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Johnson & Boswell in Scotland, Part 6

Continued from last week’s post: Boswell: Thursday, 2 September

Johnson: Edinburgh

We now returned to Edinburgh, where I passed some days with men of learning, whose names want no advancement
from my commemoration, or with women of elegance, which perhaps disclaims a
pedant’s praise.

The
conversation of the Scots grows every day less unpleasing to the English; their
peculiarities wear fast away; their dialect is likely to become in half a
century provincial and rustic, even to themselves. The great, the learned, the
ambitious, and the vain, all cultivate the English phrase, and the English pronunciation,
and in splendid companies Scotch is not much heard, except now and then from an
old lady.

There
is one subject of philosophical curiosity to be found in Edinburgh, which no
other city has to show; a college of the deaf and dumb, who are taught to
speak, to read, to write, and to practise arithmetic, by a gentleman whose name
is Braidwood.* The number which attends him is, I think, about twelve, which he
brings together into a little school, and instructs according to their several
degrees of proficiency.

I
do not mean to mention the instruction of the deaf as new. Having been first
practised upon the son of a Constable of Spain, it was afterwards cultivated
with much emulation in England, by Wallis and Holder, and was lately professed
by Mr Baker,* who once flattered me with hopes of seeing his method published.
How far any former teachers have succeeded, it is not easy to know; the
improvement of Mr Braidwood’s pupils is wonderful. They not only speak, write,
and understand what is written, but if he that speaks looks towards them, and
modifies his organs by distinct and full utterance, they know so well what is
spoken, that it is an expression scarcely figurative to say, they hear with the
eye. That any have attained to the power mentioned by Burnet,* of feeling
sounds, by laying a hand on the speaker’s mouth, I know not; but I have seen so
much that I can believe more; a single word, or a short sentence, I think, may
possibly be so distinguished.

It
will readily be supposed by those that consider this subject, that Mr
Braidwood’s scholars spell accurately. Orthography is vitiated among such as
learn first to speak, and then to write, by imperfect notions of the relation
between letters and vocal utterance; but to those students every character is
of equal importance; for letters are to them not symbols of names, but of
things; when they write they do not represent a sound, but delineate a form.

This
school I visited, and found some of the scholars waiting for their master, whom
they are said to receive at his entrance with smiling countenances and
sparkling eyes, delighted with the hope of new ideas. One of the young ladies
had her slate before her, on which I wrote a question consisting of three figures,
to be multiplied by two figures. She looked upon it, and quivering her fingers in
a manner which I thought very pretty, but of which I know not whether it was
art or play, multiplied the sum regularly in two lines, observing the decimal
place; but did not add the two lines together, probably disdaining so easy an
operation. I pointed at the place where the sum total should stand, and she
noted it with such expedition as seemed to show that she had it only to write.

It
was pleasing to see one of the most desperate of human calamities capable of so
much help: whatever enlarges hope will exalt courage; after having seen the
deaf taught arithmetic, who would be afraid to cultivate the Hebrides?

Such are the things which this journey has given me an
opportunity of seeing, and such are the reflections which that sight has raised.
Having passed my time almost wholly in cities, I may have been surprised by
modes of life and appearances of nature that are familiar to men of wider
survey and more varied conversation. Novelty and ignorance must always be
reciprocal, and I cannot but be conscious that my thoughts on national manners
are the thoughts of one who has seen but little.


Travelwriting_johnson_boswell_0192840517A young and enthusiastic James Boswell befriended Samuel Johnson (1709-84), England’s most famous man of letters, in London in 1763. Soon Boswell was urging Johnson to accompany him on a tour to the Hebrides, reviving the fascination inspired in Johnson by a childhood reading of Martin Martin. The two men went to Scotland in the late summer and autumn of 1773, riding north from Edinburgh to Inverness and then westward through the Great Glen and across the mountains to the coast. Johnson published A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland two years later. Johnson published A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland two years later. These excerpts from Travel Writing, 1700-1830: An Anthology, are presented here as part of our Serial Blogging series.Click here to read from the beginning of this series.

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