Class and Revolution

English class structure during the eighteenth century became somewhat more flexible, but it never totally blurred the distinctions between the upper-class (nobility and landed gentry), the middle-class (professionals and merchants), and the lower-class (urban and rural laborers). There was a degree of intermingling between the upper-class and the growing middle-classes. Upper-class sons and daughters not lucky enough to be heirs might be apprenticed as professionals or married to them. The wealth of many in the middle-class, especially those with fortunes made in the Carribean or in India, made marriage attractive to many in the upper-class. There was not, however, frequent movement between these classes until the end of the century (when peerages became increasingly easy to buy). The great landowners still maintained the largest share of political and social power.

The lower class represented the largest population, but their economic power was extremely limited, and their political voice was non-existent. The lower-class, however, did join the middle- and upper-classes in celebrating time-honored (and constitutional) English "Freedoms." All three classes were inherently conservative, and all held their patriotism in common. Perhaps it is this patriotic bond that saved England from a revolution similar to those that took place in America and France.

Debate over the worthiness of those two revolutions was fierce. Samuel Johnson was an ardent supporter of the English right to tax America; Boswell was pro-American. Boswell, however, was disconcerted by the French revolution (not a surprising fear for an upper-class land owner). Burns, on the other hand, was supportive of the French revolutionary cause until its deadly excesses became apparent.

Scottish Presbyterian church

The Scottish Presbyterian church, established by John Knox in 1557, was administered by a hierarchy of religious courts composed of clerical and lay members. The most influential political unit was the individual congregation. This is in opposition to the top-heavy hierarchy of the Anglican Church of England (with supreme earthly power resting with the monarch or, more commonly, the Archbishop of Canterbury) and the independent governments of the Congregationalists.

The Scottish Church was known for its staunch moral conservatism. During Boswell and Burns' lives the power of the church was less than it had been a century before, but the "presbyteries," the councils of ministers and elders elected by individual congregations, maintained a close watch on the community. If someone failed to live a proper "Christian" life, he or she could be brought before the "Kirk of Session," questioned, and made to repent sins publicly.

In 1786, when it was discovered that Burns had fathered a child with Jean Armour, Burns was made to publicly confess to fornication and was lectured before the congregation by his minister. Boswell faced a gentler fate in 1762 (because of his gentility and his wealth) when he was fined by the Kirk of Session for impregnating Peggy Doig.

Scottish Dialect

The Celtic dialect called Scots Gaelic, or Erse, was heard in many parts of the Scottish Highlands, especially in the Hebrides. Throughout most of the rest of Scotland, however, a Scottish dialect of English had been spoken almost as long as in England. This dialect, descendant of the Northumbrian dialect of Old English, was first known as Inglis and then, during the eighteenth century, as Scots.

Educated Scots during this period strove to speak and to write Scots or English with equal fluency. Burns made his reputation writing Scots poetry, but he also wrote extensively using formal English diction. Boswell could easily fall into speaking Scots, but he worked diligently to eradicate "Scottisms" from his writing. Johnson was complementing Boswell when he called him the "most unScottified" Scot he had ever met.


As Scotland moved into its "Enlightenment" period, older superstitions began to fall away, first as believed by the upper- and middle-classes, and later as believed by the less-well-educated lower class. In 1727 the last "witch" was strangled: a woman who had turned her daughter into a pony; in 1736 the laws against witchcraft were repealed. Nevertheless, ancient beliefs remained an important part of Scottish folklore, and belief in second sight (the ability to see events before they take place) and ghosts was not uncommon. Boswell was easily frighted when talk turned to the supernatural. The following entry is from his London Journal, dated 12 March 1763:

I went to Lady Betty's. Lady Anne only was at home. She gave me some tea and we chatted gently. Then the rest came in. I valued them, as they were to go for Scotland on Monday. I stayed supper, after which we talked of death, of theft, robbery, murder, and ghosts. Lady Betty and Lady Anne declared seriously that at Allanbank they were disturbed two nights by something walking and groaning in the room, which they afterwards learnt was haunted. This was very strong. My mind was now filled with a real horror instead of an imaginary one. I shuddered with apprehension. I was frighted to go home. Honest Erskine made me go with him, and kindly gave the half of his bed, in which, though a very little one, we passed the silent watches in tranquility. (p. 214)

Burns was, perhaps, less susceptible to fears than Boswell, but he was born and raised amid similar folk beliefs. In his "Confessions" Burns writes the following:

In my infant and boyish days, too, I owed much to an old woman who resided in the family, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity, and superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons, and other trumpery. This cultivated the latent seeds of poetry; but had so strong an effect on my imagination, that to this hour, in my nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look-out in suspicious places; and though nobody can be more sceptical than I am in such matters, yet it often takes an effort of philosophy to shake off these idle terrors.

There are several dates that stand out as profoundly significant in Scottish history

1174--The year that England, by treaty, gained nominal control over Scotland.

1314--The year that Scottish forces, led by Robert Bruce, defeated the English, led by Edward II, at Bannockburn. Scotland controlled its borders again.

1513--The year that the Scots were badly defeated by the English at Flodden Field.

1557--The year of John Knox's religious revolution in Scotland. Roman Catholicism was replaced with Scottish Presbyterianism, a severe form of Calvinism.

1603--The year James VI of Scotland became James I of England, uniting the two countries.

1707--The year that Scottish parliament voted to merge with the English parliament.

1745--The year that Charles Edward, grandson of the deposed James II (run out England during the Glorious Revolution of 1688), and known as the Young Pretender, landed in the Highlands, held court in Edinburgh, and began to march with a Scottish army toward England. He was forced to retreat and ultimately fled from Britain after defeat at Culloden in 1746.

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson, born in 1709 in the midlands of England, was the son of middle-class parents. He attended a year of university at Oxford but was forced to withdraw because of poverty. He made his way to London where he worked as a hack writer during the late 1730s and through the 1740s. During the 1750s he published his famous Dictionary of the English Language; various poems; Rasselas, a short moral tale; as well as two series of influential periodical essays. In 1762 he was granted an annual pension by the King. He later received an honorary degree from Oxford, hence Boswell's references to Dr Johnson. After his dictionary and periodical essays, Johnson's greatest works are his edition of Shakespeare and his Lives of the Poets, a series of biographies of England's most famous poets. He died in 1784.

Until recently, when his works began to receive serious attention once again, Johnson was best known as the focus of Boswell's brilliant biographical works: The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) and The Life of Samuel Johnson L.L. D. (1791). His character was at once gruff and sharply intelligent; compassionate and skeptical. A famous Tory, he stood as a bastion of conservative morality and critical thought throughout much of the second half of the eighteenth century.

Jack Wilkes

John Wilkes was born in 1727, the son of a wealthy London distiller. During a stormy political career as a member of the Whig party, he championed liberal causes and stood especially against Lord Bute's Tory administration. With the collaboration of the satirist Charles Churchill he published a periodical attacking Bute's policies, called The North Briton; he was eventually indicted for libel, released without charge, expelled from parliament, and then voted in again by his consituency. He died in 1797.

A man of considerable intelligence and wit, Wilkes was a popular hero for his stands on liberty for the common man. He secured important legal rights and helped to modernize the British legal system. Wilkes and Johnson seemed to be polar opposites; still, they met twice under the watchful eye of Boswell. Both times they spent memorable and enjoyable evenings together.


In 1786, Burns' first edition of poems was published by John Wilson, at his publishing house in Kilmarnock. An expanded and more lavish second edition was published by Creech the following year in Edinburgh. Burns dedicated the poem to the Caledonian Hunt club, who had subscribed as a group, ordering numerous copies of his poems and, in essence, assuring it a level of acceptance with the "gentlefolk" of Edinburgh.

                                                             To The

                                           Noblemen and Gentlemen

                                                             of the

                                                   Caledonian Hunt

My Lords and Gentlemen,

     A Scottish Bard, proud of the name, and whose highest ambition 

is to sing in his Country's service--where shall he so properly look 

for patronage as to the illustrious names of his native Land,--those 

who bear the honours and inherit the virtures of their Ancestors?  

The Poetic Genius of my Country found me, as the prophetic bard 

Elijah did Elisha--at the plough; and threw her inspiring mantle over 

me.  She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural 

pleasures of my native soil, in my native tongue; I tuned my wild, 

artless notes, as she inspired.--She whispered me to come to this 

ancient Metropolis of Caledonia, and lay my Song under your honoured 

protection: I now obey her dictates.

Though much indebted to your goodness, I do not approach you, my Lords 

and Gentlemen, in the usual style of dedication, to thank you for past 

favours; that path is so hackneyed by prostituted learning, that honest 

rusticity is ashamed of it.  Nor do I present this Address with the 

venal soul of a servile Author looking for a continuation of those 

favours: I was bred to the Plough, and am independent.  I come to 

claim the common Scottish name with you, my illustrious Countrymen; 

and to tell the world that I glory in the title.  I come to congratulate 

my country, that the blood of her ancient heroes still runs 

uncontaminated; and that from your courage, knowledge, and public 

spirit, she may expect protection, wealth, and liberty.  In the last 

place, I come to proffer my warmest wishes to the Great Fountain 

of Honour, the Monarch of the Universe, for your welfare and happiness.

When you go forth to awaken the Echoes, in the ancient and favourite 

amusement of your forefathers, may Pleasure ever be of your party; 

and may Social Joy await your return.  When harassed in courts or 

camps with the jostlings of bad men and bad measures, may the 

honest consciousness of injured worth attend your return to your 

native Seats; and may Domestic Happiness, with a smiling welcome, 

meet you at your gates!  May corruption shrink at your kindling 

indignant glance, and may tyranny in the Ruler, and licentiousness 

in the People, equally find you an inexorable foe!

I have the honour to be, With the sincerest gratitude, and highest respect, My Lords and Gentlemen, Your most devoted humble servant, Robert Burns Edinburgh, April 4, 1787

Boswell's Presence

Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides is most often discussed in relation to the Life of Johnson. Published in 1785 (the Life in 1791), it is thought of as Boswell's first installment of the Life. Contractual arrangements are cited as the reason that it could not be republished as part of the Life. (The authoritative twentieth-century edition, edited by Hill and Powell, prints the works together.) Yet there are fundamental differences between the works that should be kept in mind in order to correctly understand Boswell's self-characterization in each work. The Tour is primarily true to its title: it is a journal of a tour of northern Scotland. Descriptions of Samuel Johnson are very important to the work, but as a tour, Boswell's observations and experiences are equally valid. Thus in "The Storm" Johnson is absent from nearly all of the narrative; the story is Boswell's. The Life, of course, has as its primary goal the accurate presentation of Johnson's life along with effective presentation of his character. While Boswell is less a part of this work, his presence may still be described as intrusive.