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Significant Scots
Alexander & James Boswell


BOSWELL, ALEXANDER and JAMES, sons of the preceding. It has been remarked, as creditable to the memory of James VI., that he educated two sons, who were both, in point of personal and intellectual character, much above the standard of ordinary men. The same remark will apply to the biographer of Johnson, who, what ever may be thought of his own character, reared two sons who stood forth afterwards as a credit to his parental care. A wish to educate his children in the best manner, was one of the ruling passions of this extraordinary litterateur in his latter years. He placed both his sons at Westminster school, and afterwards in the university of Oxford, at an expense which appears to have been not altogether justified by his own circumstances.

Alexander Boswell, who was born, October 9, 1775, succeeded his father in the possession of the family estate. He was distinguished as a spirited and amiable country gentleman, and also as a literary antiquary of no inconsiderable erudition. Perhaps his taste, in the latter capacity, was greatly fostered by the possession of an excellent collection of old manuscripts and books, which was gathered together by his ancestors, and has acquired the well-known title of the "AUCHINLECK LIBRARY." From the stores of this collection, in 1804, Sir Walter Scott published the romance of "Sir Tristram," which is judged by its learned editor to be the earliest specimen of poetry by a Scottish writer now in existence. Besides this invaluable present to the literary world, the Auchinleck Library furnished, in 1812, the black letter original of a disputation held between John Knox and Quentin Kennedy at Maybole in 1592, which was printed at the time by Knox himself, but had latterly become so scarce, that hardly another copy, besides that in the Auchinleck Library, was known to exist. Mr Boswell was at the expense of printing a fac-simile edition of this curiosity, which was accepted by the learned, as a very valuable contribution to our stock of historical literature.

The taste of Alexander Boswell was of a much manlier and more sterling character than that of his father; and instead of being alternately the active and passive cause of amusement to his friends, he shone exclusively in the former capacity. He possessed, indeed, a great fund of volatile talent, and, in particular, a most pungent vein of satire, which, while it occasionally inspired fear and dislike in those who were liable to become its objects, produced no admiration which was not also accompanied by respect. At an early period of his life, some of his poetical jeux d’esprit occasionally made a slight turmoil in that circle of Scottish society in which he moved. He sometimes also exercised his pen in that kind of familiar vernacular poetry which Burns again brought into fashion; and in the department of song-writing he certainly met with considerable success. A small volume, entitled, "Songs chiefly in the Scottish Dialect," was published by him, anonymously, in 1803, with the motto, "Nulla venenato litera mixta joco," a motto which it would have been well for him if he had never forgot. In a brief note on the second folio of this little work, he mentioned that he was induced to lay these trivial compositions in an authentic shape before the public, because corrupted copies had previously made their appearance. The truth is, some of his songs had already acquired a wide acceptation in the public, and were almost as familiar as those of Burns. [We may instance, "Auld Gudeman, ye’re a Drucken Carle," "Jenny’s Bawbee," and "Jenny Dang the Weaver."] The volume also contains some English compositions, which still retain a popularity—such as "Taste Life’s Glad Moments," which, he tells us, he translated at Leipsig, in 1795, from the German song, "Freu’t euch des Libens." Mr Boswell also appears, from various compositions in this little volume, to have had a turn for writing popular Irish songs. One or two of his attempts in that style, are replete with the grotesque character of the nation. [It is hardly worth while to say more of a few fugitive lyrics; but yet we cannot help pointing out a remarkably beautiful antithesis, in one styled, "The Old Chieftain to his Sons:-

"The auld will speak, the young maun hear,
Be canty, but be gude and leal;
Your ain ills aye hae heart to bear,
Anither’s aye hae heart to feel."

In another he thus ludicrously adverts, in a fictitious character, to the changes which modern manners, rather than time, have produced upon the external and internal economy of the Scottish capital:-

Hech! what a change hae we now in this town!
A’ now-are braw lads, the lasses a’ glanein’;
Folk maun be dizzy gaun aye in this roun’,
For deil a hae’t ’s done now but feastin’ and dancin’.
Gowd’s no that scanty in ilk siller pock,
Whan ilka bit laddie maun hae his bit staigie;
But I kent the day when there was na a Jock,
But trotted about upon honest shanks-naigie.
Little was stown then, and less gaed to waste,
Barely a mullin for mice or for rattens;
The thrifty gudewife to the flesh-market paced,
Her equipage a’—just a gude pair o’ pattens.
Folk were as gude then, and friends were as leal;
Though coaches were scant, wi’ their cattle a’ cantrin’;
Right airs we were tell’t by the housemaid or chiel,
‘Sir, an ye please, here’s yer lass and a lantern.’
The town may be cloutit and pieced till it meets,
A’ neebors benorth and besouth without haltin’
Brigs may be biggit ower lums and ower streets,
The Nor-Loch itsel’ heap’d as heigh as the Calton.
But whar is true friendship, and whar will you see
A’ that is gude, honest, modest, and thrifty? -
Tak gray hairs and wrinkles, and hirple wi’ me,
And think on the seventeen-hundred and fifty.]

In 1810, Mr Boswell published a small volume under the title, "Edinburgh, or the Ancient Royalty, a Sketch of former Manners, by Simon Gray." It is a kind of city eclogue, in which a farmer, who knew the town in a past age, is supposed to converse regarding its modern changes, with a city friend. It contains some highly curious memorials of the simple manners which obtained in Edinburgh, before the change described in the song just quoted. At a subsequent period, Mr Boswell established a private printing-press at Auchinleck, from which he issued various trifles in prose and verse, some of which are characterised by much humour. In 1816, appeared a poetical tale, somewhat like Burns’s "Tam o’ Shanter," entitled, "Skeldon Haughs, or the Sow is Flitted!" being founded on a traditionary story regarding an Ayrshire feud of the fifteenth century. [Kennedy of Bargeny tethered a sow on the lands of his feudal enemy Crawford of Kerse, and resolved that the latter gentleman, with all his vassals, should not be permitted to remove or "flit" the animal. To defeat this bravado at the very first, the adherents of Crawford assembled in great force, and entered into active fight with the Kennedies, who, with their sow, were at length driven back with great slaughter though not till the son of the laird of Kerse, who had led his father’s forces, was slain. The point of the poem lies in the dialogue which passed between the old laird and a messenger who came to apprise him of the event:—

"‘Is the sow flittit? tell me, loon!
Is auld Kyle up and Carsick down?’
Mingled wi’ sobs, his broken tale
The youth began; Ak, Kerse, bewail
This luckless day!—Your blythe son, John,
Ah, waes my heart, lies on the loan—
And he could sing like only merle!
‘Is the sow flitted?’ cried the carle;
‘Gie me my answer—short and plain,—
Is the sow flitted, yammerin wean!’
‘The sow (deil tak her) ‘s ower the water—
And at their backs the Crawfords batter—
The Carrick couts are cowed and bitted!’
‘My thumb for Jock! THE SOW IS FLITTED.’"]

In 1821, Mr Boswell was honoured with, what had been the chief object of his ambition for many years, a baronetcy of Great Britain. About this period, politics ran very high in the country, and Sir Alexander, who had inherited all the Tory spirit of his father, sided warmly with the ministry. In the beginning of the year 1821, a few gentlemen of similar prepossessions, conceived it to be not only justifiable, but necessary, that the fervour of the radical press, as it was called, should be met by a corresponding fervour on the other side, so that the enemies of the government might be combated with their own weapons. Hence arose a newspaper in Edinburgh styled the Beacon, to which Sir Alexander Boswell contributed a few jeux d’esprit, aimed at the leading men on the other side, and alleged to have far exceeded the proper line of political sarcasm. These being continued in a subsequent paper, which was published at Glasgow, under the name of the Sentinel, at lengths were traced to their author by James Stuart, Esq. younger of Dunearn, who had been the object of some of the rudest attacks, and repeatedly accused of cowardice. The consequence of this discovery was a challenge from Mr Stuart to Sir Alexander, and the hostile parties having met near Auchtertool in Fife, March 26, 1822, the latter received a shot in the bottom of the neck, which terminated his existence next day. Mr Stuart was tried for this offence, by the High Court of Justiciary, but most honourably acquitted. Sir Alexander left a widow and several children.

BOSWELL, JAMES, the second son of the biographer of Johnson, was, as already mentioned, educated at Westminster School. He was afterwards entered of Brazen-nose College, Oxford, and there had the honour to be elected fellow upon the Vinerian foundation. Mr Boswell possessed talents of a superior order, sound classical scholarship, and a most extensive and intimate knowledge of our early literature. In the investigation of every subject he pursued, his industry, judgment, and discrimination, were equally remarkable; his memory was unusually tenacious and accurate; and he was always as ready, as he was competent, to communicate his stores of information for the benefit of others. Mr Malone was influenced by these qualifications, added to the friendship which he entertained for Mr Boswell, to select him as his literary executor; and to his care this eminent commentator intrusted the publication of an enlarged and amended edition of Shakspeare, which he had long-been meditating. As Mr Malone’s papers were left in a state scarcely intelligible, it is believed that no man but one of kindred genius like Mr Boswell, could have rendered them at all available. This, however, Mr Boswell did in the most efficient manner; farther enriching the work with many excellent notes of his own, besides collating the text with all the earlier editions. This work, indeed, which extends to twenty-one volumes, 8vo, must be considered as not only the most elaborate edition of Shakspeare, but perhaps the greatest edition of any work in the English language. In the first volume, Mr Boswell has stepped forward to defend the literary reputation of Mr Malone against the severe attacks made by a writer of distinguished eminence, upon many of his critical opinions and statements; a task of great delicacy, and which Mr Boswell performed in so spirited and gentlemanly a manner, that his preface may be fairly quoted as a model of controversial writing. In the same volume are inserted "Memoirs of Mr Malone," originally printed by Mr Boswell for private circulation; and a valuable essay on the metre and phraseology of Shakspeare, the materials for which were partly collected by Mr Malone, but which was entirely indebted to Mr Boswell for arrangement and completion.

Mr Boswell inherited from his father a keen relish of the society of the metropolis, and accordingly he spent his life almost exclusively in the Middle Temple. Few men were better fitted to appreciate and contribute to the pleasures of social intercourse; his conversational powers, and the unfailing cheerfulness of his disposition, rendered him everywhere an acceptable guest; but it was the goodness of his heart, that warmth of friendship which knew no bounds when a call was made upon his services, which formed the sterling excellence, and the brightest feature of Mr Boswell’s character. This amiable man and excellent scholar died, February 24, 1822, in the forty-third year of his age, and was buried in the Temple Church, by a numerous train of sorrowing friends. It is a melancholy circumstance, that his brother, Sir Alexander, had just returned from performing the last offices to a beloved brother, when he himself was summoned from existence in the manner above related.


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