OATS. n.s. [aten, Saxon.] A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
The oats have eaten the horses. Shakespeare.
Samuel Johnson’s view of Scotland and the Scots has usually been seen in negative terms: the focus has been on what Boswell calls his “prejudice against both the country and people of Scotland” (Boswell, Life, 2:300). Boswell sought to hide his own Scottish identity when he was first introduced to Johnson in 1763, in deference to the Englishman’s perceived Scotophobia:
recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, “Don’t tell where I come from.” – “From Scotland,” cried Davies, roguishly. “Mr. Johnson, (said I) I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” … I meant this as light pleasantry to sooth and conciliate him, and not as an humiliating abasement at the expence of my country. But … he seized the expression “come from Scotland,” which I used in the sense of being of that country; and, as if I had said that I had come away from it, or left it, retorted, “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.” (Boswell, Life, 1:392)
The taunts aimed at Scotland continued throughout their twenty-year acquaintance. In 1769, Johnson told Boswell, “Sir, you have desart enough in Scotland” (2:75); in 1775, he expressed himself on “the extreme jealousy of the Scotch” (2:306), and his infamous gibing definitions of terms like oats in the Dictionary are well known. His declaration that “The impudence of an Irishman is the impudence of a fly … The impudence of a Scotsman is the impudence of a leech, that fixes and sucks your blood” (Miscellanies, 1:427) seems to be confirmation of Johnson’s insularity and prejudice bordering on racism.
At the same time, there are problems with this traditional account. First, there is the question of how far Boswell’s Johnson was more an “affectionate caricature” than a piece of biographical fidelity. Traditional accounts that minimize Boswell’s “organizational and interpretive power” have become increasingly marginalized over the last forty years, and this has been reflected in controversies over both Boswell’s artistry and his accuracy in reporting Johnson’s sentiments, particularly in the field of Johnson’s alleged Jacobitism, his loyalty to the exiled Stuart dynasty (see chapter 35, “Politics”). Second, there is the question of how far Johnson’s anti-Scottishness was directed at a particular kind of Scotland – the Presbyterian, pro-Hanoverian, and Unionist Scotland of the eighteenth-century Scotsman on the make. Johnson, as historian J. C. D. Clark notes, thought “that the decline of learning went together with the advance of Presbyterianism,” and Johnson “pointedly refused to enter a Presbyterian church in Scotland.”