Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Editor’s Introduction to Old Mortality.

The origin of “Old Mortality,” perhaps the best of Scott’s historical romances, is well known. In May, 1816, Mr. Joseph Train, the gauger from Galloway, breakfasted with Scott in Castle Street. He brought gifts in his hand — a relic of Rob Roy, and a parcel of traditions. Among these was a letter from Mr. Broadfoot, schoolmaster in Pennington, who facetiously signed himself “Clashbottom.” To cleish, or clash, is to “flog,” in Scots. From Mr. Broadfoot’s joke arose Jedediah Cleishbotham, the dominie of Gandercleugh; the real place of Broadfoot’s revels was the Shoulder of Mutton Inn, at Newton Stewart. Mr. Train, much pleased with the antiques in “the den” of Castle Street, was particularly charmed by that portrait of Claverhouse which now hangs on the staircase of the study at Abbotsford. Scott expressed the Cavalier opinions about Dundee, which were new to Mr. Train, who had been bred in the rural tradition of “Bloody Claver’se.”

[The Editor’s first acquaintance with Claverhouse was obtained through an old nurse, who had lived on a farm beside a burn where, she said, the skulls of Covenanters shot by Bloody Claver’se were still occasionally found. The stream was a tributary of the Ettrick.]

“Might he not,” asked Mr. Train, “be made, in good hands, the hero of a national romance as interesting as any about either Wallace or Prince Charlie?” He suggested that the story should be delivered “as if from the mouth of Old Mortality.” This probably recalled to Scott his own meeting with Old Mortality in Dunnottar Churchyard, as described in the Introduction to the novel.

The account of the pilgrim, as given by Sir Walter from Mr. Train’s memoranda, needs no addition. About Old Mortality’s son, John, who went to America in 1776 (? 1774), and settled in Baltimore, a curious romantic myth has gathered. Mr. Train told Scott more, as his manuscript at Abbotsford shows, than Scott printed. According to Mr. Train, John Paterson, of Baltimore, had a son Robert and a daughter Elizabeth. Robert married an American lady, who, after his decease, was married to the Marquis of Wellesley. Elizabeth married Jerome Bonaparte! Sir Walter distrusted these legends, though derived from a Scotch descendant of Old Mortality. Mr. Ramage, in March, 1871, wrote to “Notes and Queries” dispelling the myth.

According to Jerome Bonaparte’s descendant, Madame Bonaparte, her family were Pattersons, not Patersons. Her Baltimore ancestor’s will is extant, has been examined by Old Mortality’s great-grandson, and announces in a kind of preamble that the testator was a native of Donegal; his Christian name was William (“Notes and Queries,” Fourth Series, vol. vii. p. 219, and Fifth Series, August, 1874). This, of course, quite settles the question; but the legend is still current among American descendants of the old Roxburghshire wanderer.

“Old Mortality,” with its companion, “The Black Dwarf,” was published on December 1, 1816, by Mr. Murray in London, and Mr. Blackwood in Edinburgh.

The name of “The Author of ‘Waverley’” was omitted on the title-page. The reason for a change of publisher may have been chiefly financial (Lockhart, v. 152). Scott may have also thought it amusing to appear as his own rival in a new field. He had not yet told his secret to Lady Abercorn, but he seems to reveal it (for who but he could have known so much about the subject?) in a letter to her, of November 29, 1816. “You must know the Marquis well — or rather you must be the Marquis himself!” quoth Dalgetty. Here follow portions of the letter:

I do not like the first story, “The Black Dwarf,” at all; but the long one which occupies three volumes is a most remarkable production. . . . I should like to know if you are of my opinion as to these new volumes coming from the same hand. . . . I wander about from nine in the morning till five at night with a plaid about my shoulders and an immensely large bloodhound at my heels, and stick in sprigs which are to become trees when I shall have no eyes to look at them . . . .

I am truly glad that the Tales have amused you. In my poor opinion they are the best of the four sets, though perhaps I only think so on account of their opening ground less familiar to me than the manners of the Highlanders. . . . If Tom — [His brother, Mr. Thomas Scott.] — wrote those volumes, he has not put me in his secret. . . . General rumour here attributes them to a very ingenious but most unhappy man, a clergyman of the Church of Scotland, who, many years since, was obliged to retire from his profession, and from society, who hides himself under a borrowed name. This hypothesis seems to account satisfactorily for the rigid secrecy observed; but from what I can recollect of the unfortunate individual, these are not the kind of productions I should expect from him. Burley, if I mistake not, was on board the Prince of Orange’s own vessel at the time of his death. There was also in the Life Guards such a person as Francis Stewart, grandson of the last Earl of Bothwell. I have in my possession various proceedings at his father’s instance for recovering some part of the Earl’s large estates which had been granted to the Earls of Buccleugh and Roxburgh. It would appear that Charles I. made some attempts to reinstate him in those lands, but, like most of that poor monarch’s measures, the attempt only served to augment his own enemies, for Buccleugh was one of the first who declared against him in Scotland, and raised a regiment of twelve hundred men, of whom my grandfather’s grandfather (Sir William Scott of Harden) was lieutenant-colonel. This regiment was very active at the destruction of Montrose’s Highland army at Philiphaugh. In Charles the Second’s time the old knight suffered as much through the nonconformity of his wife as Cuddie through that of his mother. My father’s grandmother, who lived to the uncommon age of ninety-eight years, perfectly remembered being carried, when a child, to the field-preachings, where the clergyman thundered from the top of a rock, and the ladies sat upon their side-saddles, which were placed upon the turf for their accommodation, while the men stood round, all armed with swords and pistols. . . . Old Mortality was a living person; I have myself seen him about twenty years ago repairing the Covenanters’ tombs as far north as Dunnottar.

If Lady Abercorn was in any doubt after this ingenuous communication, Mr. Murray, the publisher, was in none. (Lockhart, v. 169.) He wrote to Scott on December 14, 1816, rejoicing in the success of the Tales, “which must be written either by Walter Scott or the Devil. . . . I never experienced such unmixed pleasure as the reading of this exquisite work has afforded me; and if you could see me, as the author’s literary chamberlain, receiving the unanimous and vehement praises of those who have read it, and the curses of those whose needs my scanty supply could not satisfy, you might judge of the sincerity with which I now entreat you to assure the Author of the most complete success.” Lord Holland had said, when Mr. Murray asked his opinion, “Opinion! We did not one of us go to bed last night — nothing slept but my gout.”

The very Whigs were conquered. But not the Scottish Whigs, the Auld Leaven of the Covenant — they were still dour, and offered many criticisms. Thereon Scott, by way of disproving his authorship, offered to review the Tales in the “Quarterly.” His true reason for this step was the wish to reply to Dr. Thomas McCrie, author of the “Life of John Knox,” who had been criticising Scott’s historical view of the Covenant, in the “Edinburgh Christian Instructor.” Scott had, perhaps, no better mode of answering his censor. He was indifferent to reviews, but here his historical knowledge and his candour had been challenged. Scott always recognised the national spirit of the Covenanters, which he remarks on in “The Heart of Mid-Lothian,” and now he was treated as a faithless Scotsman. For these reasons he reviewed himself; but it is probable, as Lockhart says, that William Erskine wrote the literary or aesthetic part of the criticism (Lockhart, v.174, note).

Dr. McCrie’s review may be read, or at least may be found, in the fourth volume of his collected works (Blackwood, Edinburgh 1857). The critique amounts to about eighty-five thousand words. Since the “Princesse de Cleves” was reviewed in a book as long as the original, never was so lengthy a criticism. As Dr. McCrie’s performance scarcely shares the popularity of “Old Mortality,” a note on his ideas may not be superfluous, though space does not permit a complete statement of his many objections. The Doctor begins by remarks on novels in general, then descends to the earlier Waverley romances. “The Antiquary” he pronounces to be “tame and fatiguing.” Acknowledging the merits of the others, he finds fault with “the foolish lines” (from Burns), “which must have been foisted without the author’s knowledge into the title page,” and he denounces the “bad taste” of the quotation from “Don Quixote.” Burns and Cervantes had done no harm to Dr. McCrie, but his anger was aroused, and he, like the McCallum More as described by Andrew Fairservice, “got up wi’ an unto’ bang, and garr’d them a’ look about them.” The view of the Covenanters is “false and distorted.” These worthies are not to be “abused with profane wit or low buffoonery.” “Prayers were not read in the parish churches of Scotland” at that time. As Episcopacy was restored when Charles II. returned “upon the unanimous petition of the Scottish Parliament” (Scott’s Collected Works, vol. xix. p. 78) it is not unnatural for the general reader to suppose that prayers would be read by the curates. Dr. McCrie maintains that “at the Restoration neither the one nor the other” (neither the Scotch nor English Prayer Books) “was imposed,” and that the Presbyterians repeatedly “admitted they had no such grievance.” No doubt Dr. McCrie is correct. But Mr. James Guthrie, who was executed on June 1, 1661, said in his last speech, “Oh that there were not many who study to build again what they did formerly unwarrantably destroy: I mean Prelacy and the Service Book, a mystery of iniquity that works amongst us, whose steps lead unto the house of the great Whore, Babylon, the mother of fornication,” and so forth. Either this mystery of iniquity, the Book of Common Prayer, “was working amongst us,” or it was not. If it was not, of what did Mr. Guthrie complain? If it was “working,” was read by certain curates, as by Burnet, afterwards Bishop of Salisbury, at Saltoun, Scott is not incorrect. He makes Morton, in danger of death, pray in the words of the Prayer Book, “a circumstance which so enraged his murderers that they determined to precipitate his fate.” Dr. McCrie objects to this incident, which is merely borrowed, one may conjecture, from the death of Archbishop Sharpe. The assassins told the Archbishop that they would slay him. “Hereupon he began to think of death. But (here are just the words of the person who related the story) behold! God did not give him the grace to pray to Him without the help of a book. But he pulled out of his pocket a small book, and began to read over some words to himself, which filled us with amazement and indignation.” So they fired their pistols into the old man, and then chopped him up with their swords, supposing that he had a charm against bullets! Dr. McCrie seems to have forgotten, or may have disbelieved the narrative telling how Sharpe’s use of the Prayer Book, like Morton’s, “enraged” his murderers. The incident does not occur in the story of the murder by Russell, one of the murderers, a document published in C. K. Sharpe’s edition of Kirkton. It need not be true, but it may have suggested the prayer of Morton.

If Scott thought that the Prayer Book was ordained to be read in Scotch churches, he was wrong; if he merely thought that it might have been read in some churches, was “working amongst us,” he was right: at least, according to Mr. James Guthrie.

Dr. McCrie argues that Burley would never have wrestled with a soldier in an inn, especially in the circumstances. This, he says, was inconsistent with Balfour’s “character.” Wodrow remarks, “I cannot hear that this gentleman had ever any great character for religion among those that knew him, and such were the accounts of him, when abroad, that the reverend ministers of the Scots congregation at Rotterdam would never allow him to communicate with them.” In Scott’s reading of Burley’s character, there was a great deal of the old Adam. That such a man should so resent the insolence of a soldier is far from improbable, and our sympathies are with Burley on this occasion.

Mause Headrigg is next criticised. Scott never asserted that she was a representative of sober Presbyterianism. She had long conducted herself prudently, but, when she gave way to her indignation, she only used such language as we find on many pages of Wodrow, in the mouths of many Covenanters. Indeed, though Manse is undeniably comic, she also commands as much respect as the Spartan mother when she bids her only son bear himself boldly in the face of torture. If Scott makes her grotesque, he also makes her heroic. But Dr. McCrie could not endure the ridiculous element, which surely no fair critic can fail to observe in the speeches of the gallant and courageous, but not philosophical, members of the Covenant’s Extreme Left. Dr. McCrie talks of “the creeping loyalty of the Cavaliers.” “Staggering” were a more appropriate epithet. Both sides were loyal to principle, both courageous; but the inappropriate and promiscuous scriptural language of many Covenanters was, and remains, ridiculous. Let us admit that the Covenanters were not averse to all games. In one or two sermons they illustrate religion by phrases derived from golf!

When Dr. McCrie exclaims, in a rich anger, “Your Fathers!” as if Scott’s must either have been Presbyterians or Cavaliers, the retort is cleverly put by Sir Walter in the mouth of Jedediah. His ancestors of these days had been Quakers, and persecuted by both parties.

Throughout the novel Scott keeps insisting that the Presbyterians had been goaded into rebellion, and even into revenge, by cruelty of persecution, and that excesses and bloodthirstiness were confined to the “High Flyers,” as the milder Covenanters called them. Morton represents the ideal of a good Scot in the circumstances. He comes to be ashamed of his passive attitude in the face of oppression. He stands up for “that freedom from stripes and bondage” which was claimed, as you may read in Scripture, by the Apostle Paul, and which every man who is free-born is called upon to defend, for his own sake and that of his countrymen. The terms demanded by Morton from Monmouth before the battle of Bothwell Bridge are such as Scott recognises to be fair. Freedom of worship, and a free Parliament, are included.

Dr. McCrie’s chief charges are that Scott does not insist enough on the hardships and brutalities of the persecution, and that the ferocity of the Covenanters is overstated. He does not admit that the picture drawn of “the more rigid Presbyterians” is just. But it is almost impossible to overstate the ferocity of the High Flyers’ conduct and creed. Thus Wodrow, a witness not quite unfriendly to the rigid Presbyterians, though not high-flying enough for Patrick Walker, writes “Mr. Tate informs me that he had this account front Mr. Antony Shau, and others of the Indulged; that at some time, under the Indulgence, there was a meeting of some people, when they resolved in one night . . . to go to every house of the Indulged Ministers and kill them, and all in one night.” This anecdote was confirmed by Mr. John Millar, to whose father’s house one of these High Flyers came, on this errand. This massacre was not aimed at the persecutors, but at the Poundtexts. As to their creed, Wodrow has an anecdote of one of his own elders, who told a poor woman with many children that “it would be an uncouth mercy” if they were all saved.

A pleasant evangel was this, and peacefully was it to have been propagated!

Scott was writing a novel, not history. In “The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border” (1802-3) Sir Walter gave this account of the persecutions. “Had the system of coercion been continued until our day, Blair and Robertson would have preached in the wilderness, and only discovered their powers of eloquence and composition by rolling along a deeper torrent of gloomy fanaticism. . . . The genius of the persecuted became stubborn, obstinate, and ferocious.” He did not, in his romance, draw a complete picture of the whole persecution, but he did show, by that insolence of Bothwell at Milnwood, which stirs the most sluggish blood, how the people were misused. This scene, to Dr. McCrie’s mind, is “a mere farce,” because it is enlivened by Manse’s declamations. Scott displays the abominable horrors of the torture as forcibly as literature may dare to do. But Dr. McCrie is not satisfied, because Macbriar, the tortured man, had been taken in arms. Some innocent person should have been put in the Boot, to please Dr. McCrie. He never remarks that Macbriar conquers our sympathy by his fortitude. He complains of what the Covenanters themselves called “the language of Canaan,” which is put into their mouths, “a strange, ridiculous, and incoherent jargon compounded of Scripture phrases, and cant terms peculiar to their own party opinions in ecclesiastical politics.” But what other language did many of them speak? “Oh, all ye that can pray, tell all the Lord’s people to try, by mourning and prayer, if ye can taigle him, taigle him especially in Scotland, for we fear, he will depart from it.” This is the theology of a savage, in the style of a clown, but it is quoted by Walker as Mr. Alexander Peden’s.’ Mr. John Menzie’s “Testimony” (1670) is all about “hardened men, whom though they walk with you for the present with horns of a lamb, yet afterward ye may hear them speak with the mouth of a dragon, pricks in your eyes and thorns in your sides.” Manse Headrigg scarcely caricatures this eloquence, or Peden’s “many and long seventy-eight years left-hand defections, and forty-nine years right-hand extremes;” while “Professor Simson in Glasgow, and Mr. Glass in Tealing, both with Edom’s children cry Raze, raze the very foundation!” Dr. McCrie is reduced to supposing that some of the more absurd sermons were incorrectly reported. Very possibly they were, but the reports were in the style which the people liked. As if to remove all possible charge of partiality, Scott made the one faultless Christian of his tale a Covenanting widow, the admirable Bessie McLure. But she, says the doctor, “repeatedly banns and minces oaths in her conversation.” This outrageous conduct of Bessie’s consists in saying “Gude protect us!” and “In Heaven’s name, who are ye?” Next the Doctor congratulates Scott on his talent for buffoonery. “Oh, le grand homme, rien ne lui peut plaire.” Scott is later accused of not making his peasants sufficiently intelligent. Cuddie Headrigg and Jenny Dennison suffice as answers to this censure.

Probably the best points made by Dr. McCrie are his proof that biblical names were not common among the Covenanteers and that Episcopal eloquence and Episcopal superstition were often as tardy and as dark as the eloquence and superstition of the Presbyterians. He carries the war into the opposite camp, with considerable success. His best answer to “Old Mortality” would have been a novel, as good and on the whole as fair, written from the Covenanting side. Hogg attempted this reply, not to Scott’s pleasure according to the Shepherd, in “The Brownie of Bodsbeck.” The Shepherd says that when Scott remarked that the “Brownie” gave an untrue description of the age, he replied, “It’s a devilish deal truer than yours!” Scott, in his defence, says that to please the friends of the Covenanters, “their portraits must be drawn without shadow, and the objects of their political antipathy be blackened, hooved, and horned ere they will acknowledge the likeness of either.” He gives examples of clemency, and even considerateness, in Dundee; for example, he did not bring with him a prisoner, “who laboured under a disease rendering it painful to him to be on horseback.” He examines the story of John Brown, and disproves the blacker circumstances. Yet he appears to hold that Dundee should have resigned his commission rather than carry out the orders of Government? Burley’s character for ruthlessness is defended by the evidence of the “Scottish Worthies.” As Dr. McCrie objects to his “buffoonery,” it is odd that he palliates the “strong propensity” of Knox “to indulge his vein of humour,” when describing, with ghoul-like mirth, the festive circumstances of the murder and burial of Cardinal Beaton. The odious part of his satire, Scott says, is confined to “the fierce and unreasonable set of extra-Presbyterians,” Wodrow’s High Flyers. “We have no delight to dwell either upon the atrocities or absurdities of a people whose ignorance and fanaticism were rendered frantic by persecution.” To sum up the controversy, we may say that Scott was unfair, if at all, in tone rather than in statement. He grants to the Covenanters dauntless resolution and fortitude; he admits their wrongs; we cannot see, on the evidence of their literature, that he exaggerates their grotesqueness, their superstition, their impossible attitude as of Israelites under a Theocracy, which only existed as an ideal, or their ruthlessness on certain occasions. The books of Wodrow, Kirkton, and Patrick Walker, the sermons, the ghost stories, the dying speeches, the direct testimony of their own historians, prove all that Scott says, a hundred times over. The facts are correct, the testimony to the presence of another, an angelic temper, remains immortal in the figure of Bessie McLure. But an unfairness of tone may be detected in the choice of such names as Kettledrummle and Poundtext: probably the “jog-trot” friends of the Indulgence have more right to complain than the “high-flying” friends of the Covenant. Scott had Cavalier sympathies, as Macaulay had Covenanting sympathies. That Scott is more unjust to the Covenanters than Macaulay to Claverhouse historians will scarcely maintain. Neither history or fiction would be very delightful if they were warless. This must serve as an apology more needed by Macaulay — than by Sir Walter. His reply to Dr. McCrie is marked by excellent temper, humour, and good humor. The “Quarterly Review” ends with the well known reference to his brother Tom’s suspected authorship: “We intended here to conclude this long article, when a strong report reached us of certain transatlantic confessions, which, if genuine (though of this we know nothing), assign a different author to those volumes than the party suspected by our Scottish correspondents. Yet a critic may be excused for seizing upon the nearest suspected person, or the principle happily expressed by Claverhouse in a letter to the Earl of Linlithgow. He had been, it seems, in search of a gifted weaver who used to hold forth at conventicles: ‘I sent for the webster, they brought in his brother for him: though he, maybe, cannot preach like his brother, I doubt not but he is as well principled as he, wherefore I thought it would be no great fault to give him the trouble to go to jail with the rest.’”

Nobody who read this could doubt that Scott was, at least, “art and part” in the review. His efforts to disguise himself as an Englishman, aided by a Scotch antiquary, are divertingly futile. He seized the chance of defending his earlier works from some criticisms on Scotch manners suggested by the ignorance of Gifford. Nor was it difficult to see that the author of the review was also the author of the novel. In later years Lady Louisa Stuart reminded Scott that “Old Mortality,” like the Iliad, had been ascribed by clever critics to several hands working together. On December 5, 1816, she wrote to him, “I found something you wot of upon my table; and as I dare not take it with me to a friend’s house, for fear of arousing curiosity”— she read it at once. She could not sleep afterwards, so much had she been excited. “Manse and Cuddie forced me to laugh out aloud, which one seldom does when alone.” Many of the Scotch words “were absolutely Hebrew” to her. She not unjustly objected to Claverhouse’s use of the word “sentimental” as an anachronism. Sentiment, like nerves, had not been invented in Claverhouse’s day.

The pecuniary success of “Old Mortality” was less, perhaps, than might have been expected. The first edition was only of two thousand copies. Two editions of this number were sold in six weeks, and a third was printed. Constable’s gallant enterprise of ten thousand, in “Rob Roy,” throws these figures into the shade.

“Old Mortality” is the first of Scott’s works in which he invades history beyond the range of what may be called living oral tradition. In “Waverley,” and even in “Rob Roy,” he had the memories of Invernahyle, of Miss Nairne, of many persons of the last generation for his guides. In “Old Mortality” his fancy had to wander among the relics of another age, among the inscribed tombs of the Covenanters, which are common in the West Country, as in the churchyards of Balmaclellan and Dalry. There the dust of these enduring and courageous men, like that of Bessie Bell and Marion Gray in the ballad, “beiks forenenst the sun,” which shines on them from beyond the hills of their wanderings, while the brown waters of the Ken murmur at their feet.

Here now in peace sweet rest we take,

Once murdered for religion’s sake,

says the epitaph on the flat table-stone, beneath the wind tormented trees of Iron Gray. Concerning these Manes Presbyteriani, “Guthrie’s and Giffan’s Passions” and the rest, Scott had a library of rare volumes full of prophecies, “remarkable Providences,” angelic ministrations, diabolical persecutions by The Accuser of the Brethren — in fact, all that Covenanteers had written or that had been written about Covenanteers. “I’ll tickle ye off a Covenanter as readily as old Jack could do a young Prince; and a rare fellow he is, when brought forth in his true colours,” he says to Terry (November 12, 1816). He certainly was not an unprejudiced witness, some ten years earlier, when he wrote to Southey, “You can hardly conceive the perfidy, cruelty, and stupidity of these people, according to the accounts they have themselves preserved. But I admit I had many prejudices instilled into me, as my ancestor was a Killiecrankie man.” He used to tease Grahame of “The Sabbath,” “but never out of his good humour, by praising Dundee, and laughing at the Covenanters.” Even as a boy he had been familiar with that godly company in “the original edition of the lives of Cameron and others, by Patrick Walker.” The more curious parts of those biographies were excised by the care of later editors, but they may all be found now in the “Biographia Presbyteriana” (1827), published by True Jock, chief clerk to “Leein’ Johnnie,” Mr. John Ballantyne. To this work the inquirer may turn, if he is anxious to see whether Scott’s colouring is correct. The true blue of the Covenant is not dulled in the “Biographia Presbyteriana.”

With all these materials at his command, Scott was able almost to dwell in the age of the Covenant hence the extraordinary life and brilliance of this, his first essay in fiction dealing with a remote time and obsolete manners. His opening, though it may seem long and uninviting to modern readers, is interesting for the sympathetic sketch of the gentle consumptive dominie. If there was any class of men whom Sir Walter could not away with, it was the race of schoolmasters, “black cattle” whom he neither trusted nor respected. But he could make or invent exceptions, as in the uncomplaining and kindly usher of the verbose Cleishbotham. Once launched in his legend, with the shooting of the Popinjay, he never falters. The gallant, dauntless, overbearing Bothwell, the dour Burley, the handful of Preachers, representing every current of opinion in the Covenant, the awful figure of Habakkuk Mucklewrath, the charm of goodness in Bessie McLure, are all immortal, deathless as Shakspeare’s men and women. Indeed here, even more than elsewhere, we admire the life which Scott breathes into his minor characters, Halliday and Inglis, the troopers, the child who leads Morton to Burley’s retreat in the cave, that auld Laird Nippy, old Milnwood (a real “Laird Nippy” was a neighbour of Scott’s at Ashiestiel), Ailie Wilson, the kind, crabbed old housekeeper, generous in great things, though habitually niggardly in things small. Most of these are persons whom we might still meet in Scotland, as we might meet Cuddie Headrigg — the shrewd, the blithe, the faithful and humorous Cuddie. As to Miss Jenny Dennison, we can hardly forgive Scott for making that gayest of soubrettes hard and selfish in married life. He is too severe on the harmless and even beneficent race of coquettes, who brighten life so much, who so rapidly “draw up with the new pleugh lad,” and who do so very little harm when all is said. Jenny plays the part of a leal and brave lass in the siege of Tillietudlem, hunger and terror do not subdue her spirit; she is true, in spite of many temptations, to her Cuddie, and we decline to believe that she was untrue to his master and friend. Ikuse, no doubt, is a caricature, though Wodrow makes us acquainted with at least one Mause, Jean Biggart, who “all the winter over was exceedingly straitened in wrestling and prayer as to the Parliament, and said that still that place was brought before her, Our hedges are broken down!” (“Analecta,” ii. 173.) Surely even Dr. McCrie must have laughed out loud, like Lady Louisa Stuart, when Mause exclaims: “Neither will I peace for the bidding of no earthly potsherd, though it be painted as red as a brick from the tower o’ Babel, and ca’ itsel’ a corporal.” Manse, as we have said, is not more comic than heroic, a mother in that Sparta of the Covenant. The figure of Morton, as usual, is not very attractive. In his review, Scott explains the weakness of his heroes as usually strangers in the land (Waverley, Lovel, Mannering, Osbaldistone), who need to have everything explained to them, and who are less required to move than to be the pivots of the general movement. But Morton is no stranger in the land. His political position in the juste milieu is unexciting. A schoolboy wrote to Scott at this time, “Oh, Sir Walter, how could you take the lady from the gallant Cavalier, and give her to the crop-eared Covenanter?” Probably Scott sympathised with his young critic, who longed “to be a feudal chief, and to see his retainers happy around him.” But Edith Bellenden loved Morton, with that love which, as she said, and thought, “disturbs the repose of the dead.” Scott had no choice. Besides, Dr. McCrie might have disapproved of so fortunate an arrangement. The heroine herself does not live in the memory like Di Vernon; she does not even live like Jenny Dennison. We remember Corporal Raddlebanes better, the stoutest fighting man of Major Bellenden’s acquaintance; and the lady of Tillietudlem has admirers more numerous and more constant. The lovers of the tale chiefly engage our interest by the rare constancy of their affections.

The most disputed character is, of course, that of Claverhouse. There is no doubt that, if Claverhouse had been a man of the ordinary mould, he would never have reckoned so many enthusiastic friends in future ages. But Beauty, which makes Helen immortal, had put its seal on Bonny Dundee. With that face “which limners might have loved to paint, and ladies to look upon,” he still conquers hearts from his dark corner above the private staircase in Sir Walter’s deserted study. He was brave, he was loyal when all the world forsook his master; in that reckless age of revelry he looks on with the austere and noble contempt which he wears in Hell among the tippling shades of Cavaliers. He died in the arms of victory, but he lives among

The chiefs of ancient names

Who swore to fight and die beneath the banner of King James,

And he fell in Killiecrankie Pass, the glory of the Grahames.

Sentiment in romance, not in history, may be excused for pardoning the rest.

Critics of the time, as Lady Louisa Stuart reminds Sir Walter, did not believe the book was his, because it lacked his “tedious descriptions.” The descriptions, as of the waterfall where Burley had his den, are indeed far from “tedious.” There is a tendency in Scott to exalt into mountains “his own grey hills,” the bosses verdatres as Prosper Merimee called them, of the Border. But the horrors of such linns as that down which Hab Dab and Davie Dinn “dang the deil” are not exaggerated.

“Old Mortality” was the last novel written by Scott before the malady which tormented his stoicism in 1817-1820. Every reader has his own favourite, but few will place this glorious tale lower than second in the list of his incomparable romances.

ANDREW LANG.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29