Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744
Because the story describes an earlier time—about thirty years before the date of its telling—and tells of a way of life unfamiliar to many readers, the narrator begins by describing the occupation of the drovers, men who herded highland cattle from the fairs in Scotland down across the border to markets in England. The two drovers of the story, Robin Oig M’Combich, a Scottish highlander, and Harry Wakefield, an English lowlander, are classic representatives of their cultures. Robin embodies the fierce spirit of the Highlands: he takes pride in his skill as a drover, his highland heritage, and his name, taken from the most famous of the highland outlaws, Rob Roy, his grandfather’s friend. Harry Wakefield takes pride in his work and his prowess as a fighter.
After the Doune Fair, as Robin prepares to set off to the south, his aunt, Janet of Tomahourich, delays him so that she can perform the deasil, a traditional ceremony to protect the herd and the drover from harm. She cuts short her performance and warns Robin of danger, urging him to delay his journey. With the second sight of the highland seer, she sees English blood on his dirk, the dagger that the highlander carries for protection. Less a believer in highland superstition than his aunt, Robin tries to ignore her plea, but she insists that he leave his dirk behind. Finally, he agrees to entrust it to another drover, Hugh Morrison, who plans to follow Robin to the English markets.
Although they have traveled together for three years, Robin and Harry understand little of each other’s culture. Harry cannot master Robin’s unfamiliar tongue, and beyond their cattle and their occupation they have little about which to talk. Their personal friendship is deep, if unspoken, however, for they have shared many journeys, and on several occasions they have saved each other from danger.
On the fateful journey in the story, however, their personal friendship cannot overcome the cultural differences between them. Their falling out begins after they cross the English border and separate temporarily to seek pasturage for their herds. Harry negotiates for his pasture with a bailiff, the agent for a landowner. Unaware of Harry’s agreement, Robin secures permission for the same field from the landowner himself. The misunderstanding between the landlord and his bailiff becomes a quarrel between Harry and Robin. Bitterly Harry takes his herd to a poorer pasture, feeling that he has been mistreated and tricked by his Scottish friend.
That evening, Robin tries to patch up the quarrel, but Harry, urged on by his countrymen in the local inn, refuses to concede without a fight. He challenges Robin to settle their differences with his fists. When Robin declines to take on the much-larger Harry at his own game, Harry calls him a coward, taunts him, and knocks him to the ground. Robin reaches under his plaid for his dirk, the natural weapon of the highlander, before he remembers that he has given it to Morrison. Harboring the humiliation of Harry’s punches and the taunts of the Englishmen in the inn, Robin sets out to find Morrison and retrieve the weapon.
Two hours later, after walking six miles each way, he returns to the inn and confronts Wakefield. By this time, Harry has forgotten his injuries, and he offers his hand to his friend, but Robin pulls the knife and fatally stabs Harry through the heart. He has recovered his honor and shown that a highlander knows how to fight. Then he turns himself over to the law.
At the trial in Carlisle, the English judge recognizes that Robin’s act was not an act of cowardice but one prompted by a different code of honor. Had Robin responded to Harry’s taunts by pulling his dagger and stabbing his friend on the spot, the judge could have understood his crime as a highlander’s natural response to provocation. In that case, the charge would have been manslaughter. However, the two-hour delay while Robin went off to secure his dirk changed manslaughter into premeditated murder in the judge’s mind. In such a case the judge is compelled to demand the death penalty.
The judge’s distinctions are beyond Robin’s comprehension. He considers his death the natural conclusion to his destiny. “I give a life for the life I took,” he says as the tragic story ends, “and what can I do more?”
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