Sir Walter Scott, A Legend of Montrose (1819)
|James Graham, first Marquess of Montrose, in 1649 (after Gerrit van Honthorst)|
Or, as the manuscript has it, A Legend of the Wars of Montrose. This is more logical than the usual title, but less interesting. In the novel Montrose and the "legend" (in the narrow sense) are kept well apart from each other. But the title A Legend of Montrose hints at two things; first, that the strictly historical material about Montrose also has its legendary aspect; second, that the legendary element in the tale is essential to a full understanding of Montrose and his age.
The novel is set in 1645-46, earlier than any of Scott's previous novels, and this in itself brings the topic of war to the forefront, because of the Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-48), in which Dugald Dalgetty has seen much service, and the badly-misnamed English Civil War (1642-51), better referred to as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in view of its major theatres in Scotland (as per the events in this novel) and in Ireland (where the number of casualties was in fact far greater than elsewhere). Historians have considered the mid-seventeenth century an era of "general crisis" across many nations, and comparisons have been made with our own time, a view considered (though mainly rejected) by Martin Kettle in today's Guardian:
The novel's other theme is the Highlands. This is Scott's most exclusively Highland novel (only Dalgetty and a couple of others are Lowlanders). The comparative scarcity of passages in lowland Scottish dialect is perhaps one reason why the Legend always been rather under-rated.
Scott's wily meditation on these two topics arranges itself into a contrast between the old Highland style of warfare, based on feudal loyalties and continuous implacable feuds, and the modern style, exemplified by the professional soldier Dalgetty, indifferent to the cause in which he fights but strongly interested in money, the soldier's dignity, and the correct way to wage war. But both styles are brutal; this is emphatically war without conventions. The novel is replete with what we now call war crimes.
The Introduction - that is, the orginal 1819 Introduction* - starts things off in Ganderscleugh, where the highlander Sgt More M'Alpin is living out his latter days, and it contains one of Scott's most powerful statements about the Highland Clearances. M'Alpin, a soldier, had initially returned to the place of his birth --
He came--he revisited the loved scene; it was but a sterile glen, surrounded with rude crags, and traversed by a northern torrent. This was not the worst. The fires had been quenched upon thirty hearths--of the cottage of his fathers he could but distinguish a few rude stones--the language was almost extinguished--the ancient race from which he boasted his descent had found a refuge beyond the Atlantic. One southland farmer, three grey-plaided shepherds, and six dogs, now tenanted the whole glen, which in his youth had maintained, in content, if not in competence, upwards of two hundred inhabitants.
But back to war crimes. The note is first sounded, in a mutedly comic way, in Dalgetty's accounts of service abroad:
Howbeit, in despite of heavy blows and light pay, a cavalier of fortune may thrive indifferently well in the Imperial service, in respect his private casualties are nothing so closely looked to as by the Swede; and so that an officer did his duty on the field, neither Wallenstein nor Pappenheim, nor old Tilly before them, would likely listen to the objurgations of boors or burghers against any commander or soldado, by whom they chanced to be somewhat closely shorn. So that an experienced cavalier, knowing how to lay, as our Scottish phrase runs, ‘the head of the sow to the tail of the grice,’ might get out of the country the pay whilk he could not obtain from the Emperor.”
“With a full hand, sir, doubtless, and with interest,” said Lord Menteith.“Indubitably, my lord,” answered Dalgetty, composedly; “for it would be doubly disgraceful for any soldado of rank to have his name called in question for any petty delinquency.” (Ch 2)
Our next atrocity, now in Highland history, is the Children of the Mist's grotesque presentation of the Warden's head to his sister, followed some years later by Angus M'Aulay's revenge. Lord Menteith, no stranger to atrocity himself, describes it thus:
We'll eventually learn that this little maiden, Annot Lyle, had already survived an earlier and similar purge of her true family, here described by the perpetrator, Ranald MacEagh, and commented on with much coolness by the worthy Dalgetty:
This provoked another expedition against the tribe, in which I had my share; we surprised them effectually, by besetting at once the upper and under passes of the country, and made such clean work as is usual on these occasions, burning and slaying right before us. In this terrible species of war, even the females and the helpless do not always escape. One little maiden alone, who smiled upon Allan’s drawn dirk, escaped his vengeance upon my earnest entreaty. (Ch 5)
“Then let him know, one claims his intercession, who is his worst foe and his best friend,” answered Ranald.
“Truly I shall desire to carry a less questionable message,” answered Dalgetty, “Sir Duncan is not a person to play at reading riddles with.”
“Craven Saxon,” said the prisoner, “tell him I am the raven that, fifteen years since, stooped on his tower of strength and the pledges he had left there—I am the hunter that found out the wolfs den on the rock, and destroyed his offspring—I am the leader of the band which surprised Ardenvohr yesterday was fifteen years, and gave his four children to the sword.”
“Truly, my honest friend,” said Dalgetty, “if that is your best recommendation to Sir Duncan’s favour, I would pretermit my pleading thereupon, in respect I have observed that even the animal creation are incensed against those who intromit with their offspring forcibly, much more any rational and Christian creatures, who have had violence done upon their small family. ..." (Ch 13)
These highland atrocities are driven by revenge, and Dalgetty concedes that "every thoroughbred soldier will confess that revenge is a sweet morsel". The "but" that follows is not, or apparently not, a moral demur; rather an observation that this irregular sort of action is not very conducive with rational self-interest.
There is no morally normative voice here. Dalgetty's indifference to causes renders him immune to the call of vengeance; MacEagh's actions, though appalling, are at least explainable by his codes of honour. And MacEagh's own life and family suffers as much as those of his enemies. In the mode of black comedy in which the Legend excels, we even accept Dalgetty's and MacEagh's partnership briefly hinting at the comic master-servant relationships of Fielding and Cervantes.
Montrose makes another point in Dalgetty's favour, from a general's perspective: "There is something convenient in commanding a soldier, upon whose motives and springs of action you can calculate to a mathematical certainty.." (Ch 20).
In much of the later part of the novel, the comedy is replaced by plain, serious history. But, less individually enumerated as they are, the atrocities continue on a still larger scale. Writing of Montrose's incursion into Campbell country, Scott makes the point that these horrors, too, are apt to be self-defeating.
Whatever noble qualities the Highlanders possessed, and they had many, clemency in treating a hostile country was not of the number; but even the ravages of hostile troops combined to swell the number of Argyle’s followers. It is still a Highland proverb, He whose house is burnt must become a soldier; and hundreds of the inhabitants of these unfortunate valleys had now no means of maintenance, save by exercising upon others the severities they had themselves sustained, and no future prospect of happiness, excepting in the gratification of revenge. His bands were, therefore, augmented by the very circumstances which had desolated his country, and Argyle soon found himself at the head of three thousand determined men .... (Ch 17)
The novel climaxes with the Battle of Inverlochy (2nd February 1645 (1646)). David Craig famously castigated Scott's poor performance in battle-scenes compared to Tolstoy, but he didn't think of this one; it's easy to make critical hits when you aren't interested in understanding what an author is about. Here, repeated terms such as "gallant" and "valiant" are deeply undercut by the way Scott has sensitized us to the horrors comprised in such phrases as "Their strife was accordingly desperate", "they fell fast on both sides", "Several hundreds were forced into the lake and drowned"...
Craig might have been even more struck by this passage, when Argyle's pursuit-party catch up with Dalgetty and Ranald in Ch 14:
The moon gleamed on the broken pathway, and on the projecting cliffs of rock round which it winded, its light intercepted here and there by the branches of bushes and dwarf-trees, which, finding nourishment in the crevices of the rocks, in some places overshadowed the brow and ledge of the precipice. Below, a thick copse-wood lay in deep and dark shadow, somewhat resembling the billows of a half-seen ocean. From the bosom of that darkness, and close to the bottom of the precipice, the hound was heard at intervals baying fearfully, sounds which were redoubled by the echoes of the woods and rocks around. At intervals, these sunk into deep silence, interrupted only by the plashing noise of a small runnel of water, which partly fell from the rock, partly found a more silent passage to the bottom along its projecting surface. Voices of men were also heard in stifled converse below; it seemed as if the pursuers had not discovered the narrow path which led to the top of the rock, or that, having discovered it, the peril of the ascent, joined to the imperfect light, and the uncertainty whether it might not be defended, made them hesitate to attempt it.Scott isn't often so exact as this: "fearfully" evoking the fear of all parties, including the dog itself; the detail of the water sliding silently over the rock; the half-heard sounds of "stifled converse".... But this gripping scene is very soon cut short by the compulsively loquacious Dalgetty: "Carocco, comrade, as the Spaniard says!..." Dalgetty's imprudent buffoonery dispels the suspense and also earns the comedian a bullet-wound. Scott's art, we realise, is not fully committed to the dramatic illusion of the adventure story; he has other fish to fry.
And the beginning of Chapter 15 continues this virtuoso sequence of fictional modes, with a quotation from Montrose's own fine poem preluding an unexpected switch to virtually pure history, which melts back into fiction during Chapter 16. These transformations are a characteristic feature of the Legend. When we read "In one point Montrose changed his mind"(Ch 17), we momentarily hesitate. Is this a historical statement, is this the Montrose who really wrote the words "But if no faithless action stain / Thy true and constant word.." - or is it the Montrose who is an actor in Scott's fiction? It turns out that it's the last of these, but the expression rather suggests historical narrative. Montrose, who first slides into the book as the undistinguished attendant Anderson, eludes our effort to finally understand him.
* The 1830 Introduction, interesting as it is, and containing a history of blood and feud even more savage than in the novel itself, should never be looked at until afterwards.
|Scott in 1831, portrait by Sir William Allan|
[Image source: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw05676/Sir-Walter-Scott-1st-Bt . Scott in his study at Abbotsford, which contained lots of historical paraphernalia of interest both to himself and to admirers of his novels. According to the NPG description, "the Sword suspended from the Bookcase belonged to Montrose". In this image, sadly, it's hard enough to make out the bookcase, never mind Montrose's sword.]
Labels: Sir Walter Scott