Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
On one level this is the tale of two friends, Alan Fairford and Darsie Latimer. They’re both law students in Edinburgh, but Alan is sincere and hard-working while Darsie is easily distracted and mischievous. The story opens with Darsie vacationing in Dumfriesshire near the Solway estuarial system. He’s left school temporarily and writes letters to Alan detailing his adventures, the first of which involves being given fishing lessons by Benjie, a local rapscallion of ten years or so, who’s mastered the arts of angling, food appropriation, horse-borrowing and money-grabbing. Roaming the local countryside, Darsie ventures out onto the mudflats beyond the mouth of the Esk river, on foot, not knowing that he’s in danger of being drowned. The fierce tides of the area are capable of trapping the unwary pedestrian as they wash in at a high rate of speed. And patches of quicksand dot the flats, lethal snares for the unenlightened. So he ventures out too far and is running for his life when he’s rescued by a man on a horse. His savior is the Laird, who is the leader of a small enclave of fishermen, a hamlet named Brokenburn, residing on the banks of a nearby creek.
Darsie spends the night with his rescuer and meets a beautiful young girl, apparently some relation of the Laird. The next morning he goes for a walk on the downs and meets Wandering Willie and his wife Maggie. Willie is a fiddle-player and is blind. After some entertaining repartee, the three descend to Brokenburn to attend a dance the same night. Darsie sees the girl, named Lilias, again, and she tells him he’s in danger and to leave forthwith. On the run, he takes refuge with a local band of Quakers named Geddes, who proffer exemplary hospitality. The Quakers have installed fishing nets across the Solway Firth and are capturing most of the migrating salmon. The folk at Brokenburn are upset by this because they depend on the runs of salmon for their livelihood. So one night they dash out and tear up all the nets. Darsie is in the wrong place and is taken prisoner and for some reason dressed up as a girl and carted off to an unknown destination.
Meanwhile, Alan Fairford has taken his final exams for being a lawyer and passed them and has been presented with his first case. Peter Peebles has been trying to get his case resolved for fifteen years. It concerns the claims of a former business partner over a disputed division of funds mis-distributed upon the dissolution of a partnership. Alan studies the case and enters the court fully briefed and confident of winning his case, when he’s handed a letter surreptitiously. All of a sudden, he picks up his coat and dashes out of the building, grabs a horse and gallops off to Dumfriesshire to rescue his friend, who apparently has been kidnapped by unknown parties.
As the plot progresses, the reader discovers that the Laird is actually Darsie’s uncle, and is a rabid adherent to the cause of Charles Edward Stuart, the presumed legitimate King of England and Scotland. The Laird is fixated on rebellion and the restoration of the Hanoverian throne to the Stuarts. Darsie is in reality the heir of the Laird’s brother, who had lots of money and a reputation as a leader in the ’45 (the final rebellion of the Highland Clans in their fatal attempt to install Bonnie Prince Charlie as King). The names of the three are, naturally, Redgauntlet.
Alan takes ship to England and lands on the coast somewhere west of Carlisle and manages to track Darsie to an inn owned and operated by a man named Crackenthorp. This inn is the center of action for the balance of the plot: all the characters meet there for a final resolution of the Laird’s attempt to drum up support for his ill-fated plan to overturn the English kingship. Certain nobles and peers of England are there, as well as Charles Edward Stuart himself. There are secret meetings, gun shots, a couple of stabbings, a lot of arguing, but finally the Laird comes to realize that his cause is hopeless and sails off to France with ex-King Stuart. The other personae marry, inherit wealth, die, or live happily ever after.
This was not the most interesting book of Scott’s i’ve read, but it was more multi-leveled, in my memory anyway, than some of his earlier works. There was the surface plot: the trials of Darsie and Alan and the love interest of the former; there was a subliminal criticism of the extraordinarily complex Scottish legal system; a wry and slightly sympathetic analysis of the Scottish attitude toward the Hanoverian succession; a slightly disguised censure of unregulated fishing behaviors; lastly, but not finally, probably, a rather negative analysis of the whole system of class relations common to the British isles, wherein the rich and powerful have everything and the have-nots don’t. I’m not sure whether Scott was really much of a social rebel himself, but i do think he had thought about the evils of the society he lived in and disliked some of the results: the injustice and the nationalized poverty imbued in the political structure. Some of his other books cover the same sort of ground, and i liked them more… “Old Mortality” was good and i liked “Kenilworth” a lot. “The Fortunes of Nigel” was excellent, also…