Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1047
An old minstrel, allegedly the last of his kind, wanders through the Scottish borders some time in the eighteenth century, lamenting the lost past; he asks for hospitality in Branksome Hall, the residence of the duchess of Buccleuch, and pays for his keep by singing a romance about her sixteenth century ancestors.
Lord Buccleuch has been killed in battle with the English, but his widow and children are well protected in Branksome Hall by a group of knights who had followed their dead leader. Although a truce has been declared, there are still skirmishes between the English and the Scots throughout the border country.
The widow, Lady Buccleuch, is the daughter of a magician; before he had died, he taught her to talk with the spirits.
One night, the lady hears the spirits predicting that the stars will show no favor to Branksome castle until pride should die and make love free. She presumes that this omen is meant for her, because her daughter, Margaret, loves the young Lord Cranstoun, who has fought against Lord Buccleuch. Lady Buccleuch swears nevertheless that Margaret shall never wed a foe of the family, no matter what the spirits might say. She sends William of Deloraine to Melrose Abbey to secure the mystic book of Michael Scott, a famous wizard who is buried in the abbey crypt. She orders William not to look into the book, on peril of his life.
The porter at the abbey leads the knight into to the wizard’s tomb: Deloraine, the bravest of knights in battle, shivers with dread as he looks down at the body of the magician, which is as well-preserved as if he had not been dead for a day. When the knight takes the book from the dead wizard’s hand, he seems to frown. As Deloraine leaves the vault, he hears noises reminiscent of the laughter and sobbing of friends.
While Deloraine is on his way back from the abbey, Margaret slips out of the castle to meet her lover, Lord Cranstoun, who is accompanied by the Dwarf, who had attached himself to the lord some time before and now refuses to leave him. The Dwarf, also known as Goblin, serves him as a page. The Dwarf warns the lovers of the approach of a horseman; it is Deloraine, returning from his mission. Margaret runs away and the two knights fight. Deloraine is seriously wounded.
Cranstoun orders the Dwarf to take Deloraine to Branksome Hall so that his wounds can be properly tended. The Dwarf finds the book but cannot open it until he has smeared the cover with the wounded man’s blood. While he is reading one of the spells described in the book, an unseen hand strikes him on the cheek and knocks him down; the book snaps shut and cannot be opened again. The Dwarf hides it under his cloak, then proceeds to Branksome Hall with the wounded Deloraine.
At the castle, the Dwarf sees the young master of Buccleuch. Changing himself and the boy into dogs, he leads the child into the woods. There, after they have resumed their real shapes, the child is captured by the English soldiers patrolling the border. His absence remains undiscovered at the castle, because the Dwarf returns and assumes the child’s shape, and then proceeds to make mischief. Lady Buccleuch, busy tending the wounds of her faithful knight, fails to notice the child’s strange behavior.
The sentinels in the castle sight signal fires, indicating that the English are gathering to attack the Scots. Messengers are hurriedly dispatched to summon friendly clansmen to the defense of Branksome Hall. In the confusion, the Dwarf, still in the form of the master of Buccleuch, escapes from the knight assigned to watch him.
The English arrive before the castle and make their demands. They want William of Deloraine turned over to them, accusing him of murdering the brother of one of their group. They also demand that two hundred English knights be quartered in Branksome, in order to prevent the Scots from carrying out raids on the English side of the border. If these demands are not met, they declare, the castle will be stormed and the heir of Buccleuch will be sent to the English court to serve as a page.
Lady Buccleuch refuses these demands. She proposes that Deloraine should meet the brother of the slain man in combat, to settle the dispute in knightly fashion. Initially, the English leaders refuse and then begin preparing to attack the castle when one of their number brings word that Scottish clansmen are approaching the castle. Fearful of being outnumbered, the English accept the proposal for a settlement by mortal combat between the two knights concerned, or by the wronged man and a substitute for Deloraine should his wounds not be healed in time.
Other knights argue over the right to represent Deloraine, who is still weak from his wounds, but at the last minute, a knight appears in Deloraine livery and armor, ready to fight. The fight lasts some time, and both knights lose a great deal of blood before the Englishman falls. The victor, standing triumphantly over his fallen rival, does not remove his visor. The spectators are amazed to see Deloraine approaching from the castle. The supposed Deloraine is revealed to be Lord Cranstoun, who has stolen Deloraine’s armor so that he might defend the hall and save Margaret’s brother. At first, Lady Buccleuch refuses to receive him, but remembers the prophecy of the spirits and concedes that she must forget pride and allow love to prevail. She consents to give her daughter to the knight who had been her husband’s enemy, and swears that she will return the book to Michael Scott’s tomb.
At the wedding feast, the Dwarf continues to make trouble. To undo the mischief he causes, the assembled minstrels sing songs of days gone past. As the last song dies away, the banquet hall grows suddenly dark. A flash of lightning strikes the Dwarf, who vanishes. Deloraine is terrified, having seen the form of the dead wizard in the unearthly light. Lady Buccleuch renounces the magic of her father, and the knights undertake pilgrimages to pray for Michael Scott’s soul.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 228
Cockshut, A. O. J. The Achievement of Walter Scott. London: Collins, 1969. A widely available introduction to the man and his work—reasonable, centrist, and modern. Chapters on Scott’s major poems precede those dealing with his novels and other works.
Davis, Lloyd. “The Story in History: Time and Truth in Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” Clio 18, no. 3 (1989): 221-238. Assesses the validity of the poem as history.
Elton, Oliver. “Scott’s Verse.” In A Survey of English Literature, 1780-1830. 2 vols. London: Edward Arnold, 1948. Originally published in 1912, when Scott’s poetry was more often read than now. Elton is particularly good on the transition between Scott’s Border Minstrelsy, which was mostly a collection of other people’s poems, and The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which was his own poem.
Goslee, Nancy Moore. Scott the Rhymer. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Includes separate chapters on The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake. Almost the only serious criticism of Scott’s long poems as wholes since modern techniques of analysis were developed, it deserves to be read in full.
Scott, Sir Walter. Poems. Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne, 1830. For this collected edition of his verse, Scott wrote chatty and sometimes helpful prefaces to each of his major poems. The original is hard to find, but these same prefaces reappear in many later editions.