Scott’s Tales of a Scottish Grandfather

Walter Scott’s Tales of a Scottish Grandfather takes as a paratext the idea that he is explaining Scottish history to his grandson. In fact the degree to which Scott remembers this varies – he certainly slips in the odd reference to ‘your grandfather’ or ‘your grandfather’s grandfather’, but for the majority of the time it is clear that he is pursuing much larger ideological and political (and commercial, for we must never forget that where Scott is concerned – and these books, now almost forgotten even among the works of this most neglected of writers, were another big commercial success) goals. Unfortunately one of the results of the fact that the books are now so forgotten is that they are also fairly difficult to obtain. I was reading the edition produced in 2001 by a small Nashville publisher called Cumberland House (the connection this brings up between the Gran Ol Opry and Walter Scott borders on the surreal!). This edition is in 4 volumes, where the original was, as far as I can tell in three volumes ,covering 1033-1603, 1604-1707 and 1707-1746. Scott then added a fourth volume on French history. In the edition I am reading I have the third volume which covers roughly 1658-1714 – I cannot discern any real reason for this change to the way in which the volumes are arranged; perhaps it was for the publisher’s convenience, or perhaps it was to leave the reader on tenterhooks and wanting to purchase the next volume; the latter aim it certainly succeeded, in my case, in achieving.

And that achievement reveals, of course, the greatest strength and skill of these books; this is above all history as narrative, and narrative as compelling as only one of the great masters of narrative action can make it. I am certainly not saying that Scott’s history lacks all analysis; it certainly does not lack an ideological and political framework, but centrally this is very old-school narrative history. As such it is a real pleasure and delight to read for anyone who enjoys narrative, and I think I have a deep attraction, which comes from my childhood, to this kind of history; indeed it is probably where my love of the subject comes from, however overlaid that may now be by other understandings and perceptions. It appeals to some fundamental need to make sense of the world in terms of a narrative.

One of the conditions of this kind of narrative is that it must have a framework of some kind – that is to say that it must suggest some kind of movement, whether that be progressive, regressive or circular. There is a story here, which necessarily goes beyond mere observation. In the case of Tales of A Scottish Grandfather there can be absolutely no question about the direction of the narrative and therefore the history – it is progressive. This is the central extraordinary and vitally important understanding of Scott which emerges; although often referred to as a Tory, in terms of his historical understanding, which is central to his fiction as well, he could hardly be a firmer Whig. This is not of course to say that in terms of specific Tory/Whig conflicts he always aligns himself with the Whigs; what it does say is that he exemplifies the ‘Whig version of history’ as (slightly later) modelled by Macaulay. The course of events is always eventually towards the better. There may be set-backs, reversals, delays in this progress, but it remains a progress; 1830 is far better than 1730 which was far better than 1630 and so on. Whether this would translate into an expectation that progress would continue is of course beyond the scope of Tales of A Grandfather and it might be argued that Scott regarded the political and social state of affairs of c.1830 as a desideratum, beyond which no further progress could occur, which would re-instate and justify his political Toryism. But this would be a difficult ideological trick to pull off; if the course and trajectory of history has been ever upward then why should this cease? It is worth remarking here that this optimistic Whig view of history may count as another reason why Scott fell so out of favour in the twentieth century, which did so much to destroy the possibilities of this vision; how can, to resort to a cliché which holds good, human history be viewed as progress when it culminates in Auschwitz and the Gulags? (although these are not in fact fatal objections as it all depends on how much one is prepared to allow the setbacks and reversals within an overall trajectory to be; acceptance or otherwise of the Whig view ultimately relies on philosophical and psychological roots rather than historical fact).

So to re-capitulate : what we have in Tales of A Scottish Grandfather is a brilliantly told narrative espousing a progressive Whig view of history. In addition, Scott being Scott, we have (and this is where the lack of real historical or philosophical weight emerges) an essentialist view of human nature. I should perhaps qualify this by saying that I have of course only read as far as the later years of the 17th and very early years of the 18th Century are concerned; it may be that in his treatment of medieval figures Scott has a different approach – but I doubt it. I mean by essentialist that characters are mainly judged by Scott’s own standards and the standards of his day, on the basis of an unchanging human nature. Now it is important not to be too dogmatic about this. Scott does recognise to some extent the influence of different economic, social, cultural and ideological systems on behaviour. This is particularly true when he talks of groups of people – the Cameronians or the Highland Clans for instance. But whenever he returns to an individual figure these considerations are largely forgotten and we veer towards what I call the ‘1066 and All That’ school of history (‘King John was a very bad man’); of course Scott is never crude and these character sketches are largely delightful and entertaining. They form a good part of the narrative charm. But historically they are firstly extremely simple, and secondly leave a large problem with Scott’s progressive view. What is the agency which drives this progression? What or who are the historical causes? Scott really fails to provide any suggestions and it is extremely obvious that he has given no systematic thought to these fundamental questions (although I examine and propose one later). So whether economic, social, cultural, ideological agents are the reasons for change is never clearly explained. Progress just happens almost as if it were some kind of law of nature. Scott’s extreme inadequacy in this general area prohibits any treatment of him as a  really serious historian. Which is not to either deny the charm and force of the narrative nor to deny that he is – as a specifically Scottish historian – of very considerable significance. In these particular chapters this can be seen very clearly in his treatment of the Act Of Union and its aftermath. And it is to the particular that I will now turn.

I have no intention of summarising the book. The early part covering 1658-1689 is mainly concerned with ground which Scott also covered in Old Mortality, namely the state terror unleashed against devout Presbyterians, most especially in the South-West of Scotland. What is most note-worthy here is the sympathy of Scott’s treatment, even more so than in the novel. We must recall that both theologically (he was an Episcopalian), politically (they were – if anything and of necessity – radical, he Tory) and socially (Scott was a snob and the book is ever distrustful of ‘the mob’) Scott should have been utterly opposed to the group I will term for simplicity’s sake (as he does) the Cameronians. I am not suggesting that he becomes by any means a propagandist for their cause, but he is notably fair-minded. Most of the stories of these times – of death, torture, cruel imprisonment and so on – are grim. Scott does not attempt to romanticise or palliate any of this. He picks out the best stories with unerring accuracy. I loved the tale of the dying words of the radical Richard Rumbold who affirmed on the scaffold ‘That he never believed that the generality of mankind came into the world booted and spurred, and a few booted and spurred to ride upon them’. Rumbold’s betrayers were themselves murdered. Scott remarks ‘Thus does crime beget crime, and cruelty engender cruelty’.

In a general passage on Whigs and Tories (page 82 of this volume) Scott presents the extremely conventional view that Tories are mainly concerned that monarchical power is in danger from popular liberty, while Whigs see the opposite risk. He goes on ‘Either of these opinions may be honourably and conscientiously maintained by the part whom reflection or education has led to adopt it; and the existence of two such parties opposing each other with reason and moderation, and by constitutional means only, is the sure means of preventing encroachment either on the limits of the crown or on the privileges of the people’. This is an admirably succinct version of the stasis and conservatism induced by two-party systems in which both parties are fundamentally part of that system; it applies just as much today if we substitute the power and rights of capital for monarchical power  and social-democracy for popular liberty  : it is noteworthy that – in the UK anyway but I doubt it is very different in the US – I can no longer say ‘popular liberty’ as Labour has abandoned liberty, and cannot even say workers right as it has abandoned them too. It is quite arguable that the supposed ‘Left’ side of this duopoly has actually gone backwards since Scott’s day! The Right of course has gained a far more formidable ally in the weight of capitalism:  monarchs having an ingrained capacity to be pathetic specimens of humanity. But this misses my fundamental point which is that the two supposed sides actually end up supporting the system (the monarchy/capitalism). This is exactly what Scott desires of course as do all apologists for the system. The ‘division’ is a superficial and internal one. To challenge the system means stepping outside it. Scott proceeds that the danger with the system is that men get carried away and become extremists – in the case of the Tories absolutists, and in the case of the Whigs democrats. This reading enables Scott to read the Revolution of 1689 as a ‘Great’ event because it preserved this two-party equilibrium and entrenched the position of a constitutional monarchy.

Scott’s portrait of Dundee, who obviously attains great importance in Scotland in 1689, is masterly – ‘His arguments, his largesses, the high influence of his character among the Highland chiefs, whose admiration of Ian Dhu Cean, or Black John the Warrior, was no way diminished by the merciless exploits which had procured him in the Low Country the name of Bloody Clavers’. Dundee/Clavers is a figure who suits another aspect of Scott’s history perfectly, which is that precisely because historical times and situations vary but human nature is more eternal the same type or figure can be both hero or villain depending upon their context. Dundee/Clavers actually managed (because there is no question that these differing perceptions are based in historical reality; even to this day the vision of Dundee will be different in Inverness and Dumfries) to be both hero and villain during his own lifetime to the extent to which his very name (‘Bonnie Dundee’ ‘Bloody Clavers’ became bifurcated). This is the kind of paradox which is enormously appeals to Scott as narrator but also fits with his historical vision. It may be that because of this Scott over-estimates his importance when he says that ‘The Viscount of Dundee was one of those gifted persons upon whose fate that of nations is sometimes dependent’; he makes a rare and brief excursion into counterfactual history in suggesting that had Dundee survived the Battle of Killiecrankie he might have succeeded in restoring James to the throne of Scotland at least. Perhaps this suggestion has some basis in fact. But I prefer the way in which Scott concludes his account of the death of Dundee…..

“They say that a servant of his own, shocked at the severities which, if triumphant, his master was likely to accomplish against the Presbyterians, and giving way to the popular prejudice of his having a charm against the effect of lead balls, shot him, in the tumult of the battle, with a silver button taken from his own livery coat. The Jacobites and Episcopalian part on the other hand, lamented the deceased victor as the last of the Scots, the last of the Grahams and the last of all that was great in his native country’.”

Quite apart from the mellifluous charm and ease and grace of Scott’s prose, this short passage indicates how he intermingles popular legend  – ‘They say’ – which he never invests as definitively true, with a sense of the historical reality which the event entailed.

Scott’s account of Glencoe is one of the highlights of these chapters. It is historically detailed, carefully tracing the exact events which led up to the massacre but in no way exculpating those responsible or downplaying the horror. It also contains one of his more remarkable expressions of general theory when he says ‘The minds of men are formed by their habitations’. It has to be said that this brief excursion towards materialism is never really used in any other context, or as an explanation for anything other than the generally bellicose nature of the MacDonalds of Glencoe. The actions of William III in respect of Glencoe and Darien forfeit the credit which Scott accords him for the events of 1689 – Scott writes in his moral tone ‘..what is unjust can never be in a true sense necessary, and the sacrifice of principle to circumstances will, in every sense, and in all cases, be found as unwise as it is unworthy.’

Scott’s account of events leading up to the Act of Union (1707) and the immediate aftermath of this form the major subject of these chapters. He is in something of a bind in that his view is – and he expresses this very clearly –  that the Act of Union was absolutely vital to the future prosperity and development of Scotland. On the other hand he recognises that the vast majority of Scots opposed it, and those who were for it were motivated largely be venal and corrupt motives. His resolution of this quandary is extremely interesting….

“And here I must point out to you at some length that, although there never could be a doubt that the Union itself was a most desirable event, yet by the erroneous mode in which it was pushed on and opposed by all parties concerned, such obstacles were thrown in the way of the benefits it was calculated to produce  as to interpose a longer interval of years betwixt the date of the treaty and the national advantages arising out of it, than the term spent by the Jews in the wilderness ere they attained the promised land. In both cases the frowardness and passions of men rejected the blessings which Providence held out to them’.

I suppose that this passage and in particular the last sentence might suggest a possible answer to the question of what Scott sees as the main agent of historical change – namely Providence; the progression of human affairs (or at least Scottish ones) which he discerns is part of a benevolent plan of a presumably divinely inspired Providential plan. This seems a rather theocentric view for Scott to adopt but perhaps Presbyterianism influenced him more than he knew! In any case it allows him to escape his dilemma – the Act of Union was a Providential good which was corrupted by the misdeeds of men; and most especially the English, whom Scott does not spare in his explanation as to how the proper benefits of the Act were withheld by the dominant power. This leads him to a lengthy disquisition on the dangers of a superior power imposing its will on a weaker one which is of considerable contemporary relevance. I especially enjoyed the following passage which is about the ways in which one Government obtains knowledge of another – I am thinking of the kind of obvious nonsense which is clear that the American and British Governments base their imperialist missions in Iraq and Afghanistan on (‘weapons of mass destruction’)….

“This conducts us to the second remark, which I wish you to attend to, namely, how that, with all the facilities of intercourse afforded by the manners of modern nations, it nevertheless is extremely difficult for one government to obtain what they may consider as trustworthy information concerning the internal affairs and actual condition of another, either from the statements of partisans who profess themselves in league with the state which makes the enquiry, or from agents of their own sent to pursue the investigation. The first class of informants deceive their correspondents and themselves by the warm and sanguine view which they take of the strength and importance of their own party; the last are incapable of forming a correct judgement of what they see and hear for want of that habitual and familiar knowledge of the manners of a country which is necessary to enable them to judge what peculiar allowance ought to be made, and what special restrictions may be necessary, in interpreting the language of those with whom they may communicate on the subject of their mission.’

It is remarkable that these words hold just as true today in our supposedly ‘globalised’ world with all the vast technological apparatuses of spying which major nations possess.

Better still than this – and sadly even more relevant – is a passage where Scott celebrates the fact that one of the consequences of the Act of Union was the abolition of torture in Scotland (even if, ironically, this took place because the English wanted to institute a more repressive judicial system in cases of suspected treason). I will again quote the passage at length…

“Another part of the proposed act was, however, a noble boon to Scotland. It freed the country for ever from the atrocious powers of examination under torture. This, as we have seen, was currently practised under the reigns of Charles II and his brother James; and it had been in force, though infrequently after the Revolution. A greater injustice cannot be imagined than the practice of torture to extort confession, although it once made a part of judicial procedure in every country of Europe, and is still resorted to in some continental countries. It is easy to conceive that a timid man, or one peculiarly sensible to pain, will confess crimes of which he is innocent to avoid or escape from the infliction of extreme torture, while a villain, of a hardy disposition of mind and body will endow the worst torment that can  be imposed on him rather than avow offences of which he is actually guilty.”

Even if it is true that the later part of Scott’s argument here shades into the prudential (‘torture does not work’) I think it is fairly clear from the earlier part that he is opposed to it morally (‘it is wrong’) in any case; here speaks Scott as Enlightenment man, and it is a part of him we should not overlook. Quite what he would have made of the fact that torture is now so widespread and the British Government colludes in handing over people to regimes, including of course that of the US, where the use of torture is still sanctioned it is hard to know. Certainly this alone would be a knock to his optimistic vision of the steady progress of human affairs.

This particular volume ends, as I said at the start, on a cliffhanger – the death of Anne and on the eve of the 1715 Rising. Scott’s version of History is above all a compelling narrative, full of delightful detail and charm. Beyond this its ideological framework is fascinating. Scott is a reactionary defender of the existing social order – he is opposed to democracy and dismissive of the working class or ‘mob’ as he refers to them. But despite this the overall framework of his History is a Whig one – history is progressive and moves forward. The agency for this is unclear, though when an agency is indicated it is ‘Providence’ – which would seem to be a divine plan for the gradual improvement of the lot of mankind. This gives the history an optimistic tone. This progressive sense of change means that there is a very real awareness of the way in which historical circumstances change, which is so prevalent in his fiction. Because he allies this to an essentialist concept of human nature and morality it is quite possible for people of equally good convictions to be on other the ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ sides in any historical period, or indeed where two cultures exist in one historical era to be both devil and angel (as in the case of Dundee). On the one hand Scott’s vision of history as progressive and some of his attitudes (as on torture) are pure Enlightenment. On the other the value he allows to differing value systems is Romantic. Nonetheless I think that Isaiah Berlin’s reading of Scott ( see The Roots of Romanticism Pimlico 2000 pages 136-8) is wrong. When Berlin writes that ‘the notion of incompatibility, of plurality of ideals, each of which has its own validity, becomes part of the battering-ram which romanticism employs against the notion of order, against the notion of progress, classical ideals, the structure of things. That is why Scott, surprisingly enough, is correctly called a Romantic writer’, he has, in my view, failed to take adequate account of Scott’s Historical writings – as demonstrated here in Tales of A Scottish Grandfather – as against the fiction. Tales of a Grandfather makes absolutely clear that Scott does believe in progress; he does believe in, some at least, classical ideals (his account of the two-party system is an example of this); he certainly has a strong notion of the structure of things. Every age certainly has its own validity – and this is Romantic – but it is clear that, for all the nostalgia and loss which may be involved, the present is better than the past. Scott is far more of an eighteenth-century figure than it might be supposed – this is why reading his History is so important.


2 thoughts on “Scott’s Tales of a Scottish Grandfather

  1. A very interesting critical essay Nick.

    I know Scott not only wrote reams of fiction, he wrote much non-fiction narrative and essays. I’ve not read much of the non-fiction narrative, only that which he sometimes uses as prefaces to his novels: I’ve an edition of Rob Roy
    prefaced by Scott’s retelling of the savage internecine wars and characters in older Scottish chronicles, from which Scott drew his depictions of Rob Roy and his Scottish world in the highlands.

    I agree with the above essay, from the main thrust that Scott is an Enlightenment figure, to the minor points, he supports the establishment by his notion of two parties, his is a Whiggish version of history (ever progressing even if we can’t see it in any particular era); he adjudicates brilliantly between how much an individual or individuals influence history and how much they are swept along by
    their times; he has an essentialist or universal idea about human nature (there it depends at what level of the mind or behavior one cuts in). I’ve read a couple of books and some essays on history writing, and, as I recall, Scott’s
    non-fiction narratives were not influential in the sense of how to write history. His influence was on the novelists who wrote historical fiction or set their stories in a historical nexus of culture and politics clashing.

    It is good to see Scott on the right side against torture; at the same time dismaying to realize that today he is a man ahead of his time — it surely makes us begin to doubt that notion of progress, no? I think there is progress, but my feeling is what progress and improvement people have had over the centuries is the direct result of scientific technological physical improvement in our physical circumstances (which also brings cheaper goods which if you have a distribution network can be got to people) and the spread of secular education — where it has spread. So more people today are enlightened (in the 18th century sense) and live more comfortably and longer than at any time in history before; at the same time we still have huge numbers of people living abysmally, in tyrannized over circumstances, enduring cruelties within their families and
    from groups of people running state governments with the military to back them up.

    Maybe that’s why Scott’s descriptions seem often to be about today just in different costume.


  2. nick2209

    Very many thanks Ellen. It would probably be unwise to start debating the idea of progress here but broadly speaking I agree about scientific/technological advances on the one hand; on the other we can see political advances which are the results of the class struggle in its many and varied forms. But in both cases the ruling class has shown incredible adaptability to turn these gains to its own ends – and they are of course limited to a relatively small percentage of the world’s population. One thing I am clear about is that the agency for all these changes is always a human one though! It is also clear that progress is never irreversible and is always under threat by all kinds of forces which wish to take us backwards, to oppress and divide; at present those forces seem very real.

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