The Two Drovers by Sir Walter Scott, 1827
THE TWO DROVERS
by Sir Walter Scott, 1827
Sir Walter Scott is known more than read nowadays. His achievement in bringing fiction and history (especially that of Scotland) into a mutually enriching relationship was celebrated by Georg Lukacs in The Historical Novel, but there is still a tendency to see his novels as picturesque and romantic, the bases for children's television series rather than, in F. R. Leavis's favored term, mature. Certainly the novels—favorite family reading for the Victorians—may now seem overlong. But the short stories brought together in Chronicles of the Canongate in 1827 show Scott as a careful observer of society as well as a benign moralist.
Scott's narrative mode is certainly a leisurely one. Before the introduction of the two central characters, the reader of "The Two Drovers" is given a full account of the habits of the Highland drovers who took the cattle the several hundred miles from the Scottish markets to the farms of their purchasers in England. The narrator gives plenty of information about the Highlanders, often using Gaelic terms like skene-dhu but explaining them ("dirk, or black-knife") as he goes along. The reader is clearly being invited to look at the manners and behavior of a social group not likely to be familiar.
The story itself, as is characteristic of Scott, suggests the folktale in its simplicity. We see a lively and attractive young Scot, Robin Oig, about to set out but accosted at the last minute by his aged aunt, Janet of Tomohourich, who performs a ceremony of farewell that is suddenly interrupted with the exclamation "Grandson of my father, there is blood on your hand." This she then describes as "English blood," calling on Robin not to go to England, or at least not to wear his dirk. Robin humors her by giving the dirk to a Lowlander, who is traveling the same route, to carry for him.
All this is before the reader has been introduced to Robin's friend and fellow drover, the Yorkshireman Harry Wakefield, a strong man and an expert wrestler. The prolepsis is obvious. The reader certainly expects something disastrous to occur between the two young men, and this is exactly what the narrative reveals. They drive the cattle happily together through Cumberland, but they find themselves at odds in making arrangements for pasturage. While Wakefield makes an arrangement with the bailiff of a Cumbrian farmer, Oig meets the farmer himself and arranges to have the use of the same field at the price of six stots ("bullocks"). Thus, Wakefield's cattle have to be driven further on, and his pride is hurt. Moreover, the pasturage he eventually finds, let to him by the landlord of the alehouse, is poor. By the time Oig comes to the alehouse, the English assembled there have taken Wakefield's side against the Scot. They encourage a fight between the two friends, which inevitably leads to Wakefield's defeating the much smaller Oig. Oig is understandably indignant and makes off into the moonlight. He then realizes that he does not have his dirk with him and recalls the old woman's prophecy. But rather than being warned by it, he sets off to find the Lowlander who has the dirk and gets it back. He then returns to the inn where, although Wakefield seeks reconciliation, Oig insists on using the dirk to kill his friend: "I show you now how the Highland Dunniewassel fights." Wakefield dies instantly, and Oig surrenders himself to a peace officer who is in the inn. He is taken to Carlisle to be tried at the next assizes.
Scott concludes the story with a detailed account of the trial ("I was myself present," the narrator says.) The judge's charge to the jury, which is given at length, shows a very rational and humane approach. The men are said to have acted "in ignorance of each other's national prejudices," so that their story calls forth compassion as well as judgment. But the conclusion of the charge is that the crime of murder has been committed and that the prisoner must be found guilty, as he is. The last words are those of Oig. "I give a life for the life I took," he said, "and what can I do more?"
The story attracts the reader's attention by its tragic simplicity, and it is appropriately narrated in a straightforward manner. It shows Scott's deep interest in both humanity and the particular manners and customs of individual communities, and the dialogue in particular is successful in imparting the flavor of both the Scots and the English. The story is a "readerly" one, to use Barthes's term—everything is made as plain as the narrator can make it. And the judge's view is clearly one the reader is expected to accept: he points out that the idea of revenge was until recently prevalent in Scotland, as it still is among "the Cherokees or Mohawks" of North America, but that "the first object of civilization is to place the general protection of the law, equally administered, in the room of that wild justice, which every man cut and carried for himself, according to the length of his sword and the strength of his arm." Scott conveys the appeal of the romantic and primitive, but his own commitment is to Enlightenment values.