Conciliation, Resistance and the Unspeakable in the Heart of Mid-Lothian

Article excerpt

Scott's novels used to be seen as mixing regret for "the old days," when Scotland was an independent country, and "satisfaction at the peace, prosperity and progress which he felt had been assured by the Union."(1) This account has provided a useful way of thinking about the novels, but in some respects it is too simple. For while Scott was officially committed to the principle of Union, there is ample evidence of his dissatisfaction with some of its consequences. The Union left Scotland vulnerable to interfering reforms from London, such as the attempts to reform the Scottish legal system in 1807, and to abolish the small Scottish banknote in 1826 (both of which Scott opposed, fearful that Scotland might be left "tabula rasa for doctrines of bold innovation").(2) And it accelerated the economic transformation that threatened to undermine the traditional social fabric of Scotland.(3) Such developments alarmed and angered Scott, although he saw little scope for active resistance. His response to this dilemma has been described as "an ideology of noisy inaction.(4) The Heart of Mid-Lothian explores an alternative response, a passive resistance that involves evasion, concealment, a refusal to speak. This is also an aspect of Scott's own narrative technique, and offers a partial solution to the problem of representing Scottish feelings of alienation in a novel written for a polite British audience.


In The Heart of Mid-Lothian Scott's concern with resistance is focused most consistently by his representation of a family of Cameronian Covenanters. The choice of subject needs to be seen in relation to received views of Covenanting tradition, a tradition in which resistance to state authority had an important place. The Covenant, first instituted in the Reformation, was a solemn agreement binding individual Scots together as a nation, and binding them to God. It was renewed in 1638, and during the English civil war the Solemn League and Covenant was established (1643), committing both England and Scotland to establishing Presbyterianism as their national form of worship. When Charles II imposed episcopacy on the Kirk in 1662, a period of Covenanter defiance and government repression followed. In response to James II's attempts to crush the remnant of Covenanters, Richard Cameron and his followers declared war on the government in the "Sanquhar declaration." The history of these events was vigorously contested. In the hands of Whig historians, such as Defoe, Wodrow, and Cook, it offered dramatic examples of legitimate resistance to the oppressive, persecuting authority of a corrupt church and state in pre-Revolution Scotland, and of heroic martyrdom.(5) For Tory historians it offered examples of the dangers and absurdities of enthusiasm. The Tories were apt to deny that any Presbyterians were persecuted on matters of conscience. They portrayed the resisting Covenanters as a "Handful of desperate Ruffians" who "rendered themselves obnoxious to the Laws by repeated Murders, Robberies, and open Rebellions."(6) As Colin Kidd notes, Episcopalians exploited the Cameronians' claim to be the remnant of the true Kirk, suggesting that the Presbyterians of the established Kirk "were hypocritical Cameronians manques."(7)

Were the Covenanters to be celebrated as martyrs or condemned as half-crazed rebels and traitors? The issue was not simply a matter of distant history. Covenanting tradition was still venerated in the Scottish lowlands in the late eighteenth century, and in the early decades of the nineteenth. The two synods of the divided Secession church both sought to maintain the principles of the covenanted Church of Scotland. In the 1790s their adherents were thought to number between 100,000 and 150,000--perhaps 10 per cent of the Scottish population. They were spied on as potential Jacobins by the government, and according to John Brims "sent at least three ministers as delegates to the Scottish radical reformers" national conventions. …