Why do most commentators undervalue Sir Walter Scott’s short novel, A Legend of the Wars of Montrose (1819)? I wonder if it is not because of the Catholic sympathy he betrays through his moderate Reformation principles? “Sympathy” sometimes seems too strong a word. It is more that Scott’s remarkable objectivity did not desert him when it came to the Catholics of Scotland, and he was keenly aware of the often noble effect the faith had on their striking characters.
Seizing on a self-deprecating comment Scott once made, Andrew Lang, stated that the colourful character of Dalgetty overshadowed the story. Other writers have followed Lang, but, with Edgar Johnson, I am not sure that they are right to do so.
Like The Black Dwarf, I consider Montrose to be much under-rated, and deeper even than the amiable Johnson took it to be. For Johnson, as for Georg Lukacs (who has had significant influence on modern commentators), it is a masterly study and critique of the clan system of Scotland. And it certainly is. I do not quibble with that. But it is more. As in The Bride of Lammermoor, Scott asks: what is fate? What is decided? What causes us to act? Seriously: the themes Scott is exploring here would not be out of place in the mouths of Krishna and Arjuna when they stand between the two armies in the Bhagavad Gita. And with the penumbra of the supernatural with which Scott invests this mini-epic, they possess something of that majesty.
At the end of Part One, I suggest that a comment of Montrose’s about taking responsibility for his errors of the past is the perfect counterbalance to M’Aulay’s wilful inability to take responsibility for his future, and that, I suggest, is the deeper point of this novel.
The setting is Scotland in 1644. The noble Earl of Montrose is leading a campaign against the Covenanters. In chapter 1 (the various editions have diverse pagination), Scott writes: “So much had been written and said on either side concerning the form of church government, that it had become a matter of infinitely more consequence in the eyes of the multitude than the doctrines of that gospel which both churches had embraced. The Prelatists and Presbyterians of the more violent kind became as illiberal as the Papists, and would scarcely allow the possibility of salvation beyond the pale of their respective churches. It was in vain remarked to these zealots, that had the Author of our holy religion considered any peculiar form of church government as essential to salvation, it would have been revealed with the same precision as under the Old Testament dispensation. Both parties continued as violent as if they could have pleaded the distinct commands of Heaven to justify their intolerance …”
This is remarkably impartial. But that is only the background. The story revolves around the love of the Earl of Menteith for Annot Lyle, and the several impediments to it, especially the unbalanced and selfish passion of the “wowf” Allan M’Aulay, who is cursed with the second sight (“wowf” means “crazy”, see chapter 6). The point here, as in Lammermoor is that what Allan sees with his second sight is generally correct. But it is neither exhaustive nor able to enter into nuances. Allan sees general pictures, but he still has free choice. Events can and do slightly alter the picture in the vision: for example, he sees Menteith slain, but, in the event, Menteith is only wounded, and survives to marry Annot. Scott’s comment here is characteristically droll, while pointing to the deeper truths that, despite the reality of prophecy, destiny is not iron: “The Highlanders were somewhat puzzled to reconcile Menteith’s recovery with the visions of the second sight, and the more experienced Seers were displeased with him for not having died. But others thought the credit of the vision sufficiently fulfilled, by the wound inflicted by the hand, and with the weapon, foretold; and all were of opinion, that the incident of the ring, with the death’s head, related to the death of the bride’s father, who did not survive her marriage many months.” (chapter 23).
The second sight shows, as Ranald MacEagh says in chapter 17, a “shadow”, and shadows, we recall, possess no details. To deny their reality would be to be excessively incredulous, but their purpose is to prepare us to decide what action we wish to take, and to be ready when the moment comes.
Sometimes the veil over the future is lifted. But we do not, and as Ouspensky said, in the state in which we live we cannot understand the conditions under which it is (neither how nor why it is invariably accurate but ultimately misleading). Although he has the second sight, Allan M’Aulay is exactly wrong in chapter 9: ““The die is cast for us all, Sir Duncan,” replied Allan, looking gloomy, and arguing on his own hypochondriac feelings; “the iron hand of destiny branded our fate upon our forehead long ere we could form a wish, or raise a finger in our own behalf. Were this otherwise, by what means does the Seer ascertain the future from those shadowy presages which haunt his waking and his sleeping eye? Nought can be foreseen but that which is certain to happen.”
The flaw is that what is seen is not rigidly fore-ordained but shadowed forth as the result of the patterns engraved in the present. If we are impassioned, we have no choice but to be swept away by the flood of events. When MacEagh rouses Allan M’Aulay into his accustomed psychotic furore, he exults: “Thou hast it!” said the Son of the Mist, looking after him with an air of exultation; “the barbed arrow is in thy side! Spirits of the slaughtered, rejoice! soon shall your murderers’ swords be dyed in each other’s blood.”
This is the grisly backdrop to this tale of tender and fiercely loyal devotion. Now, if the love of Menteith and Annot is the axle around which all else revolves, yet, like the axle and the tyre, it does not consume the bulk of the tale. The most important characters are the people of Scotland, the loyalists, the Lowlanders, the Highlanders, and, in this tale, the Children of the Mist. Other commentators deal with these well enough, even if they are less instructive on the Children than I would like.
Although some think that Dalgetty is Scott’s most humorous fictional character, I much prefer Monkbarns the Antiquary in the novel of the same name. However, Dalgetty is a psychologically interesting and witty character. In chapter 2, he defends the honour of a soldier guilty of despoiling the peasantry by remarking: “… it would be doubly disgraceful for any soldado of rank to have his name called in question for any petty delinquency.” The emphasis is on the word “petty”. Then, in chapter 3, he stops short the conversation about his employment with the memorable proverb: “fine words butter no parsnips.” In the same chapter, he says of someone’s overconfidence, that it: “… smells a little too much of selling the bear’s skin before he has hunted him.” In chapter 16, he thus describes someone who does not know his way: “… he is a young soldier for so old a man.”
While Dalgetty is indeed a fascinating character, I was equally impressed by Menteith and Montrose himself. It is, perhaps, a case of “less is more”, for one always anticipated meeting these men again. In chapter 8, Sir Duncan Campbell derides Montrose for his past, and he replies in Scott’s masterful prose: “I understand your sneer, Sir Duncan,” said Montrose, temperately; “and I can only add, that if sincere repentance can make amends for youthful error, and for yielding to the artful representation of ambitious hypocrites, I shall be pardoned for the crimes with which you taunt me. I will at least endeavour to deserve forgiveness, for I am here, with my sword in my hand, willing to spend the best blood of my body to make amends for my error; and mortal man can do no more.”
This is the point exactly. Montrose has made mistakes, but he has taken responsibility for them. Allan M’Aulay has the same challenge – but it is reversed in time. He knows the direction in which the future will steer him. But, unlike Montrose, he does not take himself in hand. As Herakleitos said: “Character is fate”. Our character is provided in raw materials, but we have the chance to work the materials.
In this part, I add some miscellaneous notes. First, often overlooked, I think, is how Scott explored in this short novel, themes and ideas he would return to later. For example, the character Fenella from Peveril of the Peak, (who is too far removed from life to really satisfy) is developed, I suggest, from Annot Lyle, who appears here. In a note from chapter 6, Scott reveals Annot’s origin is related to a legend in which there is a lady named Finele.
Not only for himself did Scott, write. In chapter 19, the wild Allan M’Aulay has struck MacEagh down, and intends to dispatch him straight away, but Dalgetty prevents him. “Fool!” said Allan, “stand aside, and dare not to come between the tiger and his prey!” This comment was taken up by Shelley in Act IV, lines 173-174 of his play The Cenci, completed only months after Montrose had appeared. There, Shelley wrote: “It were safer / To come between the tiger and his prey.” Later, of course, Tolkein would have the Witch-King of Angmar say: “Do not come between the Nazgul and his prey.”
Themes of honour, never far from Scott’s heart, are richly explored. In chapter 11, Dalgetty has promised not to leave the castle, but then he sees that he has been placed under guard, and he argues with himself: “… if he does not trust my word, I do not see how I am bound to keep it, if any motive should occur for my desiring to depart from it. Surely the moral obligation of the parole is relaxed, in as far as physical force is substituted instead thereof.” In other words, people may see that we do something we had told them we would not, but they do not see their own role in forcing us from our intention. Also, it often happens that a person has no ground for his suspicion of another, but his very suspicion produces the behaviour he feared.
As I have indicated, the Children of the Mist are full of genuine interest, even if it is often a horrified interest. Scott gives MacEagh, the Children’s leader, these simple but touching words when he reflects on how the murder of his sons was more painful than the contemplation of his own death: “The old trunk will less feel the rending up of its roots, than it has felt the lopping off of its graceful boughs.” (chapter 13)
Later, in chapter 17, Allan M’Aulay asks MacEagh: “Does the sight come gloomy upon your spirits?” He replies with eerie beauty: ““As dark as the shadow upon the moon,” replied Ranald, “when she is darkened in her mid-course in heaven, and prophets foretell of evil times.”
Scott understands these people, which does not mean that he always excuses them. He writes, in chapter 17: “He whose house is burnt must become a soldier.” But that does not mean that he must be cruel and vindictive. That is where the Children sin.
Scott makes a relatively rare comment on the aim of his writing when he writes, in chapter 15: “If there should be any who read these tales for any further purpose than that of immediate amusement, they will find these remarks not unworthy of their recollection.” In other words, he is writing both to entertain and to instruct.
And amuse he does. In the notes he wrote for the Border edition, I found this gem. Writing of the Scottish belief in wraiths, he lunges with this stab: “Mr. Kirke … the minister of Aberfoil, who will no doubt be able to tell us more of the matter should he ever come back from Fairy-land, gives us the following …”
Joseph Azize, 30 December 2016