Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Scott embodies the historical and cultural differences he describes in differences of language. Robin speaks the language of the Highlands, a dialect frequently requiring parenthetical translation even for readers of Scott’s time. Harry’s language is that of an uneducated farmer from the north of England, and it contrasts with the more literate and literary prose of the judge of the English court where Robin is tried.

The gaps of understanding between cultures that lead to Harry’s murder, Robin’s execution, and the failure of understanding on the part of the judge lie at the heart of the pattern of tragic inevitability that gives this story its force. None of the actors can be said to be acting only out of individual character or to be revealing personal flaws. Each articulates the limitations of his culture. Scott sets the tone of tragic inevitability with the prophecy of Janet of Tomahourich, who prophesies her nephew’s doom. As the story moves forward, her prophecy becomes increasingly probable until the final meeting of Robin and Harry brings the inevitable conclusion. In his longer novels, Scott usually found means for comic resolution to the problem of cultural assimilation: The hero could learn how to live between two cultures, between his traditional Scottish identity and his growing British allegiance. However, in this short story, Scott presents the confrontation in stark and tragic terms. Only the distance of history, that later view shared by Scott and his readers, can provide the larger perspective necessary to understand the destruction caused by cultural prejudice and historically determined shortsightedness.