Analysis of Sir Walter Scott’s The Highland Widow

This story by the celebrated Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) first appeared as part of the collection Chronicles of the Canongate. Here, Chrystal Croftangry, the narrator of the collection, retells the widow’s story from the memorandum of a late friend, Martha Bethune Baliol. She herself hears the story from her Highland tour guide, Donald MacLeish. The narrative begins with Mrs. Bethune Baliol’s Highland tour, which climaxes with her encounter with the mysterious “Woman of the Tree,” Elspat MacTavish. Elspat’s husband, the cateran (warrior) Hamish MacTavish, known as MacTavish Mhor, is feared throughout the Highlands and the Lowlands until the failure of the Jacobite rebellion against King George II in 1745; some time thereafter, he is killed. Elspat escapes and raises their son, Hamish Bean, to emulate his father’s life as a cateran. But while she refuses to acknowledge that Scottish ways have forever altered, Hamish realizes that there is no place for a cateran in modern Scottish culture; finally, after much harrying by his mother, he disappears, only to reappear as an enlisted soldier en route to America. For Elspat, this is an unthinkable betrayal: By joining the Black Watch, Hamish has simultaneously accepted the power of the Hanovers and abandoned the old feuds between the MacTavishes and the other Highland clans. But knowing that Hamish fears the scourging that awaits any soldier who deserts, Elspat persuades him to stay with her until his leave is nearly up—then drugs his drink. Too late, Hamish awakens to find that he has, for all intents and purposes, become a deserter; even so, he vows to return and receive his punishment. Once again, Elspat foils him. When Hamish’s sergeant, Allen Breack Cameron, comes to arrest him, Elspat successfully encourages Hamish to shoot him—thereby ensuring his own execution. She desperately seeks to save him from his fate, but all for naught. After hearing of his death, Elspat isolates herself in her grief, refusing to have anything further to do with human society. As her own end approaches, she sneaks past the women asked to watch her and disappears.

Scott first heard this tale from Mrs. Anne Murray Keith and started working on his own version in late May 1826. (He was beginning his desperate attempt to write himself out of £121,000 worth of debt, incurred when the Ballantyne Press collapsed in January of that year.) The first of three stories in The Chronicles of the Canongate: First Series, “The Highland Widow” addresses many themes familiar from Scott’s novels: the intricate cultural clashes of Highland and Lowland Scots, as well as Scots and English; the role of women in creating and maintaining folk traditions; the power of landscape; the psychology of superstition; and, above all, the sad but inevitable collapse of the old ways in the face of modernization. In some ways, the story functions as a sequel to Scott’s Waverley (1814), insofar as it traces the collapse of Highland culture in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion. Bethune Baliol’s Highland tour also partly echoes Waverley’s own educational wanderings across the Scottish landscape. Elspat herself is an especially gloomy version of one of Scott’s female types, ominous, more or less prophetic, and occasionally insane: Other variations on this theme include Meg Merrilies of Guy Mannering (1815), the madwoman Madge Wildfire of The Heart of Midlothian (1818), and Alice Grant of The Bride of Lammermoor (1819). Elspat’s unwillingness or inability to recognize historical change, with tragic results, is yet another of Scott’s frequent preoccupations. As is so often the case, Scott represents historical change as simultaneously inevitable and painful; both Caroline McCracken- Flesher and Graham Tulloch have noted Scott’s ambivalence about English attitudes to Highlanders, which partly precipitate Hamish’s death. If Elspat’s wild yearning for the vanished past comes across as an entirely unviable option, it is not clear that Scotland’s embrace of English ways—as symbolized by the Black Watch—represents something altogether desirable.

Cooney, Seamus. “Scott and Progress: The Tragedy of the ‘Highland Widow,’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 11 (1974): 11–16.
McCracken-Flesher, Caroline. “Pro Matria Mori: Gendered Nationalism and Cultural Death in Scott’s ‘The Highland Widow,’ ” Scottish Literary Journal 21 (1994): 69–78.
Scott, Walter. Chronicles of the Canongate: First Series. Edinburgh: Cadell and Co.; London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1827.
Tulloch, Graham. “Imagery in ‘The Highland Widow,’ ” Studies in Scottish Literature 21 (1986): 147–157.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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