The Pirate, by Walter Scott

Editor’s Introduction.

The circumstances in which “The Pirate” was composed have for the Editor a peculiar interest. He has many times scribbled at the old bureau in Chiefswood whereon Sir Walter worked at his novel, and sat in summer weather beneath the great tree on the lawn where Erskine used to read the fresh chapters to Lockhart and his wife, while the burn murmured by from the Rhymer’s Glen. So little altered is the cottage of Chiefswood by the addition of a gabled wing in the same red stone as the older portion, so charmed a quiet has the place, in the shelter of Eildon Hill, that there one can readily beget the golden time again, and think oneself back into the day when Mustard and Spice, running down the shady glen, might herald the coming of the Sheriff himself. Happy hours and gone: like that summer of 1821, whereof Lockhart speaks with an emotion the more touching because it is so rare —

the first of several seasons, which will ever dwell on my memory as the happiest of my life. We were near enough Abbotsford to partake as often as we liked of its brilliant society; yet could do so without being exposed to the worry and exhaustion of spirit which the daily reception of new visitors entailed upon all the society except Sir Walter himself. But, in truth, even he was not always proof against the annoyances connected with such a style of open-house-keeping. Even his temper sank sometimes under the solemn applause of learned dulness, the vapid raptures of painted and periwigged dowagers the horse-leech avidity with which underbred foreigners urged their questions, and the pompous simpers of condescending magnates. When sore beset in this way, he would every now and then discover that he had some very particular business to attend to on an outlying part of his estate, and, craving the indulgence of his guests overnight, appear at the cabin in the glen before its inhabitants were astir in the morning. The clatter of Sibyl Grey’s hoofs, the yelping of Mustard and Spice, and his own joyous shout of reveillée under our window, were the signal that he had burst his bonds, and meant for that day to take his ease in his inn. . . . After breakfast he would take possession of a dressing-room upstairs, and write a chapter of “The Pirate”; and then, having made up and dispatched his parcel for Mr. Ballantyne, away to join Purdie where the foresters were at work. . . .

The constant and eager delight with which Erskine watched the progress of the tale has left a deep impression on my memory: and indeed I heard so many of its chapters first read from the MS. by him, that I can never open the book now without thinking I hear his voice. Sir Walter used to give him at breakfast the pages he had written that morning, and very commonly, while he was again at work in his study, Erskine would walk over to Chiefswood, that he might have the pleasure of reading them aloud to my wife and me under our favourite tree.1

“The tree is living yet!” This long quotation from a book but too little read in general may be excused for its interest, as bearing on the composition of “The Pirate,” in the early autumn of 1821. In “The Pirate” Scott fell back on his recollections of the Orcades, as seen by him in a tour with the Commissioners of Light Houses, in August 1814, immediately after the publication of “Waverley.” They were accompanied by Mr. Stevenson, the celebrated engineer, “a most gentlemanlike and modest man, and well known by his scientific skill.”2 It is understood that Mr. Stevenson also kept a diary, and that it is to be published by the care of his distinguished grandson, Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, author of “Kidnapped,” “The Master of Ballantrae,” and other novels in which Scott would have recognised a not alien genius.

Sir Walter’s Diary, read in company with “The Pirate,” offers a most curious study of his art in composition. It may be said that he scarcely noted a natural feature, a monument, a custom, a superstition, or a legend in Zetland and Orkney which he did not weave into the magic web of his romance. In the Diary all those matters appear as very ordinary; in “The Pirate” they are transfigured in the light of fancy. History gives Scott the career of Gow and his betrothal to an island lady: observation gives him a few headlands, Picts’ houses, ruined towers, and old stone monuments, and his characters gather about these, in rhythmic array, like the dancers in the sword-dance. We may conceive that Cleveland, like Gow, was originally meant to die, and that Minna, like Margaret in the ballad of Clerk Saunders, was to recover her troth from the hand of her dead lover. But, if Scott intended this, he was good-natured, and relented.

Taking the incidents in the Diary in company with the novel, we find, in the very first page of “The Pirate,” mention of the roost, or rost, of Sumburgh, the running current of tidal water, which he hated so, because it made him so sea-sick. “All the landsmen sicker than sick, and our Viceroy, Stevenson, qualmish. It is proposed to have a light on Sumburgh Head. Fitful Head is higher, but is to the west, from which quarter few vessels come.” As for Sumburgh Head, Scott climbed it, rolled down a rock from the summit, and found it “a fine situation to compose an ode to the Genius of Sumburgh Head, or an Elegy upon a Cormorant — or to have written or spoken madness of any kind in prose or poetry. But I gave vent to my excited feelings in a more simple way, and, sitting gently down on the steep green slope which led to the beach, I e’en slid down a few hundred feet, and found the exercise quite an adequate vent to my enthusiasm.”

Sir Walter was certainly not what he found Mrs. Hemans, “too poetical.”

In the first chapter, his Giffords, Scotts (of Scotstarvet, the Fifeshire house, not of the Border clan), and Mouats are the very gentry who entertained him on his tour. His “plantie cruives,” in the novel, had been noted in the Diary (Lockhart, iv. 193). “Pate Stewart,” the oppressive Earl, is chronicled at length in “the Diary.” “His huge tower remains wild and desolate — its chambers filled with sand, and its rifted walls and dismantled battlements giving unrestrained access to the roaring sea-blast.” So Scott wrote in his last review for the “Quarterly,” a criticism of Pitcairn’s “Scotch Criminal Trials” (1831). The Trows, or Drows, the fairy dwarfs he studied on the spot, and connects the name with Dwerg, though Trolls seem rather to be their spiritual and linguistic ancestors. The affair of the clergyman who was taken for a Pecht, or Pict, actually occurred during the tour, and Mr. Stevenson, who had met the poor Pecht before, was able to clear his character.3 In the same place the Kraken is mentioned: he had been visible for nearly a fortnight, but no sailor dared go near him.

He lay in the offing a fortnight or more,

But the devil a Zetlander put from the shore.

If your Grace thinks I’m writing the thing that is not,

You may ask at a namesake of ours, Mr. Scott,

Sir Walter wrote to the Duke of Buccleugh. He paid a visit to an old lady, who, like Norna, and Æolus in the Odyssey, kept the winds in a bag, and could sell a fair breeze. “She was a miserable figure, upwards of ninety, she told me, and dried up like a mummy. A sort of clay-coloured cloak, folded over her head, corresponded in colour to her corpse-like complexion. Fine light-blue eyes, and nose and chin that almost met, and a ghastly expression of cunning gave her quite the effect of Hecate. She told us she remembered Gow the Pirate, betrothed to a Miss Gordon,”— so here are the germs of Norna, Cleveland, and Minna, all sown in good ground, to bear fruit in seven years (1814-1821). Triptolemus Yellowley is entirely derived from the Diary, and is an anachronism. The Lowland Scots factors and ploughs were only coming in while Scott was in the isles. He himself saw the absurd little mills (vol. i. ch. xi.), and the one stilted plough which needed two women to open the furrows, a feebler plough than the Virgilian specimens which one still remarks in Tuscany. “When this precious machine was in motion, it was dragged by four little bullocks, yoked abreast, and as many ponies harnessed, or rather strung, to the plough by ropes and thongs of raw hide. . . . An antiquary might be of opinion that this was the very model of the original plough invented by Triptolemus,” son of the Eleusinian king, who sheltered Demeter in her wanderings. The sword-dance was not danced for Scott’s entertainment, but he heard of the Pupa dancers, and got a copy of the accompanying chant, and was presented with examples of the flint and bronze Celts which Norna treasured. All over the world, as in Zetland, they were regarded as “thunder stones.” (Diary; Lockhart, iv. 220.) The bridal of Norna, by clasping of hands through Odin’s stone ring, was still practised as a form of betrothal. (Lockhart, iv. 252.) Some island people were despised, as by Magnus Troil, as “poor sneaks” who ate limpets, “the last of human meannesses.” The “wells,” or smooth wave-currents, were also noted, and the Garland of the whalers often alluded to in the tale. The Stones of Stennis were visited, and the Dwarfie Stone of Hoy, where Norna, like some Eskimo Angekok, met her familiar demon. Scott held that the stone “probably was meant as the temple of some northern edition of the dii Manes. They conceive that the dwarf may be seen sometimes sitting at the door of his abode, but he vanishes on a nearer approach.” The dwelling of Norna, a Pict’s house, with an overhanging story, “shaped like a dice-box,” is the ancient Castle of Mousa.4 The strange incantation of Norna, the dropping of molten lead into water, is also described. Usually the lead was poured through the wards of a key. In affections of the heart, like Minna’s, a triangular stone, probably a neolithic arrow-head, was usually employed as an amulet. (Lockhart, iv. 208.) Even the story of the pirate’s insolent answer to the Provost is adapted from a recent occurrence. Two whalers were accused of stealing a sheep. The first denied the charge, but said he had seen the animal carried off by “a fellow with a red nose and a black wig. Don’t you think he was like his honour, Tom?” “By God, Jack, I believe it was the very man.” (Diary; Lockhart, iv. 222; “The Pirate,” vol. ii. ch. xiv.) The goldless Northern Ophir was also visited — in brief, Scott scarcely made a remark on his tour which he did not manage to transmute into the rare metal of his romance. It is no wonder that the Orcadians at once detected his authorship. A trifling anecdote of the cruise has recently been published. Scott presented a lady in the isles with a piano, which, it seems, is still capable of producing a melancholy jingling tune.5

Lockhart says, as to the reception of “The Pirate” (Dec. 1821): “The wild freshness of the atmosphere of this splendid romance, the beautiful contrast of Minna and Brenda, and the exquisitely drawn character of Captain Cleveland, found the reception which they deserved.” “The wild freshness of the atmosphere” is indeed magically transfused, and breathes across the pages as it blows over the Fitful Head, the skerries, the desolate moors, the plain of the Standing Stones of Stennis. The air is keen and salt and fragrant of the sea. Yet Sydney Smith was greatly disappointed. “I am afraid this novel will depend upon the former reputation of the author, and will add nothing to it. It may sell, and another may half sell, but that is all, unless he comes out with something vigorous, and redeems himself. I do not blame him for writing himself out, if he knows he is doing so, and has done his best, and his all. If the native land of Scotland will supply no more scenes and characters, for he is always best in Scotland, though he was very good in England the (time) he was there; but pray, wherever the scene is laid, no more Meg Merrilies and Dominie Sampsons — very good the first and second times, but now quite worn out, and always recurring.” (“Archibald Constable,” iii. 69.)

It was Smith’s grammar that gave out, and produced no apodosis to his phrase. Scott could not write himself out, before his brain was affected by disease. Had his age been miraculously prolonged, with health, it could never be said that “all the stories have been told,” and he would have delighted mankind unceasingly.

Scott himself was a little nettled by the criticisms of Norna as a replica of Meg Merrilies. She is, indeed, “something distinct from the Dumfriesshire gipsy”— in truth, she rather resembles the Ulrica of “Ivanhoe.” Like her, she is haunted by the memory of an awful crime, an insane version of a mere accident; like her, she is a votaress of the dead gods of the older world, Thor and Odin, and the spirits of the tempest. Scott’s imagination lived so much in the past that the ancient creeds never ceased to allure him: like Heine, he felt the fascination of the banished deities, not of Greece, but of the North. Thus Norna, crazed by her terrible mischance, dwells among them, worships the Red Beard, as outlying descendants of the Aztecs yet retain some faith in their old monstrous Pantheon. Even Minna keeps, in her girlish enthusiasm, some touch of Freydis in the saga of Eric the Red: for her the old gods and the old years are not wholly exiled and impotent. All this is most characteristic of the antiquary and the poet in Scott, who lingers fondly over what has been, and stirs the last faint embers of fallen fires. It is of a piece with the harmless Jacobitism of his festivals, when they sang

Here’s to the King, boys!

Ye ken wha I mean, boys.

In the singularly feeble and provincial vulgarities which Borrow launches, in the appendix to “Lavengro,” against the memory of Scott, the charge of reviving Catholicism is the most bitter. That rowdy evangelist might as well have charged Scott with a desire to restore the worship of Odin, and to sacrifice human victims on the stone altar of Stennis. He saw in Orkney the ruined fanes of the Norse deities, as at Melrose of the Virgin, and his loyal heart could feel for all that was old and lost, for all into which men had put their hearts and faiths, had made, and had unmade, in the secular quest for the divine. Like a later poet, he might have said:—

Not as their friend or child I speak,

But as on some far Northern strand,

Thinking of his own gods, a Greek

In pity and mournful awe might stand

Beside some fallen Runic stone,

For both were gods, and both are gone.

And surely no creed is more savage, cruel, and worthy of death than Borrow’s belief in a God who “knew where to strike,” and deliberately struck Scott by inducing Robinson to speculate in hops, and so bring down his Edinburgh associate, Constable, and with him Sir Walter! Such was the religion which Borrow expressed in the style of a writer in a fourth-rate country newspaper. We might prefer the frank Heathenism of the Red Beard to the religion of the author of “The Bible in Spain.”

There is no denying that Scott had in his imagination a certain mould of romance, into which his ideas, when he wrote most naturally, and most for his own pleasure, were apt to run. It is one of the charms of “The Pirate” that here he is manifestly writing for his own pleasure, with a certain boyish eagerness. Had we but the plot of one of the tales which he told, as a lad, to his friend Irving, we might find that it turned on a romantic mystery, a clue in the hands of some witch or wise woman, of some one who was always appearing in the nick of time, was always round the corner when anything was to be heard. This is a standing characteristic of the tales: now it is Edie Ochiltree, now Flibbertigibbet, now Meg Merrilies, now Norna, who holds the thread of the plot, but these characters are all well differentiated. Again, he had types, especially the pedantic type, which attracted him, but they vary as much as Yellowley and Dugald Dalgetty, the Antiquary, and Dominie Sampson. Yellowley is rather more repressed than some of Scott’s bores; but then he is not the only bore, for Claud Halcro, with all his merits, is a professed proser. Swift had exactly described the character, the episodical narrator, in a passage parallel to one in Theophrastus. In writing to Morritt, Scott says (November 1818): “I sympathise with you for the dole you are dreeing under the inflictions of your honest proser. Of all the boring machines ever devised, your regular and determined story-teller is the most peremptory and powerful in his operations.”

“With what perfect placidity he submitted to be bored even by bores of the first water!” says Lockhart. The species is one which we all have many opportunities of studying, but it may be admitted that Scott produced his studies of bores with a certain complacency. Yet they are all different bores, and the gay, kind scald Halcro is very unlike Master Mumblasen or Dominie Sampson.

For a hero Mordaunt may be called almost sprightly and individual. His mysterious father occasionally suggests the influence of Byron, occasionally of Mrs. Radcliffe. The Udaller is as individual and genial as Dandie Dinmont himself; or, again, he is the Cedric of Thule, though much more sympathetic than Cedric to most readers. His affection for his daughters is characteristic and deserved. Many a pair of sisters, blonde and brune, have we met in fiction since Minna and Brenda, but none have been their peers, and, like Mordaunt in early years, we know not to which of them our hearts are given. They are “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” of the North, and it is probable that all men would fall in love with Minna if they had the chance, and marry Brenda, if they could. Minna is, indeed, the ideal youth of poetry, and Brenda of the practical life. The innocent illusions of Minna, her love of all that is old, her championship of the forlorn cause, her beauty, her tenderness, her truth, her passionate waywardness of sorrow, make her one of Scott’s most original and delightful heroines. She believes and trembles not, like Bertram in “Rokeby.” Brenda trembles, but does not believe in Norna’s magic, and in the spirits of ancient saga. As for Cleveland, Scott managed to avoid Byron’s Lara-like pirates, and produced a freebooter as sympathetic as any hostis humani generis can be, while “Frederick Altamont” (Thackeray borrowed the name for his romantic crossing-sweeper) has a place among the Marischals and Bucklaws of romance. Scott’s minute studies in Dryden come to the aid of his local observations, and so, out of not very promising materials, and out of the contrast of Lowland Scot and Orcadian, the romance is spun. Probably the “psychological analysis” which most interested the author is the double consciousness of Norna, the occasional intrusions of the rational self on her dreams of supernatural powers. That double consciousness, indeed, exists in all of us: occasionally the self in which we believe has a vision of the real underlying self, and shudders from the sight, like the pair “who met themselves” in the celebrated drawing.

“The Pirate” can scarcely be placed in the front rank of Scott’s novels, but it has a high and peculiar place in the second, and probably will always be among the special favourites of those who, being young, are fortunate enough not to be critical.

Scott’s novels at this time came forth so frequently that the lumbering “Quarterlies” toiled after them in vain. They adopted the plan of reviewing them in batches, and the “Quarterly” may be said to have omitted “The Pirate” altogether. About this time Gifford began to find that the person who spoke of a “dark dialect of Anglified Erse” was not a competent critic, and Mr. Senior noticed several of the tales in a more judicious manner. As to “The Pirate,” the “Edinburgh Review” found “the character and story of Mertoun at once commonplace and extravagant.” Cleveland disappoints “by turning out so much better than we had expected, and yet substantially so ill.” “Nothing can be more beautiful than the description of the sisters.” “Norna is a new incarnation of Meg Merrilies, and palpably the same in the spirit . . . but far above the rank of a mere imitated or borrowed character.” “The work, on the whole, opens up a new world to our curiosity, and affords another proof of the extreme pliability, as well as vigour, of the author’s genius.”

Andrew Lang.

August 1893.

1 Lockhart, vi. 388-393. Erskine died before Scott, slain by a silly piece of gossip, and Mr. Skene says: “I never saw Sir Walter so much affected by any event, and at the funeral, which he attended, he was quite unable to suppress his feelings, but wept like a child.” His correspondence with Scott fell into the hands of a lady, who, seeing that it revealed the secret of Scott’s authorship, most unfortunately burned all the letters. (Journal, i. 416.)

2 Scott’s Diary, July 29, 1814. Lockhart, vi. 183.

3 See Author’s note, Norse Fragments.

4 Diary; Lockhart, iv. 223.

5 “Atalanta,” December 1892.

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