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.