Johnson and Boswell: The Transit of Caledonia

By Pat Rogers | Go to book overview

Appendix
Monboddo, Johnson, and Boswell

One of the most celebrated episodes in the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides concerns the travellers' visit to Lord Monboddo ( LSJ v. 74-83). The scene makes an immediate point, and Boswell's full report compensates for Johnson's almost total silence on the encounter (see Chapter 4, above). However, few readers will be aware of all the complex personal and intellectual relations between the participants. As this book has attempted to show, there is often a subtext to both narratives, deriving from hidden Scottish issues to which their authors do not make any explicit allusion. The Monboddo episode provides a good example of this; in order to understand the dynamics of the scene, we need to explicate the surface events and dialogue to uncover deeper strata of implication.1

Long before 1773 Monboddo knew Boswell personally and Johnson by reputation. James Burnett was born in 1714 in a strongly Jacobite area, the Mearns; his father fought for the Old Pretender in 1715 and was captured at Sheriffmuir--the elder Burnett, after his release, was one of those who underwent conversion and remained 'skulking at home', unregenerate in his faith until his death. He sent twenty-five men from his estate to fight for Charles Edward in 1745. His son spent this crucial period in London, which can only be interpreted as a gesture of non-involvement.

When the meeting took place at Monboddo, the host was approaching 59 and, like Johnson, was a widower. He had been a judge of the Court of Session since 1767, assuming the title of Lord Monboddo. His colleagues on the bench included Lord Auchinleck, Kames, Hailes, and later Braxfield. In fact, Monboddo was generally at odds with Kames, just as he tangled regularly with David Hume, who was the keeper of the Advocates' Library at a time when Burnett (as he was then) served as one of the curators. Monboddo's opposition to the ideas of Kames and Hume should prevent us from ascribing to the group a totalized 'Scottish Enlightenment' viewpoint, necessarily suspect to the English visitor. Monboddo had been influenced by a previous keeper of the Library, Thomas Ruddiman, one of the most important Jacobite scholars of the earlier eighteenth century.

____________________
1
This appendix draws chiefly on Monboddo's works and two valuable secondary sources: William Knight, Lord Monboddo and Some of his Contemporaries ( London: John Murray, 1900); and E. L. Cloyd, James Burnett, Lord Monboddo ( Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1972). Other scattered sources are not listed.

-226-

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