Wandering Willie's Tale by Sir Walter Scott, 1824

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by Sir Walter Scott, 1824

"The Two Drovers" by Sir Walter Scott, which was published in 1827, has been described as the first short story in English, but another of his works follows a much older tradition. "Wandering Willie's Tale," which appeared as part of the novel Redgauntlet, published in 1824, is a deliberate imitation of the art of the oral storyteller. This is an ancient form of popular entertainment found all over the world. It has such a strong tradition in Scotland that it still survives there and is now in the middle of a revival in defiance of the competition from modern technology.

The traditional storyteller in Scotland used, and to some extent still uses, one of the two languages native to the country, Scottish Gaelic and Lowland Scots. The former, which has close affinities to Irish Gaelic, is a Celtic language utterly distinct from English. Lowland Scots (Lallans), on the other hand, shares a common origin with English. It therefore has a basic similarity to English and much common vocabulary. In the three centuries of almost continuous war between Scotland and England, from the end of the thirteenth to the beginning of the seventeenth century, Scots developed independently with influence from Gaelic and from the countries with which Scotland had a close association, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Scandinavia. In this period Scots was used by all classes and for all purposes and, especially in the fifteenth century, was the language of some of the finest poetry that was being written anywhere in Europe.

When Scott wrote his great novels set in Scotland, it was therefore quite natural for him to use English for the narrative and Scots for the conversations of the Scottish characters. Scott was a master in his native tongue, although his English to modern ears is often somewhat ponderous. The speech in Scots in these novels—particularly in Waverley, Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Old Mortality, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, and Redgauntlet—are their most striking, moving, and entertaining passages. As the English novelist and critic Virginia Woolf remarked, "The lifeless English turns to living Scots."

"Wandering Willie's Tale" is the longest continuous passage in Scots in all of Scott's novels. It is a tale told by one of the Scots-speaking characters, a wandering blind fiddler, the sort of traveling entertainer who might easily combine storytelling with his music. The tale is about an experience of his grandfather, Steenie Steenson, a piper and tenant farmer. He lived in the "killing times" in the late seventeenth century when royalist troops were persecuting the Covenanters, people who refused to accept the religious settlement imposed by the king. Steenie, a tenant of a violent persecutor, Sir Robert Redgauntlet, goes to pay his overdue rent, which he had scraped together with difficulty; but before he can be given his receipt, Sir Robert suddenly dies. In the absence of written proof Redgauntlet's heir demands payment again. In this dilemma the despairing Steenie rides through a dark wood after fortifying himself with brandy. He meets a stranger who promises to bring him to the old Redgauntlet for the receipt. Thus Steenie encounters him, carousing with his dead friends, presumably in hell, and gets his receipt. It is a tale of the supernatural, although with hints of a rational explanation.

The brilliance of the story, one of the best in our literature, is in the telling. There is no superfluous word and no word that could be improved. The language has the naturalness of speech, but it also has an unstrained felicity and lyrical flow. The historical setting, the characters, and the atmosphere are all conveyed with a directness and brevity and with a combination of the eerie and the comic that recalls the best of the border ballads. It is in prose what Robert Burns's "Tam o'Shanter" is in verse, a supreme use of what Robert Louis Stevenson called "this illustrious and malleable tongue." Out of the whole of Scott's vast output, impressive and widely influential as it is, this short tale is his single most perfect achievement.

The Scots language need not be an obstacle to anyone who reads English. The edition by Graham Tulloch, The Two Drovers and Other Stories in the World's Classics series (1987), includes glossary and notes.

—Paul H. Scott