Wednesday, 10th November
Old Mr Drummond, the bookseller, came to breakfast. Dr Johnson and he had not met for ten years. There was respect on his side, and kindness on Dr Johnson's. Soon afterwards Lord Elibank came in, and was much pleased at seeing Dr Johnson in Scotland. His lordship said, 'hardly any thing seemed to him more improbable'. Dr Johnson had a very high opinion of him. Speaking of him to me, he characterized him thus: 'Lord Elibank has read a great deal. It is true, I can find in books all that he has read; but he has a great deal of what is in books, proved by the test of real life.' Indeed, there have been few men whose conversation discovered more knowledge enlivened by fancy. He published several small pieces of distinguished merit; and has left some in manuscript, in particular an account of the expedition against Carthagena, in which he served as an officer in the army. His writings deserve to be collected. He was the early patron of Dr Robertson, the historian, and Mr Home, the tragick poet; who, when they we were ministers of country parishes, lived near his seat. He told me, 'I saw these lads had talents, and they were much with me.' I hope they will pay a grateful tribute to his memory.
The morning was chiefly taken up by Dr Johnson's giving him an account of our tour. The subject of difference in political principles was introduced. JOHNSON. 'It is much increased by opposition. There was a violent Whig, with whom I used to contend with great eagerness. After his death I felt my Toryism much abated.' I suppose he meant Mr Walmsley of Lichfield, whose character he has drawn so well in his life of Edmund Smith.
Mr Nairne came in, and he and I accompanied Dr Johnson to Edinburgh castle, which he owned was 'a great place'. But I must mention, as a striking instance of that spirit of contradiction to which he had a strong propensity, when Lord Elibank was some days after talking of it with the natural elation of a Scotchman, or of any man who is proud of a stately fortress in his own country, Dr Johnson affected to despise it, observing that, 'it would make a good PRISON in ENGLAND'.
Lest it should be supposed that I have suppressed one of his sallies against my country, it may not be improper here to correct a mistaken account that has been circulated, as to his conversation this day. It has been said, that being desired to attend to the noble prospect from the Castle Hill, he replied, 'Sir, the noblest prospect that a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to London.' This lively sarcasm was thrown out at a tavern in London, in my presence, many years before.
We had with us to day at dinner, at my house, the Lady Dowager Colvill, and Lady Anne Erskine, sisters of the Earl of Kelly; the Honourable Archibald Erskine, who has now succeeded to that title; Lord Elibank; the Reverend Dr Blair; Mr Tytler, the acute vindicator of Mary Queen of Scots, and some other friends.
Fingal being talked of, Dr Johnson, who used to boast that he had, from the first, resisted both Ossian and the giants of Patagonia, averred his positive disbelief of its authenticity. Lord Elibank said, 'I am sure it is not McPherson's. Mr Johnson, I keep company a great deal with you; it is known I do. I may borrow from you better things than I can say myself, and give them as my own; but, if I should, every body will know whose they are.' The Doctor was not softened by this compliment. He denied merit to Fingal, supposing it to be the production of a man who has had the advantages that the present age affords; and said, 'nothing is more easy than to write enough in that style if once you begin'. [Footnote: I desire not to be understood as agreeing ENTIRELY with the opinions of Dr Johnson, which I relate without any remark. The many imitations, however, of Fingal, that have been published, confirm this observation in a considerable degree.] One gentleman in company expressing his opinion 'that Fingal was certainly genuine, for that he had heard a great part of it repeated in the original', Dr Johnson indignantly asked him, whether he understood the original; to which an answer being given in the negative, 'Why then,' said Dr Johnson, 'we see to what THIS testimony comes: thus it is.'
I mentioned this as a remarkable proof how liable the mind of man is to credulity, when not guarded by such strict examination as that which Dr Johnson habitually practised. The talents and integrity of the gentleman who made the remark, are unquestionable; yet, had not Dr Johnson made him advert to the consideration, that he who does not understand a language, cannot know that something which is recited to him is in that language, he might have believed, and reported to this hour, that he had 'heard a great part of Fingal repeated in the original'.
For the satisfaction of those on the north of the Tweed, who may think Dr Johnson's account of Caledonian credulity and inaccuracy too strong, it is but fair to add, that he admitted the same kind of ready belief might be found in his own country. 'He would undertake,' he said, 'to write an epick poem on the story of Robin Hood, and half England, to whom the names and places he should mention in it are familiar, would believe and declare they had heard it from their earliest years.'
One of his objections to the authenticity of Fingal, during the conversation at Ulinish, is omitted in my Journal, but I perfectly recollect it. 'Why is not the original deposited in some publick library, instead of exhibiting attestations of its existence? Suppose there were a question in a court of justice, whether a man be dead or alive. You aver he is alive, and you bring fifty witnesses to swear it: I answer, "Why do you not produce the man "' This is an argument founded on one of the first principles of the LAW OF EVIDENCE, which Gilbert would have held to be irrefragable.
I do not think it incumbent on me to give any precise decided opinion upon this question, as to which I believe more than some, and less than others. The subject appears to have now become very uninteresting to the publick. That Fingal is not from beginning to end a translation from the Gallick, but that some passages have been supplied by the editor to connect the whole, I have heard admitted by very warm advocates for its authenticity. If this be the case, why are not these distinctly ascertained? Antiquaries, and admirers of the work, may complain, that they are in a situation similar to that of the unhappy gentleman whose wife informed him, on her death-bed, that one of their reputed children was not his; and, when he eagerly begged her to declare which of them it was, she answered, 'THAT you shall never know', and expired, leaving him in irremediable doubt as to them all.
I beg leave to say something upon second sight, of which I have related two instances, as they impressed my mind at the time. I own, I returned from the Hebrides with a considerable degree of faith in the many stories of that kind which I heard with a too easy acquiescence, without any clear examination of the evidence: but, since that time, my belief in those stories has been much weakened, by reflecting on the careless inaccuracy of narrative in common matters, from which we may certainly conclude that these may be the same in what is more extraordinary. It is but just, however, to add, that the belief in second sight is not peculiar to the Highlands and Isles.
Some years after our tour, a cause was tried in the Court of Session where the principal fact to be ascertained was, whether a ship-master, who used to frequent the Western Highlands and Isles, was drowned in one particular year, or in the year after. A great number of witnesses from the parts were examined on each side, and swore directly contrary to each other upon this simple question. One of them, a very respectable chieftain, who told me a story of second sight, which I have not mentioned, but which I too implicitly believed, had in this case, previous to this publick examination, not only said, but attested under his hand, that he had seen the ship-master in the year subsequent to that in which the court was finally satisfied he was drowned. When interrogated with the strictness of judicial inquiry, and under the awe of an oath, he recollected himself better, and retracted what he had formerly asserted, apologizing for his inaccuracy, by telling the judge 'A man will SAY what he will not SWEAR.' By many he was much censured and it was maintained that every gentleman would be as attentive to truth without the sanction of an oath, as with it. Dr Johnson, though he himself was distinguished at all times by a scrupulous adherence to truth, controverted this proposition; and, as a proof that this was not, though it ought to be, the case, urged the very different decisions of elections under Mr Greville's Act, from those formerly made. 'Gentlemen will not pronounce upon oath, what they would have said, and voted in the House without the sanction.'
However difficult it may be for men who believe in preternatural communications, in modern times, to falsify those who are of a different opinion, they may easily refute the doctrine of their opponents, who impute a belief in second sight to superstition. To entertain a visionary notion that one sees a distant or future event, may be called superstition; but the correspondence of the fact or event with such an impression on the fancy, though certainly very wonderful, IF PROVED, has no more connection with superstition, than magnetism or electricity.
After dinner, various topicks were discussed; but I recollect only one particular. Dr Johnson compared the different talents of Garrick and Foote, as companions, and gave Garrick greatly the preference for elegance, though he allowed Foote extraordinary powers of entertainment. He said, 'Garrick is restrained by some principle; but Foote has the advantage of an unlimited range. Garrick has some delicacy of feeling; it is possible to put him out; you may get the better of him; but Foote is the most incompressible fellow that I ever knew: when you have driven him into a corner, and think you are sure of him, he runs through between your legs, or jumps over your head, and makes his escape.'
Dr Erskine and Mr Robert Walker, two very respectable ministers of Edinburgh, supped with us, as did the Reverend Dr Webster. The conversation turned on the Moravian missions, and on the Methodists. Dr Johnson observed in general, that missionaries were too sanguine in their accounts of their success among savages, and that much of what they tell is not to be believed. He owned that the Methodists had done good; had spread religious impressions among the vulgar part of mankind: but, he said, they had great bitterness against other Christians, and that he never could get a Methodist to explain in what he excelled others; that it always ended in the indispensible necessity of hearing one of their preachers.