Friday, July 28, 2017

the Whig's Vault

The Whig's Vault, Dunnotar Castle

[Image source: . Photo by Jason Hayes.]

I've spent the past few days at a family gathering in a hotel in the New Forest. My dad and I immediately zoomed in on the old-fashioned-looking books in the rooms and lounges, and they turned out to be just the kind of thing I like to read: volumes of the Waverley novels, Ellen marriage's translations of the Human Comedy, Dickens of course, and a miscellaneous assortment of volumes in Danish.  And so I treated myself, not to hydrotherapy or the hot tub, but to a reading, for the umpteenth time, of Scott's introductory material to Old Mortality (1816) -- breaking off with the popinjay contest still undecided.

Much of this material revolves around the sombre figure of Old Mortality himself, variously refracted via Peter Pattieson (the imaginary compiler of the novel) and the 1830 Introduction, which describes Scott's own meeting with Old Mortality, along with much information from Scott's later informants.


Where this man was born, or what was his real name, I have never been able to learn; nor are the motives which made him desert his home, and adopt the erratic mode of life which he pursued, known to me except very generally. According to the belief of most people, he was a native of either the county of Dumfries or Galloway, and lineally descended from some of those champions of the Covenant, whose deeds and sufferings were his favourite theme. He is said to have held, at one period of his life, a small moorland farm; but, whether from pecuniary losses, or domestic misfortune, he had long renounced that and every other gainful calling. In the language of Scripture, he left his house, his home, and his kindred, and wandered about until the day of his death, a period of nearly thirty years.

(Peter Pattieson on Old Mortality, from Vol I Ch 1


Old Mortality's mission was to repair the graves of the Whig Martyrs, or Covenanters, to remove moss and "deer-hair", and to recarve names that the weather was smoothing away.


It was in 1685, when Argyle was threatening a descent upon Scotland, and Monmouth was preparing to invade the west of England, that the Privy Council of Scotland, with cruel precaution, made a general arrest of more than a hundred persons in the southern and western provinces, supposed, from their religious principles, to be inimical to Government, together with many women and children. These captives were driven northward like a flock of bullocks, but with less precaution to provide for their wants, and finally penned up in a subterranean dungeon in the Castle of Dunnottar, having a window opening to the front of a precipice which overhangs the German Ocean. They had suffered not a little on the journey, and were much hurt both at the scoffs of the northern prelatists, and the mocks, gibes, and contemptuous tunes played by the fiddlers and pipers who had come from every quarter as they passed, to triumph over the revilers of their calling. The repose which the melancholy dungeon afforded them, was anything but undisturbed. The guards made them pay for every indulgence, even that of water; and when some of the prisoners resisted a demand so unreasonable, and insisted on their right to have this necessary of life untaxed, their keepers emptied the water on the prison floor, saying, “If they were obliged to bring water for the canting whigs, they were not bound to afford them the use of bowls or pitchers gratis.”
In this prison, which is still termed the Whig’s Vault, several died of the diseases incidental to such a situation; and others broke their limbs, and incurred fatal injury, in desperate attempts to escape from their stern prison-house. Over the graves of these unhappy persons, their friends, after the Revolution, erected a monument with a suitable inscription.
This peculiar shrine of the Whig martyrs is very much honoured by their descendants, though residing at a great distance from the land of their captivity and death.

(Old Mortality, 1830 introduction)


It was at Dunnotar that Scott met Old Mortality. No profound dialogue occurred, however:

"It was whilst I was listening to this story, and looking at the monument referred to, that I saw Old Mortality engaged in his daily task of cleaning and repairing the ornaments and epitaphs upon the tomb. His appearance and equipment were exactly as described in the Novel. I was very desirous to see something of a person so singular, and expected to have done so, as he took up his quarters with the hospitable and liberal-spirited minister. But though Mr. Walker invited him up after dinner to partake of a glass of spirits and water, to which he was supposed not to be very averse, yet he would not speak frankly upon the subject of his occupation. He was in bad humour, and had, according to his phrase, no freedom for conversation with us.
His spirit had been sorely vexed by hearing, in a certain Aberdonian kirk, the psalmody directed by a pitch-pipe, or some similar instrument, which was to Old Mortality the abomination of abominations. Perhaps, after all, he did not feel himself at ease with his company; he might suspect the questions asked by a north-country minister and a young barrister to savour more of idle curiosity than profit. At any rate, in the phrase of John Bunyan, Old Mortality went on his way, and I saw him no more. "


Brilliant as the ensuing novel is, there are depths in these introductory pages that it never addresses; perhaps the adventure romance could not do so. As Scott's encounter with Old Mortality showed,  there was an incompatibility of discourse between the "idle curiosity" of the novelist and the profitable speech of the sect.

Peter Pattieson tells us that he heard the stories from Old Mortality's own lips. Scott makes Pattieson a gentle schoolmaster of delicate health; Old Mortality promises to tend his grave, should Pattieson die first. But in fact, Old Mortality died first. " It is now some years since he has been missed in all his usual haunts, while moss, lichen, and deer-hair, are fast covering those stones, to cleanse which had been the business of his life."

[Jedediah Cleishbotham, in turn, reports Pattieson's death.]

The past, then, is buried, and buried, and thrice buried. But remembered, and not at peace.



The OED tells us, "The common name in Scotland and north of England of a small moorland species of club-rush, Scirpus cæspitosus." That is, the plant now reclassified as Trichophorum germanicum, commonly called Deer-grass.

[Image source:]

My earlier post on Old Mortality:

Scott's novels: A brief guide



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