1 leith - monboddo

18 VIII 1773
8 IV 2013

18 VIII 1773
8 IV 2013


20 VIII 1773
24 XI 2013


21 VIII 1773
24 XI 2013

Bozzy and Johnson met at Boyd’s Inn, near the Canongate. Before they could set off for the north, Boswell had to show off his friend – the best known man then alive, as he supposed him to be in parlours and howffs, introduce him to ‘the finest prospect in Europe’, and record more Johnsoniana.

Johnson, however, records the whirl of experiences that was his stay in Edinburgh as simply,

   a city

   too well known
   to admit description

Just as later they will skirt Culloden, another gap – not in the record but in the experience itself – was Boswell’s omission to introduce Johnson to David Hume, with whom Boswell was on friendly terms. Moray McLaren suggests that Boswell knew ‘the introduction would not have come off… Johnson would have recognised [Hume] as an enemy, a world-class enemy, and have been compelled to offer a challenge. It would for Boswell have been a painful and embarrassing encounter.’

Their 100-day tour was baptised by the Firth of Forth, which Johnson baptised ‘the Frith’, on the banks of the boreal Lethe.

Boswell writes, ‘I told him the port here was the mouth of the river or water of Leith. Not LETHE, said Mr Nairne. Why, sir, said Dr Johnson, when a Scotchman sets out from this port for England, he forgets his native country. NAIRNE: I hope, sir, you will forget England here. JOHNSON: Then 'twill be still more Lethe.”’

From here, they embarked on the pun-boat to Kinghorn.

the Frith   fresh   with fretted light


McLaren, Moray The Highland Jaunt (1954)


On this first sea crossing Johnson insisted on their first diversion, landing on Inch Keith, where they clambered up a thistly hill, and come across a ‘fort, with an inscription on it:

MARIA RE 1564’.

For Maria, Mary Queen of Scots, they dreamed Dido, Virgil’s ‘unhappy queen’; gazing out over the humdrum sea, we read Mary as Diana.

the tug   of vague   waves

Between Burntisland and Kinghorn we stood by the monument beneath the cliffs where, in 1296, Alexander III’s mount fell, an event which led to the protracted violence known as the Wars of Independence. It was there we heard on the news – Margaret Thatcher died this day, to general rejoicing in these parts.

Another unhappy death by the unvarying waves: in 1822 Boswell’s eldest son, Alexander, was killed in a duel at nearby Auchtertool.


Bradford, Sarah Diana (2006)
Dryden John (tr.) The Works of Virgil (1697)
Fraser, Antonia Mary Queen of Scots (1969)
Ovid: Amores (16bce)
Moore, Charles, Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning (2013)


Unusually, Johnson writes more than Boswell of their time at ‘Aberbrothick’; the antiquarian in him is pricked by the ruins of the abbey, ‘of great renown in the history of Scotland’, and he goes so far as to state, ‘I should scarcely have regretted my journey, had it afforded nothing more than the sight of Aberbrothick’. Boswell, who is often at pains to show his patriotism (nowhere more so than on Iona), doesn’t so much as mention the site of the famous declaration of Scottish independence in 1320, following the wars which began with the death of Alexander III.

At the other end of the modern town stands PLEASURELAND, next to the windswept football ground; what specific pleasures it had to offer I didn’t have time to discover.


Declaration of Arbroath in the National Archives of Scotland
Barrow, G.W.S. (ed.), The Declaration of Arbroath: History, Significance, Setting (2003)
Parr, Martin Boring Postcards (2004)


From the A90 I drive a Johnsonian ‘two miles out of [my] way to see' Monboddo, which means something like ‘tail of land’.

Here lived James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714–99), well known in his time but little read now; his ideas don’t have the currency of Hume, Smith, or indeed Boswell. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he ‘believed that men were descended from monkeys, and he was also sure that every baby was born with a vestigal tail that was privily snipped off by the midwife, and that this secret was the property of all women.’ (Stucley)

 ‘I never saw you, I only heard of you’, as The Specials sang in ‘Monkey Man’; Delaney says ‘an enormous monkeypuzzle dominates the immediate skyline’, which seems an apt metaphor for his theorising.

I drive past a pair of signs in a cold late November dusk, but following the narrow road past a number of modern houses I see no trace of the ‘poor old house… [with] two turrets’ which Boswell describes.

He also writes, ‘Monboddo is a wretched place, wild and naked’, and the fields, at this time of year, are certainly naked; but, reclothed in spring and summer, surely a pastoral charm will return. It’s a Virgilian landscape, as Monboddo suggests when he quotes the Eclogues; while he and Johnson go on to praise Homer, it’s hard to imagine the mass carnage of the Iliad here. This is settled land, where disputes have long been settled by law; Monboddo is a judge, not a soldier.

Much later, on Inchkenneth, perhaps as a vestigal memory of Monboddo, Johnson will praise their practical friend Young Col by saying, ‘if any man has a TAIL, it is Col’.


Delaney, Frank A Walk to the Western Isles (1993)
Stucley, Elizabeth A Hebridean Journey with Johnson and Boswell (1956)
Mills, Barriss (trans.), The Eclogues of Virgil (1980)