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Sir Walter Scott
the Clan Gregor

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The Life of Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh in 1771,A portrait of Sir Walter Scott - the son of Walter Scott, who belonged to a society of solicitors known as Writers to the Signet.  At the age of eighteen months, he was struck by a fever, which left him permanently lame.  As a result of his delicate health he spent much of his childhood in the country, returning to school in Edinburgh from time to time.  After leaving the University, he worked for some years in his father's office, and subsequently studied law.

In 1792, he began a study of Border life and customs, and during the following years explored many of the wilder districts of Scotland.  In 1797, he married, and after living a short time in Edinburgh, he took up his residence at Lasswade, six miles out of the city, whence he departed in 1804 to a residence known as Asheatiel, on the Tweed.  In 1799, he was appointed sheriff of Selkirkshire, an office which gave him an opportunity to indulge his tastes for romantic scenery and legend.

In 1802 he began the publication of a collection of poetry known as 'The Minstrelay of the Scottish Border'  and this was followed, in 1805, by the publication of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, the first of his great poetical romances.  His success was so encouraging that he gave up the profession of law, entered into a secret partnership with James Ballantyne, a publisher, and resolved to devote himself to literature.

In 1808 Marmion appeared and in 1810 The Lady of the Lake was published.  So great was the success of these ventures that in the following year (1811) he purchased the estate of Abbottsford on the Tweed, and proceeded with the erection of a great family residence.

In 1814 Scott's first novel, Waverley, was published anonymously.  It was received with such favour by the public that from this time forward Scott devoted himself to prose romance, and during the next sixteen years he continued to produce novel after novel.  He published "Rob Roy" in 1818.   In 1825, however, the publishing house of Ballantyne failed, and Scott found himself suddenly bankrupt.

With characteristic energy he set out to pay off the obligations of the firm.  But his health was unequal to the strain, and in 1830 he was stricken with paralysis.  The following year he went to Italy in the hope of restoring his health, but in vain.  It was with difficulty that he was able to return to Scotland; and two months after his return he died in September, 1832.  He was buried in the abbey at Dryburgh.

Scott owed his great popularity both as a poet and as a novelist to the healthy spirit of outdoor life and adventure which is found in his romances, and to the fact that he was able to combine in his stories various threads of human interest which made his work attractive to all classes of readers.

Neither his poems nor his prose contains profound thought or the discussion of serious problems, but they present a picture-gallery of characters and a vivid description of life and customs in which he remains to this day without a rival.

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The Lady of the Lake

Map of the area where the story took place

This classic romantic poem is a story about Royal intrigue and the clash of cultures in the highlands of Perthshire  (MacGregor country) during the reign of James V (1513-1532).  James was one year old when his father was killed in battle at Flodden.  James had been confined to Stirling castle under the 'protection' of the Duke of Albany.

His mother, Margaret, the sister of King Henry VIII of England, married Douglas, the Earl of Angus, the most powerful of her nobles.  The ensuing power struggle between the Douglas's and John, Duke of Albany, consumed Scotland in intrigue and dissension until Albany left Scotland never to return.

James finally escaped from the Douglas's and set about to secure law and order in his realm.  He first crushed the power of the great Border chiefs, after which he turned his attention to the Highlands.  Although he tempered lenity with severity,  his interferences with the traditional rights of Highland chiefs earned their lasting enmity.

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The Story

Many of the minor details of the story are based upon incidents with which Scott was familiar.  Throughout the poem Scott attempted to give an accurate account of the customs and manners of the Highland clans of which very little was known even by educated people in Scotland in his day.
The geographical details are accurate.

Main characters:

Ellen Douglas;  a young maid (the Lady of the Lake)

Fitz-James;   King James V (traveling incognito)

Roderick Dhu;  Chief of the clan Alpin (Gregor)

Malcom Graeme;  Chief of the clan Graham (Ellen's betrothed lover)

Ellen's Island in Loch Katrine
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The Fiery Cross-

Upon learning that the King was coming to invade the Highlander's prayer - from Lady of the Lake Highlands and punish the clan Alpin, Roderick summoned the Fiery Cross.  According to tradition, he slew a goat, and making a cross of any light wood, seared it in a fire and then smeared it with the blood of the goat.  This was called the Fiery Cross, also Crean Tarigh (Cross of Shame), because disobedience to that which the symbol implied meant, inferred infamy.  It was delivered to a swift and trusty messenger, who ran full speed with it to the next village; and thus it passed with incredible speed through all the district which owed allegiance to the chief, and also amongst his allies and neighbours, if the danger was common to them.

At sight of the cross, every man from sixteen to sixty, capable of bearing arms, was obliged instantly to repair, in his best arms and accoutrements, to the place of rendezvous.  He who failed to appear suffered the extremities of fire and sword.  During the Jacobite Wars, the fiery cross often made its circuit; and upon one occasion it passed through the whole district of Breadalbane, a tract of thirty-two miles, in three hours.

The hallucination- Roderick lay dying, but he arose in a fever and shouted "Victory o'er Dermid's race." in a final gesture of defiance.  (Dermid's race = clan Campbell.)

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Scott Popularized Highland Culture

Scott  had the ability to see through the prejudices of his day.  He wrote about the traditions, myths, and cultures of the Highlands that so captivated him.  He single-handedly transformed the culture of the Highlands from something that had been demonized and chastised in the Scottish Lowlands and in England, to a colourful and romantic elegance which became so popular that everyone soon coveted their own unique family tartan.

In 1822, at the instigation of Sir Walter Scott, King George IV visited Scotland in a Stuart tartan; thereafter the whole nation donned their own tartans whether or not they had a drop of Highland blood in their veins.  So ended the prohibition of wearing the tartan.

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 Sir Walter Scott To The Rescue

It was Sir Walter Scott who vindicated the clan Gregor.  He was professionally well- informed about the legal acts dealing with the clan, and moreover, he had personal contacts with people who still remembered Rob Roy.  Under Scott's childhood, the MacGregors were still under severe proscription.

Rob's eldest son Ranald, still survived at Balquhidder until 1786, about which time Scott, as an apprentice lawyer, had an occasion to visit the area and hear of Rob Roy at first hand.  The novel "Rob Roy" was published in 1818, the same year that Rev. MacLeay brought out a popular collection of tales about Rob Roy.

In this complimentary way, Rob Roy was brought to the notice of the two main strata of Scotland and to a lesser extent, of English society.   Wordsworth, upon visiting Glen Gyle and Loch Katrine, wrote the poem "Rob Roy's Grave" in 1803, under the mistaken belief that Rob was buried near his birthplace, although he was actually buried in the churchyard at Balquhidder.

Almost overnight, in 1818, the MacGregors awoke to find themselves famous.  Robert Louis Stephenson pronounced "Rob Roy" to be the best of Scott's works, which would not have been achieved unless Scott had been in complete sympathy with the MacGregors.  Scott's own ancestors, the Scotts of Harden, had been every bit as lawless and subject to legislation as were the MacGregors, though they did not achieve the distinction of being proscribed.  Several border clans, i.e. the Grahams, were however banished overseas, as were many of the more notorious MacGregors such as Robert Aberach.  But most of them returned to their old haunts. 

It is not surprising that both Sir John Murray (who later became the first Clan Gregor Chief after the proscriptions were lifted) and his son, Sir Ewan Murray MacGregor, founder of the Clan Gregor Society, and an ancestor of the present Chief, Sir Gregor MacGregor were friends of Sir Walter Scott.

Scott's vindication of the clan was made more difficult because in his day there were still many people who maligned the MacGregors on false reports that have long been quashed by facts.  Old prejudices die hard.  I know of a case where a Campbell father in Kitchener, Ontario, threw his daughter's suitor out of the house when it was found his family name was MacGregor.

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The MacGregors Gathering

Sir Walter Scott wrote many of his literary works about the MacGregors, although he used pseudonyms in many to circumvent the widespread animosity in Scotland towards the MacGregors.  In his "Highland Widow" he reflects the life of Rob Roy's widow, Helen MacGregor; in "The Two Drovers" he writes about the perverse but logical Highland ethics and relates the tragic fate of Robin Oig MacGregor;   this epic poem illustrates the desperation of the clan Gregor when it was proscribed and was rendered landless and nameless.

The moon's on the lake, and the mist's on the brae
And the Clan has a name that is nameless by day;
Then gather, gather, gather, Gregarach!

Our signal for fight, that from monarchs we drew,
Must be heard but by night in our vengeful haloo!
Then haloo, Gregarach! haloo, Gregarach!

Glen Orchy's proud mountains, Kilchurn and her towers,
Glenstrae and Glenlyon no longer are ours;
We're landless, landless, landless, Gregarach!

But doomed and devoted by vassal and lord.
MacGregor has still both his heart and his sword!
Then courage, courage, courage, Gregarach!

If they rob us of name, and pursue us with beagles,
Give their roofs to the flame, and their flesh to the Eagles!
Then vengeance, vengeance, vengeance, Gregarach!

While there's leaves in the forest, and foam on the river,
MacGregor, despite them, shall flourish forever!
Come then, Gregarach, come then, Gregarach,

Through the depths of Loch Katrine the steed shall career,
O'er the peak of Ben-Lomond the galley shall steer!
And the rocks of Craig-Royston like icicles melt,
Ere our wrongs be forgot, or our vengeance unfelt!
Then gather, gather, gather, Gregarach!

Author - Sir Walter Scott

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Use Control + Click on the following hyperlink to enter a scholarly resource maintained by Edinburgh University Library and learn more about Sir Walter Scott.

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