The Highland Widow by Sir Walter Scott

Ah, The Highland Widow. Let me count the ways in which it is awesome.

First, look at that cover. We have Hesperus, not Walter Scott, to thank for that of course, but yum. (The firearms-loving consumption partner couldn’t understand why these two guns appear to be stuck in the ground. Who cares? Look at the almost-symmetry, and the orange!) We can thank Scott for the title, which I enjoy for personal aesthetic reasons (there is something wrong about liking the word “widow,” but I do). And to get to the work itself, it’s a novella (points!), it has a framing story (points!), and it’s about some awesome Romantic Highland business (double points!).

The framing story should actually get double points, as it’s (at least) a double frame. The Highland Widow is part of the Chronicles of the Canongate, narrated, like The Bride of Lammermoor, by a Scott-substitute, Chrystal Croftangry. But Croftangry has the story from one Bethune Baliol, who “undertook what was called the short Highland tour” several decades earlier and tells the story she heard from her bodyguard of Elspat MacTavish, the Highland widow herself.

Elspat “was once the beautiful and happy wife of Hamish MacTavish, for whom his strength and feats of prowess had gained the title of MacTavish Mhor.” Those feats mostly included stealing; he was a “cateran,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “a former military irregular or brigand of the Scottish Highlands.” He went around demanding tribute and stealing your sheep if you didn’t give it to him. These wild Highlanders, you see, didn’t care about property rights. If MacTavish Mhor was strong enough to take what you had, and you too weak to keep it, what you had was justly his.

Eventually this reign of cateran terror is put to an end by redcoats (“Saxons”), but not until after Hamish, fending them off, has gone as far as to shoot all his silver waistcoat buttons at them after running out of bullets. Elspat and her infant get away and go on to continue demanding tribute (not alms) of the Lowlanders. She raises little Hamish and simply knows that once he’s old enough to wield his father’s claymore he will take up the old family profession and her Highland pride will come into its full once more.

But Scotland has changed a lot since the days of MacTavish Mhor, and young Hamish knows there is no future for him in cateran-ing. Elspat can’t accept this, and much emphasis is placed on how she has lived her life isolated and in the past, and doesn’t realize the extent to which those nasty Saxons have brought the rule of law to her fellow clansmen. When Hamish reveals that rather than banditry he’s decided to turn to the army and joined a Highland regiment sent to fight the French in the New World, she is outraged at his willingness to abase himself “like a hound” rather than remain a free and independent man. And the extent of her outrage and selfishness will doom them all—in a fittingly Romantic Highland way, of course.

I still know hardly anything about Scott and his concerns as a writer, but it seems safe to say one of them is exactly these changes that come over Scotland and in some sense convert it from a land of independent brutality to one of trust in the law. And the way that even those who do come to trust in the law and its rightness, and reject the old ways of life, still understand the pride of the Highlanders and try to resist a complete cultural overthrow. As Hamish’s captain explains to his chaplain, their general “has no idea of the high and enthusiastic character which in these mountains often brings exalted virtues in contact with great crimes, which, however, are less offences of the heart than errors of the understanding.” But the general’s answer to this is that “[t]hese are Highland visions, Captain Campbell, as unsatisfactory and vain as those of the second sight.” Ach, those myopic Saxons; the second sight can be so beautiful and exciting.

1 comment to The Highland Widow by Sir Walter Scott

  • As a guess – like I would know – the bayonets are in the dirt, not the rifles.

    You sure make this sound good, like classic Scott. I’ve read a different story from the same collection (the 1827 book), “The Two Drovers,” that is thematically similar.