Historically inaccurate and filled with diction extravagant by modern standards, THE SCOTTISH CHIEFS: OR, THE LIFE OF SIR WILLIAM WALLACE is nevertheless a work of interest today, for it vividly portrays the political and military milieu of late thirteenth century and early fourteenth century Scotland. Jane Porter studied much literature about Sir William Wallace, Scotland’s national hero, beginning with the heroic couplets written about him by Blind Henry the Minstrel in the fifteenth century. She used the information thus gathered to create a fast-paced medieval romance focusing on Wallace’s life. The emphasis in the novel is on Wallace’s military exploits in defense of Scotland and on his chivalry.
In a series of plots and counterplots, battles and retreats, Porter pictures Wallace as a military genius. With the help of other Scottish chiefs and their families and patriotic common folk, the young man thwarts the English who would rule Scotland. He knows when to run from the enemy, as evidenced in his decisions to hide in trees, behind waterfalls, and among crags and thickets in the deep glens. He also knows how to fight. Although greatly outnumbered, his troops win several battles because of his tactical strategy and his ability to inspire a fervor for justice in his soldiers. Notable among his successes is the defeat of thirty thousand Englishmen under Lord Warden by five thousand Scots.
In addition to military prowess, Sir William possesses other virtues characteristic of the medieval knight. He is merciful to his enemies. When, for example, his armies invade the English countryside, he restrains them from murdering the people and laying waste the land; he insists that the soldiers merely replace goods taken by the English from Scotland. Wallace is also protective of women. Not only does he twice rescue Lady Helen, first from de Soulis and then from de Valence, but also he suffers in silence the lies that her stepmother tells about him to maintain the honor of Helen’s family.
All in all, Porter’s Wallace is an exemplary man, no discredit to the real Wallace, to whom Scots still pay homage.