In 1827-28, Scott wrote the framed-tale series entitled the Chronicles of the Canongate as part of his scheme to pay off the debt of his publishing house. After an "Introductory" to provide the narrative framework), Scott created two long short stories, "The Highland Widow" and "The Two Drovers," although the short story was hardly his forté. The former story takes its origin from the period immediately following the death of Lady Scott on 14 May 1826. In his journal for May 28th he writes:
"It is time that I should be up and doing . . . . I must not fail myself and my family, and the necessity of exertion becomes apparent. I must try a hors d'oeuvre, something that can go on between the necessary intervals of Nap [undoubtedly a reference to his work on The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, published in nine volumes the following year]. Mrs. Murray Keith's Tale of the Deserter, with her interview with the lad's mother, may be made most affecting, but will hardly endure expansion."
Readers of a century later would probably agree that Scott attempted to expand the story beyond its natural limits. The narrative framework was necessary at the time because magazines publishing what we today would recognize as short stories were non-existent. In this regard, the Chronicles of the Canongate was in initial conception something like Charles Dickens's Master Humphrey's Clock, a miscellany which the later writer invented in 1840 as a framework for the weekly numbers novels The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, and then abandoned as unworkable in 1841. Scott, too, found the framework of the miscellany too confining as he broke out into the full-length narratives "The Surgeon's Daughter" and "The Fair Maid of Perth."
Plot and Setting
The story is supposedly drawn by Chrystal Croftangry, the editor of the Chronicles of the Canongate, from the pages of the Highland journal of Mrs. Bethune Balliol (based on Scott's old friend Mrs. Anne Murray Keith), who encountered the widow of MacTavish Mhor, one of the last of the Jacobite rebels hunted down and killed by Redcoats after the 1745 rebellion. Alone in the Highland fastness she raises Mhor's son, Hamish Bean, expecting that he will take up his father's calling as a cateran (cattle-thief) and his father's political cause. However, when he comes of age, Hamish, possessing a sense of changing times in Scotland that his mother cannot appreciate, enlists in a Scottish regiment bound to fight the French in Canada. Appalled at what she regards as his treachery to the Old Cause, his mother, Elspath, drugs his drink so that he will overstay his leave and thus become a deserter. After slaying the Cameron sergeant who has come to arrest him, Hamish is executed, leaving his mother to grapple with her guilt and remorse.
Thus, the title "The Highland Widow" is something of a misnomer in that her son is clearly the protagonist. As in much of Scott's work, the emphasis is on the contrast between the nostalgic yearning for a heroic and romantic past and the necessary acceptance of England's respect for the authority of law for Scotland's future. The conflict between these national characteristics, as in many of Scott's novels, is the cause of the tragedy. The deep-seated national pride, the rugged independence and individualism, and heroic determination of the Highlander fall to the disciplined power of the English.
Style and Atmosphere
Scott's ability to construct an enveloping atmosphere is perhaps more telling here than in most of his work owing to the concentration of the narrative in "The Highland Widow." The dignified speech of mother and son captures the power of the original Gaelic and, together with the descriptions of Highland scenery, imparts a genuinely epic feel to the tale. Scott embues the oral tale with an added grandeur by the unimpassioned, leisurely pace of narration, leading the reader to consider the tragedy of individual caught up by the forces of tradition and bias which becomes the tragedy of of outmoded values in a world that has irrevocably changed.
Last modified 30 December 2001