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The Fair Maid of PerthA novel by Sir Walter Scott
Set in Perth at the time of the battle of the North Inch this novel is a masterpiece from the pen of this popular author and although an enormous read the story moves along quite well and is never boring. The book is peppered with words which are a complete mystery to the sassenach, presumably derived from Gaelic or ancient Scottish dialect, however the context in which they are set sometimes helps to convey the meaning and their presence doesn’t detract but contributes massively to the authenticity of the storyline. The main characters are:-
Simon Glover, as his name suggests a glove maker and respected burgher of Perth.
Catharine Glover his daughter “the fair maid of Perth”.
Henry Gow, blacksmith and armourer.
Conachar, son of the chieftain of Clan Quhele and Simon’s apprentice.
King Robert III of Scotland.
The Duke of Albany the King’s brother.
The Duke of Rothesay the King’s son and heir.
Sir John Ramorny, Rothsay’s master of horse and accomplice in revelry.
Henbane Dwining a roguish apothecary.
Oliver Proudfoote a bonnet maker.
Bonthron a hard drinking dogsbody employed by Sir John Ramorny.
Father Clement a dominican priest with unorthodox views.
It is the late fourteenth century and Britain is staunchly Roman Catholic with the pope and his bishops very powerful, and within its walls the citizens of Perth are relatively prosperous, religious and law abiding with King Robert III in residence and secular power in the hands of the local nobility. Further north in the highlands it is a different story with the highland clans ruling the roost involved in low level crime and the inevitable suspicion and feuding. King Robert is rather indecisive and relies on his brother the Duke of Albany for advice, given very often with his own self interest and ambition for the crown uppermost in his mind, and the Earl of Douglas (Black Douglas) and his armed followers, his enforcer, having been forsaken by his other ally the Earl of March. Valentines Day in the fourteenth century seems to have had a greater significance than it has today and although its main purpose was to enable romance to blossom it was also an excuse for high jinks revelry and mischief, mainly the domain of the youthful and wayward David, Duke of Rothesay, the King’s son and heir to the throne.
At the centre of the story is Catharine Glover, the Fair Maid, who is being encouraged by her father to accept the offers of marriage from Henry Gow, blacksmith, armourer, honourable burgher and champion of the people, whom everyone respects and looks to for support in times of trouble. Catharine has two other admirers, in her father’s apprentice Conachar who is completely infatuated with her, and the other the dangerous womaniser the Duke of Rothesay, however she fails to recognise Conachar’s affection and is unaware she has attracted the attention of the heir to the throne. Henry Gow being a friend of Simon is a frequent visitor to the Glover household and as the preferred suitor for his daughter’s hand is frequently encouraged to propose to the maiden who is rather cool towards him and not at all enthusiastic about marriage. The family has become close to Dominican brother Father Clement and under his influence are rather proud of their steadfast observance of religious practices and aspire to the highest moral virtue. Henry has proved himself an effective warrior in a noble cause and is highly skilled with weapons of all kinds. Catharine doesn’t doubt his motives but feels, although mild mannered, Henry is too warlike and ready to resort to violence even in a righteous cause, and in resisting all attempts by her father to see her married, even considers taking holy orders a more preferable option. On Valentine’s eve Henry has been persuaded to stay the night at the Glover’s house so that he may be the first person to see Catharine on Valentine’s Day and make her an offer she cannot refuse. As he approaches the house in the late evening he witnesses a commotion in the street and realises masked revellers have a ladder up against Catharine’s window with the purpose of kidnapping her. It is of course the Duke of Rothesay and Sir John Ramorny and their followers. Henry and Oliver Proudfoote, who is also on the scene, intervene and with swords drawn enter the fray. In the struggle which follows, the mob is no match for the armourer and they take flight, but not before Henry has severed the hand of Sir John. After the fracas Henry succeeds in becoming Catharine’s valentine, which although reluctant and with reservations she accepts as being binding for twelve months. Conachar has been jealous of Henry’s attention to Catharine and he becomes sullen and resentful when she becomes his valentine and takes himself off back to the highlands to rejoin his clan.
Sir John Ramorny is seen by the King to be leading the Duke of Rothesay astray and demands his son terminate his employment as master of horse, this adding insult to injury causes the embittered Sir John to plot with his apothecary, who is treating his injuries to exert retribution on Henry using the brute Bonthron. Between them they have devised a scheme to protect the assassin should the worst happen and he be charged and condemned to death. Unfortunately in a case of mistaken identity Oliver Proudfoote the bonnet maker is killed instead of the intended victim. Subsequently in accordance with a particularly strange justice system Bonthron as the main suspect opts to fight the widow’s champion to prove his innocence, and the champion being Henry Gow the criminal is severely beaten confesses to the murder and is “hanged”. The conspirators having previously bribed the hangman and supplied a harness, take the “dead” body down from the gallows, revive him and spirit him well away from Perth. However the danger is not yet over, amid rumours that Father Clement is about to be accused of heresy and by association the Glovers may also be at risk, Catharine arranges sanctuary for Father Clement with the Clan Quehele using the good offices of Conachar, now known as (Hector or Eachin MacIan), who has by this time become clan chieftain on the death of his father. Later Simon joins Father Clement with the highland clan and Catharine is offered refuge at Falkland Castle with the lady Marjory daughter of Earl Douglas, when they too have to flee Perth. The Duke of Rothesay has been betrothed to Lady Marjory for the King’s political reasons, much against his wishes and he despises her. When Catharine arrives at the castle Lady Marjory is elsewhere with her father and has to await her return. Falkland Castle belongs to the Duke of Albany and knowing that Marjory is not in residence the Duke of Rothesay, banished by his father from Perth for his behaviour, along with Sir John Ramorny and Henbane Dwining take up residence there, with an itinerant singer Louise who they have offered a job to having met her on the way to the castle, where Bonthron is also in hiding.
This is where I start to fear for the safety of the Fair Maid of Perth in the presence of Rothesay. Sure enough Catharine has to resolutely resist his advances, but the author has a surprise in store for the reader who has already made up his or her mind where the plot is going. Catharine and Louise become friends and whilst themselves feeling insecure after a few days they notice the absence of the Duke and discover he has been imprisoned in the dungeon and is being deprived of food. They try to pass food to him from the castle grounds through one of the apertures for ventilation but feel powerless to prevent his eventual demise. In desperation Louise is sent out from the castle in disguise to raise the alarm with Earl Douglas and seek his intervention. Alas the Earl arrives too late and finds the Dukes body and after a few enquiries seizes Sir John, Dwining and Bonthron and hangs them from he battlements. Although he suspects the Duke of Albany is involved in the plot he says nothing and leaves Albany to inform the King and remind him that his second son James who is still a minor is now the heir to the throne.
In the background during these events the feud between the Clan Chattan and Clan Quhele has intensified and a full scale war is expected in the highlands which peacemakers are very anxious to avoid and negotiators are sent from Perth with a cunning plan whereby a small scale battle will take place on the North Inch in Perth with each side restricted to thirty champions. The plan is agreed to by both sides but Eachin MacIan the chief of the Clan Quhele is having trouble coping with the responsibility of the role and confides in the glover that he feels himself a coward. The battle is to take place in front of the King on Easter Sunday and both sides appear in town ready for the contest, however due to a last minute desertion the Clan Chattan have only twenty nine men and although they are prepared to continue with a disadvantage the town cryer calls for a volunteer from the townsfolk to take the place of the absentee. Henry Gow thinking that Eachin MacIan is still a rival for the hand of the Fair Maid volunteers to fight with the Clan Chattan. In the ensuing battle the experienced fighters of the Clan Quhele protect their chief many of them being wounded or dying in the process and when the chieftain is left vulnerable facing Henry he escapes, running from the battlefield and diving into the river. Severely wounded Henry Gow survives the battle and is taken in by Simon Glover until his wounds have healed. In the uncertain times after the murder of the Duke of Rothesay, Catharine and Louise are dispatched by Earl Douglas to join his daughter Marjory now widowed, to the convent at Campsie where she is temporarily living. Campsie convent is perched on a rocky outcrop high above the river Tay. On Easter Sunday the two women are walking in the garden when a wet and disheveled Conachar, highly agitated and with a wild look in his eyes appears. Fearing for their safety, Louise is sent to get help from the servants. Alone with Catherine he confesses his dispair and humiliation following his cowardly conduct on the battlefield bringing dishonour to his Clan. In his distress and sensing others approaching Conachar leaps over the parapet and falls to his death on the rocks below. Eventually recovered and peace reigning once more in Perth, Henry Gow, Simon and Catharine are reunited, but this time romance is in the air, the couple are married and settle down to a happy family life.
Footnote: A fifteen year old Earl of Crawford, plays quite an interesting cameo role in the story, presumably an ancestor of the Earls (family name Lindsay) who later inherited the Haigh Estate in Wigan and played a major role in developing coal mining in the local area.
Palfreyman 25th September 2017