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EARLY DAYS—MEETS JOHNSON. 1740-1763
'Behind yon hills, where Lugar flows.'—Burns.
'Every Scotchman,' says Sir Walter Scott, 'has a pedigree. It is a national prerogative, as inalienable as his pride and his poverty. My birth was neither distinguished nor sordid.' What, however, was but a foible with Scott was a passion in James Boswell, who has on numerous occasions obtruded his genealogical tree in such a manner as to render necessary some acquaintance with his family and lineage. The family of Boswell, or Bosville, dates from the Normans who came with William the Conqueror to Hastings. Entering Scotland in the days of the sore saint, David I., they had spread over Berwickshire and established themselves, at least in one branch, at Balmuto in Fife. A descendant of the family, Thomas Boswell, occupies in the genealogy of the biographer the position of prominence which Wat of Harden holds in the line of the novelist. He obtained a grant of the lands in Ayrshire belonging to the ancient house of Affleck of that ilk, when they had passed by forfeiture into the hands of the king. Pitcairn, in his Collection of Criminal
Trials is inclined to regard this ancestor as the chief minstrel in the royal train of James IV.; but, as he fell at Flodden, this may be taken as being at least not proven, nor would the position of this first literary man in the family have been quite pleasing to the pride of race so often shewn by his descendant. A Yorkshire branch of the family, with the spelling of their name as Bosville, was settled at Gunthwait in the West Riding, and its head was hailed as 'his chief' by Bozzy, whose gregarious instincts led him to trace and claim relationship in a way even more than is national. By marriage and other ties the family in Scotland was connected with the most ancient and distinguished houses in the land.
The great grandfather of the biographer was the Earl of Kincardine who is mentioned by Gilbert Burnet in his History of His Own Time. He had married a Dutch lady, of the noble house of Sommelsdyck who had once held princely rank in Surinam. With that branch also of the name did Boswell, in later years, establish a relationship at the time of his continental tour, when at the Hague he found the head holding 'an important charge in the Republick, and is as worthy a man as lives, and has honoured me with his correspondence these twenty years.' From the Earl Boswell boasted 'the blood of Bruce in my veins,' a descent which he seizes every opportunity of making known to his readers, and to which we find him alluding in a letter of 10th May, 1786, now before us, to Mickle, the translator of the Lusiad, with a promise to 'tell you what I know about our common ancestor, Robert the Bruce.' When Johnson, in the autumn of 1773, visited the ancestral seat of his friend, Boswell, 'in the glow of what, I am sensible, will in a commercial age be considered as a genealogical enthusiasm,' did not
forget to remind his illustrious Mentor of his relationship to the Royal Personage, George the Third, 'whose pension had given Johnson comfort and independence.' It would have required a much greater antiquarian than Johnson, who could scarcely tell the name of his own grandfather, to have traced the well-nigh twenty generations of connecting links between Bruce and the third of the Guelph dynasty on the throne.
From Veronica Sommelsdyck, the wife of this royal ancestor (whose title is now merged in the earldom of Elgin), was 'introduced into our family the saint's name,' born by Boswell's own eldest daughter, and other consequences of a much graver nature were destined to ensue. 'For this marriage,' says Ramsay of Ochtertyre, 'their posterity paid dear,' for to it was due, increased no doubt as it was through the inter-marriages in close degrees between various scions of the house, the insanity which is now recognised by all students of his writings in Boswell himself, and which made its appearance in the clearest way in the case of his second daughter. His grandfather James adopted the profession of law in which he obtained some distinction, and left three children—Alexander, the father of the subject of this sketch, John, who followed the practice of medicine, and a daughter Veronica, married to Montgomerie of Lainshaw, whose daughter became the wife of her cousin Bozzy.
Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, married his cousin Euphemia Erskine. In the writings of the son the father makes a considerable figure, while his mother, 'of the family of Buchan, a woman of almost unexampled piety and goodness,' as he styles her, is but a dim name in the background, as with John Stuart Mill who has written a copious autobiography, and left it to the logical instincts of his readers to infer that he had a
mother. The profession of law was adopted by the father, who, after a residence abroad at Leyden where he graduated, passed as advocate at the Scottish bar in 1729, from which, after a distinguished career, he was appointed to the sheriffdom of Wigton, and ultimately raised to the bench in 1754, with the title of Lord Auchinleck. He possessed, says his son, 'all the dignified courtesy of an old baron,' of the school of Cosmo Bradwardine as we may say, and not only was he an excellent scholar, but, from the intimacy he had cultivated with the Gronovii and other literati of Leyden, he was a collector of classical manuscripts and a collator of the texts and editions of Anacreon. His library was rich in curious editions of the classics, and was in some respects not excelled by any private collection in Great Britain, and the reputation of the Auchinleck library was greatly increased by the black-letter tastes and publications of his grandson. A strong Whig and active Presbyterian, he was much esteemed in public and in private life. The son had on his northern tour the pleasure to note, both at Aberdeen and at Inverness, the high regard in which the old judge was held, and to find his name and connection a very serviceable means of introduction to the travellers in their 'transit over the Caledonian hemisphere.' Like the father of Scott, who kept the whole bead-roll of cousins and relations and loved a funeral, Lord Auchinleck bequeathed to his eldest son at least one characteristic, the attention to relatives in the remotest degree of kin. On the bench, like the judges in Redgauntlet, Hume, Kames, and others, he affected the racy Doric; and his 'Scots strength of sarcasm, which is peculiar to a North Briton,' was on many an occasion lamented by his son who felt it, and acknowledged by Johnson on at least one famous occasion. In the Boswelliana are preserved many of
old Auchinleck's stories which Lord Monboddo says he could tell well with wit and gravity—stories of the circuit and bar type of Braxfield and Eskgrove, such as Scott used to tell to the wits round the fire of the Parliament House. In his younger days he had been a beau, and his affectation of red heels to his shoes and of red stockings, when brought under the notice of his son by a friend, so affected Bozzy that he could hardly sit on his chair for laughing. A great gardener and planter like others of the race of old Scottish judges he had extended, in the classic style of architecture then in fashion, the family mansion, and had, as Johnson found, 'advanced the value of his lands with great tenderness to his tenants.' Past the older residence flowed the river Lugar, here of considerable depth, and then bordered with rocks and shaded with wood—the old castle whose 'sullen dignity' was the nurse of Boswell's devotion to the feudal principles and 'the grand scheme of subordination,' of which he lets us hear so much when he touches on 'the romantick groves of my ancestors.'