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The Celtic muse in Scott's 'Waverley'

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Article by Christopher Rollason
3rd November 1996

The Celtic Muse in Walter Scott's 'Waverley'

*This article is mainly concerned with the role of Celtic music and song in this novel. However, I have thought it useful to begin with a brief general introduction to the book.*

Sir Walter Scott's first published novel, 'Waverley' (1814; references to the Penguin Classics edition, ed. Andrew Hook, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972) is best known for bestowing its name on Edinburgh's main railway station, and to the whole series of Scott's historical works of fiction, collectively known as the 'Waverley novels'. It narrates the story of Edward Waverley, a young English aristocrat posted to Scotland as an army officer, who becomes caught up in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, in which he sides with the Scottish troops of Prince Charles Stuart, pretender to the British throne, against the ruling house of Hanover.

In other words, the novel is about a civil war in Britain, essentially between the Scots and the English, in which the main character fights on the 'wrong' side: Waverley, despite being a ruling-class Englishman, finds himself, in the remote fastnesses of Scotland, wearing the tartan, listening to Gaelic, and fighting alongside the feudal, archaic Highlanders - 'grim, uncombed and wild' (ch. 44, p. 324) - in a world where the chieftains hold 'patriarchal authority' (ch. 58, p. 399) and the clansmen are bound by 'feudal duty' (ch. 24, p. 188). The novel is written in the third person, but the protagonist may be considered a stand-in for the English or, indeed, non-Scottish reader, gradually inducted by the narrative into a society alien to his or her own time and place. The reader is made aware throughout of the divisions existing in the so-called 'United Kingdom', between Whigs and Tories, Hanoverians and Jacobites, English and Scots; the ancient kingdom of Scotland had been united with England only since 1707 (38 years before the events described, and 107 years before the date of publication), and Scotland was itself geographically, culturally and linguistically divided between the semi-Anglicised Lowlands, whose inhabitants spoke either standard English or the 'Scotch' dialect of English, and the 'backward', Gaelic-speaking Highlands where feudal and clan loyalties still ruled.

'Waverley' thus describes a society likely to appear strange and outlandish to most readers outside Scotland, and, indeed, to Lowland Scots not acquainted with the Highlands. Despite, or because of, this visible strangeness of its subject-matter, the novel proved phenomenally popular on first appearance. It is still of major importance in literary history, for it introduces and classically exemplifies the historical novel in its typical modern form: an imaginary narrative based on actual events, whose characters embrace all ranks of society and include both real historical figures (Charles Stuart) and invented individuals who are nonetheless offered as 'typical' or 'representative' of the period.

One aspect of this novel which may not have received its due attention is Scott's remarkable emphasis, at least in the middle section of the book, on the strength and vitality of traditional Scottish culture, especially folk poetry and music. The presence of such an element is hardly surprising, as Scott's first important literary work was an edition of Scottish folk ballads ('Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border', 1803), which is still regarded as a landmark in the field. The old traditional culture was, in the early nineteenth century, still alive in more than one region of Scotland: Scott himself collected his ballad material from the lands on the English border, and in Ayrshire, also in the Lowlands, Robert Burns (whom Scott quotes in 'Waverley' - ch. 56, p. 388; editor's note, p. 594) helped keep the tradition alive by composing his own songs in the ballad mode. The Gaelic-speaking Highlands were, however, inevitably seen as the ultimate repository and redoubt of Celtic culture.

Curiously, the folk-culture aspect of 'Waverley' is scarcely mentioned by the author in his own prefaces and appendices to the novel, and it may not appear the most obvious facet of a book mostly concerned with warfare and battles. Nonetheless, there is evidence to suggest that exposure to the old Celtic ways plays an important role in Edward Waverley's learning process across the novel.

The narrative may be divided into three sections. Chapters 1 to 7 introduce Edward Waverley, his family background (he is of pure English stock, but an uncle has pro-Stuart sympathies) and early years, and show him embarking on a military career and arriving in Scotland, where he is posted to Dundee; chapters 8 to 39 plunge the young English officer, through a chain of chance circumstances, ever more deeply into Scottish society and the world of Jacobite intrigue; and from chapter 40 on, he has formally committed himself to the service of Prince Charles Stuart, and his individual destiny is subsumed into the larger history of the rebellion of 1745 (the government cause finally prevails at the battle of Culloden; the Prince flees into exile; many of his supporters are hanged, though some, including Waverley, are pardoned). Scott's descriptions of the Celtic popular tradition occur mostly in the middle section, before the outbreak of the rebellion proper, and may be seen as forming part of Waverley's gradual education in things Scottish.

At the beginning of chapter 8, Waverley, who has obtained leave of absence from his regiment, is on his way to visit the Baron of Bradwardine, an old friend of his uncle's whose mansion is just outside Tully-Veolan, a village in the county of Perthshire - in other words, right on the border between the 'civilised' Lowlands and the 'barbaric' Highlands: 'Edward gradually approached the Highlands of Perthshire, which at first had appeared a blue outline in the horizon, but now swelled into high gigantic masses, which frowned defiance over the more level country that lay beneath them. Near the bottom of this stupendous barrier, but still in the Lowland country, dwelt Cosmo Comyne Bradwardine of Bradwardine' (ch. 8, p. 73). The 'stupendous barrier' is not merely physical; it also symbolises the cultural barriers between the Anglicised Lowlands and the Gaelic-speaking Highlands, and the 'frown(ing) defiance' of the hills anticipates the revolt with which their inhabitants will defy the English crown. Waverley's experiences in the middle section of the book are, technically, part in the Highlands, part in the Lowlands; but the situation of Tully-Veolan on 'this Hieland border' (ch. 66, p. 454) suggests that the visitor is, in fact, already coming into the purview of the old Celtic ways.

When Edward enters the grounds of the manor-house at Tully-Veolan, the first human voice he hears is that of a strange individual dressed in motley, singing an 'old Scottish ditty' (ch. 9, p. 82): 'False love, and hast thou played me thus/In summer among the flowers?'. It turns out to be Davie Gellatley, the Baron's fool, jester, or, to use the local term, 'innocent': a villager not completely in his right mind, whom Bradwardine has nonetheless adopted as his personal servant, and who compensates for his defects with 'a prodigious memory, and an ear for music' (ch. 12, p. 105), and an immense repertory of traditional songs, which he sings incessantly. Scott refers in his notes to the survival in Scotland of 'the ancient and established custom of keeping fools' (ch. 9, p. 85n), and identifies 'False love' as 'a genuine ancient fragment' (p. 82n). Davie, 'half-crazed simpleton' (ch. 12, p. 105) though he may be, is also a custodian of the collective memory, and what Waverley calls his 'scraps of minstrelsy' (ch. 63, p. 435) are not such scraps after all (several examples are carefully and copiously quoted). Indeed, the fool's 'minstrelsy' in a sense parallels, in a spontaneous and unintellectual form, Scott's own more conscious activity of collecting and preserving the 'minstrelsy of the Scottish border'. The Baron's 'innocent' has a Shakespearean dignity, his ditties at times recalling the Fool in 'King Lear' or the 'melodious lay' of the crazed Ophelia. His old mother (herself suspected by some of being a witch) declares: 'Davie's no just like other folk, puir fallow; but he's no sae silly as folk tak him for' (ch. 64, p. 440); and near the end, when the manor-house has been plundered and pillaged by the English troops and reduced to an apparently irrecuperable ruin, Edward identifies Davie's tones among the wreckage: 'Amid these general marks of ravage ... he heard a voice from the interior of the building singing, in well-remembered accents, an old Scottish song:
" They came upon us in the night/And brake my bower, and slew my knight ... " ' (ch. 63, p. 435). As it turns out, the fool and his mother are instrumental in saving their master's life, keeping him in concealment till a pardon reaches him. The figure of Davie singing amid the ruins bears witness to the strength and tenacity of the popular tradition which he and his songs embody.

Waverley's residence at the Baron's gradually leads him to discover the Highlands proper. One and another circumstance brings him, first to visit the cave of Donald Bean Lean, a freebooting robber, and then to accept the hospitality of the Jacobite chieftain Fergus, head of the MacIvor clan. These adventures are accompanied by music and song. In the robber's lair, the young Englishman is served breakfast by his host's daughter Alice, 'the damsel of the cavern', who wakes him with 'a lively Gaelic song' which she sings as she prepares 'milk, eggs, barley-bread, fresh butter and honey-comb' for the guest (ch. 18, p. 145). This suggests she is singing a work-song, and that music is, as is the case in traditional communities, an integral part of the pulse and rhythms of daily life. At Fergus MacIvor's castle, the military exercises of the clansmen are conducted 'to the sounds of the great war-bagpipe' (ch. 19, p. 161), while the ceremonial dinner that follows, in the great hall, is also enlivened by three bagpipers (ch. 20, p. 164). The Highland feast terminates with a formal address from Fergus' resident 'bhairdh' or bard, one MacMurrough, who 'began to chant, with low and rapid utterance, a profusion of Celtic verses', later rising into 'wild and impassioned notes, accompanied with appropriate gestures' (p. 165). His Gaelic chant acts as an expression of group solidarity, and communicates itself as such to his audience: 'Their wind and sun-burnt countenances assumed a fiercer and more animated expression; all bent forward towards the reciter, many sprung up and waved their arms in ecstasy, and some laid their hands on their swords' (p. 166). The bard is, like the fool, a still-alive archaic figure; both, in their different ways, express through song the collective consciousness of their ancient societies.

The musical high-point of the novel occurs in chapters 21 and 22, which introduce the chieftain's sister, Flora MacIvor, as the Celtic musician par excellence. Flora, though a Highlander, has been educated in Paris, and blends native awareness of the tradition with a more intellectual and sophisticated attitude to it: the reader is told that she had studied 'the music and poetical traditions of the Highlanders', carrying out 'researches' and 'inquiries' in a conscious, organised fashion which seems to parallel Scott's own study of the Border ballads (ch. 21, p. 169). It is, accordingly, under the sign of music that her brother Fergus introduces her to Edward: 'Captain Waverley is a worshipper of the Celtic muse; ... I have told him you are eminent as a translator of Highland poetry' (ch. 22, pp. 171-172). Flora informs the guest that 'the recitation of poems ... forms the chief amusement of a winter fireside in the Highlands', and that bards such as MacMurrough are 'the poets and historians of their tribes'. She also pays tribute to the musicality of Gaelic: 'The Gaelic language, being uncommonly vocalic, is well adapted for sudden and extemporaneous poetry' (p. 173). That evening after dinner, she invites the English visitor, in the company of her attendant Cathleen, to a secluded glen in the castle grounds, where, by the side of a waterfall, she sings a 'lofty ... Highland air' to him, in English translation, accompanying herself on the harp and allowing her song to blend with the sounds of the cascade. Flora declares: 'To speak in the poetical language of my country, the seat of the Celtic muse is in the mist of the secret and solitary hill, and her voice is in the murmur of the mountain stream' (p. 177). Waverley is overcome by 'a wild feeling of romantic delight', at her strains 'which harmonised well with the distant waterfall, and the soft sigh of the evening breeze in the rustling leaves of an aspen' (pp. 177-178). Flora's woodland performance images an archaic world where music and song are integrated into nature.

After this episode, Waverley, not unsurprisingly, falls in love with the fair Celtic harpist. However, she rejects his suit, and he is soon caught up in the chain of occurrences which will push him away from this romantic Highland refuge into the thick of rebellion and war. The musical references of the novel's third section, which narrates these rougher and harsher events, are noticeably much fewer. They are also more superficial, relating as they do, significantly, mainly to the Lowlands or to the British. Thus, on the road to Falkirk a Lowland lieutenant 'whistled the Bob of Dumblain' - a tune which the narrator neither describes nor quotes (ch. 39, p. 287); a party of Lowlanders is heralded by 'a kind of rub-a-dub-dub' or 'inoffensive row-de-dow' on the drums (ch. 34, p. 264); an English soldier whistles 'the tune of Nancy Dawson' (ch. 38, p. 282); the English cavalry are announced by 'the unwelcome noise of kettle-drums and trumpets' (ch. 60, p. 410). The earlier poetry and depth of musical allusion has disappeared, and does not return till Davie Gellatley the fool comes back into the novel near the end.

The Jacobite rebellion is, of course, finally defeated by the English. Fergus MacIvor is hanged, and Flora leaves Britain forever for a French convent; the lives of Waverley and the Baron of Bradwardine hang in the balance until both are in the end pardoned and young Edward marries the Baron's daughter Rose. There is no evidence, either internal or external, to suggest that Scott actually favoured the Jacobite cause or the '45 rebellion. The 'unfortunate civil war' (ch. 71, p. 489) is seen as a forlorn attempt in a lost cause; at the same time, however, Scott gives full credit and due to the courage and devotion of the Jacobite leaders and their troops to a belief-system with which he obviously does not agree himself. His protagonist, near the end, reaches the conclusion that the only rational hope for the future is that 'it might never again be his lot to draw his sword in civil conflict' (ch. 60, p. 415).

It is, nonetheless, amply clear from the novel as a whole that Scott wished his English readers to take Scottish culture seriously, and to value and respect the passionate, heroic qualities of the Celtic nation. At a number of points in the narrative, English prejudices against things Scottish are exposed as being empty and stereotyped. Colonel Talbot, an English officer whose life Waverley saves, speaks contemptuously of 'this miserable country', and is described by the narrator as being 'tinged ... with those prejudices which are peculiarly English' (ch. 52, p. 366); he calls the Gaelic language 'gibberish', adding for good measure that 'even the Lowlanders talk a kind of English little better than the negroes in Jamaica' (ch. 56, p. 387). Scott's own sympathies are clearly, by contrast, with the Highland ladies and friends of Flora's who declare Gaelic to be more 'liquid' and better 'adapted for poetry' than Italian (ch. 54, p. 377). As an alternative to national antagonisms, Waverley's marriage to Rose Bradwardine may be seen as symbolizing a certain Anglo-Scottish convergence, a mutual recognition of cultural value on both sides of the divide.

Music and poetry emerge from 'Waverley' as essential elements of that traditional Celtic society whose dignity and originality Scott's novel clearly defends, at least in cultural terms. Scott was, of course, more than familiar with the specific musical and poetic traditions of the Lowlands, as is clear from his ballad studies or from a later novel like 'The Bride of Lammermoor'. However, he chose in 'Waverley' to associate the Celtic muse with the Highlands and their hinterland, as symbolizing all that was most classically and irremediably Scottish. In this traditional society, music and poetry are integrated with daily life and work, and make up a tissue of folk history; and Scott's first novel offers the reader memorable images of this archaic but holistic view of the world, through the ancient, archetypal figures of Fool, Bard and Harpist.

Christopher Rollason

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