Oxford World’s Classics, 2008, 505 p including advertisement to the first edition, author’s introduction, postscript, Scott’s notes, editor’s notes and glossary + xl p acknowledgements, introduction, note on the text, select bibliography, a chronology of Sir Walter Scott and a map of Rob Roy’s Country.
One of the 100 best Scottish Books
Well, this is odd. The book’s title is Rob Roy and while that gentleman does appear within it it is not until over 100 pages in that he first crops up and even then his name is not revealed as such. The narration is in the first person by one Francis (Frank) Osbaldistone, son of a self-made man in London, who has been disowned by his father for not going into the family business and banished to the ancestral home in Northumberland. It is on the journey north that Frank encounters a certain Mr Campbell as well as a Mr Morris who is over protective of the contents of his luggage.
At Osbaldistone Hall (whose inhabitants, unlike the proud Protestant Frank, are all, barring their Scottish gardener, Andrew Fairservice, Catholics) Frank meets and falls under the spell of the unconventional Diana Vernon, the niece of his uncle Sir Hildebrand, and encounters the villain of the piece, his cousin Rashleigh. Both contrive to save Frank from the charge of robbing Mr Morris by enlisting the aid of Mr Campbell. At the Hall Frank notices unusual goings-on at night but his deference to Diana ensures he does not inquire into their nature too closely.
After some longueurs at the Hall the plot kicks into gear when news reaches Frank of the potential ruin of his father which requires he travel to Glasgow to enlist the help of his father’s trading partners to recover sums of money Rashleigh has spirited away. Here he again encounters Mr Campbell, whose true nature as Rob Roy is finally revealed. Bailie Nicol Jarvie also becomes his travelling companion as they venture into the Southern Highlands where various perils to do with the planning and thwarting of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion are surmounted. During these, Rob Roy’s wife, Helen MacGregor, is presented as a fearsome creature (one of Scott’s notes suggests she had good reason to be so) and the Highlanders as some sort of equivalent of North American natives.
Even in all this Rob Roy still appears almost peripherally and as a character fails to spring to life. Another oddness is that Frank’s agency throughout the tale is limited to that of onlooker. (Spoilers follow.) Frank’s success in his quest to recover his father’s fortune owes more to Diana Vernon and Rob Roy than his own efforts and his father turns out in any case to have all but made good his reverses himself. In the latter stages of the book a quite frankly (ahem) ridiculous combination of circumstances sees all obstacles to Frank’s future fortunes and happiness removed. This is all carried through with a degree of prolixity in the prose which may be typical of early nineteenth century novels in general and Scott in particular but presents something of a barrier to modern readers. Perseverance reduces that problem, though.
Scott’s status as the begetter of the historical novel as a genre is founded on tales such as this and Kurt Wittig regarded him, along with Robert Burns, as at the high water mark of Scottish literature.
Pedant’s corner:- In Ian Duncan’s introduction: premiss (I prefer premise.) Otherwise: stupified (stupefied,) “domini regis” followed immediately by “Damn dominie regis” (one or the other spelling of domini surely?) acquaintance’ (acquaintance’s) and the archaic spellings dulness, tædium, sate (though sat appeared once,) Bagdad, fagots (faggotts,) winded (wound,) jailor (or is this a conflation of jailer and gaolor?) Bucklivie (Buchlyvie,) and Aberfoil (Aberfoyle.) Sprung, sunk and rung were used consistently where sprang, sank and rang are the modern usages.