Old Mortality Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Henry Morton has the misfortune of being a moderate man, a man who can see both sides of a question. During the rebellion of the Covenanters against the Crown in 1679, his position became an exceedingly precarious one. His uncle and guardian is the squire of Milnwood, by faith a Covenanter and by nature a miser, and Henry’s dead father had fought for the Covenanters at Marston Moor. The story of his family is frequently cause for comment among the cavalier gentry of the district, especially at the tower of Tillietudlem, the home of Lady Margaret Bellenden and Edith, her granddaughter.

Henry and Lord Evandale contest as marksmen, and Edith Bellenden is among the spectators when Henry defeats his opponent. Declared the victor at this festival of the popinjay, Henry bows his respects to Edith Bellenden, who responds with embarrassed courtesy under the watchful eyes of her grandmother. After the shooting, Henry goes with friends to a tavern where some dragoons of Claverhouse’s troop, under Sergeant Francis Bothwell, are also carousing. Bothwell, a descendant of the Stuart kings through the bar sinister line, is a man of domineering disposition. Henry and his friends drink a toast to the health of the king; Bothwell, intending to humiliate the Covenanters, resolves that they should drink also to the archbishop of St. Andrew’s. A stranger in the company proposes the toast to the archbishop, ending with the hope that each prelate in Scotland will soon be in the same position as his grace.

Henry and the stranger leave the inn; soon afterward, word comes that the archbishop has been assassinated. Bothwell realizes then that the stranger must have been one of the plotters in the deed, and he orders a pursuit.

Meanwhile, Henry has learned that his companion is John Balfour of Burley, a Covenanter leader who had saved the life of Henry’s father at Marston Moor. That night, Henry gives Balfour lodging at Milnwood without his uncle’s knowledge and next morning shows the fugitive a safe path into the hills. Bothwell and his troops arrive shortly afterward. Henry is arrested and taken away. In company with Henry in his arrest are Mause Headrigg, a staunch Covenanter, and her son, Cuddie. The prisoners are taken to Tillietudlem Castle, where Claverhouse sentences Henry to execution. He is saved, however, by the intercession of Edith and Lord Evandale.

Lord Evandale brings information that a group of Covenanters is gathering in the hills, and Claverhouse gives orders to have his troops advance against them. At a council of war, Lord Evandale, among others, suggests a parley in which both sides can air their grievances. Claverhouse sends his nephew, Cornet Grahame, to carry a flag of truce to the Covenanters. Balfour and a small group meet Cornet Grahame, but the Covenanters refuse to meet Claverhouse’s demands. To the surprise and suppressed indignation of all, Balfour shoots Cornet Grahame in cold blood after an interchange of words.

The killing of the young officer is the signal for a general fight. Bothwell and Balfour meet beard to beard, and Balfour kills Bothwell with his sword as the dragoon stands defenseless, his sword arm broken by the kick of a horse. In the fray, Henry saves the life of Lord Evandale after the young nobleman’s horse had been shot from under him.

Balfour’s rebels are victorious and next plan to capture...

(The entire section is 1388 words.)