The History of Leith

September 7, 2004

Advocate of life’s good things

HE had a relish for life – and a voracious appetite for drink and women. And he wrote it all down. James Boswell is perhaps best known for penning The Life of Samuel Johnson, regarded by many as the finest biography ever written in the English language.

What is not so widely appreciated is that for nearly 20 years Boswell was a busy advocate at the Scottish bar. And when he wasn’t practising law, drinking with his many friends, recovering from pounding hangovers or being entertained by local prostitutes, he was keeping a warts-and-all journal of his life.

Now Boswell’s Edinburgh diaries have been drawn together in a single volume which not only gives an intimate account of his domestic life but also reveals a vivid impression of life in Edinburgh in the 18th century.

There are drunken, bawdy scenes in Edinburgh taverns; all-night gam-bling sessions; fashionable dinners and public executions. And countless rendezvous with ladies of the night.

Yet this was Edinburgh of the Enlightenment, when thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith rubbed shoulders with eminent visitors like Dr Johnson.

Boswell was in the midst of it. He would sup claret, port and hock in the likes of Thom’s Tavern or Mrs Dunbar’s – “a low house, but comfortable… four bottles of good claret drunk, quite the style of old consultations”, stagger home along ill-lit streets, picking his way past the inevitable and odious waste of his fellow citizens and drop into a “house of recreation” on his way.

He would cleanse his soul at church every Sunday and his body in a cold bath, taking the view that “a young man should guard against effeminacy”, at the bath house in the west wing of the Royal Infirmary.

The journals’ editor, Hugh Milne, a public service lawyer living in Edinburgh, first became interested in Boswell ten years ago.

“My interest in Boswell began after I had finished reading an edition of Pepys’ diaries. I had read the Pepys with great enthusiasm and wanted to follow it with something of a similar nature. Boswell was the perfect answer.

“He was undoubtedly a sociable person, and without malice; and although he could at times be extraordinarily tactless, even with people whom he revered, he also had many redeeming qualities. Indeed, his character was full of contradictions. One of his most likeable features was that he was always completely honest.”

He adds: “When reading the journals, one is struck by how little of anything has really changed. People’s main concerns remain the same.”

Boswell’s Edinburgh Journals 1767 -1786 by Hugh M. Milne are published by Mercat Press, price £12.99.


5 March: I gave supper to two or three of my acquaintance, having laid a guinea that I should not catch the venereal disorder for three years, which bet I had most certainly lost. I went to a low house in one of the alleys in Edinburgh where I knew a common girl lodged, and like a brute as I was, I lay all night with her.

Next morning, I was like a man ordered for ignominious execution. But by noon I was worse, for I discovered some infection had reached me.

23 June: Got quite intoxicated, went to a bawdy-house and passed a whole night in the arms of a whore. She indeed was a fine, strong-spirited girl, a whore worthy of Boswell if Boswell must have a whore and I apprehend no bad consequences.


19 January: At the anniversary meeting of the Faculty of Advocates. Felt myself, Mr James Boswell, comfortable and secure. At Clerihue’s we were very merry. I drank too much. I went to a close in the Luckenbooths to seek a girl whom I had once seen in the street. I found a natural daughter of the late Lord Kinnaird, a fine lass. I stayed an hour and a half with her and drank malaga and was most amorous. I was so happy with Jeanie Kinnaird that I very reasoned there was so much virtue mixed with licentious love that perhaps I might be privileged. For it made me humane, polite, generous.

One of Boswell’s clients, John Raybould, was convicted of forging bank notes and sentenced to hang on February 24 at the Grassmarket.

21 February: Dreamt of Raybould under sentence of death. I was gloomy and visited Raybould, that my gloomy imagination might be cured by seeing the reality. The clanking of the iron-room door was terrible. I found him very composed. I talked quite freely to him. “John, have you no fear for the immediate pain of dying?”. “No,” said he. “I have had none as yet. I know not how it may be at the very moment. But I do think I shall be quite composed.”

24 February: I went to see Raybould’s execution. I tried to be quite firm and philosophical and imagine Raybould in some future period telling what he felt at his execution.

16 March: Took the chaise to Haddington where we had a beefsteak. Only I, whose combustible, or rather inflammable soul, is always taking fire, was uneasy at having left Mary, a pretty lively little girl whom accident had thrown in my way a few days before. She was very young. I left her as many guineas as she said she could live upon till my return.

20 July: Took a chaise and saw a race at Leith. At night I resolved to put Margaret’s affection to the strictest trial. I wrote to her, told her plainly that if she would go off with me and live on my £100 a year, with the interest of her £1000, I was ready to marry her. This was truly romantic and perhaps too severe a trial of a woman of so much good sense and so high a character.

23 July: While in church, I thought that if Margaret gave me a prudent, cold, evasive answer I would set sail for America and become a wild Indian.

25 July: The answer from Margaret was brought to me in the Parliament House: “I accept of your terms.” For a minute or two my habits of terror for marriage returned, I found myself at last fixed for ever; my heart beat and my head was giddy.

13 August: My father and I had a warm dispute on male and female succession. I argued a male alone could support a family. That females, in a feudal light, were only vehicles for carrying down men to posterity.

It will not do to say a grandson by a daughter is as near as a grandson by a son. A grandson by a daughter has no connection with my original stock. Let females be well-portioned. Let them enjoy liberally what is naturally intended for them: dowries as virgins, a share of what their husbands have while wives, jointures when widows. But for goodness’ sake let us not make feudal lords, let us not make barons, of them. As well we might equip them with breeches, swords and gold-laced hats.

Boswell married Margaret on November 25. At the end of May 1770, they moved to a large tenement block known as Chessel’s Buildings (or Chessel’s Court), off the Canongate. Boswell was admitted to practise at the bar of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, his first two cases were given to him by Walter Scott, W.S. In May 1771, the Boswells moved to a flat in James’s Court in the Lawnmarket, owned and formerly occupied by David Hume.

In August 1773, Boswell’s close friend Dr Samuel Johnson came to Scotland. Aged 63, he was very large and corpulent, clumsy, hard of hearing, short sighted and prone to bodily convulsions.


14 August: I received a note from Johnson that he was at Boyd’s Inn (also known as the White Horse) at the head of the Canongate.

Mr Johnson and I walked arm-in-arm up the High Street to my house; it was a dusky night; I could not prevent his being assailed by the evening effluvia of Edinburgh.

The peril is much abated by the care which the magistrates have taken to enforce the city laws against throwing foul water from the windows. But from the structure of the houses in the old town, and there being no covered sewers, the odour still continues.


21 June: Went in a chaise to Bob Chalmer’s country-house on the seaside near Musselburgh to eat a fish dinner. I ate of nine kinds of fish and drank various drams and a great deal of port and was really much intoxicated. After I got home I was very ill; not sick but like to suffocate – a dangerous state.

Next day I had a miserable headache and in pleading a short cause before Lord Elliock I felt myself incapable of any distinctness.

27 June: Went to see the foundation stone of the Register Office laid. (Register House at the east end of Princes Street) Very angry that there was no procession, no show or solemnity of any kind upon such an occasion.

22 July: Dined at Lord Dundonald’s. Drinking never fails to make me ill-bred. I drank near three bottles of hock and then staggered away.

23 July: I had been sick without being sensible of it. However, go to the Parliament House at nine. I was quite giddy with liquor and, squeamishness having gone off, I was in a good, vigorous, sparkling frame. Dined with great appetite and drank beer copiously to allay the thirst of last night’s drinking.

30th July: Went to the Parliament House and found the solicitor who had been with us last night and drank heartily, standing in the outer hall looking very ill.

Sent for a pot of lenitive electuary (laxative) at night that I might open and cool my body.

31 July: I took the rest of the pot this morning and lay in bed all forenoon except when a motion made me rise. I was in a fine state of preparation for John Reid’s trial.

John Reid was Boswell’s first criminal law client. Reid was charged with stealing 19 sheep from a farm in Peebles – a hanging offence. Boswell fought the conviction and sent a petition to the king. But it was not enough to save Reid from the gallows.

25th August: I told John (Reid) that there was hardly the least chance of a pardon and he ought to consider himself as a dying man. John was looking gloomy. He told he had some bad dreams which made him believe he was now to die.

TUESDAY 30 August: At ten o’clock I was with John Reid. I called for a dram of whisky. I had not thought how I should drink to John till I had the glass in my hand. I could not say “Your good health”; and “Here’s to you” was too much in the style of hearty fellowship. I said “John, I wish you well”.

17 September: Dined at Trumpeter Yeats’s in Leith. We were fain to fly to wine to get rid of the uneasiness which we felt that, after all that had been done, poor John Reid should fall a victim. We drank two bottles of port each. I was not satisfied with this but stopped at a shop in Leith and insisted that we should drink some gin. I grew monstrously drunk and was in a state of mingled frenzy and stupefaction.

18 September: It gave me much concern to be informed by my dear wife that I had been quite outrageous in my drunkenness the night before, that I had cursed her in a shocking manner and even thrown a candlestick with a lighted candle at her. I therefore most firmly resolved to be sober. I was very ill today.

20 September: When I came to the prison I found John Reid’s wife and children were with him. He was very composed.

21 September: Two o’clock struck. There was dead silence, all waiting to see the dying man appear. The hangman came forth. He took off his hat and made a low bow. John bowed his head toward him. I interfered and said: “John, you are to have no resentment against this poor man. He only does his duty.”

We waited till he was cut down and then walked to Greyfriars Churchyard, in the office of which his corpse was deposited by porters.

24 December: Being specially invited to eat venison at Colonel Stopford’s mess, we drank a great quantity of port. I was very drunk, roved in the street and went and stayed above an hour with two whores at their lodging in a narrow dirty stair in the Bow. I found my way home about twelve. I had fallen and rubbed some of the skin and flesh off the knuckle of the middle finger of my left hand.

25 December: In bed all forenoon, very ill and very much vexed at reflecting on my depraved wandering. I cannot say I was in so good a frame as I could have wished to be in on Christmas-day.


8 March: My wife and I drank tea at Mr Samuel Mitchelson Junior’s. I was quite in love with her tonight. She was sensible, amiable, and all that I could wise, except being averse to hymeneal rites (She was two months’ pregnant). I told her I must have a concubine. She said I might go to whom I pleased.

Wednesday, 24th October 2001
Evening News

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