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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Boswell, James (1740-95)

Son of Alexander Boswell of Auchinleck, who was raised to the Bench as Lord Auchinleck. James Boswell was born at Edinburgh. He studied law at Glasgow University and in Utrecht, Holland, and became an advocate in 1766. He acted for the winning side in the Douglas case. He married Margaret Montgomerie in 1769. He met Samuel Johnson in London in 1763, and persuaded him to visit Scotland. Boswell accompanied Johnson on the tour of the Hebrides ten years later. In 1785, he published his Tour of the Hebrides.

Lord Auchinleck died in 1782. Thereafter Boswell tried to get into Parliament, indulged in unlucky speculations, got 'not drunk, but intoxicated', to use his own phrase, and in 1788 moved to London, leaving his wife at Auchinleck for long spells, where she died. He bitterly reproached himself for having left her on the day of her death, on the orders of Lord Londsdale, for whom Boswell was Recorder for Carlisle, until Lonsdale's crude bullying became too much even for Boswell. Though he contemplated a second marriage, it did not materialise. In 1791, he published his supreme achievement, his Life of Samuel Johnson, the best biography in the English language. Worn out by the intensity and frequency of his earlier pleasures, he died in London in 1795.

The Malahide papers have revealed a Boswell whose industry and honesty must be unsurpassed in English letters. Quite early in his career, he painted his own character in some lines of doggerel verse:

"Boswell is pleasant and gay,
For frolic by nature design'd;
He heedlessly rattles away
When the company is to his mind.
'This maxim', he says, 'you may see,
We never have corn without chaff'
So not a bent sixpence cares he,
Whether with or at him you laugh."

Though they were both Ayrshiremen, Burns and Boswell never met. That Burns hoped for such a meeting is shown by the letter he wrote to Bruce Campbell on 13th November 1788:

'I inclose you, for Mr Boswell, the ballad you mentioned; and as I hate sending waste paper or mutilating a sheet, I have filled it up with one or two of my fugitive Pieces that occurred. Should they procure me the honor of being introduced to Mr Boswell, I shall think they have great merit. There are few pleasures my late will-o'-wisp character has given me, equal to that of having seen many of the extraordinary men, the Heroes of Wit & Literature in my Country; & as I had the honor of drawing my first breath almost in the same Parish with Mr Boswell, my Pride plumes itself on the connection. To crouch in the train of meer stupid Wealth Greatness, except where the commercial interests of worldly Prudence find their account in it, I hold to be Prostitution in any on that is not born a Slave; but to have been acquainted with such a man as Mr Boswell, I would hand down to my Posterity as one of the honors of their Ancestor.'

In 'The Author's Earnest Cry and Prayer', Burns wrote:

"Alas! I'm but a nameless wight,
Trode I' the mire out o' sight!
But could I like Montgomeries fight,
Or gab like Boswell,
There's some sark-necks I wad draw tight,
An' tie some hose well."

In 'The Fete Champetre' Burns, listing the possible people to send to St Stephen's House, asked:

"Or will we send a man o' law?
Or will we send a sodger?
Or him wha led o'er Scotland a'
The meikle Ursa-Major?"

This allusion in the last line is to the well known joke of the elder Boswell who hearing his son speak of Johnson as a grat luminary, quite a constellation, said, 'Yes, Ursa-Major!'

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Complete Burns Songs

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