The Antiquary

Editor’s Introduction to The Antiquary

Walter Scott

“THE ANTIQUARY” was begun in 1815; the bargain for its publication by Constable was made in the October of that year. On December 22 Scott wrote to Morritt: “I shall set myself seriously to ‘The Antiquary,’ of which I have only a very general sketch at present; but when once I get my pen to the paper it will walk fast enough. I am sometimes tempted to leave it alone, and try whether it will not write as well without the assistance of my head as with it,—a hopeful prospect for the reader!” It is amazing enough that he even constructed “a general sketch,” for to such sketches he confesses that he never could keep constant. “I have generally written to the middle of one of these novels without having the least idea how it was to end,—in short, in the hab nab at a venture style of composition” (Journal, Feb. 24, 1828). Yet it is almost impossible but that the plot of “The Antiquary” should have been duly considered. Scott must have known from the first who Lovel was to turn out to be, and must have recognised in the hapless bride of Lord Glenallan the object of the Antiquary’s solitary and unfortunate passion. To introduce another Wandering Heir immediately after the Harry Bertram of “Guy Mannering” was rather audacious. But that old favourite, the Lost Heir, is nearly certain to be popular. For the Antiquary’s immortal sorrow Scott had a model in his own experience. “What a romance to tell!—and told, I fear, it will one day be. And then my three years of dreaming and my two years of wakening will be chronicled doubtless. But the dead will feel no pain.” The dead, as Aristotle says, if they care for such things at all, care no more than we do for what has passed in a dream.

The general sketch probably began to take full shape about the last day of 1815. On December 29 Scott wrote to Ballantyne:—

        I’ve done, thank God, with the long yarns
            Of the most prosy of Apostles—Paul,1
        And now advance, sweet heathen of Monkbarns,
            Step out, old quizz, as fast as I can scrawl.

In “The Antiquary” Scott had a subject thoroughly to his mind. He had been an antiquary from his childhood. His earliest pence had been devoted to that collection of printed ballads which is still at Abbotsford. These he mentions in the unfinished fragment of his “Reliquiae Trotcosienses,” in much the same words as in his manuscript note on one of the seven volumes.

“This little collection of Stall tracts and ballads was formed by me, when a boy, from the baskets of the travelling pedlars. Until put into its present decent binding it had such charms for the servants that it was repeatedly, and with difficulty, recovered from their clutches. It contains most of the pieces that were popular about thirty years since, and, I dare say, many that could not now be procured for any price (1810).”

Nor did he collect only—

“The rare melody of some old ditties
That first were sung to please King Pepin’s cradle.

“Walter had soon begun to gather out-of-the-way things of all sorts. He had more books than shelves [sic]; a small painted cabinet with Scotch and Roman coins in it, and so forth. A claymore and Lochaber axe, given him by old Invernahyle, mounted guard on a little print of Prince Charlie; and Broughton’s Saucer was hooked up on the wall below it.”

He had entered literature through the ruined gateway of archleology, in the “Border Minstrelsy,” and his last project was an edition of Perrault’s “Contes de Ma Mere l’Oie.” As pleasant to him as the purchase of new lands like Turn Again, bought dearly, as in Monkbarns’s case, from “bonnet lauds,” was a fresh acquisition of an old book or of old armour. Yet, with all his enthusiasm, he did not please the antiquaries of his own day. George Chalmers, in Constable’s “Life and Correspondence” (i. 431), sneers at his want of learning. “His notes are loose and unlearned, as they generally are.” Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, his friend in life, disported himself in jealous and ribald mockery of Scott’s archaeological knowledge, when Scott was dead. In a letter of the enigmatic Thomas Allen, or James Stuart Hay, father of John Sobieski and Charles Edward Stuart, this mysterious person avers that he never knew Scott’s opinion to be held as of any value by antiquaries (1829). They probably missed in him “a sort of pettifogging intimacy with dates, names, and trifling matters of fact,—a tiresome and frivolous accuracy of memory” which Sir Arthur Wardour reproves in Monkbarns. Scott, in brief, was not as Dry-as-dust; all the dead bones that he touches come to life. He was as great an archeologist as a poet can be, and, with Virgil, was the greatest antiquary among poets. Like Monkbarns, he was not incapable of being beguiled. As Oldbuck bought the bodle from the pedlar at the price of a rare coin, so Scott took Surtees’s “Barthram’s Dirge,” and his Latin legend of the tourney with the spectre knight, for genuine antiquities. No Edie Ochiltree ever revealed to him the truth about these forgeries, and the spectre knight, with the ballad of “Anthony Featherstonhaugh,” hold their own in “Marmion,” to assure the world that this antiquary was gullible when the sleight was practised by a friend. “Non est tanti,” he would have said, had he learned the truth; for he was ever conscious of the humorous side of the study of the mouldering past. “I do not know anything which relieves the mind so much from the sullens as a trifling discourse about antiquarian oldwomanries. It is like knitting a stocking,—diverting the mind without occupying it.” (“Journal,” March 9, 1828).

Begun about Jan. 1, 1816, “The Antiquary” was published before May 16, 1816, when Scott writes to say that he has sent Mr. Morritt the novel “some time since.” “It is not so interesting as its predecessors; the period does not admit of so much romantic situation. But it has been more fortunate than any of them in the sale, for six thousand went off in the first six days, and it is now at press again.” The Preface of the first edition ends with the melancholy statement that the author “takes his respectful leave, as one who is not likely again to solicit favour.” Apparently Scott had already determined not to announce his next novels (“The Black Dwarf” and “Old Mortality”) as “by the Author of Waverley.” Mr. Constable, in the biography of his father, says (iii. 84): “Even before the publication of ‘The Antiquary,’ John Ballantyne had been impowered by the Author to negotiate with Mr. Murray and Mr. Blackwood for the first series of the ‘Tales of my Landlord.’” The note of withdrawal from the stage, in the first edition of “The Antiquary,” was probably only a part of another experiment on public sagacity. As Lockhart says, Mr. Murray and Mr. Blackwood thought that the consequent absence of the Author of “Waverley’s” name from the “Tales of my Landlord” would “check very much the first success of the book;” but they risked this, “to disturb Constable’s tenure.”

Scott’s temporary desertion of Constable in the “Tales of my Landlord” may have had various motives. There was a slight grudge against Constable, born of some complications of the Ballantynes’ affairs. Perhaps the mere amusement of the experiment on public sagacity was one of the more powerful reasons for the change. In our day Lord Lytton and Mr. Trollope made similar trials of their popularity when anonymous, the former author with the greater success. The idea of these masquerades and veils of the incognito appears to have bewitched Constable. William Godwin was writing for him his novel “Mandeville,” and Godwin had obviously been counselled to try a disguise. He says (Jan. 30, 1816) “I have amused my imagination a thousand times since last we parted with the masquerade you devised for me. The world is full of wonder. An old favourite is always reviewed with coldness. . . . ‘Pooh,’ they say; ‘Godwin has worn his pen to the stump!’ . . . But let me once be equipped with a significant mask and an unknown character from your masquerade shop, and admitted to figure in with the ‘Last Minstrel,’ the ‘Lady of the Lake,’ and ‘Guy Mannering’ in the Scottish carnival, Gods! how the boys and girls will admire me! ‘Here is a new wonder!’ they will say. ‘Ah, this is something like! Here is Godwin beaten on his own ground . . . Here is for once a Scottish writer that they cannot say has anything of the Scotchman about him.’”

However, Mr. Godwin did not don the mask and domino. “Mandeville” came out about the same time as “Rob Roy;” but the “craziness of the public” for the Author of “Waverley” was not changed into a passion for the father-in-law of Shelley.

“’The Antiquary,’ after a little pause of hesitation, attained popularity not inferior to ‘Guy Mannering,’ and though the author appears for a moment to have shared the doubts which he read in the countenance of James Ballantyne, it certainly was, in the sequel, his chief favourite among all his novels.”

As Scott said to Terry, “If a man will paint from nature, he will be likely to amuse those who are daily looking at it.” The years which saw the first appearance of “Guy Mannering” also witnessed that of “Emma.” By the singular chance, or law, which links great authors closely in time, giving us novelists in pairs, Miss Austen was “drawing from nature” at the very moment when Scott was wedding nature with romance. How generously and wisely he admired her is familiar, and it may, to some, seem curious that he never deliberately set himself to a picture of ordinary life, free from the intrusion of the unusual, of the heroic. Once, looking down at the village which lies on the Tweed, opposite Melrose, he remarked that under its roofs tragedies and tales were doubtless being lived. ‘I undertake to say there is some real romance at this moment going on down there, that, if it could have justice done to it, would be well worth all the fiction that was ever spun out of human brains.’ But the example he gave was terrible,—“anything more dreadful was never conceived by Crabbe;” yet, adds Lockhart, “it would never have entered into his head to elaborate such a tale.” He could not dwell in the unbroken gloom dear to some modern malingerers. But he could easily have made a tale of common Scotch life, dark with the sorrow of Mucklebackit, and bright with the mirth of Cuddie Headrigg. There was, however, this difficulty,—that Scott cared not to write a story of a single class. “From the peer to the ploughman,” all society mingles in each of his novels. A fiction of middle-class life did not allure him, and he was not at the best, but at his worst, as Sydney Smith observed, in the light talk of society. He could admire Miss Austen, and read her novels again and again; but had he attempted to follow her, by way of variety, then inevitably wild as well as disciplined humour would have kept breaking in, and his fancy would have wandered like the old knights of Arthur’s Court, “at adventure.” “St. Ronan’s Well” proved the truth of all this. Thus it happens that, in “The Antiquary,” with all his sympathy for the people, with all his knowledge of them, he does not confine himself to their cottages. As Lockhart says, in his admirable piece of criticism, he preferred to choose topics in which he could display “his highest art, that of skilful contrast.”

Even the tragic romance of “Waverley” does not set off its Macwheebles and Callum Begs better than the oddities of Jonathan Oldbuck and his circle are relieved, on the one hand by the stately gloom of the Glenallans, on the other by the stern affliction of the poor fisherman, who, when discovered repairing “the auld black bitch of a boat,” in which his boy had been lost, and congratulated by his visitors on being capable of the exertion, makes answer, “And what would you have me to do, unless I wanted to see four children starve, because one is drowned? It ‘s weel with you gentles, that can sit in the house with handkerchers at your een, when ye lose a friend; but the like o’ us maun to our work again, if our hearts were beating as hard as ony hammer.” And to his work again Scott had to go when he lost the partner of his life.

The simple unsought charm which Lockhart notes in “The Antiquary” may have passed away in later works, when what had been the amusement of happy days became the task of sadness. But this magic “The Antiquary” keeps perhaps beyond all its companions,—the magic of pleasant memories and friendly associations. The sketches of the epoch of expected invasion, with its patriotic musters and volunteer drillings, are pictures out of that part in the author’s life which, with his early Highland wanderings (“Waverley”) and his Liddesdale raids (“Guy Mannering”), was most dear to him. In “Redgauntlet” again, he makes, as Alan Fairford, a return on his youth and his home, and in “Rob Roy” he revives his Highland recollections, his Highland lairds of “the blawing, bleezing stories.” None of the rest of the tales are so intimate in their connection with Scott’s own personal history. “The Antiquary” has always, therefore, been held in the very first rank of his novels.

As far as plot goes, though Godwin denied that it had any story, “The Antiquary” may be placed among the most careful. The underplot of the Glenallans, gloomy almost beyond endurance, is very ingeniously made to unravel the mystery of Lovel. The other side-narrative, that of Dousterswivel, is the weak point of the whole; but this Scott justifies by “very late instances of the force of superstitious credulity, to a much greater extent.” Some occurrence of the hour may have suggested the knavish adept with his divining-rod. But facts are never a real excuse for the morally incredible, or all but incredible, in fiction. On the wealth and vraisemblance and variety of character it were superfluous to dilate. As in Shakspeare, there is not even a minor person but lives and is of flesh and blood, if we except, perhaps, Dousterswivel and Sir Arthur Wardour. Sir Arthur is only Sir Robert Hazlewood over again, with a slightly different folly and a somewhat more amiable nature. Lovel’s place, as usual, is among the shades of heroes, and his love-affair is far less moving, far more summarily treated, than that of Jenny Caxon. The skilful contrasts are perhaps most remarkable when we compare Elspeth of the Burnfoot with the gossiping old women in the post-office at Fairport,—a town studied perhaps from Arbroath. It was the opinion of Sydney Smith that every one of the novels, before “The Fortunes of Nigel,” contained a Meg Merrilies and a Dominie Sampson. He may have recognized a male Meg in Edie Ochiltree,—the invaluable character who is always behind a wall, always overhears everything, and holds the threads of the plot. Or he may have been hypercritical enough to think that Elspeth of the Burnfoot is the Meg of the romance. Few will agree with him that Meg Merrilies, in either of these cases, is “good, but good too often.”

The supposed “originals” of certain persons in the tale have been topics of discussion. The character of Oldbuck, like most characters in fiction, is a combination of traits observed in various persons. Scott says, in a note to the Ashiestiel fragment of Autobiography, that Mr. George Constable, an old friend of his father’s, “had many of those peculiarities of character which long afterwards I tried to develop in the character of Jonathan Oldbuck.” Sir Walter, when a child, made Mr. Constable’s acquaintance at Prestonpans in 1777, where he explored the battle-field “under the learned guidance of Dalgetty.” Mr. Constable first introduced him to Shakspeare’s plays, and gave him his first German dictionary. Other traits may have been suggested by John Clerk of Eldin, whose grandfather was the hero of the story “Praetorian here, Praetorian there, I made it wi’ a flaughter spade.” Lockhart is no doubt right in thinking that Oldbuck is partly a caricature of Oldbuck’s creator,—Sir Walter indeed frankly accepted the kinship; and the book which he began on his own collection he proposed to style “Reliquim Trotcosienses; or, the Gabions of Jonathan Oldbuck.”

Another person who added a few points to Oldbuck was “Sandy Gordon,” author of the “Itinerarium Septentrionale” (1726), the very folio which Monkbarns carried in the dilatory coach to Queensferry. Gordon had been a student in the University of Aberdeen; he was an amateur in many arts, but antiquarianism was his favourite hobby. He was an acquaintance of Sir John Clerk of Eldin, the hero of the Praetorium. The words of Gordon in his “Itinerarium,” where he describes the battle of the Grampians, have supplied, or suggested, the speech of Monkbarns at the Kaim of Kinprunes. The great question was, Where is the Mons Grampius of Tacitus? Dismissing Camden’s Grantsbain, because he does not know where it is, Gordon says, “As for our Scotch Antiquaries, they are so divided that some will have it to be in the shire of Angus, or in the Mearns, some at the Blair of Athol in Perthshire, or Ardoch in Strathallan, and others at Inverpeffery.” Gordon votes for Strathern, “half a mile short of the Kirk of Comrie.” This spot is both at the foot of the Montes Grampii, “and boasts a Roman camp capable of holding an army fit to encounter so formidable a number as thirty thousand Caledonians. . . . Here is the Porta Decumana, opposite the Prcetoria, together with the dextra and sinistra gates,” all discovered by Sandy Gordon. “Moreover, the situation of the ground is so very exact with the description given by Tacitus, that in all my travels through Britain I never beheld anything with more pleasure. . . . Nor is it difficult, in viewing this ground, to say where the Covinarii, or Charioteers, stood. In fine, to an Antiquary, this is a ravishing scene.” He adds the argument “that Galgacus’s name still remains on this ground, for the moor on which the camp stood is called to this day Galdachan, or Galgachan Rosmoor.” All this lore Gordon illustrates by an immense chart of a camp, and a picture of very small Montes Grampii, about the size and shape of buns. The plate is dedicated to his excellency General Wade.

In another point Monkbapns borrows from Gordon. Sandy has a plate (page 20) of “The Roman Sacellum of Mars Signifer, vulgarly called ‘Arthur’s Oon.’ With regard to its shape, it is not unlike the famous Pantheon at Rome before the noble Portico was added to it by Marcus Agrippa.” Gordon agrees with Stukeley in attributing Arthur’s Oon to Agricola, and here Monkbarns and Lovel adopt almost his words. “Time has left Julius Agricola’s very name on the place; . . . and if ever those initial letters J. A. M. P. M. P. T., mentioned by Sir Robert Sibbald, were engraven on a stone in this building, it may not be reckoned altogether absurd that they should bear this reading, JULIUS AGRICOLA MAGNUS PIETATIS MONUMENTUM POSUIT TEMPLUM; but this my reader may either accept or reject as he pleases. However, I think it may be as probably received as that inscription on Caligula’s Pharos in Holland, which having these following letters, C. C. P. F., is read Caius Caligula Pharum Fecit.” “This,” Monkbarns adds, “has ever been recorded as a sound exposition.”

The character of Edie Ochiltree, Scott himself avers to have been suggested by Andrew Gemmells, pleasantly described in the Introduction. Mr. Chambers, in “Illustrations of the Author of ‘Waverley,” clears up a point doubtful in Scott’s memory, by saying that Geimells really was a Blue-Gown. He rode a horse of his own, and at races was a bookmaker. He once dropped at Rutherford, in Teviotdale, a clue of yarn containing twenty guineas. Like Edie Ochiltree, he had served at Fontenoy. He died at Roxburgh Newton in 1793, at the age of one hundred and five, according to his own reckoning. “His wealth was the means of enriching a nephew in Ayrshire, who is now (1825) a considerable landholder there, and belongs to a respectable class of society.”

An old Irus of similar character patrolled Teviotdale, while Andrew Gemmells was attached to Ettrick and Yarrow. This was Blind Willie Craw. Willie was the Society Journal of Hawick, and levied blackmail on the inhabitants. He is thus described by Mr. Grieve, in the Diary already quoted: “He lived at Branxholme Town, in a free house set apart for the gamekeeper, and for many a year carried all the bread from Hawick used in my father’s family. He came in that way at breakfast-time, and got a wallet which he put it in, and returned at dinner-time with the ‘bawbee rows’ and two loaves. He laid the town of Hawick under contribution for bawbees, and he knew the history of every individual, and went rhyming through the town from door to door; and as he knew something against every one which they would rather wish should not be rehearsed, a bawbee put a stop to the paragraph which they wished suppressed. Willie Craw was the son of a gamekeeper of the duke’s, and enjoyed a free house at Branxholme Town as long as he lived.”

Had Burns ever betaken himself to the gaberlunzie’s life, which he speaks of in one of his poems as “the last o’t, the worst o’t,” he would have proved a much more formidable satirist than poor Willie Craw, the last of the “blind crowders.” Burns wrote, of course, in a spirit of reckless humour; but he could not, even in sport, have alluded to the life as “suited to his habits and powers,” had gaberlunzies been mere mendicants. In Herd’s collection of Ballads is one on the ancient Scottish beggar:—

In Scotland there lived a humble beggar,
    He had nor house, nor hald, nor hame;
But he was well liked by ilk a body,
    And they gave him sunkets to rax his wame.

A sieve fu’ o’ meal, a handfu’ o’ groats,
    A dad o’ a bannock, or pudding bree,
Cauld porridge, or the lickings o’ plates,
    Wad make him as blythe as a body could be.

The dress and trade of the beggar are said to have been adopted by James V. in his adventures, and tradition attributes to him a song, “The Gaberlunzie Man.”

One of Edie’s most charming traits is his readiness to “fight for his dish, like the laird for his land,” when a French invasion was expected. Scott places the date of “The False Alarm,” when he himself rode a hundred miles to join his regiment, on Feb. 2, 1804.

Lockhart gives it as an event of 1805 (vol. ii. p. 275). The occasion gave great pleasure to Scott, on account of the patriotism and courage displayed by all classes. “Me no muckle to fight for?” says Edie. “Isna there the country to fight for, and the burns I gang dandering beside, and the hearths o’ the gudewives that gie me my bit bread, and the bits o’ weans that come toddling to play wi’ me when I come about a landward town?” Edie had fought at Fontenoy, and was of the old school. Scott would have been less pleased with a recruit from St. Boswells, on the Tweed. This man was a shoemaker, John Younger, a very intelligent and worthy person, famous as an angler and writer on angling, who has left an account of the “False Alarm” in his memoirs. His view was that the people, unlike Edie, had nothing to fight for, that only the rich had any reason to be patriotic, that the French had no quarrel with the poor. In fact, Mr. Younger was a cosmopolitan democrat, and sneered at the old Border glories of the warlike days. Probably, however, he would have done his duty, had the enemy landed, and, like Edie, might have remembered the “burns he dandered beside,” always with a fishingrod in his hand.2

No characters in the “Antiquary,” except Monkbarns and Edie Ochiltree, seem to have been borrowed from notable originals. The frauds of Dousterswivel, Scott says, are rendered plausible by “very late instances of the force of superstitious credulity to a much greater extent.” He can hardly be referring to the career of Cagliostro, but he may have had in his memory some unsuccessful mining speculations by Charles Earl of Traquair, who sought for lead and found little or none in Traquair hills. The old “Statistical Account of Scotland” (vol. xii. p. 370) says nothing about imposture, and merely remarks that “the noble family of Traquair have made several attempts to discover lead mines, and have found quantities of the ore of that metal, though not adequate to indemnify the expenses of working, and have therefore given up the attempt.” This was published in 1794, so twenty years had passed when “The Antiquary” was written. If there was here an “instance of superstitious credulity,” it was not “a very late instance.” The divining, or “dowsing,” rod of Dousterswivel still keeps its place in mining superstition and in the search for wells.

With “The Antiquary” most contemporary reviews of the novels lose their interest. Their author had firmly established his position, at least till “The Monastery” caused some murmurings. Even the “Quarterly Review” was infinitely more genial in its reception of “The Antiquary” than of “Guy Mannering.” The critic only grumbled at Lovel’s feverish dreams, which, he thought, showed an intention to introduce the marvellous. He complained of “the dark dialect of Anglified Erse,” but found comfort in the glossary appended. The “Edinburgh Review” pronounced the chapter on the escape from the tide to be “the very best description we have ever met, inverse or in prose, in ancient or in modern writing.” No reviewer seems to have noticed that the sun is made to set in the sea, on the east coast of Scotland. The “Edinburgh,” however, declared that the Antiquary, “at least in so far as he is an Antiquary,” was the chief blemish on the book. The “sweet heathen of Monkbarns” has not suffered from this disparagement. The “British Critic” pledged its reputation that Scott was the author. If an argument were wanted, “it would be that which has been applied to prove the authenticity of the last book of the Iliad,—that Homer must have written it, because no one else could.” Alas! that argument does not convince German critics.

ANDREW LANG.                

1.    Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk    [back]

2.    The Editor cannot resist the temptation to add that the patriotic lady mentioned in Scott’s note, who “would rather have seen her son dead on that hearth than hear that he had been a horse’s length behind his companions,” was his paternal great-grandmother, Mrs. John Lang. Her husband, who died shortly afterwards, so that she was a widow when Scott conversed with her, chanced to be chief magistrate of Selkirk. His family was aroused late one night by the sound of a carriage hurrying down the steep and narrow street. Lord Napier was bringing, probably from Hawick, the tidings that the beacons were ablaze. The town-bell was instantly rung, the inhabitants met in the marketplace, where Scott’s statue now stands, and the whole force, with one solitary exception, armed and marched to Dalkeith. According to the gentleman whose horse and arms were sent on to meet him, it was intended, if the French proved victorious, that the population of the Border towns should abandon their homes and retire to the hills.    [back]

The Antiquary - Contents    |     Chapter I

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