The Brownie of Bodsbeck by James Hogg

Edited by Douglas S Mack, Scottish Academic Press, 1976, 170 p; plus i p Acknowledgements, xi p Introduction, viii p Notes on the Text, x p Appendices, i p Select Bibliography, xvi p Explanatory and Textual Notes and xvii p Glossary. First published 1818.

 The Brownie of Bodsbeck  cover

The novel is set in Hogg’s country of southwest Scotland, the Dumfries and Galloway of Covenanting times, some years after the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. The defeated Covenanters were forced to scatter and hide, holding their prayer meetings in conventicles and taking cover where they might, in danger of being chased down by Government trooops. At times the air was filled with the eery sound of their singing as if some unnatural creature were haunting the hills.

Despite not being of their persuasion and of the concomitant danger of arrest and execution, Walter Laidlaw, a farmer at Chapelhope, takes to giving some of the fugitives succour and shelter. As a result of her ministrations in this regard his daughter Katharine is in danger of being thought – even by her mother – a witch, and of consorting with the Brownie of Bodsbeck, a deformed supernatural creature believed to haunt Chapelhope. In the glossary a brownie is defined as a “benevolent household sprite, usually shaggy and of peculiar shape, who haunted houses, particularly farmhouses, and, if the servants treated him well, performed many tasks of drudgery for them while they were asleep.” (I mentioned this definition to the good lady who immediately reflected on how this assignation of drudgery to the name conformed with the junior arm of the Girl Guides.) The brownie is alternatively described as a goblin or evil spirit.

The plot gears up when soldiers under the commend of John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount (“Bonnie”) Dundee, come to the area. Laidlaw is arrested, barely escapes being shot and is taken to Edinburgh for trial. In the meantime a local minister convinces Katharine’s mother to allow him to spend the night with the girl in the farm’s outshot to exorcise the evil she is thought to embody and not to open the door no matter what she might hear. (The only evil truly at hand is the minister’s intention of forcing himself on Katharine.) Katharine persuades him to hold off for a few hours and is rescued by apparitions coming out of the dark.

The behaviour and attitude of Claverhouse as shown here place him in a harsh, unforgiving light, a point over which he clashed with Walter Scott, but are in accord with Hogg’s memories of the stories told to him in his youth about the time.

The text is in the main in English but Hogg’s characters speak broad Scots, laden with the dialect of that area of the Borders. A difficulty in comprehension some may find is that a Highland sergeant’s soft sibilants are represented as in “pe” (for “be,”) “poy” (for “boy”) and “petween” (for “between”) plus the typical aspirations of his vowels are delightfully captured as in “couhnsel” for “counsel” and “tisgrhace” for disgrace.

The glossary is worth perusing on its own. Old Scots was a language very much concerned with agriculture and the land. I had heard of the dog breed whose name is derived from the fictional character in Scott’s Guy Mannering but hadn’t realised before reading it here that a dinmont is a castrated ram between the first and second shearing. (I later found a similar definition – but without the castrated bit – in my Chambers’ Dictionary.)

Hogg’s greatest literary accomplishment was The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which is perhaps the finest ever Scottish novel, the progenitor of so many since. It would be hard for this book – any book – to hold a candle to that.

However, The Brownie of Bodsbeck is entertaining enough – one of those Scots novels that illuminate the past – and refreshing in that it does not focus on the usual suspect of Jacobitism. At times, though, it feels like two stories jammed together. Laidlaw’s tribulations are distinct from those of Katharine and the Brownie and the two don’t really mesh.

Pedant’s corner:- Clavers’ (Clavers’s,) wofully (old spelling but later rendered as woefully,) “the family were crowded round” (the family was.) In the glossary: an opened parenthesis never closed.

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