18 July 2010

Unionist quotation of the day...

"Till the Union made them acquainted with English manners, the culture of their lands was unskilful, and their domestick life unformed; their tables were coarse as the feasts of Eskimeaux and their houses filthy as the cottages of the Hottentots." ~ Dr Samuel Johnson, on the Scots.

My summer reading includes a too-long neglected copy of Roland Black's (2007) edited version of To the Hebrides which sets Dr Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and the companionable James Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides side by side. Like my narrators, I've only just embarked on the journey, hidden inside Boswell's pocketbook. While Johnson's commentary is terse and mildly sententious, the latter's prose is full of fun, a touching earnestness, vivid historical detail, the topics raised over dinner conversations and the learned sallies and bouts as Johnson sets about the serious-minded Scotsmen, ministers and professors they encountered on their way up the east coast. At times, both firefly Boswell and his smouldering Johnson cut absurdly earnest figures, discoursing confidently (and dare I frequently spuriously) on any number of topics. Such were the spirits of the learned men of the times. Cynicism of a modern turn in relation to how we conceptualise truth, subjectivity  and so on are understandably not much in evidence. In my mind's eye I can almost spot the Scot gravely nodding as his English companion once again cries "No sir!" in response to some local worthy's half-reasoned view on a burning issue of the times, leaving the dumbstruck soul half corrected, half boggled. He was a bumptious old villain in his way, was our Dr Johnson. That said, I can appreciate the gadfly malevolence behind his Socrates impersonation. How else to explain this chortlingly niggling remark in the Journey that:

"A Scotsman must be a sturdy moralist, who does not prefer Scotland to truth."

Both accounts, in their own ways, leave fascinating sketches of two personalities, their relation and  their relationship to the world, as best they understood it. I commend the volume to you.


  1. Johnson and Boswell held pride of place in my granny's bookcase in the 'front' room. I remember well sitting on the settee being read parts as a bedtime story. My granny used to finish each time with 'That's the English for you'.

    Surprisingly she was a unionist through and through but I wonder if she still would be if she were alive now.

  2. Not quite "And they all lived happily ever after", Subrosa! On your last point, perhaps less surprising than you might think. After all, a Scottish nationalist analysis of some stripe is almost ubiquitous in Scottish political life. As we've seen, however, this general analysis of Scotland as a nation does not necessarily force nationalists to reach the political conclusion that Nationalism is necessary or desirable. Although at first glance, this seems highly paradoxical - its a salutary lesson in human plasticity and how comfortable one can be living with these sometimes awkward, usual ambivalent loyalties and associations.