THE date was May 16, 1763, and the place was a hotspot of literary London, Tom Davies’s bookshop in Covent Garden. The 22-year-old James Boswell, just blown in from Auchinleck, had dropped by to see which famous figures he might come across there. He could hardly wait to get started on a great purpose of his life, of meeting and talking to celebrities whose names he might then drop, or collect from them pithy sayings he could write down and quote to third parties. Again, renown would fall on him too.

Boswell was an eternal optimist, but even he could hardly have expected, so soon after his own debut, to encounter the great Dr Samuel Johnson (below), author of the classic English Dictionary or of model essays in The Rambler and The Idler. Boswell knew as a novice that the doctor was apt to deliver crushing replies to comments from people like himself. But if he had not come to seek fame in London, what was he doing here?

The National: Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), lexicographer and literary giant of the 18th century. He and Gambold were almost neighbours although whether they met is unknown.

Friend Tom took a hand. With a face lighting up, he donned the role of Horatio at the moment he calls Hamlet’s attention to his father’s ghost: “Look, my Lord, it comes.”

From close up, Boswell found Johnson’s appearance to be “dreadful”. A huge man draped in ill-fitting clothes, he had swollen eyes and a body shaken by palsy-like quivers over skin pocked by childhood scrofula. Knowing Johnson’s undying hostility towards Scots, a mischievous Davies made sure Johnson knew he was now meeting one.

Undone by his friend’s treachery, Boswell blurted out: “Mr Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” Johnson showed no mercy: “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.”

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Moments later, the bold Boswell piped up again at a mention of the actor David Garrick (below), who had refused Johnson a favour. Garrick would surely never deny a man like Johnson “such a trifle”, said the Scot. The doctor stared balefully at him: “Sir, I have known David Garrick longer than you have done, and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject.”

The National: Portrait of David Garrick..

Boswell would later note: “Had not my ardour been uncommonly strong, and my resolution uncommonly persevering, so rough a reception might have deterred me for ever from making any further attempts.” Ardent and resolved Boswell was, however, and a few days later he called on Johnson at his lodgings. The doctor, whose clothes were as worn and dishevelled as his rooms, this time welcomed the young admirer and finally, as they took leave of each other, urged they should meet yet again.

By the end of their third meeting – at the Mitre Tavern, the doctor’s local in Covent Garden – Boswell’s incurable cheeriness and disarming candour had conquered the great man. In the middle of their conversation, Johnson paused and thrust his giant arm across the table: “Give me your hand. I have taken a liking to you.” It was the start of a unique relationship that lasted as long as Johnson lived and that Boswell honoured till he died too.

The words have been recalled right down to our own day too because they were not a matter of mere passing comment. The friendship of Johnson and Boswell had a capacity of its own in forming the foundation of a new literary genre, the biography. It brought fact and fiction together in a fresh way that enhanced the experience of both readers and writers. Even today, the biography is often a bestseller. Scotland was its first home.

WITH more than 300 years of hindsight, we too may doubt if Johnson’s performance on that May 16, 1763, was not just a big charade, in which the tone and the vigour of the statements counted for more than anything actually said. In the end, after all, Boswell successfully proposed they should go together on a Highland journey to be spent entirely among Scotsmen, one lasting 83 days altogether and crossing country that lacked all civilised comforts. And Johnson loved it.

There are moments when Johnson sounds less like a disgruntled tourist than, say, a land reformer of the modern day. He deplores it that the Highland landscapes have come to look so empty and condemns the post-

Jacobite lairds: “To hinder insurrection, by driving away the people, and to govern peaceably, by having no subjects, is an expedient that argues no great profundity of politicks.”

And as the dogged duo laboured their way round forbidding glens and crags, Boswell managed to introduce the doctor to a number of figures he genuinely admired, including Flora MacDonald and various chieftains who maintained certain facets of the traditional way of life. As the journey reached its end, Johnson was finding more people to admire than to despise.

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Before he recrossed the border he saw much of the same sort of thing to admire in Edinburgh, though its character varied. Now, rather than Boswell, it was William Robertson, principal of the university, that took over the tour by Dr Johnson in the byways of Scottish history. Boswell just vanished into his taverns, or perhaps his brothels.

It is typical that Boswell puts no words to the difference. He obviously does consider Edinburgh to be an inferior literary city to London, but he does not bother to set out why. There were in fact several European cities that might have competed for the best of reputations, as in different arts they staked their claims to the admiration of foreigners: Paris, Rome, St Petersburg and so on. Edinburgh might have been one too, as no less a leader of literary fashion than Voltaire had recommended (from Geneva). But the thought never enters the brain of Boswell.

In fact for several decades of the high Enlightenment that lay ahead, Edinburgh and London would be of roughly equal cultural distinction – if it can be granted that of great cities each will have their specialisms and their weaknesses. While London excelled in literature, Edinburgh excelled in philosophy. If Edinburgh excelled in architecture, London excelled in the drama. Paris meanwhile set the standards in elegance, while Venice did so in the exotic. Venice and St Petersburg competed as maritime cities, and so on.

How did Boswell fit into this ever more cosmopolitan age? He never seems to have doubted for himself the distinctions of Scottish culture. He just seems to have taken it for granted that, nevertheless, culture in London was somehow superior. Here was a sense of inferiority that had no justification yet was never lost. We must see if the Scotland of the 21st century ever excels on the 18th.