Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

Montrose and Modern Memory: The Literary After-Life of the First Marquis of Montrose

Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

Montrose and Modern Memory: The Literary After-Life of the First Marquis of Montrose

Article excerpt

Abstract

By addressing the ways in which historical and fictional texts from the mid-seventeenth century to the present have depicted the first marquis of Montrose (1612-1650), this article emphasises the influence of religious partisanship on Scottish historiography; the distorting lens that Romanticism offered to those seeking to understand the religious and national trauma of the covenanting wars; the influence of pre-1745 events on the interests of Victorian literary Jacobitism; the impact of populism on the cult of Montrose; and the revisionism of twentieth and twenty-first century texts that question the dichotomy of cavalier and covenant presented by earlier writers and suggest a subversive reading of the heroism evoked in conventional appreciations of the life of the marquis.

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Instead of the monuments in stone, the festivals, and the commercialisation that commemorated and exploited the contributions of William Wallace, Robert Bums and others to the grand narratives of Scotland's history, it was the written word that was the principal means by which the legacy of the first marquis of Montrose (1612-1650) was carried across the centuries. (2) The association of Montrose with literature goes beyond the few lines of poetry he penned during his lifetime. (3) It also goes beyond his writings related to political philosophy, be they his sole composition or the voice of Lord Napier, as it were, speaking through him. (4) Further, it is far more complex than the hagiography offered by George Wishart which, hung round the neck of Montrose during his execution, was Montrose's 'proudest ornament on the scaffold'. (5) Rather, a more intriguing state of affairs is suggested by the fact that it was as the Montrose of Walter Scott's novel, A Legend of Montrose (1819) that this awkward hero appeared first in stone, alongside the fictional Dugald Dalgetty, on the Scott Monument on Edinburgh's Princes Street.

Perhaps it is hardly surprising: it is difficult for a nation to celebrate a man whom its 'founding fathers' executed, and even more so when he appeared to change sides in the course of his life, from Covenanter to Royalist. Simply, Montrose was doomed to criticism from both factions, no matter which was in the ascendancy. In this regard he shatters the idea of the puritan provincial aesthetic proposed by Susan Manning, injecting doubt in 'the powerful attraction of the Calvinist towards monovalency--the right path, the one true Church'. Montrose is certainly an exemplar of the puritan who 'finds release from the deadlock of contemplation only in action', and his life story is surely illustrative of the puritan impulse where man's relationship with his conscience is central. Yet his toleration is suggestive of the 'laxity' Manning sees as presaging 'moral and spiritual degeneracy', and, in more mundane terms, his handsome demeanour evokes a certain puritan scepticism with respect to appearances. (6) For all that, fiction (at one time or another), arguably allowed Montrose to acquire in death the heroic status his life denied him, and escape the nuances and qualifications of history. Historical novelists are constrained by fundamental facts relating to his life, but the Montrose legacy is far more complex than the foreclosed narrative of a biography offered to both historians and story tellers might first suggest. What we might call the cult of Montrose changed over time and responded to the pressures of each age. Through it we can see the impact of Presbyterianism on Scottish history, at once shifting, accommodating, and rejecting the romanticism of the early nineteenth century. We can identify the influence and the distorting lens of the English historical tradition, and the impact that the populism born of mass literacy and the cheap printed word had on the 'debatable lands' between history and literature. Finally, we can detect a maturing acceptance of the contradictions in our nation's history, meaning that the subversive and conservative potential of our past are seen not in opposition but as constitutive of one another. …

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