The Revolutionary Past


Rather than portray contemporary issues and anxieties directly, Scott mapped them onto revolutionary moments in his nation’s past.

The Reformation

Scott’s novels The Monastery and The Abbot (both 1820) portray the religious, political, and social turmoil of the Reformation. This 16th-century movement for church reform ended in the establishment of the Protestant Churches of England and Scotland.

The Monastery sees the monastic community of Kennaquhair (a fictional representation of Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders) threatened by the emerging Protestant movement. Its sequel dramatizes the forced abdication of Mary Queen of Scots, her imprisonment in Lochleven Castle, and her escape to England.

The Monastery shows how moments of political crisis and transformation can divide families. Its hero, Halbert Glendinning, converts to Protestantism while his brother remains loyal to the old faith.

As a Protestant himself, Scott approved of the Reformation from a theological perspective, but was against the destruction of Catholic icons and church buildings like Melrose Abbey. His portrayal of fanatics whipping up mob violence to bring down centuries-old institutions would have reminded his original readers of the French Revolution.

Scott coordinated the restoration of the abbey’s ruins in 1822.

Scott’s portrayal of Mary Queen of Scots in The Abbot would have reminded Scott’s readers, both at home and abroad, of the recent dethronement, imprisonment, and execution of Marie Antoinette by the French Revolutionaries.

While broadly supportive of the religious aims of the Reformation, Scott condemned the mixture of fanaticism and economic self-interest that increasingly dictates the actions of both sides of the conflict. Each side turns to acts of terror, and religious fundamentalism evolves into political extremism.

The 17th-Century British Civil Wars

In portraying the conflict between Parliamentary and Royalist forces in A Legend of Montrose (1819) and Woodstock (1826), Scott evokes recent events in France.

The Parliamentary Revolution of the 1640s mirrors the French Revolution. The beheading of Charles I recalls the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The factionalist anarchy before the establishment of the Commonwealth echoes the Reign of Terror. Finally, Oliver Cromwell’s military dictatorship inevitably calls to mind Napoleon’s seizure of power.

Oliver Cromwell is a prominent figure in the novel Woodstock, which revolves around the escape of King Charles II following his defeat by Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester, 3 September 1651.

As he wrote Woodstock, Scott was simultaneously working on his massive biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, first published in nine volumes in 1827. It seems highly likely that his research into the French Revolution and into Napoleon’s seizure of power inspired his fictional portrayal of a similar period in English history.

Initially a Parliamentarian, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose (1612-1650) was won over to the Royalist cause and waged a successful campaign in the Highlands in 1644-1645.

A Legend of Montrose is a narrative of inter-clan conflict set against the backdrop of the 'Montrose wars'. It is a tale of factionalism, shifting allegiances, wartime atrocities, and divisions between and within clans and families.

The Killing Time

Old Mortality (1816) vividly portrays the conflict between Covenanters and government forces in the South-West of Scotland, commonly known as the ‘Killing Time’ (1679-1688).

Upon his restoration in 1660, Charles II broke a promise to recognize Presbyterian church government in Scotland, whereby congregations elected their own minister. Instead, he reorganized the Church of Scotland along Anglican lines, reintroducing bishops, and restoring crown patronage of church livings.

Ministers who refused to accept the new system were forced out from their parishes. Many, however, continued to preach to their former parishioners in open-air gatherings known as conventicles. Government attempts to suppress what they saw as open defiance led to violent unrest, pitching Covenanters (defenders of church independence) against Royalist forces.

This illustration to Old Mortality portrays the Covenanters’ victory at the Battle of Drumclog, 1 June 1679.

In Scott’s day, the Covenanters were not just a distant historical memory. In 1815, three days before the Battle of Waterloo, thousands of textile workers assembled near Drumclog both to commemorate the Covenanting victory and to celebrate the news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba. Invoking their ‘ancestors, the Covenanters’, they condemned government policies that favoured the land-owning classes and called for a new era of political activism.

Scott feared that this event might cause a widespread domestic rebellion and may have had it directly in mind when beginning work on Old Mortality in 1816.

Charles d’Albert’s ‘Bonnie Dundee Quadrille’ is a piece of music inspired by Scott’s Old Mortality. The front cover depicts John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee ('Bonnie Dundee'), saluting a cheering crowd.

In Old Mortality, Bonnie Dundee conducts the government’s military campaign against the Covenanters. As portrayed by Scott, he paradoxically combines great personal charm with ruthless severity.

Click the large eye icon for a slow look over this scene.

The Jacobite Uprisings

Rob Roy (1818) and Waverley (1814) describe the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745. The Jacobites were predominantly Highland forces, loyal to the dethroned Stuart monarchy, who attempted to place the exiled James Edward Francis Stuart (‘The Old Pretender’) on the British throne.

These novels again evoke the French Revolutionary Wars, recalling recent fears of an invading force arriving from France, and portraying the exile and attempted restoration of royalty. They also dramatize Scott’s fears over continuing threats to the Union in Ireland and Scotland.

In Rob Roy, Scott portrays the conflicting motives of clan loyalty, religious fanaticism, political marginalization, and self-interest that animate the protagonists of the 1715 Uprising. Francis Osbaldistone and Nicol Jarvie, supporters of the ruling Hanoverian dynasty, fight with Jacobite Highlanders at Jeannie MacAlpine's inn.

Scott portrays the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion as the revolt of Highland communities against a British state, in which they are marginalized and disempowered. His Jacobite-themed novels are an argument for a more organic union in which separate cultures and identities are harmoniously incorporated.

In this illustration to Waverley, the artist J. M. W. Turner depicts the Jacobite army assembling on Calton Hill in Edinburgh before the Battle of Prestonpans, 21 September 1745. The picture is full of historical inconsistencies. The North Bridge and the buildings on the right of the image did not exist in 1745 and the Jacobites assembled in Holyrood Park rather than Calton Hill.

Click the large eye icon for a slow look over Turner's fictional scene.

The Porteous Riots

In The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818), Scott portrayed the Porteous Riots of 1736 as a protest against English interference in Scottish affairs. He simultaneously warns of the dangers presented by a disciplined revolutionary mob and shows how the Union might be threatened by London-based decision-making that disregards Scottish traditions and feelings.

On 17 April 1736, a riot broke out in Edinburgh during the hanging of a popular smuggler Andrew Wilson. The City Guard, led by Captain John Porteous, opened fire on the crowd, killing six people. Porteous was charged with murder and sentenced to death but was reprieved by Queen Caroline.

Angered by perceived English interference with Scottish justice, a crowd of over 4,000 broke into Edinburgh’s Old Tolbooth prison, dragged Porteous from his cell, and lynched him in the city’s Grassmarket.

In The Heart of Mid-Lothian, a mob storms Edinburgh’s Old Tolbooth prison and drags Captain Porteous from his cell. This scene would have immediately reminded Scott’s first readers of the storming of the Bastille at the beginning of the French Revolution. It directly links Edinburgh street protests, common in Scott’s age, and the fear of national revolution. Politically sensitive, it is perhaps for this reason that no 19th-century illustrator directly portrays this episode despite its centrality to the novel’s plot.