Footsteps of Dr. Johnson (Scotland)/Chapter 6

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Montrose, Laurencekirk and Monboddo (August 20-21).

The road along which Johnson and Boswell drove as they journeyed from Dundee through Arbroath to Montrose, is described by Defoe as a "pleasant way through a country fruitful and bespangled, as the sky in a clear night with stars of the biggest magnitude, with gentlemen's houses, thick as they can be supposed to stand with pleasure and conveniency."[1] Our travellers in the latter part of the drive saw nothing of all this, for the sun had set before they left the great Abbey; it was not till eleven at night that they arrived at Montrose. There they found but a sorry inn, where, writes Boswell, "I myself saw another waiter put a lump of sugar with his fingers into Dr. Johnson's lemonade, for which he called him 'rascal!' It put me in great glee that our landlord was an Englishman. I rallied the Doctor upon this and he grew quiet." The town Johnson praised as "neat"—"neat" last century stood very high among the terms of commendation, though it is now supplanted by "elegant" among Americans, and by "nice" among English people. At the time of the Rebellion

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On the way to Montrose.

of 1745, the townsfolk had been described as "very genteel, but disaffected."[2] To the clerk of the English chapel Johnson gave "a shilling extraordinary, saying, 'He belongs to an honest church.'" He had the great merit also of keeping his church "clean to a degree unknown in any other part of Scotland," so that his shilling was well earned.

From Montrose the road led through a country rich with an abundant harvest that was almost ripe for the sickle, but bare of everything but crops. Even the hedges, said Johnson, were of stone. Boswells calls this a ludicrous description, but it could have been easily defended as good Scotch, for in the Scots Magazine for January of the previous year, we read of "the stone hedges of Scotland."[3] It is strange that Johnson had not noticed these roughly-built walls in Northumberland, for in the northern part of that county, according to Pennant, "hedges were still in their infancy.[4] At Laurencekirk our travellers stopped to dine,

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Gardenston Arms.

and "respectfully remembered that great grammarian Ruddiman`," who had spent four years there as schoolmaster. More than seventy years before their visit, Dr. Pitcairne, the author of that Latin epitaph on Dundee which Dryden translated, being weatherbound at the village inn, "inquired if there were no persons who could interchange conversation and partake of his dinner." The hostess mentioned Ruddiman. He came, pleased Pitcairne, and was by him brought to Edinburgh.[5] Francis Garden, one of the Scotch judges, under the title of Lord Gardenston, the laird and almost the founder of this thriving village, "had furnished the inn with a collection of books, that travellers might have entertainment for the mind as well as the body. Dr. Johnson praised the design, but wished there had been more books, and those better chosen." The inn still stands with the library adjoining it. Round the room is hanging a series of portraits in French chalk of Gardenston's "feuars," or tenants, who, after the laird, were the chief people of the place when Johnson and Boswell passed through. Many of the books remain on the shelves, though some have been lost through carelessness or the dishonesty of travellers. There are among them a few works of light literature such as Dryden's Virgil, and Gil Bias in French, but the solid reading which most of them afford makes us think with a feeling of respect that almost amounts to awe, of the learning of the Scotch travellers in those good old days. Tavern chairs were no thrones of human felicity in Laurencekirk if such works as the following were commonly perused by those who chanced to fill them:

In Marischal College, Aberdeen, there is a portrait of Lord Gardenston in his judge's robes. He has a somewhat conceited look, such as we might expect in a man who "wrote a pamphlet upon his village, as if he had founded Thebes," and who provided such improving reading for his weary fellow-creatures.

A mile or two off the road from Laurencekirk to Aberdeen lived the famous old Scotch judge, James Burnett, Lord Monboddo. "I knew," wrote Boswell, "that he and Dr. Johnson did not love each other; yet I was unwilling not to visit his Lordship, and was also curious to see them together. I mentioned my doubts to Dr. Johnson, who said he would go two miles out of his way to see Lord Monboddo." The two men had not much in common except their love of learning, and their precision of speech. Monboddo, according to Foote, was an Elzevir edition of Johnson. In a letter to Mrs. Thrale Johnson thus describes him:

"He has lately written a strange book about the origin of language, in which he traces monkeys up to men, and says that in some countries the human species have tails like other beasts. He inquired for these long-tailed men of Banks, and was not well-pleased that they had not been found in all his peregrinations. He talked nothing of this to me, and I hope we parted friends; for we agreed pretty well, only we disputed in adjusting the claims of merit between a shopkeeper of London and a savage of the American wildernesses. Our opinions were, I think, maintained on both sides without full conviction; Monboddo declared boldly for the savage, and I perhaps for that reason sided with the citizen."

Johnson a few years earlier had contrasted Monboddo with Rousseau, "who talked nonsense so well that he must know he was talking nonsense;" whereas, he added, "chuckling and laughing, 'I am afraid Monboddo does not know that he is talking nonsense.'" He was undoubtedly a man of great learning, but he was almost destitute of the critical faculty. In the six volumes of his Ancient Metaphysics we come across such strange passages as the following:

"Not only are there tailed men extant, but men such as the ancients describe Satyrs have been found, who had not only tails, but the feet of goats, and horns on their heads. … We have the authority of a father of the Church for a greater singularity of the human form, and that is of men without heads but with eyes in their breasts. … There is another singularity as great or greater than any I have hitherto mentioned, and that is of men with the heads of dogs."[7]

After stating his readiness to believe that "a tame and gentle animal" once existed, "having the head of a man and the body of a lion," he continues:

"The variety of nature is so great that I am convinced of the truth of what Aristotle says, that everything exists, or did at some time exist, which is possible to exist."[8]

The orang-outang he describes as being "of a character mild and gentle, affectionate, too, and capable of friendship, with the sense also of what is decent and becoming."[9] The ancients, he stoutly maintained, were in every respect better and stronger than their descendants. He shocked Hannah More by telling her that "he loved slavery upon principle." When she asked him "how he could vindicate such an enormity, he owned it was because Plutarch justified it."[10] In one respect he was wise in following the example of the ancients. In an age when bathing was very uncommon even among the wealthy, he constantly urged the daily use of the cold bath. He reminded "our fine gentlemen and ladies that the Otaheite man, Omai, who came from a country where the inhabitants bathed twice a day," complained of the offensive smell of all the people of England.[11] It was believed, however, that Monboddo impaired the health of his children by the hardy treatment to which he exposed them. He despised Johnson because "he had compiled a dictionary of a barbarous language, a work which a man of real genius rather than undertake would choose to die of hunger."[12] In the latter part of his life he used every year to pay a visit to London, and he always went on horseback, even after he had passed his eightieth year "A carriage, a vehicle that was not in common use among the ancients, he considered as an engine of effeminacy and sloth. To be dragged at the tail of horses seemed in his eyes to be a ludicrous degradation of the genuine dignity of human nature. In Court he never sat on the Bench with the other judges, but within the Bar, on the seat appropriated for Peers."[13] Yet with all his singularities he was a fine old fellow. There was no kinder landlord in all Scotland. While around him the small farms were disappearing, and farmers and cottagers were making room for sheep, it was his boast that on his estate no change had been made. Neither he nor his father before him had ever turned off a single cottager.

"One of my tenants (he wrote) who pays me no more than £30 of rent has no less than thirteen cottagers living upon his farm. I have on one part of my estate seven tenants, each of whom possesses no more than three acres of arable land, and some moorish land for pasture, and they pay me no more than twelve shillings for each acre, and nothing for the moor. I am persuaded I could more than double the rent of their land by letting it off to one tenant; but I should be sorry to increase my rent by depopulating any part of the country; and I keep these small tenants as a monument of the way in which I believe a great part of the Lowlands was cultivated in ancient times."[14]

He befriended Burns, who repaid his kindness by celebrating his daughter's beauty in his Address to Edinburgh, and by the elegy which he wrote on her untimely death. In a note to Guy Mannering Sir Walter Scott describes his supper parties, "where there was a circulation of excellent Bordeaux in flasks garlanded with roses, which were also strewed on the table after the manner of Horace. The best society, whether in respect of rank or literary distinction, was always to be found in St. John's Street, Canongate. The conversation of the excellent old man; his high, gentlemanlike, chivalrous spirit; the learning and wit with which he defended his fanciful paradoxes; the kind and liberal spirit of his hospitality, must render these noctes cænæque dear to all who, like the author (though then young), had the honour of sitting at his board."

Boswell's man-servant, who had been sent on to ascertain whether Lord Monboddo was at home, awaited the travellers' arrival at the turn in the road, with the news that they were expected to dinner.

"We drove," says Boswell, "over a wild moor. It rained, and the scene was somewhat dreary. Dr. Johnson repeated with solemn emphasis Macbeth's speech on meeting the witches. . . . Monboddo is a wretched place, wild and naked, with a poor old house; though, if I recollect right, there are two turrets, which mark an old baron's residence. Lord Monboddo received us at his gate most courteously, pointed to the Douglas arms upon his house, and told us that his great-grandmother was of that family."

The old arms are still above the door, with the inscription:

"R. I.
E. D.
1635."

"R. I." was Robert Irvine, a colonel in the army of Gustavus Adolphus, the Lion of the North, and possibly the superior officer of Major Dugald Dalgetty. "E. D." was Elizabeth Douglas. Their daughter married one of the Burnetts, of Crathes Castle. There is nothing wretched, wild, or naked about Monboddo in the present day. As I saw it, no thought of a "blasted heath," and of Macbeth's witches could by any freak of the imagination have entered the mind. The land all round has been brought into cultivation, and there is no moor within five miles. The road along which I drove was bordered by a row of beech trees, which might have been planted by Lord Monboddo or his father. The ancient part of the house, which remains much as Boswell saw it, though large additions have been made, so far from striking one as poor and wretched, has a picturesque, old-fashioned look of decent comfort. Close to it stand a holly and a yew, which have seen the lapse of more centuries than one. The lawns are wide and soft, and very pleasant. Hard by a brook prattles along, almost hidden by rhododendrons and firs. The distant view of the Grampians; the pure, bracing air, whether the wind blows it from the sea on the east or from the mountains on the west; the lawns, the trees, the old house, picturesque in itself, and interesting in its associations, render Monboddo a most pleasant abode. In the time of the old judge it was no doubt bare enough. Where there are now lawns and flower-beds there most likely corn and turnips grew, for he was almost as fond of farming as he was of the ancients. When he received our travellers, "he was dressed," says Boswell, "in a rustic

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Monboddo.

suit, and wore a little round hat. He told us we now saw him as Farmer Burnett, and we should have his family dinner—a farmer's dinner. He produced a very long stalk of corn as a specimen of his crop, and said, 'You see here the lætas segetes.'" An instance of his "agricultural enthusiasm" used to be recounted by Sir Walter Scott: "Returning home one night after an absence (I think) on circuit, he went out with a candle to look at a field of turnips, then a novelty in Scotland."[15] He had a glimpse, it should seem, of some of the wonders which chemistry was soon to work in agriculture, for being one day at Court, he told George III. that the time would come when a man would be able to carry in his waistcoat pocket manure enough for an acre of land.[16]

The "farmer's dinner" was good enough to satisfy Dr. Johnson, for he made a very hearty meal. Yet with all the pride of a man who has a vigorous appetite, he said, "I have done greater feats with my knife than this." The low, square, panelled room in which they dined is much as they saw it, with its three windows with deep recesses looking on to the lawns and trees. It is a solid, comfortable apartment, which might have recalled to Johnson's memory an Oxford Common- Room, and which harmonized well with the solid talk he had with his host. In it there is a curious clock, so old that it might have told the hours to Colonel Irvine and his wife Elizabeth Douglas, and have attracted Johnson's notice by its antiquity.

  1. Defoe's Tour, p. 179.
  2. James Ray's History of the Rebellion, p. 288.
  3. Scots Magazine, 1772, p. 25.
  4. Pennant's Tour, ii. 278.
  5. Chalmers's Life of Ruddiman, p. 24.
  6. This information I owe to the kindness of my friend Mr. Arthur Galton.
  7. Ancient Metaphysics, iv. 45.
  8. Ib. p. 48.
  9. Ib. p. 55.
  10. Hannah More's Memoirs, i. 252.
  11. Ancient Metaphysics, vi. 212.
  12. Origin of Language, v. 274.
  13. Scots Magazine, 1799, pp. 729–731.
  14. Ancient Metaphysics, v. 307.
  15. Croker's Boswell, p. 288.
  16. This anecdote I had from Lord Monboddo's great grandson, Captain Burnett, of Monboddo House, to whose courtesy I am much indebted.