Scott, Sir Walter: Rob Roy

The proposer said he had been hugely influenced by Scott in stimulating his interest in history when he had read “Tales of a Grandfather” (written for Scott’s 6 year old grandson) at the age of 7 or 8. This was history as gripping and entertaining story superbly well told but also critically. For example Scott tells the Macbeth story as in Shakespeare but then explains in his notes where it is historically wrong.  As part of his history degree, he had written a dissertation on Scott as a historian through both his novels and histories.  Only recently he had discovered he was Scott’s 2nd cousin, nine times removed.  

Scott was both a historian and novelist. He needed to be seen in the context of the historiographical background of the C18th Scottish Enlightenment. He was greatly influenced by the “conjectural” history propounded by Adam Smith and, most notably, Adam Ferguson, author of the “Essay on Civil Society” and the father of Scott’s best friend and now seen as one of the founders of sociology.

The conjectural historians saw history as the progress of society from hunter/gatherers, to shepherds/herdsmen, to farmers and finally to the latest age of commerce. Ferguson as a Highlander was acutely aware of these stages; he had experienced them all. There were other C18th historical schools. Hume, Gibbon and Voltaire were writing traditional political narrative history. In his novels Scott was writing in the new philosophical, sociological analytical tradition.

Scott’s own views on the writing of history were interesting. He was very critical of inaccurate history; praised the use of original source material though he was less of a researcher than a reader and listener; and had a prodigious memory for what he had read or heard. He regarded history as a reservoir of material for his novels and consciously took liberties with facts and chronologies in his novels. When criticised  he responded:

My violation of the truth of history gave offence to Mr Mills, the author of the History of the Crusades who was not, it may be presumed, aware that romantic fiction includes the power of invention, which is indeed one of the requisites of the art” (introduction to The Talisman, 1832).

Scott was often seen as an ultra- romantic novelist but this was a misreading. David Daiches had said “Scott’s best and characteristic novels might with justice be called anti-romantic. They attempt to show that heroic action is, in the last analysis, neither heroic nor useful”. Daiches argued that Scott’s real interest as a novelist was “in the ways in which the past impinged on the present and in the effects of that impact on human character, in the relations between tradition and progress”. These themes were best realised in the novels dealing with the Scotland of the not too distant past of the C17th and C18th, ie Waverley, Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Old Mortality, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, The Bride of Lammermoor, A Legend of Montrose, Redgauntlet and Chronicles of the Canongate.

Many people had criticised Scott for carelessness in composition, weak plots, and wooden lifeless heroes. Indeed Scott himself made these criticisms in an anonymous review in the Quarterly Review in 1817. But Scott also said “ My aim was to throw the force of my narrative upon the character and passions of the actors; those passions common to men in all stages of society”. They were character and manners novels in the Fielding and Smollet tradition but also within the framework of history.

Scott was a “passionate Scot but a prudent Briton” and this tension was worked out in the Scottish novels. Underlying them was a sense of the inevitability of progress, in accordance with conjectural history principles, and a sense of the impotence of traditional heroism. Scott himself in his 1829 Introduction put forward this idea of historical conflict at the heart of the Waverley novels, in particular in the Scottish novels Cavalier v Roundhead, Episcopalian v Covenanter, Jacobite v Hanoverian,  and Highlander v Lowlander.

Looking at the novels in this way, a discernible conjectural model of a pilgrim’s progress could be described. An Englishman or Lowland Scot wandered into the Highlands, or an equivalent, from civilised to barbarian society and became involved with passionate partisans, often Jacobites for example in Waverley, Rob Roy and Redguantlet. The “heroes” ( Francis Osbaldistone in Rob Roy) were essentially dull, insipid, amiable  young men who were disinterested, passive observers of the historical forces in conflict. Activity therefore depended upon other sources of energy – “dark heroes” (Rob Roy in Rob Roy) – whose intentions were good but mistaken. These contrasting pairs represented passion against reason, romantic emotion against sober judgement, the “passionate Scot versus prudent Briton”. Often the passive heroes became involved with the forces of barbaric society but they retained personal links with both sides and eventually put heroic ideas behind them and returned to civil society.

Scott was also the first great writer to be interested in the common people as well as the great. His “low life” characters were often the most real and best drawn, not least because he was able to use Scots idiom and dialogue in a dramatic way. This interest had been appreciated by many commentators, eg the Hungarian Marxist George Lukacs in “ The Historical Novel”.

Scott’s personal attitude to what he was writing was important. He was wary of taking sides too obviously but his passive heroes committed to the superiority of civil society win in the end. Scott saw the inevitability of this in accordance with conjectural history principles. For example. Scott recognised the great changes brought about in the Highlands by economic development. He saw the breakdown of the clan system, of the master servant relationship on feudal lines, as brought about by the increase in division of labour and private property rights. He saw the chiefs using their increased monetary wealth on their own wants and luxuries. He saw Jacobitism as artificially preserving a system which was already decaying. But while he might accept this conjectural and modern historical analysis his feelings were more complex and ambivalent. He saw the victory of “progress” as both inevitable and desirable but he also saw that something of value was lost by the passing of the old feudal world. He did not sigh for the past but he gloried in it. It is interesting that the most sympathetically treated characters were those who manage to make themselves at home in the new world without altogether repudiating the old, eg Bailie Nicol Jarvie in Rob Roy.

The intentions and achievements of Scott have been misunderstood because of the effects of his work. The image that Scotland presented and still presents to the world, the emphasis on the Highlands and “tartanry” owes much to Scott (cf George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822).  However, it was not Scott’s fault if readers were enchanted by the picturesque and romantic rather than the anti- romantic and realism, the rejection of the past and acceptance of the economically inevitable present (cf Mark Twain on Scott causing the American Civil War).

Turning now briefly and specifically to Rob Roy, it was the most clear articulation in any of his novels of the economic basis of conjectural history. Economic theory was central to the novel.  The influence of Adam Smith’s ideas are obvious. Baillie Nicol Jarvie was a brilliant illustration of Smith’s idea that the selfishness of the individual pursuit of wealth can be reconciled with social obligations to one’s fellow men and country. Scott showed considerable awareness of the technical aspects of the regulation of trade and of banking and credit.  The plot barely touched on the armed struggle of the ‘15 but centred on whether the Jacobites can use financial means to destabilise the British Government. Frank told us on his return to London that:

 “ We immediately associated with those bankers and eminent merchants who agreed to support the credit of the government, and to meet that run on the Funds, on which the conspirators had greatly founded their hope of furthering their undertaking, by rendering the government bankrupt”.

The ability of the British Government to fight wars was based on its ability to finance them. The development of an efficient national finance system and London as a financial centre allowed the government to borrow what it needed. This was a major advantage not just in 1715 and 1745 but also in the series of wars against the French in the C18th.

In Rob Roy Scott was comparing an advanced commercial society alongside a traditional patriarchy. Readers were invited to conclude that the Hanoverian state offered new opportunities and that life in Northumberland and the Trossachs was nasty brutish and short. This was a Scott Hanoverian not Jacobite novel.


There was a smaller attendance than usual but the group benefited from comments from some of those not able to attend.

In general there was a warm and positive response to Rob Roy. The majority described the novel as an enjoyable yarn, gripping, exciting and humorous. It was a coming of age novel. There was a mystery, an engaging love interest, great characters and much stravaigin about in the Borders, Glasgow and the Highlands.      

Others were less enthusiastic, seeing the novel as slow to start, though picking up as the action progressed. Some saw the characters as mere caricatures. The language caused problems for some, not just the prolix nature of novels of the early C19th but the fairly extensive use of broad C18th Scots. This was a particular problem for the English members of the group. It was acknowledged though that the use of the Scots language gave a rich historical context to the novel. In using dialect for the low life characters Scott was following in Shakespeare’s footsteps. There was an interesting discussion as to whether the use of dialect had been a problem for the original readers of Scott’s novels, an issue none of those present could elucidate.

One very late-comer had now read Rob Roy for the third time. He had first read it on the recommendation of the proposer following a discussion in the school library at the age of 15 or 16. At that time he had much enjoyed it as an adventure story. The second time he had read it was ten years ago, when he was intrigued by the tension Scott explored between Unionist logic and Scottish romanticism. On that occasion he had been irked by the extended use of dialect and by the character of Andrew Fairweather, and taken aback by the callous execution of Morris. However, he had thoroughly enjoyed his third reading. What particularly struck him this time was the way in which Scott had not just invented the historical novel, but had set a template for the great nineteenth century novels that were to follow.

There was no direct example amongst the English novels to date that he could model himself on – the epistolary novels such as Richardson; the comic picaresque novels of Fielding and Smollett; the gothic novels such as those of Mrs Radcliffe; and the novel of manners emerging with Jane Austen. Scott produced a new synthesis that took some elements from other novelists but drew most heavily on Shakespearean drama. He offered a serious exploration of social, economic and historic themes. He combined this with an exploration of character, with adventure, with humour, and with an early example of evocative writing about the natural world. And he had little truck with sentimentality in this novel – no sooner is the happy ending offered in one half of the sentence than the heroine is killed off in the second half.

There was some discussion as to why Scott’s reputation had declined in the C20th. One squarely laid the blame on F. R. Leavis, aided and abetted by E.M. Forster. Leavis had excluded Scott from his “Great Tradition” of English novelists, dismissing him in a footnote, and argued that the great tradition ran through Austen, Eliot, James, Conrad, and Lawrence. Leavis’s influence had been considerable and malign in respect of Scott’s reputation. The whole idea of a “great tradition” to which one had to belong was flawed, but Scott had been hugely influential on the great C19th English writers, with a clear line flowing through the Brontes, Dickens, Eliot and Hardy to Lawrence. Half of all novels bought in the C19th were by Scott.

The general conclusion was that it had been well worth reading Rob Roy, particularly for an Edinburgh Book Group.