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of My Landlord, First Series)
First Edition, First Impression:
Tales of My Landlord. Collected and Arranged
by Jedediah Cleishbotham, Schoolmaster and Parish-clerk of Gandercleugh.
In Four Volumes. Vol. I (II-IV). Edinburgh: Printed for William
Blackwood, Prince's Street: and John Murray, Albemarle Street,
Composition | Synopsis | Reception | Links
Old Mortality was conceived as the second
volume of Tales of My Landlord,
which was originally to consist of four volumes each containing
a separate regional tale. As the 'tale of the West' took hold of
Scott's imagination, however, it expanded to fill
three volumes, the standard length for a novel.
|Having completed The
Black Dwarf, the first volume of the Tales,
somewhat behind schedule in August 1816, Scott began work
on Old Mortality in early September. It appears
that the novel originated in a suggestion from Scott's
antiquarian friend Joseph Train that he relate the anti-Covenanting
campaign of James Graham of Claverhouse as if from the
lips of 'Old Mortality', an old man that both had encountered
repairing the tombs of the Covenanters in Dunnottar Kirkyard.
'Old Mortality' indeed figures in the novel as the original
source of the landlord's story, thus adding one more layer
to the already dense framing narrative (see Tales
of My Landlord). His memory jolted and imagination
fired, Scott completed the volume at great speed, penning
the last lines in early November 1816.
For Waverley Scott had relied
heavily on living testimony from veterans and witnesses of the
'Forty-five'. For Old Mortality, Scott relied on his own
extensive knowledge of 17th-century historical sources, on contemporary
pamphlets, and on oral traditions. Scott had a long-standing interest
in the civil and ecclesiastical conflicts of the 17th century.
He had included ballads describing the battles of the Covenanting
period in the second volume of his Minstrelsy
of the Scottish Border. His introduction and notes to
those ballads provide a miniature history of the period and evidence
that he was already a master of his sources.
Scott's descriptions of Lanarkshire derive largely from a visit
to Bothwell Castle, seat of Archibald Lord Douglas, in autumn 1799,
which had included an excursion to the ruins of Craignethan Castle.
Elements of both buildings are combined to construct the Castle
of Tillietudlem in Old Mortality. Scott made further visits
to Lanarkshire in 1801 (as a guest at Hamilton Palace) and in summer
Old Mortality was published together with The Black
Dwarf on December 2 1816. The printing process saw an unintended
alteration to the title of the novel. Scott's manuscript indicates
that it was originally to be called The Tale of Old Mortality,
indicating that 'Old Mortality' was the source rather than the
subject of the tale. Through a misunderstanding or oversight
at Ballantyne's printing
office, the title was abbreviated. The full-length title was
restored in Douglas Mack's recent Edinburgh Edition of the novel
(Edinburgh University Press, 1993).
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Old Mortality is set in 1679 against the backdrop of
the military campaign waged by John Graham of Claverhouse's government
forces against a Covenanting army. The Covenanters had risen against
Charles II in protest against the reintroduction of Episcopalian
church government. This had led to the destitution of around 270
ministers, mainly in the West of Scotland, who had refused to
take an oath of allegiance, to accept presentation to their charges
by lay patrons, to submit themselves to bishops, and to recognize
holy days. The expelled ministers retained the loyalty of many
of their parishioners and continued to conduct worship in remote
country spots. The attempt to break up these conventicles by military
force and continued persecution of the Covenanters led to open
The hero, Henry Morton of Milnwood, a moderate Presbyterian, is
arrested by Claverhouse's troops for harbouring John Balfour of Burley, a Covenanting friend of his father. Unknown to Morton,
Burley has participated in the murder of Archbishop Sharpe of St.
Andrews (hated by the Covenanters for deserting their cause and
aiding the restoration of Episcopalianism), the event which triggered
the uprising. Morton is sentenced to death but is saved through
the intervention of Lord Evandale, his friend and rival for the
hand of Edith Bellenden. Incensed by the oppressive behaviour of
the government forces, Morton makes common cause with the Covenanters
and becomes one of their military leaders, exerting a moderating
influence and striving to check the cruel fanaticism of many of
his colleagues. He repays Evandale's favour by twice saving his
life, thus preserving the affection of the Royalist Edith. When
the Covenanters are finally defeated at Bothwell Bridge, Evandale
again intercedes to limit Morton's sentence to exile. He enters
the service of William of Orange, rises to the rank of major-general,
and after the Revolution of 1688, returns to Scotland. He learns
that Edith, believing him dead, is on the verge of marrying Evandale.
Resolving not to interfere with their marriage, he remains incognito.
He discovers, though, that Evandale's life is threatened by Frank
Inglis, a fanatical persecutor of Covenanters punished by Evandale
for mutiny. Morton rides to Evandale's rescue but is unable to
prevent him being murdered in an ambush. With his dying words,
Evandale blesses the union of Morton and Edith.
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So sure was the bookseller John Murray of the success of the Tales,
that he ordered a second edition before the first went on sale.
Within six weeks both editions were exhausted and a third in the
press. Commercial success was matched by critical approval. Many
reviewers echoed Scott's own judgment, that while The Black
Dwarf re-trod familiar ground, Old Mortality was 'the
best I have yet been able to execute' (letter to Lady Louisa Stuart,
14 November 1816). In some quarters, though, Scott was accused
of caricaturing the Covenanters and whitewashing the Royalists.
In particular, the distinguished Presbyterian church historian
Thomas M'Crie sought to vindicate the character of the Covenanters
in his review in the Edinburgh Christian Instructor. His
views were echoed in the British Review and Eclectic
Review but refuted by Scott himself who anonymously reviewed
his own novel in the Quarterly Review. Here Scott proclaimed
himself suspicious of 'that very susceptible devotion which so
readily takes offense' and argued that 'such men should not read
books of amusement'. On the whole, Scott's attempts to mystify
public and reviewers as to the authorship of the new volume proved
a failure, as it was widely perceived to have been written in the
style of the 'Author of Waverley'.
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Last updated: 19-Dec-2011
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