The Celtic Voice In Walter Scott
’s ‘Waverley’ Essay, Research Paper
The Celtic Voice in Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’
One aspect of this novel which may not have received its due attention is Scott’s emphasis on the strength and vitality of traditional Scottish culture, especially folk poetry and music. The presence of such an element is hardly surprising, in as much as Scott’s first important literary work was an edition of Scottish folk ballads (’Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’, 1803).
The Celtic cultural aspect of ‘Waverley’ is scarcely mentioned by the author in his prefaces to the novel. Nonetheless, there is evidence to suggest that exposure to the old Celtic ways plays an important role in the development of the character of Edward Waverley throughout the novel.
When Edward enters the grounds of the manor-house at Tully-Veolan, the first human voice he hears is that of a strange individual singing an ‘old Scottish ditty’ (p. 82):
False love, and hast thou played me thus
In summer among the flowers?
I will repay thee back again
In winter among the showers.
Unless again, again, my love,
Unless you turn again;
As other maidens rove,
I?ll smile on other men
our narrators bardic apparition turns out to be Davie Gellatley, a villager reportedly not completely in his right mind, whom Bradwardine has adopted as his personal servant/fool and who compensates for his supposed defects with ‘a prodigious memory, and an ear for music’ (p. 105), and an immense repertory of traditional songs, which he sings almost incessantly. Davie, ‘half-crazed simpleton’ though he may be, is also a custodian of the collective Celtic memory.
Davie Gellatley at times recalls the Fool in ‘King Lear’ with his often too apropos ?scraps of minstrelsy?(p. 435). His aged mother (suspected of being a witch) declares: ‘Davie’s no just like other folk, puir fallow; but he’s no sae silly as folk tak him for’ (p. 440); and near the end, when the manor-house has been plundered and pillaged by the English troops and reduced to an apparently irreparable ruin, Edward identifies Davie’s tones among the wreckage:
‘Amid these general marks of ravage … he heard a voice from the interior of the building singing, in well-remembered accents, an old Scottish song:
They came upon us in the night
And brake my bower, and slew my knight
my servants a? for life did flee
and left us in extremitie? (ch. 63, p. 435).
The figure of Davie singing amid the ruins bears witness to the strength of the popular tradition which he and his songs embody.
Waverley’s residence at the Baron’s gradually leads him to venture into the Highlands proper. At Fergus MacIvor’s castle, the military exercises of the clansmen are conducted ‘to the sounds of the great war-bagpipe’ (p. 161), while the ceremonial dinner that follows, in the great hall, is also accompanied by three bagpipers (p. 164). The Highland feast terminates with a formal address from Fergus’ resident ‘bhairdh’ or bard, one MacMurrough, who ‘began to chant, with low and rapid utterance, a profusion of Celtic verses’, later rising into ‘wild and impassioned notes, accompanied with appropriate gestures’ (p. 165). His Gaelic chant acts as an expression of group solidarity, connecting each house and clan to that of their host Fergus MacIvor, and communicates itself as such to his audience:
Their wind and sun-burnt countenances assumed a fiercer and more animated expression; all bent forward towards the reciter, many sprung up and waved their arms in ecstasy, and some laid their hands on their swords’ (p. 166)
The bard is, like the fool, an archaic and archetypal figure; both, in their different ways, express through song the collective consciousness of their ancient heroic society.
The musical high-point of the novel occurs with the introduction of the chieftain’s sister, Flora MacIvor. Flora has studied ‘the music and poetical traditions of the Highlanders’, carrying out ‘researches’ and ‘inquiries’ in a conscious, organized fashion which parallels Scott’s own study of the Border ballads. It is through Edward?s interest in Celtic music that Flora?s brother Fergus introduces her to Edward:
Captain Waverley is a worshipper of the Celtic muse; not the less so perhaps that he does not understand a word of her language. I have told him you are eminent as a translator of Highland poetry?
Flora informs the guest that the recitation of poems forms the chief amusement of a winter fireside in the Highlands, and that bards such as MacMurrough are ‘the poets and historians of their tribes’. She also pays tribute to the musicality of Gaelic: ‘The Gaelic language, being uncommonly vocalic, is well adapted for sudden and extemporaneous poetry’ (p. 173). She invites the English visitor to a secluded glen in the castle grounds, where, by the side of a waterfall, she sings for him a ‘lofty Highland air’ translated to the English, accompanying herself on the harp and allowing her song to blend with the sounds of the cascade. Flora declares:
To speak in the poetical language of my country, the seat of the Celtic muse is in the mist of the secret and solitary hill, and her voice is in the murmur of the mountain stream’ (p. 177)
Waverley is overcome by ‘a wild feeling of romantic delight’, at her strains ‘which harmonised well with the distant waterfall, and the soft sigh of the evening breeze in the rustling leaves of an aspen’ (pp. 177-178). Flora’s woodland performance calls to the mind an archaic world where music and song are integrated into nature.
While Scott never makes it clear what position he takes on the Jacobite revolution it is, nevertheless, clear from the novel that Scott wished his readers to take Scottish culture seriously, and to value and respect the passionate, heroic qualities of the Celtic tradition. At a number of points in the narrative, English prejudices against things Scottish are exposed as being empty and stereotyped. Colonel Talbot, an English officer whose life Waverley saves, speaks contemptuously of ‘this miserable country’, and is described by the Scott as being ‘tinged … with those prejudices which are peculiarly English’ (p. 366); he calls the Gaelic language ‘gibberish’, adding for good measure that ‘even the Lowlanders talk a kind of English little better than the negroes in Jamaica’ (p. 387). Scott’s own feelings on the issue are clearly, by contrast, with the Highland ladies and friends of Flora’s who declare Gaelic to be more ‘liquid’ and better ‘adapted for poetry’ than Italian (p. 377). As an alternative to national antagonisms, Waverley’s marriage to Rose Bradwardine may be seen as symbolizing a certain Anglo-Scottish convergence, a mutual recognition of cultural value on both sides of the divide.
Music and poetry emerge from ‘Waverley’ as essential elements of that traditional Celtic society whose dignity and originality Scott’s novel clearly defends, at least in cultural terms. Scott was familiar with the musical and poetic traditions of the Lowlands, as is clear from his ballad studies. However, he chose in ‘Waverley’ to associate the Celtic muse with the Highlands as symbolizing all that was most classically and irremediably Scottish.