Chronicles of the Canongate
THE HIGHLAND WIDOW, THE TWO DROVERS, THE SURGEON'S DAUGHTER
From the wilds of the Scottish Highlands to the dusty streets of Madras, three stories of journeys and homeland allegiances
Set within a framing narrative, these three stories take place in the years following the Jacobite defeat and feature characters who are leaving Scotland to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In two of Walter Scott's best-known tales, The Highland Widow and The Two Drovers, two young men are torn between traditional Scottish loyalties and the opportunities offered by England. The Surgeon's Daughter follows three young Scots to India during the first years of the British Empire. All three highlight Scott's unique gift for re-creating the spirit of historical eras and painting stirring portraits of Scottish people.
Student review by Jamie Henfrey.
A Review of Walter Scott’s ‘Chronicles of the Canongate’
Sir Walter Scott’s Chronicles of the Canongate (Penguin Classics, 2003) consists of three short stories: The Highland Widow, The Two Drovers, and The Surgeon’s Daughter. The collection is named after the Canongate area of Edinburgh. When Scott wrote the stories in 1826, Canongate was an undesirable area (which is interesting considering that Scott became insolvent before he wrote the stories). The three tales are linked through a narrator, the fictitious Chrystal Croftangry, who has retired to the Canongate area (Scott put a lot of himself into Croftangry).
The stories are also linked thematically: each tells the tale of people who are leaving Scotland to seek their fortunes abroad. ‘The Highland Widow’ is perhaps the most highly regarded of the stories – Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in a letter that he thought it Scott’s masterpiece. The Highland Widow in question is Elspat MacTavish, who wishes for her son Hamish to follow in his father’s footsteps; however, Hamish aspires to leave Scotland for America by joining the army. The Highland Widow has been described as “a tragic tale of human will”, and rightly so.
In ‘The Two Drovers’ we encounter Robin Oig, a Highland drover who is preparing to go to England. After a misunderstanding, Robin has a dispute with his English friend, Harry, which results in Robin killing Harry with his dirk (dagger). The story is apparently based on an account that Scott heard regarding a real life murder of an English drover by a Scottish drover.
The last story in the collection, ‘The Surgeon’s Daughter’, is unique as it is set in India during the early years of the British empire; it is one of the earliest pieces of historical fiction set in India, yet it is not one of Scott’s best pieces of work (it’s “smothered in melodrama and curry powder” according to George Gordon). The story begins in Middlemas, Scotland with three young people who live in the house of a doctor, one of whom is his daughter, Menie; the other two are apprentices of the doctor, Richard Middlemas and Adam Hartley. Both men love Menie, and all three characters go to India.
Chronicles of the Canongate is one of Scott’s lesser-known works. The three short stories are engaging historical fiction set in late eighteenth century Scotland. The Penguin Classics edition is accessible; it contains a useful glossary of Scots and Gaelic words and phrases which appear in the text, and explanatory notes.