The Fair Maid of Perth, by Walter Scott


In continuing the lucubrations of Chrystal Croftangry, it occurred that, although the press had of late years teemed with works of various descriptions concerning the Scottish Gad, no attempt had hitherto been made to sketch their manners, as these might be supposed to have existed at the period when the statute book, as well as the page of the chronicler, begins to present constant evidence of the difficulties to which the crown was exposed, while the haughty house of Douglas all but overbalanced its authority on the Southern border, and the North was at the same time torn in pieces by the yet untamed savageness of the Highland races, and the daring loftiness to which some of the remoter chieftains still carried their pretensions.

The well authenticated fact of two powerful clans having deputed each thirty champions to fight out a quarrel of old standing, in presence of King Robert III, his brother the Duke of Albany, and the whole court of Scotland, at Perth, in the year of grace 1396, seemed to mark with equal distinctness the rancour of these mountain feuds and the degraded condition of the general government of the country; and it was fixed upon accordingly as the point on which the main incidents of a romantic narrative might be made to hinge. The characters of Robert III, his ambitious brother, and his dissolute son seemed to offer some opportunities of interesting contrast; and the tragic fate of the heir of the throne, with its immediate consequences, might serve to complete the picture of cruelty and lawlessness.

Two features of the story of this barrier battle on the Inch of Perth — the flight of one of the appointed champions, and the reckless heroism of a townsman, that voluntarily offered for a small piece of coin to supply his place in the mortal encounter — suggested the imaginary persons, on whom much of the novel is expended. The fugitive Celt might have been easily dealt with, had a ludicrous style of colouring been adopted; but it appeared to the Author that there would be more of novelty, as well as of serious interest, if he could succeed in gaining for him something of that sympathy which is incompatible with the total absence of respect. Miss Baillie had drawn a coward by nature capable of acting as a hero under the strong impulse of filial affection. It seemed not impossible to conceive the case of one constitutionally weak of nerve being supported by feelings of honour and of jealousy up to a certain point, and then suddenly giving way, under circumstances to which the bravest heart could hardly refuse compassion.

The controversy as to who really were the clans that figured in the barbarous conflict of the Inch has been revived since the publication of the Fair Maid of Perth, and treated in particular at great length by Mr. Robert Mackay of Thurso, in his very curious History of the House and Clan of Mackay. Without pretending to say that he has settled any part of the question in the affirmative, this gentleman certainly seems to have quite succeeded in proving that his own worthy sept had no part in the transaction. The Mackays were in that age seated, as they have since continued to be, in the extreme north of the island; and their chief at the time was a personage of such importance, that his name and proper designation could not have been omitted in the early narratives of the occurrence. He on one occasion brought four thousand of his clan to the aid of the royal banner against the Lord of the Isles. This historian is of opinion that the Clan Quhele of Wyntoun were the Camerons, who appear to have about that period been often designated as Macewans, and to have gained much more recently the name of Cameron, i.e. Wrynose, from a blemish in the physiognomy of some heroic chief of the line of Lochiel. This view of the case is also adopted by Douglas in his Baronage, where he frequently mentions the bitter feuds between Clan Chattan and Clan Kay, and identifies the latter sept in reference to the events of 1396, with the Camerons. It is perhaps impossible to clear up thoroughly this controversy, little interesting in itself, at least to readers on this side of Inverness. The names, as we have them in Wyntoun, are “Clanwhewyl” and “Clachinya,” the latter probably not correctly transcribed. In the Scoti Chronicon they are “Clanquhele” and “Clankay. Hector Boece writes Clanchattan” and “Clankay,” in which he is followed by Leslie while Buchanan disdains to disfigure his page with their Gaelic designations at all, and merely describes them as two powerful races in the wild and lawless region beyond the Grampians. Out of this jumble what Sassenach can pretend dare lucem? The name Clanwheill appears so late as 1594, in an Act of James VI. Is it not possible that it may be, after all, a mere corruption of Clan Lochiel?

The reader may not be displeased to have Wyntoun’s original rhymes [bk. ix. chap. xvii.]:

A thousand and thre hundyr yere,

Nynty and sex to mak all clere —

Of thre scor wyld Scottis men,

Thretty agane thretty then,

In felny bolnit of auld fed,

[Boiled with the cruelty of an old feud]

As thare forelderis ware slane to dede.

Tha thre score ware clannys twa,

Clahynnhe Qwhewyl and Clachinyha;

Of thir twa kynnis ware tha men,

Thretty agane thretty then;

And thare thai had than chiftanys twa,

Scha Ferqwharis’ son wes ane of tha,

The tother Cristy Johnesone.

A selcouth thing be tha was done.

At Sanct Johnestone besid the Freris,

All thai entrit in barreris

Wyth bow and ax, knyf and swerd,

To deil amang thaim thare last werd.

Thare thai laid on that time sa fast,

Quha had the ware thare at the last

I will noucht say; hot quha best had,

He wes but dout bathe muth and mad.

Fifty or ma ware slane that day,

Sua few wyth lif than past away.

The prior of Lochleven makes no mention either of the evasion of one of the Gaelic champions, or of the gallantry of the Perth artisan, in offering to take a share in the conflict. Both incidents, however, were introduced, no doubt from tradition, by the Continuator of Fordun [Bower], whose narrative is in these words:

Anno Dom. millesimo trecentesimo nonagesimo sexto, magna pars borealis Scotiae, trans Alpes, inquietata fuit per duos pestiferos Cateranos, et eorum sequaces, viz. Scheabeg et suos consanguinarios, qui Clankay, et Cristi Jonsonem ac suos, qui Clanqwhele dicebantur; qui nullo pacto vel tractatu pacificari poterant, nullaque arte regis vel gubernatoris poterant edomari, quoadusque nobilis et industriosus Dominus David de Lindesay de Crawford, at Dominus Thomas comes Moraviae, diligentiam et vires apposuerunt, ac inter partes sic tractaverunt, ut coram domino rege certo die convenirent apud Perth, et alterutra pars eligeret de progenie sua triginta personas adversus triginta de parte contraria, cum gladiis tantum, et arcubus et sagittis, absque deploidibus, vel armaturis aliis, praeter bipennes; et sic congredientes finem liti ponerant, et terra pace potiretur. Utrique igitur parti summe placuit contractus, et die lunae proximo ante festum Sancti Michaelis, apud North insulam de Perth, coram rege et gubernatore et innumerabili multitudine comparentes, conflictum acerrimum inierunt; ubi de sexaginta interfecti sunt omnes, excepto uno ex parte Clankay et undecim exceptis ex parte altera. Hoc etiam ibi accidit, quod omnes in procinctu belli constituti, unus eorum locum diffugii considerans, inter omnes in amnem elabitur, et aquam de Thaya natando transgreditur; a millenis insequitur, sed nusquam apprehenditur. Stant igitur partes attonitae, tanquam non ad conflictum progressuri, ob defectum evasi: noluit enim pars integrum habens numerum sociorum consentire, ut unus de suis demeretur; nec potuit pars altera quocumque pretio alterum ad supplendum vicem fugientis inducere. Stupent igitur omnes haerentes, de damno fugitivi conquerentes. Et cum totum illud opus cessare putaretur, ecce in medio prorupit unus stipulosus vernaculus, statura modicus, sed efferus, dicens: Ecce ego! quis me conducet intrare cum operariis istis ad hunc ludum theatralem? Pro dimidia enim marca ludum experiar, ultra hoc petens, ut si vivus de palaestra evasero, victum a quocumque vestrum recipiam dum vixero: quia, sicut dicitur, “Majorem caritatem nemo habet, quam ut animam suam ponat suis pro amicis.” Quali mercede donabor, qui animam meam pro inimicis reipublicae et regni pono? Quod petiit, a rege et diversis magnatibus conceditur. Cum hoc arcus ejus extenditur, et primo sagittam in partem contrariam transmittit, et unum interficit. Confestim hinc inde sagittae volitant, bipennes librant, gladios vibrant, alterutro certant, et veluti carnifices boves in macello, sic inconsternate ad invicem se trucidant. Sed nec inter tantos repertus est vel unus, qui, tanquam vecors ant timidus, sive post tergum alterius declinans, seipsum a tanta caede praetendit excusare. Iste tamen tyro superveniens finaliter illaesus exivit; et dehinc multo tempore Boreas quievit, nec ibidem fuit, ut supra, cateranorum excursus.

The scene is heightened with many florid additions by Boece and Leslie, and the contending savages in Buchanan utter speeches after the most approved pattern of Livy.

The devotion of the young chief of Clan Quhele’s foster father and foster brethren in the novel is a trait of clannish fidelity, of which Highland story furnishes many examples. In the battle of Inverkeithing, between the Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s troops, a foster father and seven brave sons are known to have thus sacrificed themselves for Sir Hector Maclean of Duart; the old man, whenever one of his boys fell, thrusting forward another to fill his place at the right hand of the beloved chief, with the very words adopted in the novel, “Another for Hector!”

Nay, the feeling could outlive generations. The late much lamented General Stewart of Garth, in his account of the battle of Killiecrankie, informs us that Lochiel was attended on the field by the son of his foster brother.

“This faithful adherent followed him like his shadow, ready to assist him with his sword, or cover him from the shot of the enemy. Suddenly the chief missed his friend from his side, and, turning round to look what had become of him, saw him lying on his back with his breast pierced by an arrow. He had hardly breath, before he expired, to tell Lochiel that, seeing an enemy, a Highlander in General Mackay’s army, aiming at him with a bow and arrow, he sprung behind him, and thus sheltered him from instant death. This” observes the gallant David Stewart, “is a species of duty not often practised, perhaps, by our aide de camps of the present day.”— Sketches of the Highlanders, vol. i. p. 65.

I have only to add, that the Second Series of Chronicles of the Canongate, with the chapter introductory which precedes, appeared in May, 1828, and had a favourable reception.

ABBOTSFORD, Aug. 15, 1831.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00