Literary haunts

19th July 1996 at 01:00
James Boswell's, Auchinleck.

First you lift up a heavy wooden trap door. Then you creep down a flight of stone steps into a tiny crypt. Without a torch or match, it takes a minute or two to make out the object of your search: the initials "JB" inscribed on the solid stone wall.

Here, in this small mausoleum next to the parish church in Auchinleck, deep in rural Ayrshire, is interred the body of James Boswell, author of the celebrated Life of Samuel Johnson. Although he was born in Edinburgh and spent so much time in London, Boswell lived for much of his later years in Auchinleck House, on the large family estate in south-west Scotland.

The two-storey house, standing three miles outside the small town, was built in the mid 1750s by Boswell's father, the eighth laird of Auchinleck. Dr Johnson, invited there by the laird during his famous tour of Scotland with Boswell, came upon "a house of hewn stone, very stately, and durable".

Stately it certainly is, in its greystone neo-classical appearance (although the bulky sandstone corner pavilions added later rather detract from this). It also offers a challenge: across the front arch is a motto from Horace, suggesting that those who seek happiness here will find it.

Boswell appeared to do so in later life. After his father's death, he enjoyed playing the laird, mixing and worshipping with the peasantry, collecting their rents in person, and generally behaving as a benign landlord for the vast 24,000-acre estate.

He also spent several summers here as a boy - though in the "Old House", now just a ruin nearby - imagining the scenery to be that described by the Roman poets he was reading. But his relationship with his judge father was difficult, and was not helped by the fact that as an advocate he often had to plead a case in front of him in court.

One of the many highlights of Boswell's classic Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides is the quarrel that took place at the house between his father and Johnson. Boswell had begged his friend to avoid such inflammatory subjects such as Whiggism and Presbyterianism, but in vain: the two learned men eventually had, much to Boswell's distress, a "warm and violent altercation".

At another moment, as they wandered in the gardens at Auchinleck, Boswell threatened to build a monument to his older friend if he survived him (they were respectively 32 and 63). Johnson, always terrified at any mention of death, turned away saying: "Sir, I hope to see your grandchildren."

Sadly, in recent times the house has developed dry rot and generally deteriorated. Bought by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust in 1986, it is now being renovated and restored, and will eventually reopen to the public.

Meanwhile, there is a small Boswell Museum in the church at Auchinleck where the writer and his family used to worship. When the new church was built the older one fell into disrepair, but since 1977 it has been gradually restored.

Personal items are few: Boswell's pocket knife and leather case, his father's brief box, a handsome wooden cabinet, the family china and cutlery. Situated upstairs in a balcony area, there is a growing library of books by and about Boswell. Also there are some contemporary prints, the work of the caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson.

The museum, run by the Auchinleck Boswell Society and viewable only by appointment, is in need of improvement. The interpretation is poor, the lighting dim, the material arbitrarily displayed. How is it that the author of what is still considered one of the world's finest biographies, should be so poorly served along the literary trail?

Boswell Museum, 88 Main Street, Auchinleck, Ayrshire. Tel: O129O 420931. Auchinleck House, co Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, tel: O162O 842757. A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell (Penguin, Pounds 6.99)

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