Old Mortality (Sir Walter Scott)

Sir Walter Scott. Old Mortality.  New York: Oxford Press.

This book isn’t as anti-Presbyterian as one might expect.  He isn’t making fun of the Covenanters. Indeed, if internet Covenanters today are the standard to go by, Scott is quite gentle.  As far as Scott’s novels go, this is acknowledged to be one of the better ones. The reason is quite simple: the story just flows better.

Like the rest of Scott’s novels, it’s important to pay attention early on.  If you get a good grasp on “who’s who,” his writing style is easy to follow.

Protagonist: Henry Morton.  Morton fights for liberty of conscience.  That’s what drives him, even more than love.

Love interest: Edith Bellenden.  Lady Margaret’s granddaughter.

Lady Margaret Bellenden: arch-royalist.  She’s funny. Back in the day King Charles I visited her castle.  She never fails to remind everyone of “that one day when his most sacred Majesty….”  Her servants can usually see this coming so they have devised ways to head her off.

Whigs vs. Tories

Initial Problem

In order to weaken the stricter Presbyterians, the law said that local communities had to train their militias on the Sabbath.  Furthermore, each laird had to meet a quota. Our story starts at one such militia gathering.

The “change” that happens to Henry Morton is perfectly captured.  Scott notes, “Desperate himself, he determined to support the rights of his country, insulted in his person” (160). Many god-fearing citizens throughout history aren’t really fanatical.  And this is a warning to the Deep State today: there is a limit beyond which we will not be pushed. Don’t go there.

There is even more to Morton’s development.  He finds himself on the opposite side of the war with his girlfriend.  She can’t forgive his “treason,” yet he knows he simply can’t lay down his arms and come back to her.  This is what Scott calls a new “Manly” moment in Morton’s life. Manly for Scott, and for the ancients, meant something like a firm resolve.  Morton wants to be with his girlfriend, but other things have to change first.

Scott doesn’t pull any punches.  In some ways this is the best argument for the non-establishment of religion.  The Covenanters are persecuted, and there is one tough scene of torture at the end of the book.  However, Scott, through Morton, reminds us that if the roles were reversed, the Covenanters would not allow freedom of religion to the so-called prelatists.

Henry Morton is a hero because he steers the middle course. Scott has created the problem perfectly.  Morton can’t just abandon the Whigs and join his lover because that would also abandon his principles–and she knows it.

I can usually anticipate how Scott will end a story, but this ending caught me completely off guard.


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