Sunday, August 06, 2023

Fortnightly Book, August 6

 In 1816, Sir Walter Scott embarked on a new project. The original intention was to write four stories in a four-volume work that would cover the various regions of Scotland; it would be called, Tales of My Landlord. The gimmick would be that the stories would be portrayed as being the stories of a landlord of an inn that were then compiled by a man named Pattieson and edited by 'Jedediah Cleishbotham'. (Scott did not publish his early works under his own name. The complicated metanarrative layers, which extend even deeper in the stories, seem to be a solution to a problem that Scott faced, namely, that he was writing historical fiction for Union Scotland on topics that were inevitably going to still be sore points among different factions of Scots; the layers allow Scott to distance himself from the inevitable controversies, and also to present more sympathetically figures with whom Scott himself had no sympathy.) The first of the tales, The Black Dwarf, devoted to the Scottish Borders, was finished by August, so Scott moved on to the second story, intended for southwestern Scotland, which came to be called The Tale of Old Mortality. However, as Scott wrote it, the story for Old Mortality expanded to take up three entire volumes, so the first series of Tales of My Landlord had only two stories in it. (Scott would over time add additional series to Tales of My Landlord, amounting to seven books in four series overall.)

The fortnightly book will be Old Mortality. The work explores the time of the Covenanters and in particular focuses on their major victory (Battle of Drumclog at Loudon Hill on June 1, 1679) and their major defeat (Battle of Bothwell Bridge on June 22, 1679), with a brief look at the Battle of Killiecrankie on July 27, 1689. As far as Scottish politics was concerned, the reign of Charles II had seen a power struggle between the Crown and the Kirk. For most of Charles's reign, this had been an indirect struggle; Charles needed the Scots and the Presbyterians had benefited from that need. In 1679, however, things began to get out of hand, as John Sharp, the Archbishop of St. Andrews, began to a spearhead a stronger imposition of Episcopalianism on the Lowland Scots, even billeting Highlanders in areas that were causing problems. In response a group of Covenanters attempted to assassinate the Sheriff of Cupar, who was one of Sharp's major supporters; they lucked out, however, because they came across Sharp himself instead. Sharp was assassinated, and the unrest boiled over as the government attempted to crack down. The book follows Henry Morton, from a Covenanter family, as he is reluctantly dragged into the tumult. 

'Old Mortality' is the common nickname for Robert Paterson (1716-1801), a stonemason who wandered the country setting up markers for the graves of Covenanters who had died in 'The Killing Time', as the Covenanters called the period, and he serves as one of the mediating figures in the history told in the novel, the historical figure to whom the fictional anecdotes of the novel are attributed.