James Boswell’s Grand Tour

Beginning late in the 17th century, The Grand Tour—the extended journey through Europe undertaken by young British gentlemen to finish off their education—became popular and fashionable for many young British sons of the aristocracy. Typically, the young men already had a thorough grounding in Greek and Latin literature and some interest in art. Two to three years spent living abroad, accompanied by their tutors, offered them the opportunity to absorb the art and cultures they were visiting and improve their language skills. An added benefit was the greater freedom the young travellers experienced on the Continent, where their involvement in drinking, gaming and romantic liaisons posed as little inconvenience to their families as possible.

In terms of sheer reading pleasure and attention to detail, perhaps no accounting of The Grand Tour is more fascinating than that of James Boswell.

George Willison, “James Boswell,” Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Painted in Rome while Boswell was on The Grand Tour in 1765.

Boswell, best known as the author of The Life of Johnson, what many consider the greatest biography in the English language, first visited London from his native Edinburgh in 1760 at the age of 20. The city’s culture—and its women—dazzled him and he began a three-year struggle with his father, an eminent judge, to remain permanently in the capital. Father and son ultimately worked out a compromise and just before his second London visit in 1762 where he was first introduced to Johnson in a bookseller’s back parlor, Boswell began keeping a diary, London Journal, 1762-1763, a practice he would continue for 33 years.

From these voluminous entries The Journals, 1762-95, we are able to vicariously follow Boswell’s adventures through Germany, Switzerland and Italy as he embarks on his Grand Tour. Travel in the 18th century was both difficult and expensive, and travellers typically carried little money. Instead, they took letters of credit from their London banks, which they then presented in major cities. After a year of studying law in gloomy Utrecht, the sunny climes and independence must have been irresistible to the twenty-four year old Boswell as he departed for Holland in 1764, escorted off by none other than Johnson himself. Whether due to cost or preference, he travelled without a tutor. The freedom this afforded him and Boswell’s own somewhat pompous self-image only adds to the appeal of his journal entries.

Yet Boswell did truly possess a genuine interest in the sites of European learning and classical antiquity. After leaving Johnson behind, he set his sights on and aggressively pursued obtaining interviews with two other great thinkers, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, both of whom were living in exile near Geneva. Although ill, Rousseau agreed to dine with him. Boswell, always the able conversationalist, rose enough to the occasion—talking of books, religion, art and of course, women—that he was invited to return. Voltaire was slightly less accommodating, but Boswell’s earnestness ultimately earned him the great writer’s grudging respect.

Boswell’s journals record these unforgettable dialogues in detail, but he also gives equal attention to less scholarly intentions. He wrote down everything that happened to him, what everyone said, what they ate, what they drank, how they dressed, how they travelled, along with plenty of descriptions of his meetings with all the pretty maids, wealthy wives, and available streetwalkers.

Boswell then continued his tour down to Italy, where he was the first Englishman to visit the interior of Corsica. The account of his visit here describes this little known land to Europeans in the 18th century in meticulous detail. As well as discussing the history, politics and culture of Corsica, Boswell writes about the land, the animals, the language and the people, even comparing the small stature and hard working nature of the Corsicans to the Highland Scots. His meeting with Pasquale di Paoli, the island’s leader, results in a lifelong friendship and helps to later spread Paoli’s revolutionary fervor to England through pamphlets and other writings.

By 1766, Boswell’s Grand Tour was nearing completion. As a favor to Rousseau, he agreed to accompany Rousseau’s mistress to London before returning to Scotland to take his final law exam. “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life,” Johnson famously said. Boswell, apparently never tired, and his short stop in London allowed for a brief affair with the philosopher’s mistress.

A little over ten years later, in 1773, Boswell finally succeeded, after many tries, in enticing his famous friend Dr. Johnson, who was by then in his mid-sixties, to accompany him on a tour through Scotland. Setting out from Edinburgh, the two men skirted the eastern and northeastern coasts of Scotland, passing through St. Andrews, Aberdeen and Inverness, and then on into the highlands where they spent several weeks on various islands in the Hebrides, including Skye, Coll and Mull.

Our own grand tour of Scotland and the Hebrides follows much of the same route that Boswell and Johnson trekked, and includes a stay at the Taychreggan Hotel in Kilchrenan, the actual site where the pair stopped for refreshment over 200 years ago. Boswell’s account of the journey, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, became the precursor to his famous biography. Whether experienced in person or from the comfort of your living room, it might just be the perfect accompaniment for interested readers to recreate such a storied trip.

Tour Leader: Alasdair Clayre

Alasdair-Clayre-newAlasdair Clayre leads
our Downton Abbey tours.

TGT:   What led you to be a Tour Leader?

AC:  My mother’s father and his brothers were ships’ captains from Shetland and settled in the four corners of the globe. My grandparents met on a voyage returning from South America. I was born in Borneo and grew up in a tribe. I think travel was in my blood! We moved back to Britain as the family grew. My mother dragged me round cathedrals and castles and archaeological digs in Spain, or I visited the Bedouin in Arabia and climbed in the Canadian Rockies where my father was building hospitals. I was fortunate to be educated at Winchester and Cambridge and enjoyed putting on plays and taking Shakespeare on tour throughout Europe. This led me to Columbia University Film School. It was in between film shoots I was asked to lead my first tours and my tour-leading took off. I enjoyed not just the logistical challenges, but the opportunity to help others understand and access different cultures and perspectives. Once guiding a group through Chartres Cathedral one of the group flattered me: “You’re such a good teacher.” “I’m not sure about that,” I replied, “but just look at my classroom!” Travel is the best education, for the open-minded.

TGT: What is your favorite part of the Downton tour?

AC: I love watching jaws drop and smiles grow at the splendour of Highclere, or Blenheim or Bath, but my favourite parts of the tour are when we are living that privileged life a little, at lunch in a St James’s Club, High Tea in Ston Easton or dining in an Oxford college. The greatest surprise for participants is how down-to-earth are the real aristocrats!

TGT: What would enhance one’s experience on tour?

AC: The best way to see these old cities is on foot. Whilst you don’t need to be ready to run a marathon, we must cover a couple of miles inside the House of Lords alone! And then, meet the English! Step into a local pub or tearoom and chat.

The World of Downton Abbey

WXXI with The Grand Tour at Highclere Castle, the “real” Downton Abbey, England.

Downton Abbey has seduced audiences both in Britain and here, “across the pond”, by its superbly crafted script of simmering sub plots and four dimensional characters, deftly portrayed, upstairs and down, by an unforgettable cast. The Grand Tour took WXXI Rochester on a tour of historic England this spring to discover the world of Downton in fact and fiction, past and present, culminating in an exclusive private tour and reception at Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey. A sold-out group of 27 passengers plus WXXI’s Vice President of Television, Elissa Orlando, and Kathy Reed, Director of Major and Planned Giving took in sites from Edwardian London and the iconic House of Lords, to the Georgian splendor of Jane Austen’s Bath to the hallowed halls of Oxford, with expert guides to explore our enduring fascination with the aristocracy, their grand estates, and how they survive today. Besides the private visit to Highclere, the group met Alastair Bruce, historical advisor for the series, enjoyed high tea in the home of the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), strolled the streets of “Downton” village, and even took in a performance in the West End of a new play The Audience, starring Helen Mirren as the Queen.

A limited number of these England tours are available in 2014, including a private tour and reception at Highclere Castle. Please contact us if your station is interested.

In September, WFSU Tallahassee takes the World of Downton Abbey tour.
See details here.