by Walter Scott
“One hour of life, crowded to the full with glorious action, and filled with noble risks, is worth whole years of those mean observances of paltry decorum” ― Walter Scott
Old Mortality is not as well known nor is it as popular as Rob Roy, Ivanhoe or Kenilworth, all of which followed it in the five years subsequent to its publication in 1816. It also precedes The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermoor, both of which were part of Scott's series of novels "Tales of My Landlord". But Old Mortality is considered one of Scott's best novels.
Under the reign of the last Stewarts, there was an anxious wish on the part of government to counteract, by every means in their power, the strict or puritanical spirit which had been the chief characteristic of the republican government. The novel takes its title from the nickname of Robert Paterson, a Scotsman of the 18th century who late in life decided to travel around Scotland re-engraving the tombs of 17th century Covenanter martyrs. The first chapter of the novel describes a meeting between him and the novel's fictitious narrator.
The novel tells the story of Henry Morton, who shelters John Balfour of Burley, one of the assassins of Archbishop James Sharp. As a consequence Morton joins Burley in an uprising of Covenanters (who wanted the re-establishment of Presbyterianism in Scotland) which was eventually defeated at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679, by forces led by the Duke of Monmouth and John Graham of Claverhouse. The bulk of the novel describes the progress of the rebellion from its initial success at the Battle of Drumclog, and the growth of factionalism which hastened its defeat. Henry's involvement in the rebellion causes a conflict of loyalties for him, since he is in love with Edith Bellenden who belongs to a family who oppose the uprising. Henry's beliefs are not as extreme as those of Burley and many other rebel leaders, which leads to his involvement in the factional disputes. The novel also shows their oppressors, led by Claverhouse, to be extreme in their beliefs and methods. Comic relief is provided by Cuddie Headrigg, a peasant who reluctantly joins the rebellion because of his personal loyalty to Morton, as well as his own fanatical mother.
This novel is both interesting and exciting in its historical detail. More importantly it addresses the questions of the relative merits of 'enthusiasm' and moderation, of extremism and consensus, when the nation is swept by rebellion and violent change.
Old Mortality by Sir Walter Scott. The Penguin English Library, 1975 (1816)