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Part 15. Scotland At Last

Boswell is sitting on a large stone by the road.

BOSWELL Well, Lichfield was last winter, rain and all, and now we’re in Scotland.  It’s August, 1773.  And it’s not raining!  It’s actually quite warm.  Amazing!  He’s finally come here.  And that’s amazing too!  He’s sixty-three, you know. He got up to Edinburgh by himself.  You remember what he said about the joy of driving in a post chaise with a pretty woman.  Well for company on the road north he had two grumbling farmers and a deaf old clergyman! No pretty woman at all!  Still, he accepted it with fortitude.  He is determined to enjoy this trip, and when you set out in that frame of mind, your journey always turns out well.  Better to be cheerful in Birmingham than miserable in the Lake District! It is not what happens to us that matters, it is how we react to it.  That’s the secret!

Yes, he got himself to Edinburgh.  I met him there, and now we are on the road north.  Next stop is the Isle of Skye and then the Hebrides.  That’s the itinerary!  The journey is going well, and Johnson is enjoying it, which is a huge relief, I can tell you. You never know with Johnson.  When you fear the worst, there’s no problem at all, and when you think you’ve arranged everything and that things will be perfect, it all ends in a disaster!  But here he never complains.  We’ve had torrential rain, falls from horses, delays, everything.  ‘And all this borne so like a soldier that his cheek so much as lanked not.’  That’s Shakespeare by the way, not Boswell! (Confiding to the audience) ‘Antony and Cleopatra’…Act 1.

(Johnson comes in, with a Harry Lauder walking stick, and a terrible Scottish stage accent.)

JOHNSON You never thought you’d get me as far north as this, did you, laddie!

(Boswell grimaces.)

JOHNSON (In his normal voice) No, that’s still not quite right.  A bit too much, I think.

(He tries again, in a less exaggerated accent.)

You never thought you’d get me as far north as this, did you, laddie!

(In his normal voice)


BOSWELL No, Sir.  Not by a long chalk.

JOHNSON I must work on it.  (After a pause.) You thought I’d back out at the last minute, didn’t you!

BOSWELL Well, you have put up with everything wonderfully.  Bad horses, worse roads, cold inns.

JOHNSON And warm hearts, Bozzy.  There are warm hearts here! We’re in your country at last!


JOHNSON And it’s not such a bad place after all.  I don’t know what you were so ashamed of!

(Boswell throws up his arms in impatience.)

Where conditions are hardest, you find the kindest people. Have you noticed that, Bozzy?  In the desert the people have little, but they share with the traveller that little which they have.  Here the people are hospitable and put to shame many of those in England who have more.  ‘The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with love, and found him a native of the rocks.’  

BOSWELL  Your letter to Chesterfield?

JOHNSON  My letter to Chesterfield! Well, a bit of it anyway!

If I had to be poor again, I’d prefer to be poor in Scotland than in London.  Here the people would help me more.

BOSWELL This country has produced fine men, Sir.

JOHNSON Yes, so it has.  And fine women, too.  But where are they now, Bozzy?  Not in the glens.  A country is not built up by its young men and women leaving it!

BOSWELL Sometimes the young have no option. And sometimes they come back home.

You must admit, Sir, that Scotland is beautiful.  Look at that!  Those seven mountains!  The peaks are hidden in the clouds.  Yes, Scotland has fine prospects!

JOHNSON Yes, I believe Sir, you do have a great many.  Norway too, has noble, wild prospects.

BOSWELL Oh no.  Not again!

JOHNSON And Lapland is remarkable for its prodigious, noble, wild prospects.  But, Sir, let me tell you (Boswell chimes in and the two finish the sentence together.)… the noblest prospect which a Scotsman ever sees is the high road that leads him to England.

BOSWELL I do believe you have said that before, Sir.

JOHNSON And so I repeat myself.  There’s no harm in that!  And sometimes I contradict myself.  There’s no harm in that either.  A man must be given… latitude.

BOSWELL There is much that is good here.

JOHNSON Very much, Bozzy.  Very much.  It’s just that sometimes I can’t bring myself to admit it!  This is a fine country and we have met some fine people.  We have been royally entertained in these little cottages.

BOSWELL Then why are you so hard on the Scots?

JOHNSON It’s an unfounded prejudice, Bozzy.  Everyone should be allowed one or two unfounded prejudices.  Or perhaps even three.  It’s not healthy to be totally rational.

BOSWELL To be rational is a good aim.

JOHNSON I have a suspicion that it is the curse of our times.  We think too much.  There is too much genus and species, and that’s the fault of that Swedish man. What’s his name? Linnaeus, isn’t it? There are too many encyclopaedias, and I didn’t help matters with my dictionary either. I tried to pin words down. Words have a life of their own! We pin down butterflies, and they are dead and put in a glass case when they should be fluttering around us.

Think of the people we shut up in asylums because they are not rational enough.  Madness discovers itself by unnecessary deviation from the usual modes of the world. Think of poor Kit Smart.

BOSWELL Christopher Smart, the poet, Sir? 

JOHNSON Yes, Kit Smart.  They shut him up because he prayed in the street. He insisted on people praying with him. I’d as life pray with Kit Smart as anyone else! The test of a country is how it treats those who have lost their mind.

BOSWELL With respect, Sir, I believe you once said that the true test of a country is how it treats its poor.

JOHNSON Well, there are two tests of a country, Bozzy, and tomorrow I shall think of a third. Let’s have no more of this!

 Now, on we go.  (He gets up.)

On to the Isle of Skye, isn’t it Bozzy?  Westwards. 

(He points, and then, seeing Boswell shake his head, he realises he is mistaken, so he turns and points the other way.)

Westwards, yes of course.  This is Flora Macdonald country, is it not?  Yes, there are some brave women in Scotland.

(He sings.)

‘Speed bonny boat like a bird on the wing

Onward the sailors’ cry….’

(He goes and shouts back to Boswell.)

There are some horses in the next inn, aren’t there?

BOSWELL (Getting up wearily.)  I hope so.  I do hope so. I can’t walk another step.

JOHNSON  If they only have one horse, we can manage. Tie and ride. That’s how young Davy Garrick and I walked to London. Tie and ride.

BOSWELL  Let’s hope there are two horses!

JOHNSON (Off stage, singing) 

‘Carry the lad who’s born to be king

Over the sea to Skye.’

And in the next inn there will be some beer, I mean, whisky!  Come on Bozzy!

BOSWELL (Following Johnson off) Some whisky?  I hope so.  I do hope so. I’m exhausted. And to think I was worried that this journey would be too much for him!