I dina cair muckle far Rob Roy

November 26, 2008 at 3:43 am 6 comments

Photo courtesy of Undiscovered Scotland

If I were to attempt to rival the sheer braininess of KT’s last post, I would put myself to the task of writing something about Roy Roy by Sir Walter Scott that has to do with the constant British use throughout the eighteenth century of an “Other” (often Scottish) as a way to define themselves as a nation. Unfortunately, having a decidedly English bent to my exploration of Britain as a whole, I’m afraid I am not as up the task as a scholar of Scottish history would be (or perhaps a good literary critic either). Thus, I am left to the task of discussing Rob Roy in my usual plebeian form of choice: the basic book review.

Rob Roy primarily tells the story not of its eponymous character but of a would-be poet named Francis (Frank to his buddies) Osbaldistone. In his desire to be a poet, Frank incurs the displeasure of his businessman father who assumed that his only child would take on the family business. (What, exactly, the family does other than deal with large amounts of money is one of the many things in Rob Roy that is not made particularly clear.) Mr. Osbaldistone Senior, thus incensed at his son’s betrayal of the familial calling, packs Frank off to live with his uncle, Sir Hildebrand, and his motley crew of rather stupid sons. In exchange, Sir Hildebrand sends his one brainy, but otherwise quite malignant, son (Rashleigh Osbaldistone) off to take on the family business that Frank so dislikes. Whilst staying with his uncle and rowdy country cousins, Frank falls in love with Sir Hildebrand’s ward, Diana Vernon, a remarkably plucky excuse for a heroine. Their love, of course, is forbidden since Diana must either marry Sir Hildebrand’s idiot son Thorncliffe or be confined to a nunnery. (Why these are the only two options is another loose plot point.) Needless to say the wicked Rashleigh gets up to all kinds of plotting when Frank’s father heads off to do unnamed but very important business on the Continent and it is up to Frank, Diana and (where did he just come from?!) Rob Roy to stop Rashleigh’s ruination of Osbaldistone family business.

That convoluted plot explanation aside, I assure you that the book was about as easy to follow (by which I mean not very). Having just finished it, I am still at odds to truly explain the latter half, wherein Rob Roy appears and the Jacobite Uprising of 1715 occurs, almost as an afterthought, whilst Frank and Co. traipse around the Highlands looking for some papers Rashleigh has stolen from Frank’s father’s firm. Indeed why Frank had to leave Sir Hildebrand’s and go into Scotland at all is rather unclear to me, as is most of his time in Scotland since it is primarily conducted in an unintelligibly written Scottish brogue. Rob Roy, while confusing to me in many ways, did make me recognize one of my all time top ten book pet peeves: writing accents out. Forgive me, but I honestly feel that the potency of the Scottish accent would have just as easily been communicated if anything said by any Scottish person in the book were simply written in plain English and followed by something like “he said in a thick Scottish brogue.” That would have saved us poor non-Scottish readers passages like “it was a Hieland loon gied the letter to that lang-tongued jaud the gudewife there.” What?!

The brogue and the plot aside, Scott did manage to have one shining moment in a book that otherwise left me longing for Ivanhoe. The two paragraphs below are by far the best parts of Rob Roy, even in their very bleakness. As there is little I can say to follow up the feeling in these passages, I will end my review here by saying that Rob Roy is a book that could have benefited from either more or less in the way of plot (it could have been a fascinating character study of the Osbaldistones if Scott had simply left Frank with Sir Hildebrand and his sons and one which I’d wager could have petered out just as disappointingly at the end as Rob Roy actually did) and definitely a lot less brogue.

In the second half, Frank and his buddies are captured successfully by English troops and then Rob Roy’s fearsome wife, Helen. After Helen gets them, another Englishman (Morris) happens upon the band of Highlanders and Helen stonily orders his execution after he pathetically begs for his life. Scott gives us these moving, if grisly, passages:

“The victim [Morris] was held fast by some, while others, binding a large stone in a plaid, tied it round his neck, and others again eagerly stripped him of some part of his dress. Half-naked and thus manacled, they hurled him into the lake, there about twelve feet deep, with a loud halloo of vindictive triumph, above which, however, his last death-shriek, the yell of mortal agony, was distinctly heard. The heavy burden splashed in the dark-blue waters, and the Highlanders, with their pole-axes and swords, watched an instant to guard, lest, extricating himself from the load to which he was attached, the victim might have struggled to regain the shore. But the knot had been securely bound; the wretched man sunk without effort, the waters which his life had disturbed, settled calmly over him, and the unit of that life for which he had pleaded so strongly, was for ever withdrawn from the sum of human existence.”

The reader, feeling the agony and horror of this act, is then taken along with Scott’s remorse and his feeling when he, as Frank, adds, “…I know not why it is a single deed of violence and cruelty affects our nerves more than when these are exercised on a more extended scale. I had seen that day several of my brave countrymen fall in battle: it seemed to me that they met a lot appropriate to humanity; and my bosom, though thrilling with interest, was affected with nothing of that sickening horror with which I beheld the unfortunate Morris put to death, and in cold blood.”


Entry filed under: Classics.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  November 26, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    Amazing review! And you’ve saved me the trouble of reading Rob Roy myself, which I was kind of tempted to do before your post.

    Somehow appropriately, I had a conversation with two of Amy’s friends from home last night, and I could barely understand a word of what they were saying. Is it reassuring to know that they really do speak like it’s spelled in the book?

  • 2. Corey  |  November 26, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    Glad you liked it! And, yes, definitely skip reading it. I adore Ivanhoe, though, so definitely give that a gander if you haven’t already! I makes me wonder about the quality of Scott’s other books and if Ivanhoe was just an oddity. Have you read anything else by Scott?

    I find the actual Scottish accent far more understandable than its written equivalent, but it is heartening to hear that you had similar Scottish brogue troubles!

  • 3. KT  |  November 27, 2008 at 12:01 am

    I’ve read nothing by Scott! I’ve always kind of had reading Ivanhoe in the back of my mind, but somehow other books came up and I never got around to it.

  • 4. Corey  |  November 27, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    Ivanhoe‘s da bomb! You should definitely give it a read when you have a spare moment (ha).

    Incidentally, happy Thanksgiving!

  • […] of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique A Book Riot recommendation that lost me when a written accent made its unfortunate debut a couple of chapters in. Writing a dialect out in prose is high on my Top Ten Book Peeves List […]

  • […] had minor qualms with the book — mostly related to my ongoing aversion to dialects in the written word, although Burton uses dialects really interestingly here — but by and large, I was pleasantly […]


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