Who Was James Boswell?

James Boswell (1740-1795)

James Boswell sprang from an ancient Ayrshire family, which had been settled at Auchinleck since the sixteenth century. He was born in Edinburgh in 1740 where his father, who became Lord Auchinleck, was a Judge in the Supreme Court of Scotland. His mother was descended from a minor branch of Scottish royalty.

He was educated at Edinburgh University followed by Glasgow University, where he attended the lectures of the great Enlightenment philosopher, Adam Smith. From the start, Bozzy as he was affectionately known, was drawn to the pleasure loving side of life. His first visit to London at the age of 19 began a love affair with the city which never wavered.

His charm, sensitivity and intelligence opened doors to the most brilliant men of the day, but the ultimate prize for Boswell was his friendship with the towering figure of Dr Samuel Johnson – compiler of the definitive dictionary of the English language and celebrated man of letters. Boswell’s friendship led him to become Johnson’s biographer and the account of his life, published in 1791, has never been out of print.

His Life of Johnson established him as the inventor of modern biography and has upheld his reputation as one of the most innovative writers of the enlightenment. Boswell was also author of a pioneering travel book An Account of Corsica (1768) and his famous Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785), which described an expedition made to the Western Isles with Dr Johnson. At the end of their journey, they stayed at Auchinleck where Johnson famously crossed swords with Boswell’s father.

Gilray Cartoon - Boswell Johnson
Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, Walking up Edinburgh High Street in 1773 from a caricature by Thomas Rowlandson
Corsican Boswell
James Boswell in the dress of an armed Corsican Chief as he appeared at Shakespeare’s Jubilee at Stratford upon Avon, September 1769

Bill Paterson reads excerpts from James Boswell's books and journals

The much-loved Scottish actor, known to many through his recent roles in Shetland, Fleabag, Guilt and Rebecca as well as through his narration of numerous TV and radio programmes including being the voice of BBC 1’s ‘The Repair Shop’ and the reading of his own classic childhood memoir Tales from the Back Green, will be reading excerpts from James Boswell’s most enduring books and journals, including An Account of Corsica and Tour to the Hebrides – which was recently the inspiration behind the Sky Arts programmes with Frank Skinner and Denise Mina.

While The Life of Samuel Johnson has never been out of print since its publication in 1791, Boswell’s numerous other writings have been less accessible to the reading public. Yale University, where the Boswell archive is held, have been engaged in a monumental campaign to publish the complete Boswell papers and one of their greatest triumphs was the publication in 1950 of Boswell’s youthful London Journal 1762-1763 which became an international bestseller.

Dr Gordon Turnbull and The Life of Boswell

The great biographer and diarist James Boswell lies in his eternal resting place, with his immediate family members, in the ancestral tomb at Auchinleck. Surrounding him in the graveyard lie many of the Ayrshire folk of his time, immortalised by mention in his marvellous diaries and letters.

Gordon Turnbull, head of the Yale Boswell Editions, notes that in this very special place, we remember not only life, but the Life — Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, the pathbreaking biographical achievement that issued from the deepest Boswellian impulse — to remember and to commemorate.

Boswell’s fame redoubled in the twentieth century with the discovery and publication of his diaries, setting him alongside Pepys as one of the greatest diarists in the English language. Boswell ushered in the confessional memoir, which is so popular today.

Nothing was omitted – including his innumerable sexual encounters, his battle with depression, his difficult relationship with his father, his frustrated political ambition and his life as a lawyer in the Scottish courts. Boswell was an Ayrshireman through and through.

He married his cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, who was also born in Ayrshire, with whom he had five children and became Laird of Auchinleck on the death of his father in 1782 and devoted much time and money to the care of the Estate.

He died in 1795 and was interred in the Boswell Mausoleum in Auchinleck churchyard.

Book cover: Life of Johnson
Published in 1791, it has never been out of print and is widely regarded as the first modern biography
Book cover: London Journal
First published in 1950 in the USA and UK, it sold half a million copies in its first four years. This edition published in 2010 and edited by Gordon Turnbull