Walter Scott’s “Rob Roy” @ 200

What can Walter Scott’s sixth novel, Rob Roy, a phenomenal publishing success in 1817, tell us about the benefits and risks of a globalized economy today?

When Walter Scott’s sixth novel, Rob Roy, was published on December 30, 1817, it was a phenomenal success. By early January of the following year, a total of 10,000 copies had been printed and sold as the first, second, and third editions; a fourth edition, of 3,000 more, was printed by January 21. The novel was sent to London and Ireland and sold throughout Scotland. Glasgow seems to have proved a particularly fruitful market.1 American editions were published in New York and Philadelphia in 1818 and the novel was translated into French, German, and Hungarian.2 It was also adapted into chapbook, comic, and stage versions.3 Rob Roy represents the anonymous “Author of Waverley” at the height of his fame. And yet, two hundred years on, we might ask if the work still has value for modern readers. As Scott’s novel concerns itself with the benefits and virtues of a globalized economy, and the risks we run if we ignore those who are excluded from it, I consider the answer to be a resounding yes.

Nonetheless, Scott himself had reservations about the book, and would be surprised by its continuing relevance. His previous two novels, The Black Dwarf and The Tale of Old Mortality (which appeared together in 1816), had been published by John Murray and William Blackwood, and Scott had grown weary of them. For his new venture, then, Scott proposed to his agent John Ballantyne that they should approach the Edinburgh publisher Archibald Constable. The three met at Abbotsford on May 5, and by the end of this meeting a contract had been agreed for “a new Work in three Volumes … entitled Rob Roy.” Scott, however, was not entirely happy with the proposed title. According to one of Scott’s biographers, John Gibson Lockhart, “Constable said the name of the real hero would be the best possible name for the book,” to which Scott had protested, saying, “Nay … never let me have to write up to a name. You well know I have generally adopted a title that told nothing.” However, as Lockhart reports it, “the bookseller … persevered; and after the trio had dined, these scruples gave way.”

Scott’s reluctance to name the novel after the Scottish hero suggests just how much the character was already embedded in the public consciousness. Scott probably first encountered the story of Rob Roy when he went to the Highlands as a young man in 1790, but the hero had already been the subject of chapbooks and a pamphlet called The Highland Rogue (probably by Defoe) that appeared in London in 1723. Most famously, Wordsworth had in 1807 published his poem “Rob Roy’s Grave,” part of which Scott uses as an epigraph to the novel:

For why? Because the good old rule
Sufficeth them; the simple plan,
That they should take, who have the power,
And they should keep who can.

No wonder Scott did not want to “write up to” this name. It is clear that Rob had already been pitched as a kind of Highland Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, and this theme was probably too simple for the complex historical novel Scott wanted to develop.

His reluctance to write up to a name is also evident in the novel itself. Rob Roy is Scott’s only first-person novel, but it is not written in the voice of Rob Roy; instead the narrator is Scott’s fictional character Frank Osbaldistone, and Rob does not appear until well through the story, and then in disguise. Indeed, James Ballantyne, Scott’s printer (and the older brother of his agent), appears to have failed to recognize Rob at this point in the story. Scott teased him about it in a letter, writing “Never fear Rob making his appearance—if he has not done so already.” Constable perhaps also hoped that Scott would write an overtly Jacobite novel, building on the phenomenal success of Waverley, since Rob had certainly participated in the 1715 Jacobite Rising (one of several unsuccessful attempts to restore the exiled Stuart monarchy to the British throne, the most famous being led by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745–6). However, Jacobitism is in many ways tangential to the novel and, as David Hewitt, editor of the novel for the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels, notes, Scott refused to write the novel that had been anticipated by his publisher:

Scott seems deliberately to go against the grain. He denies [the] kind of expectation of the name Rob Roy. He denies the expectations that the Author of Waverley will write a Jacobite novel. He denies Wordsworth’s poetic fashioning of Rob Roy even though the epigraph on the title page suggests that what follows will expand on the Wordsworthian image. He denies the expectations of the kind of literature that the title proposes.

So, if Scott defies expectations with this text, what kind of novel does he write, and in what ways is it relevant for readers two hundred years after its publication?

Scott’s Rob Roy is Frank Osbaldistone’s story. A young Englishman who has been set to work in his father’s commercial enterprise, Frank baulks at such labor, preferring to think of himself as a budding poet. In order to knock some sense into him, his father sends him off to the north of England to spend time with some estranged Jacobite cousins, meanwhile replacing his son in the company with one of these wild young northern men. On his way north, Frank falls in with a Scotsman called Mr. Campbell (later to emerge as Rob). After spending time with his cousins and the beautiful Diana Vernon, with whom he becomes enamored, Frank has to travel to Glasgow and then the Highlands in an attempt to rescue his father’s business affairs, which have become tangled up in a plot to have the Highlands rise for the Jacobite cause. Rob is encountered several more times, both in Glasgow and in the Highlands. At least on the face of it, all ends well. The Jacobite rising fizzles out, the company is rescued, and Frank marries Di.

if Scott defies expectations with this text, what kind of novel does he write, and in what ways is it relevant for readers two hundred years after its publication?

But this synopsis, which suggests that Rob has little to do with the text at all, is, as so often with Scott, only the bare bones of the story. All the really interesting aspects of the novel occur in its deeper texture and in the ways in which the ostensibly disparate threads of the story come together. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Frank travels to Glasgow and meets with the wonderful Bailie Nicol Jarvie. Jarvie is a Lowland burgess and successful businessman, but he is also some kind of distant cousin of Rob Roy’s wife. He therefore has a foot in both camps, and as such represents the first of many reminders that the binary oppositions on which the novel apparently rests—Highland/Lowland, commerce/imagination, Scotland/England—are far more unstable than they may at first seem. When Frank joins the Bailie for dinner, interconnections between the ostensible opposites begin to emerge. Poor Frank is at first shocked by the meal that is set before him, which he considers homely and somewhat old-fashioned Scottish fare: “A tup’s head … a sheep’s head … boiled.” His father’s clerk, Owen, who also dines with them, eats “with rueful complaisance, mouthful after mouthful of singed wool.” However, what follows this delicacy is interesting:

When the cloth was removed, Mr. Jarvie compounded with his own hands a very small bowl of brandy-punch, the first which I had ever the fortune to see.

“The limes,” he assured us, “were from his own little farm yonder-awa,” (indicating the West Indies with a knowing shrug of his shoulders,) “and he had learned the art of composing the liquor from old Captain Coffinkey, who acquired it,” he added in a whisper, “‘as maist folk thought, among the buccaneers. But it’s excellent liquor,” said he, helping us around; “and good ware has aften come frae a wicked market. …

… We found the liquor exceedingly palatable, and it led to a long conversation between Owen and our host on the opening which the Union [of England and Scotland, in 1707] had afforded to trade between Glasgow and the British colonies in America and the West Indies, and on the facilities which Glasgow possessed of making up sortable cargoes for that market.

The implication is that while Jarvie may hold true to old Scottish customs, the world has changed. This is the modern commercial world of post-Union, early 18th-century Britain and trade is increasingly globalized, to use the current term; trade does not just take place at home, but in an increasingly interlinked commercial world, where one part of society is ever more dependent on the success of another.

And if this mesh of connections is true of trade, Frank also learns over dinner that it is true of politics. The conversation moves on to a discussion of Rob Roy and the state of the Highlands that he inhabits, since it is only by visiting Rob’s country, Jarvie tells Frank, that he can save his father’s business. Jarvie paints a grim picture of the economic deprivation in that part of Scotland, and his analysis is worth quoting at length:

“These Hielands of ours, as we ca’ them, gentlemen, are but a wild kind of warld by themsells, full of heights and hows, woods, caverns, lochs, rivers, and mountains, that it wad tire the very deevil’s wings to flee to the tap o’ them. And in this country, and in the isles, whilk are little better, or, to speak the truth, rather waur than the main land, there are about twa hunder and thirty parochines, including the Orkneys, where, whether they speak Gaelic or no, I wot na, but they are an uncivileized people.—Now, sirs, I sall had ilk parochine at the moderate estimate of eight hunder examinable persons, deducting childer under nine years of age, and then adding one-fifth to stand for bairns of nine years auld, and under, the whole population will reach to the sum of—let us add one-fifth to 800 to be the multiplier, and 230 being the multiplicand”—

“The product,” said Mr Owen, who entered delightedly into these statistics of Mr Jarvie, “will be two hundred and thirty thousand.”

… Now, sir, it’s a sad and awfu’ truth, that there is neither wark, nor the very fashion nor appearance of wark, for the tae half of thae puir creatures … Aweel, sir, this moiety of unemployed bodies, amounting to”—

“To one hundred and fifteen thousand souls,” said Owen, “being the half of the above product.”

“Ye hae’t, Maister Owen—ye hae’t—whereof there may be twenty-eight thousand seven hundred and fifty able-bodied gillies fit to bear arms, and that do bear arms, and will touch or look at nae honest means of livelihood even if they could get it—which, lack-a-day, they cannot.” …

… “In the name of God!” said I, “what do they do, Mr Jarvie? It makes one shudder to think of their situation.”

Frank may be horrified by this situation, but initially he cannot see how this relates to his father’s business and to the attempt to involve it in a Jacobite rising. What, he asks the Bailie, could Rob Roy possibly have to do with the affairs of his father?

“Why, ye are to understand,” said Jarvie, in a very subdued tone—“I speak amang friends, and under the rose—under the rose—ye are to understand, that the Hielands hae been keepit quiet since the year aughty-nine—that was Killiecrankie year. But how hae they been keepit quiet, think ye? By siller [silver], Mr Owen—by siller, Mr Osbaldistone. King William caused Breadalbane distribute twenty thousand gude punds sterling amang them, and it’s said the auld Highland Earl keepit a lang lug o’t in his ain sporran—And then Queen Anne, that’s dead, gae the chiefs bits o’ pensions, sae they had wherewith to support their gillies and katerans that work nae wark, as I said afore; and they lay bye quiet aneugh … Weel, but there’s a new warld come up wi’ this King George … there’s neither like to be siller nor pensions ganging amang them—they haena the means o’ mainteening the clans that eat them up, as ye may guess frae what I hae said before—their credit’s gane in the Lawlands, and a man that can whistle ye up a thousand or feifteen hundred linking lads to do his will, wad hardly get fifty punds on his band at the Cross o’ Glasgow; This canna stand lang—there will be an outbreak for the Stuarts—there will be an outbreak—they will come down on the low country like a land-flood, as they did in the waefu’ wars o’ Montrose, and that will be seen and heard tell o’ ere a twalmonth gangs round.”

The Bailie’s message is clear: Frank’s father’s papers and money have been stolen in order to prompt an economic crisis in the Highlands, and in turn to cause political rebellion. As Ian Duncan puts it, “The overpopulated Highlands have become the equivalent of a third-world debtor economy within the new British state, and a national credit collapse will push the clans into insurrection.”4 Highlands and Lowlands (and by extension the world of trade with which the Lowlands are interlinked) are not as separate as Frank may have believed; the land of Highland romance is not as cut off from the commercial world as he had imagined.

Scott, therefore, does not write a novel about a Highland hero who robs from the rich to give to the poor, but a novel about economics.5 Set in the burgeoning dawn of commercial modernity, Rob Roy recognizes that economies no longer exist in isolation; that in a globalized world countries do not stand alone, in prosperity or in crisis. The wealth of nations (as Adam Smith terms it), both economically and politically, lies in the success of them working together.


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It is perhaps on account of this recognition that the novel can speak to us two hundred years later. As national boundaries reassert themselves in the light of Brexit and the recent presidential elections both in Europe and the United States, Scott’s novel is a salutary reminder that as human beings our interests are not defined by arbitrary boundaries but are intrinsically interlinked. While, like Frank, we may believe that we have nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with economics, Scott reminds us that the condition of modernity is defined by a world that is interconnected.

But Scott also prompts us to learn an even more pertinent lesson, for he warns that there is danger when some are excluded from the discourse of prosperity. In Rob Roy some groups (most markedly the Highlands and its inhabitants) are seemingly shut out from the prosperity that a new globalized and commercial world has to offer. Jarvie suggests to Rob that he should move to Glasgow, and that the latter’s sons will find employment in its growing industries. Rob, however, tells Jarvie that he would see “every loom in Glasgow … burned in hell fire sooner!,” for he recognizes that he cannot move into Jarvie’s world without losing everything that forms part of his identity. And so too, while Frank gets the girl, by the time he is writing his memoirs Di Vernon is long dead: this Jacobite girl whose greatest fear was being trapped in the cage of a convent may not have been able to bear the “settled life” Frank provided for her. Such details cast a shadow over the apparent resolution of the text, reminding us that unless everyone can be included in the narrative of modernity there will be dark places at its edges.

This is a crucial point. Jarvie warns that if the Highlands aren’t prosperous they will rebel; if some remain excluded from the benefits that globalization can bring, there will be discontent. In the 18th century, Britain learned this lesson the hard way, for it did ignore the Highlands and in 1745 they did rebel, far more comprehensively than in 1715. Recent governments in the UK and the US have also ignored the lessons from history that Scott offers us, and they are now paying the price. What they have failed to recognize is that those who are not included in the economic prosperity others enjoy will become discontented, and they too will rebel. Rob Roy suggests that this discontent should not be addressed by closing our boundaries, however, but by recognizing that the world is inextricably interconnected and that the better path is to ensure that the whole of society benefits from the prosperity that commerce might bring. icon

  1. For full details of the novel’s publication history, see the Edinburgh Edition of Rob Roy, edited by David Hewitt (Edinburgh University Press, 2008), pp. 345–400.
  2. See William B. Todd and Ann Bowden, Sir Walter Scott: A Bibliographical History, 1796–1832 (Oak Knoll, 1998), pp. 443–45.
  3. For more information on adaptations, see Ann Rigney, The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move (Oxford University Press, 2012).
  4. Ian Duncan, “Introduction,” in Rob Roy, edited by Ian Duncan (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. xvii. Duncan also notes that the novel has less to do with “cultural loyalties” than with the “fluctuations of a modern, imperial economy” (p. xviii).
  5. In his edition of the novel, David Hewitt draws attention to the ways in which economics underpins this novel and to its connections to the theories of Adam Smith.
Featured image: Fray at Jeannie Mac Alpine’s (1836). Engraving by George Cruikshank of a scene from Rob Roy. Walter Scott Image Collection, Edinburgh University. CC BY 2.0