Wandering Willie's Tale by Sir Walter Scott

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Scott’s novel Redgauntlet is made up of correspondence between Darsie Latimer and Alan Fairford—with most of the letters written by Latimer—and is supplemented by journal entries written by both men. The episode of Willie’s tale is reported by Latimer to Fairford, as related to Latimer by Willie. The tale is rendered in Scots dialect, which Latimer faithfully records—a regular feature of Scott’s writing style.

The story makes many references to “the forty-five”—a code name for the Jacobite uprising of 1745 that supported the monarchical claims of the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart. Willie appears again late in the novel when he fiddles the tune, “The Campbells Are Coming,” to alert those attending a Jacobite conspiracy meeting in time for them to be prepared for the law to enter.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Scotland in the Late Seventeenth Century
The story begins with an account of Sir Robert Redgauntlet’s involvement in actual historical events of the second half of the seventeenth century, including the mid-century civil wars and the persecution of the Covenanters after 1660. The Covenanters were the supporters of the Presbyterian National Covenant of 1638, which had aimed at abolishing bishops in the Church. During the civil wars of the 1640s, the Presbyterians succeeded in removing the bishops. After Charles II regained the throne in 1660, however, the bishops were restored, the Episcopalian opponents of the Presbyterians took over control of the national Church of Scotland, and many Presbyterian ministers lost their positions. Some of these ejected ministers took to preaching at open-air field-meetings, which the government tried to suppress. Open warfare broke out in 1679, resulting in the defeat of the Covenanters and the imposition of punitive measures on Presbyterians, such as fines, torture, and arbitrary trials and executions, especially during the ‘‘killing time’’ in the 1680s. However, the 1688 Revolution removed the Stuart king (then Charles’s brother James II) from the throne and led to the restoration of Presbyterian control of the Church of Scotland. The Church has remained Presbyterian ever since.

In the story, Sir Robert is on the side of the Episcopalians and the Stuarts, both of whom lost in the long run. Similarly, he is associated with the oldfashioned feudal organization of the countryside, in which tenants and landlords had more than just a monetary connection: certain tenants held their land in return for military service and other service in addition to monetary payment. In return, the land lord owed them protection and served as their leader in military activity. This system was dying out in the seventeenth century and was finally abolished by legislation that took effect in 1748.

Scott was sympathetic to lost causes and traditions like those associated with Sir Robert Redgauntlet. In Redgauntlet and other novels in his Waverley series, he writes sympathetically of the Jacobites, who fought for the lost cause of restoring the deposed Stuart monarchy, and who were basically the eighteenth-century version of Sir Robert. As Wandering Willie says, Sir Robert was a ‘‘Tory, as they ca’ it, which we now ca’ Jacobites.’’ For Scott, the Jacobites were associated with the past glories of Scotland, which fired his imagination, though at the same time he recognized that the passing away of those glories had been necessary to allow Scotland to develop into a modern, prosperous nation. This ambivalence towards the legacy of the past can be seen in the story: Sir Robert is dead and gone, and in any case was excessively violent, but there is a life to him even in hell which seems missing from his modern lawyer son.

Literary Influences
Colman Parsons, in his book Witchcraft and Demonology in Scott’s Fiction, traces the sources that Scott drew on for ‘‘Wandering Willie’s Tale,’’ notably a folk legend published in an 1814 work called Strains of the Mountain Muse by Joseph Train. This legend...

(The entire section is 2,696 words.)