subject Johnson often returned to in conversation. During a discussion on the danger of invasion in Scotland, he asked: "What enemy would invade Scotland, when there is nothing to be got?"

Warning an Irish friend against uniting in a union with England: "Do not make a union with us, Sir. We should unite with you only to rob you; we should have robbed the Scots if they had anything of which we could rob them."

Scotland, unlike England at the time, provided a basic primary education to most children in a system of parish schools. Johnson was not impressed: "Knowledge is divided up among Scots like bread in a besieged town, to every man a mouthful, to no man a bellyful." Learning in Scotland, he conceded was widely diffused, "but thinly spread." 

Boswell, irked by Johnson's refusal to concede the existence of highly educated Scots, mentioned Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench. Johnson denied that Scotland derived "any credit from Mansfield, for he was educated in England. Much may be made of a Scotchman if he be caught young."

Asked by a Scot what he thought of Scotland, Johnson replied, "it is a very vile country, to be sure, Sir." Taken aback, the Scot retorted that God had made it. "Certainly, he did," Johnson agreed; "but we must always remember that he made it for Scotchmen, and comparisons are odious, Mr. S-------; and God made hell."

Arthur Lee of Virginia once remarked that he could not understand why some Scots had settled in a barren part of America. Johnson thought the answer obvious: "Why, Sir, all barrenness is comparative. The Scotch would not know it be barren."

Having Boswell as a close friend may have gradually softened Johnson's views on Scots if not Scotland. In 1773, Bozzy convinced Johnson to make a trip to Scotland, including a tour of the Hebrides, or Western Isles. 

Johnson complained about some things, notably the weather, rods, and some of the inns and food. But he praised much as well, especially Scottish hospitality: 

"At the tables where a stranger is received, neither plenty nor delicacy is wanting.... he that shall complain of his fare in the Hebrides, has improved his delicacy more than his manhood.... If an epicure cold remove by a wish, in quest of sensual gratifications, wherever he had supped he would breakfast in Scotland."

The Hebrides in particular impressed Johnson.. The pair visited Skye, Iona, Mull, and other islands. recorded feelings of awe on his visit to Iona, where Irish missionaries established the first Christian foothold in Scotland in the 6th century.

After returning to London, both men wrote accounts of their journey. Still in print and quite readable today, the books inspired many others to make similar trips. One could argue they (and Walter Scott) helped lay the foundations of later Scottish tourism. 

Johnson later told Boswell that the trip "was the pleasantest part of his life..." High praise indeed for a man who wrote that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." Perhaps Bozzy made a difference after all.

Further Reading:

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (London, 1791)

____________, Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763 (New Haven, 1950)

____________, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson(1785)

Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755)

_____________, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (London, 1775)




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