May 2024
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Notes about “Old Mortality” by Sir Walter Scott…

When Janice and I made our promise to Sir Walter Scott to read all his books, we certainly did not realise the magnitude of the task 😉 How many books did the great Scottish author write, I could not tell exactly but what I do know is that there are many of them! 😉

Today, I can check off another book on my reading list of Sir Walter’s books for I’ve just finished Old Mortality, generally considered as one of his greatest novels. My last reading was The Black Dwarf. Both stories, published in 1816, belong to the first series of Tales of my Landlord.

If I follow the chronological order of the novels published by Walter Scott, next on my reading list is Rob Roy.

Sir Walter Scott Monument Edinburgh © 2007 Scotiana

Sadly enough, the last two tales of the series were published in 1832, the very year of the author’s death at the age of 61. To honour his debts and those of his associates Sir Walter had worked himself to death. So many books had been published in so few years! His career as a novelist had hardly lasted more than 20 years.

Every time we visit Abbotsford we linger a long time in the author’s study and library, trying to imagine Sir Walter writing at his desk…

Sir Walter Scott’s desk Abbotsford Scotiana 2001

“As morning slowly lightened above the flow of the river Tweed, running broad and luminous over its pearl-white pebbles, Walter Scott, arrayed in a rough shooting-jacket, might have been seen lighting his library fire and seating himself at his desk. Never later than six a.m. he was well at work, – his papers neatly arranged before him, his books of reference set orderly beside him on the floor, – every tool and detail of his craft to hand, as befits a sound and scrupulous workman.”

(A Day with Scott by May Byron – Hodder & Stoughton )



Portrait of Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn 1822

“Scott’s fans and followers – to drop a name or two – list among their teeming thousands Jane Austen, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexandre Dumas, George Eliot, Friedrich Engels, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Washington Irving, Karl Marx, Herman Melville, Alexander Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy.”

(From The Unreliable Narrator of “The Bottle Imp” –  Issue 16: Sir Walter Scott)

Sir Walter was one of the most famous and influential writers of his time not only in his country but also abroad. At his time there was  no radio, tv or computer, but books and newspapers were king! In the decades following his death, the writer’s popularity fell and it was becoming more and more difficult to find his books, especially in the foreign countries where he had been so popular. Fortunately things seem to be changing now as Henri Suhamy points out in his excellent biography of  the author. Henri Suhamy is  a great admirer of Sir Walter and not only did he write a fascinating book about him but he also translated into French several of his best novels. These translations have been published in the prestigious Pleiade edition. I was particularly happy to learn that he appreciated M. Defauconpret’s translations (they are my favourite ones). M. Auguste Defauconpret was a contemporary of Sir Walter and also a great fan. He even visited him at Abbotsford, being so impressed that he hardly dared to speak, which greatly amused his host. A number of new editions, annotated and sometimes illustrated, are being published now and Walter Scott has become a great subject of study at university. On the internet one can find digital versions of his poems, novels and essays.  There are even several editions of his complete works. Personally, while I enjoy very much to browse the yellowed pages of my ancient editions of Sir Walter’s books, I have downloaded a number of them on my kindle ;-).

A trip down memory lane:

The reading of a novel by Sir Walter Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson always takes me back to my childhood years when I used to read every book I could get my hands on. One day, while I was spending my summer holidays at my grandmother’s house, I came across a whole pile of dusty old books sleeping in a still older cupboard …  l’île au trésor, IvanhoeQuentin Durward, Robinson Crusoe… these were illustrated books! It didn’t take me long to take the precious lot to my holiday shelter, under the shade of the old lime trees that stood in front of my grandmother’s house… soon I was immersed in the thrilling adventures of the wonderful tales contained in the books. That was my first encounter with two of the greatest Scottish writers. These were abbreviated books (fortunately for me!), adapted for young people. Of course there was no chance that I would come across a novel such as  Old Mortality (Les Puritains d’Écosse) in my grandmother’s cupboard 😉 and no need to say I knew nothing about Scotland then ;-).

Later, I became a great reader of short stories, fantastic and ghost stories. Sir Walter Scott as well as Robert Louis Stevenson, among many other Scottish authors have excelled in this kind of literature…

But it’s time go back to Old Mortality

Old Mortality Walter Scott 1816 Everyman’s Library 1968

A summary of Old Mortality:

I have found a good summary of Old Mortality on the page dedicated to this novel in the Walter Scott Digital Archive. This site is a  golden mine for the readers of Sir Walter Scott. As specified on its home page: “The Walter Scott Digital Archive is an Edinburgh University Library online resource created in the Centre for Research Collections. It is designed around our extensive Corson Collection of Walter Scott material.”



Old Mortality is set in 1679 against the backdrop of the military campaign waged by John Graham of Claverhouse’s government forces against a Covenanting army. The Covenanters had risen against Charles II in protest against the reintroduction of Episcopalian church government. This had led to the destitution of around 270 ministers, mainly in the West of Scotland, who had refused to take an oath of allegiance, to accept presentation to their charges by lay patrons, to submit themselves to bishops, and to recognize holy days. The expelled ministers retained the loyalty of many of their parishioners and continued to conduct worship in remote country spots. The attempt to break up these conventicles by military force and continued persecution of the Covenanters led to open revolt.

The hero, Henry Morton of Milnwood, a moderate Presbyterian, is arrested by Claverhouse’s troops for harbouring John Balfour of Burley, a Covenanting friend of his father. Unknown to Morton, Burley has participated in the murder of Archbishop Sharpe of St. Andrews (hated by the Covenanters for deserting their cause and aiding the restoration of Episcopalianism), the event which triggered the uprising. Morton is sentenced to death but is saved through the intervention of Lord Evandale, his friend and rival for the hand of Edith Bellenden. Incensed by the oppressive behaviour of the government forces, Morton makes common cause with the Covenanters and becomes one of their military leaders, exerting a moderating influence and striving to check the cruel fanaticism of many of his colleagues. He repays Evandale’s favour by twice saving his life, thus preserving the affection of the Royalist Edith. When the Covenanters are finally defeated at Bothwell Bridge, Evandale again intercedes to limit Morton’s sentence to exile. He enters the service of William of Orange, rises to the rank of major-general, and after the Revolution of 1688, returns to Scotland. He learns that Edith, believing him dead, is on the verge of marrying Evandale. Resolving not to interfere with their marriage, he remains incognito. He discovers, though, that Evandale’s life is threatened by Frank Inglis, a fanatical persecutor of Covenanters punished by Evandale for mutiny. Morton rides to Evandale’s rescue but is unable to prevent him being murdered in an ambush. With his dying words, Evandale blesses the union of Morton and Edith.

James Corson, “librarian, scholar and Scottophile”

Particularly interesting is the page dedicated to James Corson without whom the Digital Archive would not be what it is. James Corson (1905-1988) was certainly one of Sir Walter’s biggest fans, if not the biggest one.

The collection of Scott materials gathered by James C. Corson, librarian, scholar, and Scottophile, and now to be found in Edinburgh University Library’s Centre for Research Collections, is one of the most important collections of Scott materials in existence.

James Clarkson Corson was born in Edinburgh on 30 June 1905. He was educated at Daniel Stewart’s College, 1911-1924, before entering Edinburgh University to read history, in which he graduated on 28 June 1928. Corson stayed on at Edinburgh University for a further six years, obtaining the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 1934 for his thesis on ‘The English Revolution and the Doctrines of Resistance and Non-Resistance, 1688-1714: A Study in Sovereignty’

James Clarkson Corson first became infatuated with Walter Scott in 1917 as a result of reading The Lady of the Lake as a set text in his English class at school, and he devoured all the Waverley Novels whilst still in his teens. He visited Abbotsford for the first time in 1919, an experience which he later described as a ‘milestone’, and which started the infatuation with that building which was to last the rest of his life. He started to collect seriously from the Centenary of Scott’s death in 1932 onwards, when he began to amass posters, programmes, and newspaper cuttings. The first major public sign of his devotion to Scott appeared in 1943 with the publication of his A Bibliography of Sir Walter Scott: A Classified and Annotated List of Books and Articles Relating to his Life and Works 1797-1940. A major contribution to literary bibliography of the time, this work can still be used with profit (and caution) alongside Todd and Bowden’s magisterial Scott bibliography. (…)

I’ve added a  link to Wikipedia’s “chapter summary” for Old Mortality, it’s a very useful section…

1816: the year of the publication of Old Mortality

Old Mortality (In French Les Puritains d’Écosse) was published in May 1816…

  • 1816: “The year without a summer”… (times are changing!;-))
  • It will soon be a year since Napoleon, after the defeat at Waterloo, arrived as a prisoner in the remote island of “St Helena” after ten weeks at sea on board the HMS Northumberland. As a writer of historical novels and married to a French lady Sir Walter could only be interested by the Empereur’s story…
  • publication of Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk:  in July 1815, just six weeks after the Battle of Waterloo, Sir Walter set out for Flanders to visit the battlefield. He paid for the trip by writing Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk, a series of letters written by ‘Paul’ to various members of his fictitious family. In 1827 he will publish (under the pseudonym of the author of Waverley The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte – Emperor of the French. With a Preliminary View of the French Revolution (in 9 volumes.). These books are on my reading list!
  • In 1816 Sir Walter Scott was aged 45. His literary career had begun long ago and he was already very popular as a poet. Glenfinlas, his first poem, had been published in 1800 soon followed by a very successful  volume of poetry entitled Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803). His long narrative poems immediately met with great success. Among them The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (1808), The Lady of the Lake (1810) and The Lord of the Isles (1815) are the most famous ones.
  • When The Lord of the Isles, his last long poem, was published in 1815, Sir Walter had already launched into the writing of  novels but these novels, contrary to his poems, were published anonymously. Waverley, published in 1814, was his first novel and began the long series of his  “Waverley Novels”.  As Scott did not publicly acknowledge authorship until 1827, his following novels were published under the name of  “the author of Waverley”.

Composition and sources of Old Mortality

” “For Old Mortality, Scott relied on his own extensive knowledge of 17th-century historical sources, on contemporary pamphlets, and on oral traditions. Scott had a long-standing interest in the civil and ecclesiastical conflicts of the 17th century. He had included ballads describing the battles of the Covenanting period in the second volume of his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. His introduction and notes to those ballads provide a miniature history of the period and evidence that he was already a master of his sources.” (The Walter Scott Digital Archive)

Portrait of Sir Walter Scott writing in his study at Abbotsford – Sir Francis Grant 1831

On Sir Francis Grant’s painting, representing Sir Walter in his study, can you see the portrait hanging on the wall? It is the portrait of John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee. This is this portrait which is at the origin of The Tale of Old Mortality.

Of course you cannot fail to see, on the same painting, the two large dogs  standing near Sir Walter 😉

“… as close as the pile of books would permit, a couple of splendid dogs lay waiting and watching for their master’s frequent glance and word, – for, alike in work and conversation, Scott would often pause to speak to his dogs as though to friends and rational beigns – which indeed they were. Maida, the great iron-grey staghound, grave and stately, was hardly ever separated from his side…”

(A Day with Scott by May Byron – Hodder & Stoughton )

So, why is the portrait of John Graham of Claverhouse at the origin of the writing of Old Mortality?

I’ve found the answer in Edgar Johnson’s remarkable biography of Sir Walter Scott,  page 552 (the two volumes together contain approximately 1400 pages !).

“(…) Sir Walter received a visit from Joseph Train, who had provided him with so much antiquarian information for The Lord of the Isles and Guy Mannering.

(…) Before breakfast next morning, Train pored over the books in Scott’s library and admired the paintings – a full-length portrait of his host, a fine view of the island of Staffa, a portrait of Viscount Dundee, the famous Grahame of Claverhouse. He appeared, remarked Train, looking at that beautiful and melancholy face, much milder and gentler than one would imagine from the stories of his cruelties. “No man,” replied Scott, “has been more traduced by the Historians.” “Might he not, asked Train, be made a hero of a romance as interesting as Wallace or the Pretender?” (…) “He might,” said Scott, , “but your wester zealots” – the Covenanters – “would require to be faithfully pourtrayed to make the picture complete.”

Train saw that he had found a theme that excited Scott. “And if the story was delivered as if from the mouth of Old Mortality in a manner somewhat similar to The Lay of the Last Minstrel… ? he asked. “Old Mortality! Man! who was he? Momentarily, it seemed, Scott had forgotten his own meeting, some twenty years past, with the old man repairing the Covenanters’ tombs in the Dunnotar churchyard. But as Train summoned up the details he himself recalled and promised to collect more in Galloway, Scott’s own memories flowed back. With them a flame of imagination was lighted that soared into one of his greatest creative achievements, the novel Scott was to call Old Mortality. It would be the second of the four tales to be issued by Murray and Blackwood.

(Sir Walter Scott The Great Unknown Edgar Johnson – Hamish Hamilton 1970)

Another pseudonym for Sir Walter!

Sir Walter Scott The Great Unknown, the title of Edgar Johnson’s biography of Sir Walter,  is not innocent!

The first series of “Tales of my Landlord” (4 series in all), containing The Black Dwarf and Old Mortality (aka as The Tale of Old Mortality) was published in 1816. These tales are generally included in “The Waverley Novels” though they didn’t appear under the name of “The author of Waverley” but under the funny pseudonym of Jedediah Cleishbotham, a narrator largely introduced in the long “author’s Preface”.

“After an Introduction to the Tales of My Landlord, supposedly written by the novel’s (fictional) editor Jedediah Cleishbotham, the first chapter by the (fictional) author Peter Pattieson describes Robert Paterson (‘Old Mortality’), a Scotsman of the 18th century, who late in life decided to travel around Scotland re-engraving the tombs of 17th-century Covenanter martyrs. Pattieson describes at length meeting Robert Paterson, hearing his anecdotes, and finding other stories of the events to present an unbiased picture.” (Wikipedia)

Historical background

Most of the action of Old Mortality takes place in 1679 in the south-west of Scotland, during the reign of the catholic Stuart King Charles II (1660-1685) –  this year was marked by the revolt of the Scottish Covenanters followed by a period of harsh repression. Thre are three important dates to remember.

  • 2 May 1679 : assassination of Archbishop Sharpe of St Andrews.
  • 1 June 1679 : battle of Drumclog in South Lanarkshire between a group of Covenanters and the forces of John Graham of Claverhouse. Victory of the Covenanters.
  • 22 June 1679: battle of Bothwell Bridge fought between government troops and militant Presbyterian Covenanters. Defeat of the Covenanters followed by a massacre of the survivors and a period of persecutions.

Walter Scott is traditionally considered as the founder of the historical novel. He influenced many writers abroad, as Alexandre Dumas in France. Most of his novels (and much of his poetry as well) tells about history, Scottish history but not only. Quentin Durward, published in 1823, takes place in France. The story is about a  Scottish archer in the service of the French King Louis XI (1423–1483) who plays a prominent part in the narrative. Quentin Durward is exactly the kind of book which could be found in my grandmother’s cupboard, all the more since part of the story takes part at the castle of Loches, in Touraine, at about thirty kilometers from her house. 😉 We visited this old castle many times but I will come to that when I publish my notes about the novel… and I still have many books to read before reaching the line of Quentin Durward on my reading list of Walter Scott’s books 😀

Indeed, Scotland and France have shared many pages of history and have been linked by the Auld Alliance since the dawn of time… long before James VI of Scotland and I of England (Mary Stuart’s son), did unite the Crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland which later merged into a single Kingdom of Great Britain by the Act of Union 1707. And we must remember that Mary, Queen of Scots, known as Marie Stuart in France, was Queen of Scotland and France. One thing is sure, the friendship between our two countries will never end…

I won’t dwell any longer on the historical side of Old Mortality since it has been developed in the above summary of the novel. The story of the Covenanters is  a very important page of Scottish history, and a very complex one too. This period has caused and still causes a lot of ink to flow…

St Mary's Loch Scottish Borders © 2007 Scotiana

St Mary’s Loch Scottish Borders © 2007 Scotiana

The scenery in Old Mortality…

When, as a young girl, I first discovered the books of Walter Scott I was not very fond of long descriptions and it was good because there was none in the abridged editions ;-). Today it’s exactly the contrary. I’m looking for them and more particularly the descriptions of landscapes.  And don’t talk me about the Scottish landscapes !  We’ll never get tired of them ! In Old Mortality, as in the other works of Sir Walter, the landscape plays a very important part, creating the atmosphere, always in keeping with the action and the mood of the characters. Walter Scott gives us a good idea of what makes the Scottish landscape so special. We must keep in mind that Walter Scott was a tireless walker and an excellent rider. Since his childhood he had travelled far and wide his country and as he knew it perfectly he was second to none to describe it. As a passionate antiquarian and historian, he also loved ruins and castles and like his contemporaries, the poets William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Coleridge (1772-1834), his writings marked the beginning of the romantic era.

The action of Old Mortality takes place in Lanarkshire, a Scottish historic county situated in the South of Scotland. Many descriptions of its landscapes ring a bell because we crossed them while travelling through Scotland (moorland – hills – tumultuous rivers and cascades – lochs and old castles).

The Linklater fall – Old Mortality 19th illustration – Unknown artist

From chapter 41 to 42 the action takes place in a wild and solitary landscape, sometimes grandiose (the waterfall).  Following directions from Niel Blane, Henry Morton arrives at Bessie Maclure’s inn. The blind woman tells her sad story and informs Henry about Burley’s current retreat at the Black Linn of Linklater. The following day, Peggy, Bessie’s granddaughter, leads Henry to the Black Linn where Burley has a document which could restore Edith to Tillietudlem…

Here’s an extract of the description of the impressive landscape:

“In the grey of the morning,” Bessie said, “my little Peggy sail show ye the gate to him before the sodgers are up. But ye maun let his hour of danger, as he ca’s it, be ower, afore ye venture on him in his place of refuge. Peggy will tell ye when to venture in. She kens his ways weel, for whiles she carries him some little helps that he canna do without to sustain life.”
In what retreat, then,” said Morton, “has this unfortunate person [Burley] found refuge?”
“An awsome place,” answered the blind woman, “as ever living creature took refuge in; they ca it the Black Linn of Linklater…”
(..)The mountain maid tript lightly before him, through the grey haze, over hill and moor. It was a wild and varied walk, unmarked by any regular or distinguishable track, and keeping, upon the whole, the direction of the ascent of the brook, though without tracing its windings. The landscape, as they advanced, became waster and more wild, until nothing but heath and rock encumbered the side of the valley…
They soon came to a decayed thicket, where brambles and thorns supplied the room of the oak and birches of which it had once consisted. Here the guide turned short off the open heath, and, by a sheep-track, conducted Morton to the brook. A hoarse and sullen roar had in part prepared him for the scene which presented itself, yet it was not to be viewed without surprise and even terror. When he emerged from the devious path which conducted him through the thicket, he found himself placed on a ledge of flat rock projecting over one side of a chasm not less than a hundred feet deep, where the dark mountain-stream made a decided and rapid shoot over the precipice, and was swallowed up by a deep, black, yawning gulf. The eye in vain strove to see the bottom of the fall; it could catch but one sheet of foaming uproar and sheer descent, until the view was obstructed by the proecting crags which enclosed the bottom of the waterfall, and hid from sight the dark pool which received its tortured waters; far beneath, at the distance of perhaps a quarter of a mile, the eye caught the winding of the stream as it emerged into a more open course. But, for that distance, they were lost to sight as much as if a cavern had been arched over them; and indeed the steep and projecting ledges of rock through which they wound their way in darkness were very nearly closing and over-roofing their course…
They were nearly opposite to the waterfall, and in point of level situated at about one-quarter’s depth from the point of the cliff over which it thundered, and three-fourths of the height above the dark, deep, and restless pool which received its fall. Both these tremendous points—the first shoot, namely, of the yet unbroken stream, and the deep and sombre abyss into which it was emptied—were full before him, as well as the whole continuous stream of billowy froth, which, dashing from the one, was eddying and boiling in the other. They were so near this grand phenomenon that they were covered with its spray, and well-nigh deafened by the incessant roar. But crossing in the very front of the fall, and at scarce three yards distance from the cataract, an old oak-tree, flung across the chasm in a manner that seemed accidental, formed a bridge of fearfully narrow dimensions and uncertain footing. The upper end of the tree rested on the platform on which they stood; the lower or uprooted extremity extended behind a projection on the opposite side, and was secured, Morton’s eye could not discover where. From behind the same projection glimmered a strong red light, which, glancing in the waves of the falling water, and tinging them partially with crimson, had a strange preternatural and sinister effect when contrasted with the beams of the rising sun, which glanced on the first broken waves of the fall, though even its meridian splendour could not gain the third of its full depth. When he had looked around him for a moment, the girl again pulled his sleeve, and, pointing to the oak and the projecting point beyond it (for hearing speech was now out of the question), indicated that there lay his farther passage…

This terrifying passage is situated at the end of the novel and it’s only an extract!

Grey Mare's Tail - Dumfries & Galloway - Scotland © 2004 Scotiana

Grey Mare’s Tail near Moffat – Dumfries & Galloway © 2004 Scotiana

Grey Mare’s Tale may have inspired Sir Walter Scott for the description of the Linklater Fall. It’s a very impressive and dangerous place. Here, in 2004,  we witnessed a tragical scene, taking place between a yew and her lamb. The little one, isolated on a steep rock, was in danger of falling into the precipice. He was bleating desperately and his mother answered him, trying to approach him. Soon several sheep came to the rescue and soon the little lamb was out of danger…


But I would also like to draw your attention to another passage situated at the very beginning of Old Mortality: the description of the churchyard where Peter Pattieson, the assistant schoolmaster of Gandercleugh, falls on Old Mortality repairing Covenanters’ gravestones. We’ve visited a number of very picturesque churchyards in Scotland and I find Sir Walter’s description of the atmosphere of the place with his mossy gravestones particularly good.

“My chief haunt, in these hours of golden leisure, is the banks of the small stream, which, winding through a ‘lone vale of green bracken,’ passes in front of the village school-house of Gandercleugh (…) farther up the narrow valley, and in a recess which seems scooped out of the side of the steep heathy bank, there is a deserted burial-ground (…) “It is a spot which possesses all the solemnity of feeling attached to a burial-ground, without exciting those of a more unpleasing description. Having been very little used for many years, the few hillocks which rise above the level plain are covered with the same short velvet turf. The monuments, of which there are not above seven or eight, are half sunk in the ground, and overgrown with moss. (…)

Illustration of Old Mortality repairing Covenanters’ gravestones


“One summer evening, as in a stroll, such as I have described, I approached this deserted mansion of the dead, I was somewhat surprised to hear sounds distinct from those which usually soothe its solitude, the gentle chiding, namely, of the brook, and the sighing of the wind in the boughs of three gigantic ash-trees, which mark the cemetery. The clink of a hammer was, on this occasion, distinctly heard; and I entertained some alarm that a march-dike, long meditated by the two proprietors whose estates were divided by my favourite brook, was about to be drawn up the glen, in order to substitute its rectilinear deformity for the graceful winding of the natural boundary. (…) As I approached, I was agreeably undeceived. An old man was seated upon the monument of the slaughtered presbyterians, and busily employed in deepening, with his chisel, the letters of the inscription, which, announcing, in scriptural language, the promised blessings of futurity to be the lot of the slain, anathematized the murderers with corresponding violence. A blue bonnet of unusual dimensions covered the grey hairs of the pious workman. His dress was a large old-fashioned coat of the coarse cloth called hoddingrey, usually worn by the elder peasants, with waistcoat and breeches of the same; and the whole suit, though still in decent repair, had obviously seen a train of long service. Strong clouted shoes, studded with hobnails, and gramoches or leggins, made of thick black cloth, completed his equipment. Beside him, fed among the graves a pony, the companion of his journey, whose extreme whiteness, as well as its projecting bones and hollow eyes, indicated its antiquity. It was harnessed in the most simple manner, with a pair of branks, a hair tether, or halter, and a sunk, or cushion of straw, instead of bridle and saddle. A canvass pouch hung around the neck of the animal, for the purpose, probably, of containing the rider’s tools, and any thing else he might have occasion to carry with him. Although I had never seen the old man before, yet from the singularity of his employment, and the style of his equipage, I had no difficulty in recognising a religious itinerant whom I had often heard talked of, and who was known in various parts of Scotland by the title of Old Mortality.

Tilliedudlem Castle :

The fictitious castle of Tillietudlem seems to be based on two existing castles well known by Sir Walter:

“Scott’s descriptions of Lanarkshire derive largely from a visit to Bothwell Castle, seat of Archibald Lord Douglas, in autumn 1799, which had included an excursion to the ruins of Craignethan Castle. Elements of both buildings are combined to construct the Castle of Tillietudlem in Old Mortality. Scott made further visits to Lanarkshire in 1801 (as a guest at Hamilton Palace) and in summer 1816.”

(The Walter Scott Digital Archive)



Of course Charles S. Olcott’s book The Country of Sir Walter Scott is open on my desk at the required chapter of Old Mortality.  It’s always a pleasure to follow in the steps of this writer in search of Sir Walter… it gives me new ideas for a new trip in Scotland, for our Scottish literary pilgrimage ;-).


Charles S. Olcott The Country of Sir Walter Scott Cassell edition 1913

The scenery of ‘Old Mortality’ required us to explore the course of the river Clyde for almost its entire length. This picturesque stream rises in the high country near Moffat.(…)

Following the downward course of the stream we came to the ruins of Craignethan Castle, at the juncture of the Nethan with the Clyde. ‘A crag above the river Nethan’ is the literal meaning of the name. This is Tillietudlem, the castle which Scott made the residence of Lady Bellenden and her granddaughter, Edith. A ravine under the old castle of Lanark, near by, known as Gillytudlem, no doubt suggested the name.

In the autumn of 1799, while on a visit to Lord Douglas at Bothwell Castle, on the Clyde, Scott made an excursion to Craignethan and, as he afterwards said, immediately fell in love with it so much that he wanted to live there. Lord Douglas offered him the use for life of a very good house at one corner of the court. It was built in 1665 and we found it still in excellent repair. Scott did not at once decline the offer, but circumstances made it impossible to accept. That he made a very careful examination of the ruin, however, is shown by the unusually accurate descriptions.

The castle stands on a high rock, reached by a long road through the woods, by the side of a deep glen. I climbed some stairways through a corner of the building which still remains intact, and stood on the ruined battlement from which Major Bellenden valiantly defended the castle. (…)

From this point also I had a good view of the court (…).In the centre of the court is the entrance gate, formerly the chapel; on the right a watch-tower and stable, and on the left the very substantial house now occupied by the keeper’s family, to which I have referred.

The keeper next conducted me to the rear of the castle, where he pointed out a well-preserved square tower below which the ground slopes at a sharp angle to the river’s edge. The lower part was used as a dungeon, where we may suppose Henry Morton to have been confined. (…) Above the dungeon was the kitchen and pantry, with windows perhaps twenty feet above the ground. At the corner there was once an old yew, the stump of which may still be seen.

Readers of ‘Old Mortality’ will recall that during the siege of the castle, Cuddie Headrigg, though an old servant, found himself with the opposing army. With five or six companions he found his way to the rear, where there was less danger, and proceeded to attempt to capture the stronghold by climbing the tree and gaining access through the window of the pantry. (…)

(The Country of Sir Walter Scott – Charles S. Olcott – Cassell 1913)

I could say much more about Old Mortality but it’s time for me to put an end to these notes.

I hope you will have as much fun reading this page as I had writing it.  Above all, I hope that I would have made you want to read this great novel.

Bonne lecture!

Á bientôt 😉




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