You drunken dog

James Boswell by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1785
© National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1773, Dr. Samuel Johnson, the eminent intellectual and moralist, and James Boswell, a young Scottish lawyer captivated by Johnson’s brilliance, embarked on a journey through the Highlands of Scotland. Their relationship was one of mentorship and friendship, a dynamic that would later serve as the backbone for Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, published 18 years after their expedition—an influential biography that would not only immortalise Johnson but also set a benchmark for the genre. The night before he wrote the following entry in his journal, Boswell had stayed up until 5am drinking punch with his hosts—a decision he would soon come to regret.

The Diary Entry
A page from James Boswell’s journal, September 1773
Boswell Collection. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Sunday, 26 September

I awaked at noon, with a severe head-ach. I was much vexed that I should have been guilty of such a riot, and afraid of a reproof from Dr Johnson. I thought it very inconsistent with that conduct which I ought to maintain, while the companion of the Rambler. About one he came into my room, and accosted me, ‘What, drunk yet?’ His tone of voice was not that of severe upbraiding; so I was relieved a little. ‘Sir,’ said I, ‘they kept me up.’ He answered, ‘No, you kept them up, you drunken dog.’ This he said with good-humoured English pleasantry. Soon afterwards, Corrichatachin, Col, and other friends assembled round my bed. Corri had a brandy-bottle and glass with him, and insisted I should take a dram. ‘Ay,’ said Dr Johnson, ‘fill him drunk again. Do it in the morning, that we may laugh at him all day. It is a poor thing for a fellow to get drunk at night, and sculk to bed, and let his friends have no sport.’ Finding him thus jocular, I became quite easy; and when I offered to get up, he very good-naturedly said, ‘You need be in no such hurry now.” I took my host’s advice, and drank some brandy, which I found an effectual cure for my head-ach. When I rose, I went into Dr Johnson’s room, and taking up Mrs M’Kinnon’s prayer-book, I opened it at the twentieth Sunday after Trinity, in the epistle for which I read, ‘And be not drunk with wine, wherein there is excess.’ Some would have taken this as a divine interposition….

This was another day of wind and rain; but good cheer and good society helped to beguile the time. I felt myself comfortable enough in the afternoon. I then thought that my last night’s riot was no more than such a social excess as may happen without much moral blame; and recollected that some physicians maintained, that a fever produced by it was, upon the whole, good for health: so different are our reflections on the same subject, at different periods; and such the excuses with which we palliate what we know to be wrong.

Further Reading

Most of James Boswell’s journals are now held at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and have been digitised. This particular journal was published in 1936 by The Viking Press, titled Boswell’s Journal of A Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.. Now out of copyright, it can be found online in a few places, including at the Internet Archive and, in plain text, at the Classic Literature Library.


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