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Sir Walter Scott’s Jacobite novels

Viccy Coltman interviews curator at Abbotsford
So if we think about Scott and the legacy of Jacobitism as being to do with his great grandfather, and then to do with the royal visit, and then obviously a key way that we can’t avoid talking about has to do with Scott’s literature. So if we talk about Waverley, Waverley, published 1814, this is Scott’s first foray into novel writing. Published anonymously of course, so he’s very well known as a poet.
What does Scott do with the Jacobites story in Waverley? I think in Waverely, and then again to a similar extent in Rob Roy and Redgauntlet, what Scott’s doing is interrogating the, not the legitimacy, but the practicality of Jacobite ideals. What you have is– I mean he styles Waverley as a romance, and I think that’s an important thing to note, he’s quite clear about that. It’s not a history, it’s a romance. So I think having the key protagonist being an Englishman is really interesting as well. It is really interesting, OK. It’s a great Scottish novel. Sure, so the title of the novel is Waverley, and so the titular hero Edward Waverley is this English guy.
So how does he find himself embroiled in the ‘45? Well it’s important, I suppose, you know I’m sure looked to this elsewhere on this course, is that Jacobitism you associate with Scotland, but of course it’s a bigger picture than that. There were English Jacobites, particularly prevalent in areas like the North of England and down in the southwest. And Edward Waverely, like a lot of Scott’s characters has this problem with his father, that tends to be this sort of recurring theme of uncles, and legitimacy, and finding out you’re the son of somebody you didn’t know you were the son of.
But Edward Waverley has fallen out of favour with his father and he lives with his uncle who is a Jacobite supporter. He then finds himself fighting for the hand of Hanoverian government up in Scotland, and through his uncle and his Jacobite sympathies ends up encountering these various characters that change his mind, effectively. This is a story about where allegiance lies, and I suppose, you know, who you will fight for when the chips are down. He is romanced by the Jacobite vision and through various engagements, I mean, there are two women in the story that represent very different things, but he finds himself fighting for the prince and the ‘45, but thinking that it’s doomed to failure, but doing it anyway.
That actually mimics something that Scott said about the ‘45 which was, “If I had been alive at the time, I would have fought right up to the gallows.” And that says that Scott knew it was ultimately a doomed mission, but that his heart wouldn’t have let him do anything else. And I think that tells you a lot about Scott the unionist. So this idea of the romance of Sir Walter Scott and of Jacobitism and this is a very loaded term. I completely think you’re right, that it is to do with a sort of romantic hue coming over the Jacobites story. What that might mean is quite open to interpretation.
And obviously what Scott does is to stress some aspects of the ‘45 and then to diminish others. So we never get to Culloden, and we don’t have any bloodshed, but we obviously– Waverely meets the prince at Holyrood and it just seems to me that it is a kind of retelling of the Jacobite story. Which then almost gathered a kind of momentum as being fact rather than fiction. I think so, I mean, you only have to look at the extraordinary success of the Waverley novels on stage as well, which is another medium by which they really hit substantial audiences, to see that was happening.
That somehow Jacobitism was something that everybody could participate in within the sort of safe settings of reading a novel, or going to the theatre. That’s what I like about Waverly, so it’s called Waverley after the titular hero, but then the subtitle is or to 60 years since. And that, for me, has this wonderful sense of remind– and obviously this is being written in 1805 of then it’s published 1814, but that gives you a wonderful sense of time passing, and how things have changed so much within that post-Culloden period, to 1805, to 1814. And how already the Jacobites’ story and the ‘45 is kind of already lost in the mists of time even within that 60 year period.
So let’s talk about the reception of the Waverley novels, perhaps. I mean, I’m right in thinking that it was a cultural phenomenon? Absolutely! Unparalleled. We talk about Scott being the first globally recognised author and I think it’s hard for us now to really appreciate what that meant, but he was a complete superstar at the time. You’ve already alluded to this, but I mean I suppose one of the things that I think about with Scott and the Waverely novels is I think about that kind of Harry Potter phenomenon, and how they’ve made these films, and then there’s also this theatre production, and as you say, what happens with Waverley novels is that they have circulation within other cultural forms.
So it does become this– but in a way, it kind of establishes a benchmark for what happens with Jacobitism that has a kind of ambiguous relationship with history, doesn’t it? It becomes a kind of precedent that people think, oh that’s the story. And this is why people think oh Bonnie Prince Charlie and this whole love affair with Flora, and actually, that’s not what happened. No, it’s an interesting thing to think, would Scott have actually liked that result? You know, because it’s something that is there throughout the 1820s, he’s really at the zenith of his power as a novelist, and the Waverley novels, and the author of Waverely is known around the world.
And then it pervades the Victorian period as well, and it becomes this sort of shortbread tin vision of Scotland. Would he have been happy that his version of events have taken over? He was always very clear to say, I’m a storyteller, you know, this is not a history. So the fact that it’s being read history now I think would interest and perhaps alarm him. I think that’s a really good point. That with– seems to me that what Scott is doing with Jacobitism has to do with this idea of romance, where these is a kind of constant playoff between history and fiction. And we can’t– we might now think about Waverley as being history, but actually that’s not the case.
And so we need to keep history and fiction sort of constantly in play and playing off against each other. But, it would be wrong wouldn’t it, to say OK, well he did the Waverly in 1814, that is his great Jacobite novel, because not a lot of people know that there are other novels, aren’t there? Can you tell us a little bit about them? Yeah, I mean, one of my personal favourites is Redgauntlet. Which was one of Scott’s favourites as well. It covers the story of a fictional Jacobite rising that happens in the 1760s. It’s fascinating to show the kind of story curve of Scott’s. I suppose his journey in accepting the fate of Jacobitism is a fair thing to say.
Waverely, first novel in 1814, Redgauntlet 10 years later, and it’s a complete flop. A rather fat and listless Bonnie Prince Charlie turns up– As he was then. He was, I mean, you know he went from this dashing sort of cavalier type to somebody that you think, would I fight for him? For a disillusioned alcoholic, probably not. He does have a drink problem as well, you’re quite right. And he turns up in this, he’s so un-inspiring that this rising just fizzles out in front of his eyes. It’s an incredibly moving story because it shows people leaving these shores, Jacobites leaving these shores to go off to France and give up, or pledge their allegiance to the Hanoverians.
So it’s that kind of culmination of the Jacobite journey that you see in Scott’s novels. But we kind of jump from 1814 to 1824, so let’s sort of go back in the middle to 1817, and the Rob Roy novel. Rob Roy is a very, sort of, shadowy figure. He appears a couple of times and is very heroic. Again, story about legitimacy, the Highlands and Lowlands, finding compromise, so those motifs come back again and again. And Rob Roy of all the novels, has the most incredible afterlife on the stage.
This is really, I think, more than Waverely, the crucial novel for crowds of people in Covent Garden wearing Highland dress, and watching Highland Dancing on the stage during the interval of Rob Roy, and all singing Auld Lang Syne, and all feeling terribly Scottish and thinking they understand what it’s like to be Scottish. So that’s really, really interesting when that gets converted for the stage in 1818.
Three of Sir Walter Scott’s novels drew on the Jacobite campaigns. In chronological order of publication, they are Waverley (1814), Rob Roy (1817) and Redgauntlet (1824).
In the second in a series of films from Scott’s home, Abbotsford, Viccy Coltman discusses with Kirsty Archer-Thompson the Waverley phenomenon.
You can read Waverley online here.
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Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites

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