Ayrshire's other literary genius to be honoured with new festival

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"Neglected" Scottish literary icon James Boswell, author of The Life of Samuel Johnson, is to be celebrated with a planned £1.5 million museum at his Ayrshire family home and with a brand new Boswell Book Festival devoted to his legacy, The Scotsman can reveal.

An Edinburgh solicitor, Boswell is remembered best as Johnson's literary companion and chronicler but was also a travel writer and diarist, whose frank and racy journal became a best-seller. But he has been often overlooked in his home land.

Now an influential group of admirers are launching plans to restore the run-down family mausoleum at Auchinleck House in Ayrshire, where Boswell is buried, and turn the chapel into an exhibition centre.

In late May leading writers, from the veteran memoirist Diana Athill to war correspondent Kate Adie and actor Bill Paterson, will gather at Auchinleck for the Boswell Book Festival, themed around the art of memoir and biography.

"We are trying to put Boswell back on the map again," said James Knox, chairman of the Boswell Museum and Mausoleum Trust. Mr Knox, a National Galleries of Scotland trustee with wide connections in the arts world, said raising 1.5m was a realistic prospect.

"In his own country, he is neglected," said Margaret Boswell Elliot, descended from the writer through his grand-daughter. "We have nothing for him in Edinburgh, and it's such a shame for Ayrshire not to acknowledge it."

Auchinleck, in economically depressed East Ayrshire, has been more in the news recently for air gun shootings and violence at local football matches than its literary connections.

The Boswell site is a stone's throw from Dumfries House, saved for the nation by the Prince of Wales in a 45m purchase four years ago, and now open for tours. The new 21m Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, which opened in January, is 30 minutes' drive away.

Burns and Boswell were contemporaries, though they never met, and it is hoped that the Auchinleck museum could become part of a revived Ayrshire tourist route.

European funding is already in place and East Ayrshire Council has informally agreed to hand over the chapel and gravesite. The 17th-century family chapel, or aisle, would be restored, with exhibits focusing on bringing Boswell's story and character alive rather than simply displaying artefacts or manuscripts. It would follow his fascination with subjects such as death, madness and sexual desire.

Backers for the restoration include Bill Zachs, a leading Edinburgh literary collector and scholar, who called Boswell "one of the four or five great literary figures of Scotland … it is a cliche to say he is the founder of modern biography".Mr Knox said: "We would like to restore the mausoleum well and authentically, so it can become a place of homage to James Boswell, because there is nowhere - no museum dedicated to him, no shrine.

"Robert Burns hero-worshiped Boswell, he lived virtually in the same parish."

Profile: A pioneering writer who has never been out of print

James Boswell, who came from a long-established Ayrshire family, was born in Edinburgh in 1740, where his father was a judge in the supreme court. While at Edinburgh University, he heard Adam Smith lecture.

First visiting London at the age of 19, he sought out famous companions and "good" living, and his friendship with Samuel Johnson lead to The Life of Samuel Johnson, his readable and quotable biography, never out of print. While Johnson created his great dictionary, Boswell is regarded as the inventor of modern biography.

"Indeed I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it," Boswell said when they met. To which Johnson replied: "That, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help." Other famous quotes include Johnson's words on second marriages: "the triumph of hope over experience".

Boswell also wrote a pioneering travel book, An Account of Corsica, and his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, describing his journeys with Johnson. The 20th century brought the rediscovery of his private papers, with their frank descriptions of sexual encounters, his battle with depression, insecurities, ambitions and troubled relationships. Published in 1950, this London Journal became an international best-seller.

"There is so much more to Boswell than his Life of Johnson," said the US scholar Dr Gordon Turnbull, at Yale University, which holds a major collection of his papers.

Boswell travelled widely and lived in London, but remained an Ayrshireman - marrying his cousin Elizabeth Montgomerie, with whom he produced five children. He became Laird of Auchinleck on the death of his father, and was buried in the family mausoleum there in 1795.

• www.boswellbookfestival.co.uk