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Portrait of James Boswell


Sir Joshua Reynolds (1785)

When the R.W.M. asked me to fill in this evening with an Address, and gave me complete freedom of choice of subject, I elected to speak to you on James Boswell of Auchinleck. 

I had several reasons for doing so.  It is only within recent years that the public have come to revise their estimate of the man and his work, and to consider whether they were wise in accepting for so long the verdict of Lord Macaulay who with a venom and bitterness approaching hatred dubbed him a bigot and a sot, a dunce, a parasite, a coxcomb, a fool of fools who by chance wrote the greatest biography in our language.  That Boswell will always be a subject of controversy is certain, but the discovery and publication of a great mass of his papers has shed new light on him, and public interest in all he did and wrote is definitely growing.

In his will he appointed three Trustees, one of them a member of this Lodge, to deal with his private papers, but they never met and it was supposed that the papers had been destroyed by members of his family.  Such was not the case.  They had passed into the hands of his great-great-grandson Lord Talgot De Malahide of Malahide Castle, County Dublin who sold them to Colonel Jaham and he took them to America.  At Yale University a special School of Research under Professor Pottle has been working on them for more than 14 years, and, as the results of their labours (particularly Boswell’s Private Journal in 18 months) have reached the public new biographies of James Boswell have appeared.  His activities are detailed by the day, month and year; but, as in the earlier biographies, there is one notable omission – his association with, and keen interest in, Freemasonry.  The reason for this is that never in any of his published works or in his correspondence did Boswell mention Freemasonry.  The references in his Private Journal, which he never intended for publication, are intelligible only when read along with the Minutes of Canongate Kilwinning and it is from those two sources I have tried to piece together the story.

I do not propose to lecture on Boswell as an Immortal in English Literature or to exhibit his follies for your amusement or to pass judgement on his private life.  Better far, that you should read for yourselves, and form your own opinions.  The sketch I shall give you of his life is necessarily incomplete, as it is simply as background to what is my principal theme, Boswell’s Masonic Career.  And, as I do not think that that subject has been previously treated in print or in lecture, the most fitting place for this talk is in his Mother Lodge, Canongate Kilwinning.

The Boswells are a very old Scottish family, and, while the main stem has always been associated with Auchinleck in Ayrshire, there were two other branches, one at Balmuts in Fife, and one in Yorkshire.  A Boswell of Auchinleck fell at Flodden in 1513, and another has the distinction of being the first non-operative or Gentleman Mason in a Craft Lodge.  This was John Boswell of Auchinleck, who in 1600 officiated as a Warden in Mary’s Chapel.

Early in the 18th Century there were in Edinburgh two representatives of the Boswell family, the brothers Alexander and John Boswell.  Alexander, the elder, had studied law at Edinburgh and at Leyden in Holland, was called to the Scottish Bar, and, after a successful career as an Advocate, was elevated to the Bench.  Like most Senators of the College of Justice he took for his title the name of his family estate and became Lord Auchinleck.  He was a very good classical scholar, hard-headed and industrious, and in the Court of Session and on circuit he had earned the reputation of an upright judge.  He was a man of strong opinions, a firm supporter of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and a Whig, in politics.  


He had a caustic wit, especially when among his friends he expressed himself in the Scots tongue, and when in argument he bellowed “Dawmed noansense” there was no room for reply.  There is no record of his having been a member of the Craft but he had one association with this Lodge.  After the ’45 a quarrel arose between the Lodge and Past Master George Frazer who in 1736 had built or re-built this Chapel.  The reason was, no doubt, political.  


The majority of the Lodge were Jacobite in sentiment but some such as George Frazer were Hanoverians.  This is not surprising as Frazer held a Government appointment – Deputy Auditor of Excise.  Frazer had possession of the title deeds of the Lodge and refused to part with them as the Lodge owed him money.  An action was raised before Lord Drummore, a Member of No. 2, but before the case was called it was referred to two advocates as arbiters – David Dalrymple and Alexander Boswell.  It is pleasant to record that the matter was settled amicably and two years later George Frazer was unanimously elected Master for the second time.

The younger brother was John Boswell.  He was a Doctor and became Censor or President of The Royal College of Physicians.  His name is commemorated in Boswell’s Court on the Castlehill where he had his town house but he had also a country house on the south side of the Meadows.  The site of this house, often guessed at, was finally settled in 1941 by Mr Forbes Gray.  It is 15a Meadows Place, the entrance to which is in a lane behind West St. Giles Church.  James Boswall occupied it in 1777 and he describes it in a letter to Dr Johnson of which I quote one sentence “I now write to you in a little study, from the window of which I see around me a verdant grove, and beyond it the lofty mountain called Arthur’s Seat”.

Unlike his brother, Dr John Boswell was a keen Freemason.  He was initiated here on 6th September 1742, and became Senior Grand Warden in 1753.  In 1759 he was one of a committee appointed by the Grand Lodge “to inquire into and inspect the condition and situation of the French prisoners presently in the Castle of Edinburgh, particularly such of them as they shall find to be Freemasons and to report on their necessities and numbers”.  He held only one office in his Mother Lodge that of Depute Master to which he was elected in 1759.  Two years later he deserted Canongate Kilwinning, affiliated to Lodge Holyroodhouse, and was at once installed as Master there.  From his high standing in the Medical Faculty he attracted to Holyroodhouse many “students of Physick” and, as Brother Strathern Lindsay suggests, it was probably out of compliment to him that the Lodge changed its name to St. Luke’s, after Luke the Good Physician of the New Testament.  In 1880 the title of the Lodge was again changed to Holyroodhouse (St. Luke’s) No. 44.

These then were the two brothers in Edinburgh – Lord Auchinleck and Dr John Boswell – when on 29th October 1740 a son was born to Lord Auchinleck and named James Boswell, the subject of this address.  He was actually born on 18th October but with the change of the calendar in 1752 dates were advanced eleven days and James made his official birthday the 29th.  It is a pity we do know where in the city he was born, for the first Edinburgh Directory was not published by Peter Williamson till 1773.  It may be that, by some happy chance such as the discovery of a letter from Lord Auchinleck dated 1740, the place will be identified, and Edinburgh Town Council will have the pleasure of marking with a commemorative tablet the birthplace of one of the City’s most famous sons.

We know very little of James’s boyhood.  His first tutor was Rev. John Dun, Minister of Auchinleck, and later he attended a private school or academy in Edinburgh kept by a Mr Mundell.  He was not a pupil of the High School.  The James Boswell whose name appears in the school records was his cousin James, the son of Dr John Boswell.  At the age of 16 or 17 he entered Edinburgh University and in the Greek class he met and made friends with one whose name will always be associated with his – William J Temple.  Very early in their friendship James suggested that they should write letters to one another and keep them in a book with a view to future publication – the first sign of James’s vanity or his desire for literary fame.  Temple became a Church of England minister at Mamhead in Devon and later at St Gluvias in Cornwall.  


His fame rests on his correspondence with Boswell and on this unique distinction that his grandson became Archbishop of Canterbury and that that Archbishop’s son is Archbishop of Canterbury today.  No two men were ever more unlike than Temple and Boswell.  Temple as a Whig; Boswell was a Tory.  Temple became a Church of England parson lead a quiet well-ordered life:  James “ran wild” many and many a time.  Temple was a water drinker:  Bozzy very definitely was not.  As he humorously remarked – water drinking was a bill which met with a determined resistance and opposition in his town house.  Finally Temple did not admire Dr Johnson.  


Yet this correspondence was carried on from 1758 to within a month of Boswell’s death in 1795 – a period of 37 years.  The letters were lost for half a century: but in 1850 an Englishman, Major Stone, bought something in a shop in Boulogne and noticed that the paper it was wrapped in bore the signature of James Boswell.  On enquiry he found that the shopkeeper had bought a bundle of paper from a hawker.  The hawker was traced, the stock was bought, and found to be the Boswell-Temple correspondence.  It was published in 1856 and this copy of the 1908 edition (shows book) was presented to the Lodge by Brother William J Hay of John Knox’s House 38 years ago. 

But to return to James, his father had destined him for the Law, and if he became an Advocate the fact that his father was a Judge would help him considerably in building up a practice.  James however caused his father a good deal of anxiety.  He spent much of his time about the stage door of the Theatre (in Playhouse Close, almost through the wall from where we are now).  That was certainly worrying to the stern Calvinistic parent but what was worse – James started attending a Roman Catholic Chapel in the city and talked about adopting that faith.  Too well did Lord Auchinleck know that if James did so, all hope of a career in the Scottish Bar would be gone:  for this was long before the days of Catholic Emancipation.  


This had to be stopped; and I suggest that in a family matter such as this Auchinleck would turn for help most readily to his own brother, Dr John Boswell.  The worthy Doctor who all through his life was very affectionately disposed to his nephew perhaps saw a solution of the difficulty.  It may be safely assumed that from his wide reading and from his residence on the Continent where he had studied under Boerhave he knew of the Bull of Pope Clement XII issued in 1738 against the Craft.  By this edict Freemasons were condemned and excommunicated, and if James were made a Mason the Roman Catholic trouble would be disposed of once and for all.  Such is my reading of the situation that brought James into Masonry, for on 14th August 1759 at a meeting held in this Chapel James was initiated by his uncle Dr Boswell then Depute Master of the Lodge.  Here is the Minute of 189 years ago.

The Lodge being met according to adjournment, Bro. Boswell took the chair in absence of the R.W. and appointed Bro. Jay to act as Junior Warden in absence of Bro. Lind, and being duly formed and opened proceeded to admit and receive James Boswell Esq. Younger of Auchinleck, a Mason and member of this Lodge who paid the usual dues.  After business was ended the ordinary compliments were paid to the visiting Brethren and the Lodge was adjourned to the second Tuesday of October next in regard most of the Brethren of this Lodge being in the country at this season and then regularly closed and dismissed.

Boswell D.M.

Patrick Robertson S.W.

Samuel Jay J.W.


The Master at this time was Walter Stewart of Stewarthall Advocate, and Senior Grand Warden.  Dr Lind of Gorgie was the Junior Warden.  These two were absent, but we do not know who were present except the three who sign the minute – the Depute Master, Dr Boswell, the Senior Warden Patrick Robertson who was a Jeweller in Edinburgh and an acting Junior Warden, Bro Samuel Jay.

Some explanations are necessary here.  The Lodge met once a month carried through the business of the evening and adjourned officially till the corresponding date of the next month.  But in the interval the Lodge might meet as often as a number of the members wished.  As I shall show you later , there might be three or four meetings in one week; candidates would be initiated, passed or raised; and of course there would be a cheery Harmony after Labour.  In fact the Lodge had many of the features of a social club.  All work transacted at these occasional meetings was supposed to be reported to the next statutory meeting, but this was not always done.  Sometimes the Secretary reports that since the last monthly meeting several gentlemen have been admitted or what is more exasperating the statement that the following have been initiated, passed and raised is followed by a blank space, 2 inches deep, in which he meant to record the names but forgot. Lodges were lax, but Grand Lodge then only 23 years old was itself lax, and was unable to assert its authority.  


The 2/6 due to Grand Lodge for each initiate would remain unpaid and then if a Lodge had used up its funds in conviviality Grand Lodge would agree to a compromise.  Sometimes a Candidate forgot to pay his fees on Initiation and we find Canongate Kilwinning on making enquiries as to unpaid Entry monies ruefully admitting that many of its debtors had left the country.  Matters would be tightened up for a time, particularly if Grand Lodge threatened to remove the Lodge from the Roll and re-admit it at the bottom of the Roll only when the outstanding dues were paid.  But much as we regret these omissions in the Minutes, we are thankful for what has been handed down to us.

You would note that James Boswell was barely 19 years of age when admitted.  I do not know when 21 came to be accepted as “mature age” or whether the present rule regarding the age of candidates was in force.  Procedure then was very different from what it is today.  No proposer or seconder, no billet circulating his name among members, no Attendance Book, why worry about his age?  He was the nephew of the Depute Master, and the Secretary must have thought the occasion of more than usual importance for the Minute I read to you is splashed over a whole page of the folio-size Minute Book.  We have no record of James receiving his 2nd or 3rd Degree for before the Lodge resumed in October he had been sent to Glasgow University to attend the lecture of Professor Adam Smith, author of the “Wealth of Nations”.  


During that winter James resumed his interest in the stage and fair ones connected with it.  He might not embrace the Roman Catholic faith so perhaps he thought he was doing the next best thing in embracing one of its adherents.  He eloped to London with Catholic actress.  The story goes that Auchenleck posted for London in pursuit, found the couple, sent the lady about her business and left James in London under the care of the Earl of Eglinton.  James wanted to be a soldier – a commission in the Guards, and life (with a capital L) amid the gaiety of London would be bliss compared with a humdrum existence in Edinburgh; but the Duke of Argyll who took to him as people did throughout his life said he was too valuable to be shot at 3/6 a day.  Of his follies at Newmarket and elsewhere much has been written, but we should remember he was only 20 years of age and was having his first fling in London – away from parental control.  He returned to Edinburgh in the Spring of 1761 and settled down to study Law. 

In that year there was published in Edinburgh a pamphlet, now very rare, entitled “An Ode to Tragedy”.  That it was poor stuff does not matter.  What is of importance is that it was printed and published at the author’s expense and dedicated to James Boswell Esq.  In the 18th Century, the wealthy who could not acquire fame in the literary world by writing could get it at second-hand by having literary works dedicated to them.  And here was James Boswell, aged 21, having an “Ode to Tragedy” dedicated to him.  Who was the author?  James himself!  I have mentioned this, that you might have an early example of a weakness of James that stuck to him all through his life – self advertisement.  His desire was to attract attention, to be talked about, to become well-known; and he cared little whether he provoked admiration or ridicule, so long as he was in the public eye. 

I said he settled down to study Law, but that did not prevent him attending his Mother Lodge.  I think I am justified in assuming that he must have attended regularly, and, although he was a young member, he must have acquired some prominence; for by the month of December he was appointed Junior Warden.  Here is an extract from the Minute of 8th December 1761.  The Master of that year was Alex Drummond, late H.M. Consul at Aleppo, the Senior Warden Dr Lind, and the Junior Warden, Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo.  The Master was not present, so the Chair was occupied by the Depute. 

“The Lodge being met according to adjournment after being duly formed and opened, the R.W. Deputy observed that Bro. Lind, Senior Warden of the Lodge, being now abroad and not to return soon, it is necessary to have his place supplied and proposed that Bro. Sir William Forbes should be appointed Senior Warden and Brother James Boswell Junior Warden in his place which was unanimously approved of, and Bro. Boswell being present was installed in his office with the usual solemnities.”

The rest of the Minute gives in detail reports by Dr. Cairnie – who was Treasurer but acting as Secretary – of 3 occasional meetings held on 26th, 28th and 30th November  i.e. 3 meetings within 5 days.  At the first meeting there were 5 initiations, at the second 7 were passed and raised, and at the third 3 initiations and 2 Honorary Memberships.  This a good Minute as all the names are given.  

Boswell was absent from the next statutory meeting but he was present at the meeting of February 1762 and signed the Minute as Junior Warden.  Then he disappears from our records for over four years.  A new Junior Warden was appointed in June and in November James set out on his 2nd visit to London – still hankering after a Commission in the Guards and hoping that he would meet the most famous literary man in England – Samuel Johnson.

It was six months later that the meeting took place in the shop of Tom Davies the bookseller, a meeting that began a friendship that lasted for 20 years.  Johnson, (not Dr. Johnson till 2 years later) was in his 54th year and was the acknowledged Dictator of English Literature.  He had had a hard struggle with poverty in his early days; he had tried to run an Academy for young gentlemen, but, fortunately for himself, he discovered that teaching was the most exacting and ill-regarded of the professions and he gave it up to become a professional man-of-letters.  In recognition of his literary merit and particularly the production of the first English Dictionary the Government granted him a pension of £500 a year.  He was at this time living a life of ease, and admission to the circle of his friends was eagerly sought on account of his literary reputation and the brilliance of his conversation. He was a big man in every sense of the word, and it is no wonder that this youngster of 23 from Edinburgh was filled with awe when they met.

But James Boswell had a way with him, a sort of social instinct that proved attractive to all with whom he came in contact, and the old autocrat, fully 30 years his senior, developed a fondness for him.  Some weeks later James wrote to this friend, Sir David Dalrymple (Lord Hailes).

“I am now upon a very good footing with Mr Johnson.  His conversation is very instructive and entertaining.  He has a most extensive fund of knowledge, a very clean expression, and much strong humour.  I am often with him.  Some nights ago we supt by ourselves at the Mitre Tavern, and sat over a sober bottle, till between one and two in the morning”. Well done! James.

He resolved to give up the idea of a commission in the Army and came to an agreement with his father that he would go to Utrecht in Holland and study Law there for two years, his father granting him an allowance of £240 a year.  James was to sail from Harwich, and it is a signal proof of the good impression he had created on Johnson that after an acquaintance of 2½ months the latter travelled with him on the stagecoach – a two days’ journey – to see him off on his Continental adventure.  On the beach they parted as affectionately as a father and son, and to quote James “As the vessel put out to sea I kept my eyes upon him for a considerable time, while he remained rolling his majestic frame in his usual manner; and, at last, I perceived him walk back into town and he disappeared”.  They were not to meet again for 2 ½ years.

Lectures on Civil Law, delivered by Prof. Troty in Latin did not appeal to James.  Through his great-grandmother he was related to the aristocratic family of Sommelodyck at The Hague and their warm reception of their kinsman procured an entry for him into the best circles of Society.  James had a grand time attending parties and assemblies almost every night.  He wrote “there are so many beautiful and amiable ladies in our circle, that a quire of paper could not contain their praises, tho’ written by a man of a much cooler fancy and a much smaller handwriting than myself”.  But when these pleasures began to pall he set off on – what his father never intended – a tour of Europe.  Scenery and architecture made an appeal to him: he wanted to meet famous men and in Switzerland, France, Germany and Italy he made the most of his opportunities.  For example the two men whose writings were most discussed in Europe at this time were Rousseau and Voltaire.  He forced his presence on Rousseau and had five interviews during which he sat and jotted down the conversation on his tablets.  Then he tackled Voltaire.  


After two interviews he was invited to dinner and to stay the night, and he kept the old philosopher of 71 out of his bed while he argued with him on the immorality of the soul.  You can imagine James chuckling to himself on the fine figure he would cut in Edinburgh if he recounted his interviews with these famous men.  But, his greatest exploit probably the greatest of his life was yet to come. 

The people of Corsica were fighting for their independence against the Genoese who had the support of French troops.  General Paoli the Corsican leader was a national hero, a really great figure, just as Garibaldi was to the Italians of a later generation.  James had reached Leghorn which was within 2 days’ sail of Corsica and the chance of meeting another great man was too good to be missed.  To visit the island while a war was on was a hazardous undertaking but James resolved to try it.  His endeavours to get a passage started questions.  “Who was he?  A great English Lord?”  “A British Ambassador?”  “Was Britain going to intervene in the struggle?”  We may be sure that if James found people assuming he was a person of great importance he would play up to the part.  He was landed on the Corsica coast and on the strength of some letters of introduction he was courteously received and passed from village to village till he found himself in the presence of the General. 

Paoli was suspicious of him, and some years later he gave Fanny Burney this description of the meeting.  “He came to my country, and he fetched me some letter of recommending him; but I was of the belief he might be an imposter and an espy; for I look away from him, and in a moment I look to him again, and I behold his tablets.  Oh!  He was to the work of writing it all down I say!  Indeed I was angry.  But soon I discovered he was no imposter and no espy; and I only find I was myself the monster he had come to discuss.  Oh Boswell is a very good man; I love him indeed; so cheerful!  So gay!  So pleasant!  But at the first I was indeed angry.”  And so James made another friend who was constant to him all through his life.

He had a glorious six weeks on the island, a guard of honour when he rode abroad, and crowds of soldiers or peasants to cheer him, and James showed his appreciation by playing to them on the flute Scots tunes – Gilderay, The Lass o’ Patie’s Mill, and Corn Riggs are Bonny.  Before leaving he promised Paoli he would try to enlist British support for the Corsican cause, and on returning to England he succeeded in interviewing the great Pitt, Earl of Chatham and rousing his interest in the matter.

James Boswell by George Willison in Rome 1765

(Scottish National Portrait Gallery)


Back in Edinburgh in 1766 he was admitted as Advocate and settled down to work – yes, real work – for his Clerk came to him every morning at six and James dictated to him.  By March he informed Temple that he was surprised at the ease and boldness with which he could speak in Court and that he had already cleared 80 guineas.  James had ability; and, had he devoted himself to his profession, Law might have gained much, but literature would certainly have lost more.  But this new industry on his part did not prevent him attending his Mother Lodge.  In those days we had no Refectory for Harmony.  After Labour upstairs was cleared, the trestle tables set up, and the pies and rum punch were a good foundation for a convivial evening.  Less formal, but probably much merrier than a Harmony of our time.  You can imagine James, where he loved to be, in the limelight when on many occasions the Brethren listened intently to the tales of his adventures in foreign parts and it is not surprising that in June he was elected and installed Depute Master.  


As such he saw his brother, David, initiated here in October and he attended each statutory meeting till the spring when he went to London for the publication of his first great literary work “An Account of Corsica”.  The book had a phenomenal success.  Within a year it passed through three editions, and was translated into French, German, Dutch and Italian.  Public interest in Corsica was stirred: and James raised £800 among his friends to have cannon made at the Cannon Works at Falkirk and despatched to Paoli.

But the gallivanting to London and taking up other interests than the Law angered old Auchinleck.  He had allowed his son two prolonged trips to London; two and a half years on the Continent; had, in addition to allowances, paid his debts to the tune of £1,000, and yet the young man now 29 years of age would not settle.

James wrote to Temple that it was too bad that he, the friend of Paoli, should feel like a timid schoolboy in the presence of his father, but when the old judge put his trump card on the table – that the estate of Auchinleck was not entailed and he could leave it to whom he pleased – James realised the situation was serious.  Further his father was barely sixty and might marry again.  Settle down he must, and that meant taking a wife.  


I do not propose to detail James’s relations with the ladies, virtuous or otherwise.  Had he followed the advice of the Wagering Club and Master of Mary’s Chapel we should have lost much interesting reading for one of that worthy’s wise-cracks was “Do right and fear no man; Don’t write and fear no woman”.  James not only wrote but greatly daring he kept or sent to Temple copies of his love letters.  And yet having courted in every country he had visited he found his bride almost next door; for on 25th November 1769 he married his cousin Peggy Montgomery of Lainshaw.  And, surprise or shock for James, on the same day his father married again, and for the second time married a cousin, one of the Boswells of Balmuts.

James took up house in Chessels Court a few yards up the street from here, and, except during those trips to London which his wife came to fear, he must have attended regularly; for in 1773 he was honoured by the Craft in being elected R.W.M. for Canongate Kilwinning and Senior Grand Warden of the Grand Lodge of Scotland.  This is a part of the Minute of 24th June 1773 – “The Lodge having met to celebrate the festival of St John the Baptist, the Tutelary Saint of this Lodge, and to elect their officers for the ensuing year, Bro. Alexander Orme being in the Chair, the following gentlemen were accordingly elected – viz. James Boswell of Auchinleck, Master, John Potullo Esq. the Depute Master” and so on through the list of office bearers.  A famous name appears for the first time among the members of Committee viz Charles Hay, Advocate, whose face you are all familiar with; for he became Lord Newton and the subject of one of Sir Henry Raeburn’s portraits.

1773 was a memorable year for Bozzy.  Apart from these Masonic distinctions he realised two ambitions – to become a member of the famous Literary Club in London and to induce Dr Johnson to visit Scotland.  The former he achieved on 30th April during his Spring visit to the Metropolis, and on the evening of 14th August the London stagecoach deposited Dr Johnson at Boyde’s Inn, a famous hostelry that stood near the junction of St. Mary’s Street and the Canongate.  Bozzy had flitted from Chessels Court to James Court in the Lawnmarket and a caddie or messenger despatched there brought him down post-haste.  At 10 o’clock they set out to walk up the High Street to James’ home.  It was a most unfortunate time for receiving a first impression of the Scottish Capital for it was then that what was facetiously called “The Floors o’ Edinburgh” scented the evening air.  It was the hour of gardy-loo and the Doctor was too busy holding tight his nostrils to hear James’s descriptive remarks on what was termed at that time the finest street in Europe.

Mrs Boswell disliked Johnson from the moment they met and had a hard time of it during his stay.  He messed her new carpet by turning the candles upside down when they didn’t burn brightly, and because of him, the house was filled with guests at every meal from breakfast to supper.  These guests Principal Robertson and Prof. New Blair of the University, Lords Monboddo and Kaimes and the cream of Edinburgh society quietly accepted Johnson’s bullying and his insults, though probably among themselves they would remark that if Johnson was a sample of English culture they were glad they belonged to Scotland.  It is said that one man gave him tit-for-tat – Andrew Crosbie the Lawyer, original of Pleydell in Guy Mannering and Founder of Lodge Edinburgh Defensive Band.

James, however, was in his element: for Edinburgh could now see him as the intimate friend of the Great Lexicographer.  In his Private Journal he details the places of interest they visited, but although he passed our door on the way to Holyrood he did not bring the doctor in here.  Of course he took him to Parliament House that he might shine before his brother Advocates; but it was somewhat disconcerting that the Hon. Henry Erskine should slip a shilling into his hand, and whisper “A shilling, Jemmy, for the sight of your bear”. Henry Erskine was, as you know, Dean of Faculty, the greatest wit of his time, and Master of Canongate Kilwinning in 1780.  Mrs Boswell remarked to her friends that Johnson was “a great brute”, and in a fit of temper she told her husband she had often seen a bear led by a man, but never, till now, a man led by a bear.  Lord Auchinleck’s comment to a friend was “Oor Jamie’s take a toot on a new horn.  He’s gane clean gyte:  He’s off wi’ the land-loupin Corscian, and whose tail dye think he’s tied himself to noo, man?  A Dominie, an auld Dominie that keepit a schule and ca’ad it an academy!”

On the 18th August they left Edinburgh on the Tour to the Hebrides the details of which you already know or you can read for yourselves; but it is well to remember that this was a great adventure for a man of 63 in a country without roads or inns.  Up the East coast to Aberdeen; on to Inverness; down the Caledonian Canal; over the sea to Skye, Mull and Iona; south to Inverary and Dumbarton; and finally to James’ ancestral home at Auchinleck.  How would the doctor get on with James’ father?  Auchinleck was a gentleman, and observed the laws of hospitality till one day he showed Johnson his fine collection of medals.  Among them was one of Oliver Cromwell, and then the row started.  Johnson grunted “Cromwell, what did he do?  Nothing!”  Auchinleck’s reply was “Naething?  Good God, Doctor, he gaid Kings ken they had a lith in their necks,” and Bozzy, though never reticent, found it beyond him to record the epithets they threw at one another.

Samuel Johnson in his later years

By Joshua Reynolds

(The Tate Gallery)


But to return to Boswell’s Masonic Career that he took his office of Right Worshipful Master seriously is apparent from the fact that during his first year of office he missed only two monthly meetings.  As I pointed out earlier we have in our records only the Minutes of the monthly statutory meetings, and these, at this important period in our history, are very disappointing.  They record that the Lodge met according to Adjournment, paid compliments to visitors, transacted the business of the evening (though it was seldom stated) and adjourned.  One Minute, presumably dictated by Boswell, is work quoting.

7th April 1774 “The Lodge met and having passed the evening in convivial hilarity, as is the consuetude of the Brethren, they adjourned (by the desire of the Right Worshipful) their further occurrences till the first Thursday of May”.

Boswell was installed as Master for the second time on 24th June 1774 and while the Lodge Minute is colourless, the entry in his Private Journal is his most important reference to the Lodge and to the Craft.  Here it is –

24th June 1774  “I then went to St John’s Lodge it being St. John the Baptist’s Day on which the election of officers is made.  I was chosen Master for the second year.  Dr Cairnie was there for the first time for, I believe, some years.  I was but moderately in Mason humour; though I have associated ideas of solemnity and spirit and foreign parts and my brother David with St. John’s Lodge which makes it always pleasing to me.  Such agreeable sensations are formed, we know not, how by a kind of chance, as the foam of the horse was by the dashing down of the Painter’s brush on the canvas.  I suppose the picture might be easily worked off.  But it would be losing a satisfaction which perhaps we cannot equal by design.

You would note the 4 ideas he associates with this Lodge

1 – Solemnity – ritual working must have been carried “through with decorum”.

2 – Spirit – this is the convivial hilarity for which the Lodge Harmony meeting were famous in those days.

3 – Foreign Parts – This is intriguing.  Did James visit Lodges while he was on the Continent?  I cannot tell.  There is no reference in his published Works or letters but something interesting may yet come to light.

4 – His Brother David – He was initiated while James was Depute Master.

It is a satisfaction to us, and evidence that the Craft played an important part in his life, that these ideas were always pleasing and that he would not willingly have lost them.

The Minute of the meeting a fortnight later is definitely the most amusing, and it has the additional merit of being written in the Minute Book by James himself.

7th July 1773  “The Lodge having met although there were very few Brethren present for which those who were absent should be reprimanded, the evening was passed in most social glee, every Brother having sung though not as a precedent, and the Lodge was adjourned to the first Thursday of August next.”

We are grateful to Bozzy for writing on the page the names of those present.  They were six in number so the Lodge could not be opened for work.  They were James Boswell Esq. Master; John Patullo Esq. Depute Master; Simon Fraser Esq. Advocate Senior Warden; Bro. Alexander Law, Advocate; Bro. Reynolds (whom I cannot trace) and Bro. Brodie the famous (or infamous) Deacon.  James would sing his song “Twa wheels and an axle-tree” and Deacon Brodie could oblige with songs from the Beggar’s Opera” but the contributions of the others I cannot guess.  Perhaps it was well that the season was mid-summer and they would not require link boys to guide their unsteady footsteps home.  An entry in his Private Journal shows that James was in good form.  It reads 7/7/74 “Then at St. John’s Lodge where were but six present. But my spirits made a choice meeting”, and though it is somewhat irrelevant, I might mention here that when Deacon Brodie stood his trial in 1788, his two Counsel were members of the Lodge – Henry Erskine and Charles Hay.

Boswell did not miss a meeting from July 1774 to March 1775 when he went off on another visit to London.  The Minutes covering that period are without interest except that of February 1775.

2nd February 1775 – “This day the Lodge of Canongate Kilwinning was visited by the Most Worshipful David Dalrymple Esq. Grand Master Mason of Scotland, James Geddes and Wm Smith Esq. Grand Warden, Wm Mason Esq. Grand Secretary, John McLune, Grand Chaplain and David Boll, Grand Clerk together with the Masters and Brethren of several Lodges from the City, when the Grand Master experienced his highest satisfaction of the conduct of this Lodge.  And in a particular manner, as he had been initiated in the principles of Masonry within this Lodge, he recommended to the Brethren their Continuation of Steadiness and Regard for the Grand Lodge of Scotland”.

The entries in his Journal are also very brief e.g. “Called Caesar Parr at 7: About two bumpers of brandy.  Then went to St. John’s Lodge: was solemn and well”.  At the meeting on 2nd March 1775 he added a notable name to the Roll of the Lodge when he initiated Lord Napier who became Grand Master Mason in 1788.

Three entries in his Journal relating to this period may be quoted here.

28th November 1774 – “Supp’t at Mr David Dalrymple’s, Advocate, Grand Master Elect with several Master Masons.  We were jovial and no more”

Two days later – St. Andrew’s Day, 30th November 1774 – “In the afternoon, having done all that I had to do in the Court of Session in the forenoon very tolerably, I officiated as Master of St. John’s Lodge at the procession or feast on St. Andrew’s Day.  I was calmly cheerful and quite well”.

The third entry – 13th February 1775 – “I went in the evening in a hackney coach with many of the brethren of Canongate Kilwinning or St. John’s Lodge and visited Leith Lodge.  My spirits were vigorous and I sang my nonsensical Scotch song Twa wheels etc”.

Boswell left for London in March and returned in June, probably somewhat disappointed. Johnson’s Account of the Tour to the Hebrides” had appeared and he found that his name was mentioned only once – as the companion “whose gaiety of conversation and civility of manners are sufficient to counteract the inconveniences of travel in countries less hospitable that we have passed”.  Further, James had written up his diary from day to day during the Tour, and, when he pointed out errors the Doctor had made, his help was coldly received, and he confides to Temple that Johnson “is most apt to encourage and to share reputation with himself”.

When the Lodge met on 24th June he was elected Master for the 3rd time though he was not present at the meeting.  From July to December he attended every meeting but the Minutes are again very bare until 7th December when the Secretary reported in detail the business at no fewer than 10 occasional meetings held during the preceding months.  Among the candidates were the Rev Mr McLean “who was entered gratis as is usual with the Gentlemen of his function”, Lord Balcarres and Prof. Dugald Stewart.

It is interesting that Boswell was initiated here in 1759 the year of Burns’ birth; that he initiated Dugald Stewart in 1775; that Dugald Stewart visiting Lodge St. James Tarbolton was particularly impressed by the young Depute Master Robert Burns; that these two met again in this room when Burns came to Edinburgh and found in the Professor one his staunchest friends.  A connection link between these three famous Scots was this Chapel; and here is a quotation from a letter I had some years ago from Prof. Pottle of Yale University who edited the Boswell Journal and is now engaged on his life.

“I found your little booklet very interesting.  Canongate Kilwinning Lodge furnishes another link between Boswell and Burns who appear never to have met.  We have a fine letter of Burns dated 1788, addressed to Boswell’s friend, Bruce Campbell in which Burns solicits Boswell’s acquaintance.  But Boswell had by that time moved to London and spent little time in Scotland.  He was pleased by the letter, however, and endorsed it “From Mr. Robert Burns, the Poet, expressing very high sentiments of me”.

The Minute of December 1775 is the last signed by Boswell as Master.  He visited London in March and returned to Edinburgh in May 1776. He may have been in Edinburgh when the Lodge met in January and February, but from them he had no opportunity till he vacated the Chair in favour of Simon Fraser, Advocate.

Though the Minutes are silent regarding him I have some extracts from his Private Journal covering the period of his last year of office.

31st October 1775 – “I dined at Dr Webster’s where were his son George, Col. Preston and Mrs Preston.  Annie was out of town.  We had a truly social meeting.  After tea George went with me along with some others of Canongate Kilwinning to visit St. Giles’ Lodge.  Webster’s clarinet had enlivened me pretty well and some strong negus which I drank at the Lodge put me in such a frame that I could not finish the evening but in merry company”.

3rd November 1775 – “In the evening I was at Canongate Kilwinning Lodge and suppt at Sir George Preston’s with Dr Webster and Mr Wood.  Mr Preston was to go to Valleyfield next day.  He said on hearing that I had been again at a Mason Lodge  “Tho’ listening Senates hung on all he spoke The Club must hail him Master of the Joke”.

30th November 1775 – “This being St. Andrew’s Day I walked as Master of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge in the procession of the Freemasons from the Parliament House to the Theatre Royal. It had an excellent effect upon the New Bridge while the flambeaux blazed in a luminous train.  The theatre was our place of meeting this year, as the Assembly Hall was newly painted.  I was in perfect good spirits and harangued and sang, with ease and vigour.  When I observed in a speech that this was our “first appearance on this Stage”, it had a cheerful influence like one of Burke’s sallies”.

8th December 1775 – Between 6 and 7 I met at John’s Coffee House a detachment of my Lodge of Canongate Kilwinning and we went and visited St. Andrew’s Lodge held in Niddry’s Wynd.  This evening for the first time I saw a kind of quarrel like to fall out in a Mason Lodge.  The Junior Warden, - an Irish student, was drunk and spoke a little impertinently.  Captain Hamilton of the 31st Regiment on of my attendants took him up; and, if there had not been a prudent interposition they might have fought”.

20th December 1775 – “In the evening visited the military Lodge of St. George’s from Edinburgh No. 108 of the 31st Regiment to whom I had given the use of our Lodge Room for their occasional meetings.  The Grand Master and several of his suite were there.  Brother Cumming, their Deputy Master and Quartermaster to the Regiment, a worthy Scotsman raised by his merit from the ranks, told me that of fifty of his Lodge who left Edinburgh with the regiment.  He was the only one now in life.  This was a thought of awe and regret. “

Monday 24th June 1776 – “Was as St. John’s Lodge in the evening having to resign my place as Master. Was in sad spirits”.

I think these four words are a fine tribute to the Lodge, that James Boswell, Junior Warden for one year, Depute Master for two years, and Master for these years should feel regret at giving up office.

But James did not cut his connection with Lodge or Craft.  He was present at the July and August meetings and on St. Andrew’s Day he was installed Depute Grand Master of Scotland.  Four days later he accompanied the Grand Master Mason on an official visit to their Mother Lodge.  The Minute is interesting –

4th December 1776 – “This day the Lodge of Canongate Kilwinning was visited by the Most Worshipful Sir Wm Forbes, Baronet, Grand Master Mason of Scotland, James Boswell Esq. Depute Grand Master, Nathaniel Spens Esq. Substitute Grand Master, Simon Fraser and David Mazwell Esqs. Grand Wardens (all except 1 are No. 2), William Mason Esq. Grand Secretary, Rev. Johh McLune Grand Chaplain, and David Boll, Grand Clerk together with the Masters and Wardens of several Lodges from the City, when the Grand Master expressed his highest satisfaction with the conduct of this Lodge, and in a particular manner as he had been initiated in the principles within this Lodge and in a most excellent charge to the Brethren required their careful attention to all the duties of Masonry as the most proper means of keeping it alive in its genuine spirit and purity.  Visiting Lodges were

Mary’s Chapel

Canongate & Leith, L & C

St. Giles

St. David

St. Luke’s


St. James


Next night (5/12/76) at the theatre Sir Wm Forbes was attended by no fewer than 5 Grand Masters among whom Roslin, and James adds “I liked to see respect to his worth”.  He also accompanied the Grand Master to Mary’s Chapel and St. David’s both of which were, he records, excellent meetings.  Honorary Membership was conferred on him by Holyrood House, Mary’s Chapel and Defensive Band, and that brings me to the last Masonic reference :- that on St. Andrew’s Day 1779 he again marched with No. 2 procession – twenty years after his initiation – let us hope that as he marched down the North Bridge he could hear the echo of some of his happiest nights in this Lodge room, with the Brethren signing to the Toast.

King of Craft

Mystic Craft

Worthy Mason he

The rest of his life may be summarised very briefly.  In 1782 his father died and he succeeded to the family estates but the rent roll of £1,600 a year was almost halved by debts he had incurred for himself and for his friends who were never refused when they asked for loans that became gifts.  He had a family of five – 2 sons and 3 daughters to educate – and the expense of sending one son to Eton and one to Westminster absorbed £500 of his £860.  His legal practice bought in very little and his hopes of making money at the English Bar were never fulfilled. But when Dr Johnson died in 1784 he felt free to give the world his own account of the Tour to the Hebrides.  It was published in the following year and was such a success that a 2nd edition was printed in less than three months  It still is one of the most entertaining books of travel in the language, a book that can be read again and again with enjoyment.  But while it brought him literary fame, it made enemies for him.  He had truthfully recorded Johnson’s remarks on people they had met, and many of those mentioned were alive.  In the case of Rev. John McAulay the remarks were not complimentary, which, may account for the bitterness of Lord Macaulay, the minister’s grandson.

Lack of success at the Bar and his failure to enter Parliament depressed him sorely and made him feel his life had been a failure.  Yet he devoted years to accomplishing the great project that he had cherished from his youth – A Life of Samuel Johnson.  He was a conscious artist who worked to a plan in dealing with the mass of material he had collected – a plan that he said would make his book more of life than any other work that had ever appeared and he was right.  His Life of Johnson was published in 1791 and it brought him not only a moderate fortune but immortal fame. It is a strange paradox that Macaulay who heaped so much abuse on his memory could also write – “Homer is not more decidedly the finer of heroic poets; Shakespeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists; Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first orators; than Boswell is the first of biographers.  He is first and there is no second”.

19 years ago the Past Masters subscribed for the fine engraving of Bozzy, that hangs upstairs, and it was presented to the Lodge on their behalf by the late PM Bro. Joseph Inglis.  It was placed at the end of the dais that James Boswell, first among his peers, should be in a sense always beside the PMs and that younger brethren should know that this famous man was associated with Lodge Canongate Kilwinning.

(Editors notes:  Boswell's is wife Margaret Montgomerie died in 1789 when Boswell was on his way from London to Auchinleck.  A few years later in 1791 Boswell's famous Biography of Samuel Johnson "The Life of Johnson" was published.  This gave Boswell the literary acclaim he desired after so many years of hard work. Boswell died in 1795 in his house on Great Portland Street in London after weeks of serious illness,)


With special reference to his Masonic Career

Address Delivered in Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No 2, May 1943

Images, notes and references added by the Lodge Website Editor 2017/2021.

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23 St John Street, Edinburgh, EH8 8DG

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