The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

When the book chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin was The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter, I was quite happy with that result. It was a book I’d wanted to read for a while, it had been recommended to me by more than one person and I thought I might find it more enjoyable than my last Spin book, Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, which I still haven’t managed to finish.

Jane Porter (1776-1850) was born in England but grew up in Edinburgh, where Sir Walter Scott was apparently a regular visitor to the family. The Scottish Chiefs reminded me very much of Scott’s work, although it was published several years before Scott’s first novel, Waverley. I don’t know whether Scott read and was influenced by Porter’s novel or not, but it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have done.

The Scottish Chiefs was published in 1809 and tells the story of Scottish hero William Wallace, a story many people are familiar with through Braveheart. Like Braveheart, this is a highly romanticised account of Wallace’s life and can’t be assumed to be entirely accurate; however, there is a limit to what historians know about Wallace anyway and for centuries one of our major sources has been Blind Harry’s narrative poem from the 1400s, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace.

The novel opens in the summer of 1296. Having recently acted as arbitrator in a dispute over the succession to the Scottish throne – resulting in John Balliol becoming king rather than his rival Robert Bruce of Annandale – Edward I of England has entered Scotland with his army and gained victory at the Battle of Dunbar. Balliol abdicates and is sent to the Tower of London, while the majority of Scotland’s other noblemen agree to acknowledge Edward as their overlord. William Wallace, who is ‘too noble to bend his spirit to the usurper, too honest to affect submission’, is one of the few who refuse to accept this and at the beginning of the novel we see him visiting a fellow rebel, Sir John Monteith of Douglas Castle. Monteith presents him with a small, heavy iron box, which he had been given by Lord Douglas with the following message:

“…commit the box in strict charge to the worthiest Scot you know; and tell him that it will be at the peril of his soul, who dares to open it, till Scotland be again free! When that hour comes, then let the man by whose valour God restores her rights, receive the box as his own; for by him only it is to be opened.”

As Wallace rides away, the iron box is seen by English soldiers who assume that it contains treasure and soon the English Governor of Lanark, Heselrigge, arrives at Wallace’s home hoping to gain possession of it. In the violence that follows, Wallace’s beloved wife Marion is murdered by Heselrigge and when Wallace takes revenge by killing the Governor, he swears that he won’t rest until he has freed Scotland from Edward’s control and the day comes when the mysterious box can finally be opened.

I enjoyed The Scottish Chiefs, although I did find it a bit uneven. There are some gripping set pieces – such as the storming of Dumbarton Castle and Wallace’s infiltration of Edward’s court disguised as a minstrel – but there are other parts that were much less interesting and where I struggled not to lose concentration. It has to be remembered, though, that the book was published in the early nineteenth century and written in the wordy style that you would expect from literature of that period. It’s also a very long book – I read an ebook version and hadn’t appreciated just how long it was until I started reading!

Not many of the characters have the depth and complexity I prefer; most of the women, such as Marion and Helen Mar, are portrayed as paragons of virtue, while Wallace himself is too perfect and heroic to be true. The more villainous characters were the most interesting, particularly Helen’s stepmother, Joanna, Countess of Mar (in her notes at the end of the book, Porter says that Joanna was a real historical figure, daughter of the Earl of Strathearn and a princess of Orkney, but I haven’t been able to find any information about her anywhere). Porter doesn’t use any Scots dialect so her Scottish characters sound the same as the English ones, but some authors can write very convincingly in dialect and others can’t, so I think it’s best not to use it at all than to use it badly!

I ended up reading the free Project Gutenberg version of the book, mainly because there doesn’t seem to be a decent edition in print. The book covers in this post are for illustration purposes only. I hope someone like Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics will decide to publish an edition at some point – with notes giving us more idea of which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional – as that might encourage more people to read this book; at the moment The Scottish Chiefs seems to be a bit of a forgotten classic, which is a shame as despite the flaws I think it’s definitely worth reading if you’re interested in Scottish history or in early examples of historical fiction.

This is book 13/50 read from my Classics Club list.

17 thoughts on “The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

  1. piningforthewest says:

    I read somewhere fairly recently that Jane Porter’s books were never historically correct, even when the history was well known, but she was wildly popular back in the day. I’ve only ever seen one of her books though – and I didn’t buy it. As a child I played around Dumbarton Castle as I lived nearby so I’m always interested in books that feature it, so I might give this one a go anyway.

    • Helen says:

      It probably isn’t very historically accurate, though I suppose it was a lot more difficult to research a book in 1809 than it is today. You might still enjoy it because of the Scottish setting. I would be interested to know if the descriptions of Dumbarton Castle are anything like the place you remember!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think you have to approach books from that time with different expectations. I enjoyed it too, though maybe not as much as you did.

    • Calmgrove says:

      A cliché, probably, though one much resorted to! Much less common is the flawed hero/ine who is less than perfect and makes crucial errors of judgement — preferably balanced by an antagonist who is equally flawed but whose faults outweigh their virtues. Otherwise it’s a pantomime or melodrama, isn’t it? 🙂

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    I wonder if Jane Porter used that old poem as a reference which might explain the characterization. Paragons of virtue, heroes perfect and heroic, and villainous evil doers were the way those epic poems went. Think of The Odyssey!

    • Helen says:

      I’m sure she probably did. It’s unfair to judge old books by modern standards, but I do prefer my characters to be slightly more nuanced.

  3. elainethomp says:

    In a forward to an edition I read it said she did indeed use Blind Harry’s poem as a major source.

    Glad you enjoyed it.

    I find the actions of Joanna of Mar fascinating considering the period the book was written, and have run across historical references to a woman who might have been the original inspiration as being imprisoned for something approximating treason. Married to a Comyn and imprisoned by Bruce. (but I ditched my Scottish history stuff for space, so I can’t lay hands on specifics.)
    But the cross dressing and fighting in battle are not what I’d expect a woman writer of 1809 to have a female do. Even Heroine Helen’s cross dressing surprises me a bit.

    • Helen says:

      I suppose there weren’t many other sources available at that time that she could have used – it seems that even now there’s a lot we still don’t know. I did enjoy the book, though, so thank you for suggesting it to me.

      It’s good to know that there may have been a real historical woman who was the inspiration for Joanna of Mar. I had a quick search online but couldn’t find anything. She was definitely an unusual sort of character for the time in which the book was written.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you, Lark. I haven’t made any progress with my Classics Club list for a while, so it was good to finally finish another book!

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