Boswell and Johnson’s enjoyable tour marred by irritating annotator

Johnson and BoswellAs I mentioned in my last post, reading Michael Innes’s From London Far spurred me on to reread Johnson & Boswell’s Hebridean journals. I had forgotten about Peter Levi’s notes – irritating, sometimes glossing things which don’t need it and often not annotating things which aren’t obvious, not providing translations of many Latin pieces, sometimes making irritating comments, some notes provide info which need citation, others are just wrong – e.g. Boswell writes, while in Nairn, (p223) ‘Mr M’Aulay and I laid the map of Scotland before us; and he pointed out a rout for us from Inverness, by Fort Augustus, to Glenelg, Sky, Mull, Icolmkill [Iona], Lorn, and Inveraray’; Levi’s note says ‘Up the east coast, across the Great Glen, a hop to Skye, then island-hopping south to Mull and Iona. Not far, really.’ Up the east coast? – they’ve already done that. Inverness is southwest of Nairn, along the southern coast of the Moray Firth, down the Great Glen, then it’s more than a ‘hop’ from Fort Augustus to Skye; and why bother with the note at all – there’s an imperfect (‘Rattakin’ is misplaced eastwards by quite a few miles) map at the start of the book. Interestingly, Peter Forbes’s obituary of Levi in the Guardian states that ‘his books were often criticised for their haste and inaccuracy.’

At one point Johnson & Boswell make a visit to an antiquity, Boswell explaining ‘all that remains is two stones set up on end, with a long one laid upon them, as was usual and one stone at a little distance from them.’ Levi’s note: ‘Surely a tomb.’ Most helpful, was it worth interrupting the book for that?

Note 211 (to a lengthy Latin inscription): ‘This inscription is not worth translating.’

In note 148 to Johnson he asks ‘What is he talking about?’ Some of Levi’s annotations leave me asking the same. I should say about three-quarters of the notes left me thinking ‘well, so what?’; I can slightly misquote his Boswell note 168: ‘Like many of Levi’s allusions, this adds nothing to the purpose.’

It’s a shame, as both Johnson and Boswell’s accounts are a joy to read. I’m going to get hold of a different edition and read it again. In the meantime, I’m about to embark on Footsteps of Dr. Johnson (Scotland) by George Birkbeck Hill, which was first published in 1890.

My favourite passage in Boswell’s account is of his first night at Corrichatachin on Skye. They arrive as the master and mistress were just going to bed, but they had a good fire made, and ‘at twelve o’clock at night had supper on the table.’ Dr J went to bed, but Boswell stayed up. ‘When one bowl of punch was finished, I rose, and was near the door, in my way up stairs to bed; but Corrichatachin said, it was the first time Col had been in his house, and he should have his bowl; and would not I join in drinking it? The heartiness of my honest landlord, and the desire of doing social honour to out very obliging conductor, induced me to sit down again. Col’s bowl was finished; and by that time we were well warmed. A third bowl was soon made, and that too was finished. We were cordial, and merry to a high degree; but of what passed I have no recollection, with any accuracy…A fourth bowl was made, by which time Col, and young M’Kinnon, Corrichatachin’s son, slipped away to bed. I continued a little with Corri and Knockow; but at last I left them. It was near five in the morning when I got to bed.’

This passage makes me reminisce of visits to my late uncle and aunt in the backwoods of Moray – I have had similar cracks at their isolated hill farm (only with drams (more accurately, several bottles of whisky), rather than punch), and sometimes I never would get to bed. One I remember, started at about three in the afternoon and continued until about six the next morning. They had a very hard life; the farm must have barely been able to support them. I spoke to the brother of their laird, who is the laird of somewhere else not far away, a few years ago, and he remembered them; he expressed surprise that my uncle and aunt could have made a go of the farm, but they did, raising a family there, and staying on until my uncle retired. There were minimal services, electricity (provided by a small diesel generator) not arriving until the seventies, along with indoor sanitation, and the farm was reached by a ford which was often impassable when the river was in spate, even in summer.

As a child I found it an adorable place. The lighting was by oil (although the summer evenings were long that far north), there was no television, or bath, the milk came out of a cow that same morning, and there was always nice food – porridge and pancakes and cakes and soup; and lots of potatoes (neeps and tatties were about the only vegetable that would grow successfully there). Later, as a teenager, I stayed with my uncle and aunt while attending a wedding, and we had a taxi into Elgin; the driver was offered the choice of a sack of potatoes or a sack of turnips in payment; he chose the tatties, as ‘ma wife widnae ken whit to dae wi’ a sack o’ neeps’.

It’s only more recently that I have realised how hard their life was, particularly in winter. Since my uncle retired the house has become a gamekeeper’s lodge and presumably is supplied with more comforts, and now there is a concrete bridge over the Lossie. Rich shooters presumably provide more income than beef for Sainsbury’s ever did.

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2 Responses to Boswell and Johnson’s enjoyable tour marred by irritating annotator

  1. Great piece ..so pleased I came across it ..ELiza Keating

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