The Pirate is by Walter Scott and was published in Edinburgh in 1822. It is very loosely based on the story of John Gow, the Orkney pirate, and is set in both Shetland and Orkney in 1689. It contrasts an older, Norse way of life, represented by Shetland’s remote landscape, language and customs with an encroaching modernity, at times captured in the influence of Scotland upon the islands. It is also a tale of thwarted love and the dangers of the ‘outsider’ upon a community. Scott, of course, was not from Shetland but visited in 1814 when he accompanied Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather on a cruise with the Northern Lighthouse Commission. A digitised edition of The Pirate can be found at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/scott/walter/pirate/
The text I have chosen to share with you is Walter Scott’s The Pirate, and I have made some suggestions below about how we could begin to think about it. The novel raises several interesting questions in its portrayal of Shetland.
These questions include, how is the Shetland way of life presented to the reader? How is it different from Scottish culture?
What is the relationship between Norse and Scottish / British culture? The character of the Scottish farmer Triptolemus Yellowley seems interesting here.
In the presentation of Shetland life, what role does landscape and topography play? Scott seems to go out of his way to make Shetland seem remote and inaccessible. While the Orkney sections take place in and around Kirkwall, the Shetland sections never venture to Lerwick.
What does tradition and custom represent? In particular this seems connected to hospitality and good cheer. Why is that important?
The characters of Magnus Troil and Norna of the Fitful Head seem particularly important. What do they represent? The portrayal of Norna as a semi-supernatural being seems particularly interesting.
I like very much the exchanges between Magnus Troil and Yellowley, the poet Halcro butting in. Their debates about land management resonate strongly with contemporary ones. In many cases, they draw on the common perception of Shetland by non-Shetlanders as ‘barren’, ‘remote’, ‘treeless’, ‘dark’, ‘culturally impoverished’ or ‘quaintly traditional’ and – this one annoys me the most – ‘liminal’.
Troil and Yellowley’s value systems are completely at odds. Yellowley is accustomed to look at land in terms of how it can be most fully exploited. His methodology, however, is flawed, inappropriate and inflexible. He reminds me of how a number of bodies – usually in the pursuit of financial gain – have described Shetland as ‘the world’s best wind resource’ – regardless of whether the land proposed for the site is suitable for that kind of large scale wind-development.
Disappointed by Troil’s lack of enthusiasm to become his ‘pupil’ in the matter of ploughing, Yellowley moves onto the Pony Problem, the Drainage Problem and the Tree Problem. After trying to persuade any number of folk that treelessness is not a fatal condition, I’m mightily tickled by Magnus’s roar:
‘Trees, Sir Factor– talk not to me of trees! I care not tho there never be one on the island, tall enough to hang a coxcomb upon – We will have no trees but those that rise in our havens – the good trees that have yards for boughs, and standing-rigging for leaves.’
Scott makes Yellowley a figure of fun, and Magnus sympathetically easy-going. Troil is smarter than Yellowley, certainly able to get the better of him in an argument (being much more flexible) but too courteous to express more than humorous irritation at Yellowley’s ignorance and arrogance.
Troil comes off very well out of the depiction of tradition, custom and hospitality – and that actually surprised me. Scott could have dreamt up all kinds of wild exoticisms for his most prominent Zetlander. He resists the temptation, for example, to create the kind of fantasy Viking throwback that Halcro pines after – instead, he chooses to make him a portrait of moderation and welcome, rooted in and confident in his culture.
In the subsequent argument between Halcro and Troil, for example, Scott refuses to let his audience indulge in Halcro’s fantasies of his heroic, merciless, raiding ancestors (in which Halcro is encouraged by the villain, Cleveland):
I would it were possible to see our barks, once the water-dragons of the world, swimming with the black-raven standard waving at the topmast, and their decks glimmering with arms, instead of being heaped up with stock-fish […] reaping where we never sowed, and felling where we never planted–living and laughing through the world, and smiling when we were summoned to quit it.’
Troil won’t have it: –
“Spoken like a fool, I think,” said Magnus Troil […]”we are all subjects of one realm, I trow, and I would have you to remember, that your voyage may bring up at Execution-dock. – I like not the Scots–no offence, Mr Yellowley–that is, I would like them well enough if they would stay quiet in their own land, and leave us at peace with our own people, and manners, and fashions; and if they would but abide there [….] I would leave them in peace until the day of judgment.”‘
Troil is consistent. Despite asserting the many differences between the cultures, he clearly believes in peace and unity, not for peace and unity’s sake, necessarily, but because he sees that as being in the ‘Zetlander’s’ best interests. It’s a portrayal of a strong, independent culture that doesn’t need to be defensive, and as such, quite a lot more sophisticated than many contemporary views from outside of Shetland. Scott’s account of the physical characteristics of the typical Zetlander is slightly less convincing: tall and willowy, with long blonde hair, regardless of sex. I suspect he was wilfully drawing on the Nordic stereotype.
Troil and Norna seem quite iconic, as if they’re meant to stand as archetypes. They called immediately to mind the opposing forces suggested by the Sun and Moon in a Tarot deck. Troil – the Sun – confident, gregarious, hospitable, direct, intolerant of shadow – is uncomfortable when Brenda wants to talk to him privately about Minna. He’s anxious for his girls, but doesn’t like intrigue and isn’t very good at receiving or keeping secrets. Norna – the Moon – is full of mystery, the force of imagination, introspection, even depression, as exemplified by this portrait when Troil and his girls arrive at her (slightly unconvincing, I thought) broch-lair on the sea-stack:
‘Brenda was startled to observe the pale and obscurely-seen countenance of Norna gazing down on them.’
Scott could just as well be describing the Moon seen through cloud. Troil seems to belief that what will bring Minna to health and happiness is a visit to a depressed ‘wise-woman’ on a cliff. Is Scott trying to suggest that Shetland is characterised by elemental extremes, or are these metaphors he works with throughout his oeuvre?
On landscape and remoteness, I’d love to hear more about what you make of the idea of liminality, and the image of ‘the edge’ in this book. I agree with you that in The Pirate, like so many contemporary representations, Scott finds it irresistible to describe Shetland/Zetland as a wilderness, a no-man’s-land, a brink. Not a lot has changed, really. In the BBC’s adaptation of Ann Cleeves’s quartet of Shetland crime books, which they chose to rename ‘Shetland’, (an unsettling act of definition), the direction/production seemed to go out of its way to make contemporary Shetland look more sparsely populated and its community more ‘traditional’ and dated than it actually is. In particular they avoided filming sizeable settlements of modern housing or contemporary architecture projects such as Mareel or The Shetland Museum. From my point of view it seems like ‘liminality’ is an attempt for folk who do not live on islands to fix them as ‘edges’ for their own exploitation, be they imaginative, economical or both.
The Pirate is quite interesting in this regard. To be healed, Minna has to be taken ‘to the edge’ (to Norna’s broch of ‘certain misery and probably insanity […] Despair and magical power’) And, in her depression, she’s drawn to the geological edge, when she, Troil and Brenda round a 500 foot cliff on their ponies: ‘Minna, with an eager look, dropped her bridle, and stretched forward her arms, and even her body, over the precipice[…]’
Meanwhile, Norna’s dwelling, further, is on the brink of collapsing entirely into the sea: ‘This angle of projection was so considerable, that it required recollection to dispel the idea that the rock, so much removed from the perpendicular, was about to precipitate itself seaward, with its old tower […]’
I like how this passage proceeds, in that it reinforces the portrayal of Troil:
‘Along this “brigg of dread” the Udaller stepped with his usual majesty of stride, which threatened its demolition’
Typically, for The Pirate, humour undercuts the phantasmagorical, and the Sun – if you like – vanquishes the Moon.
I agree we are not meant to sympathise with Yellowley, who is presented to us as a figure of fun. Moreover, he very much represents the outsider’s view. He has been an outsider in the Mearns and now he is an outsider in Shetland. As a result his ideas are to be taken as ridiculous, and clearly irrelevant to those who understand the way this landscape and community operate. Not only is this dynamic relevant today it was extremely relevant at the time when Scott was writing. How to, or not to, manage land was of course at the heart of the Clearances debate and I might even go as far as to suggest that The Pirate forms part of Scott’s commentary on this event. The novel, it seems, is suggesting that those looking from the outside may not be best equipped to comment on local circumstances and that reform for reform’s sake is not to be welcomed.
The surprisingly rational view of Shetland’s customs and traditions (voiced via Troil) is entirely consistent with Scott’s pragmatism elsewhere. While he recognises that a nostalgic sentimentality is an important element of how we construct our past and our sense of national or local identity he seldom indulges it. Rather, he acknowledges (like Troil) that we have to find a practical way to move forward where it is in the best interests of those involved. Again, we might see this as a surprisingly relevant debate for our own times. While I agree that his depiction of physical characteristics may be more stereotypical, this is in some ways less significant for Scott than character. Moreover, as George Eliot observed, his depiction of Minna and Brenda also fits into broader scheme whereby fair haired women are successful in love while the dark heroines are cast out of the happy ending.
One problematic element of the novel is perhaps the role of Norna, and the depiction of her and her dwelling is in danger of tilting over into the stereotypical. On the other hand, Norna is perhaps the main element of the novel to be inspired by Scott’s experiences of Shetland as described in his lighthouse journal and in many ways she does fit into a pattern found elsewhere in Scott’s work. His novels frequently contain women who might be described as ‘on the edge’ (gypsies, madwomen, etc.) who at times seem to border on the supernatural. What is interesting about such figures is often that they seem to represent what is ‘in excess’ of the apparent harmony with which the novel ends, suggesting that there are elements which cannot be contained within it. Madge Wildfire, Meg Merrilees and Norna all seem to fit into this category and form an interestingly disruptive element in Scott’s work. Of course Norna also offers a kind of dark precedent to the sisters regarding their attachment to Cleveland. As so often in his work Scott also questions the status of the supernatural here, simultaneously positing it as an option and then undercutting it.
With regard to the question of liminality, I think Scott does use Shetland to present and explore a kind of ‘edge’. But I also wonder if he is going out of his way to remind his readers that it is not quite Scotland, so that he can explore (with some safety) ideas that were vexing mainland Scotland at the time. I am sure Shetland did seem remote and ‘other’ to Scott at the time, but no more so than some of the other places he visited or, indeed, some of the other places described in the lighthouse journal. Scott seems to be presenting Shetland here as particularly remote and far away, partly so that he can exploit a space that de-familiarises his reader. By doing this, perhaps he can force these readers to address issues they would not be willing to explore in more familiar terrain. I don’t read The Pirate as simply an exotic jaunt around an ‘othered’ society, but rather as a space where Scott can explore pressing and pertinent issues about how we deal with parts of our community that do not altogether fit into the dominant patterns or trajectories. In a sense this is one of the abiding themes of his work and his depiction of Shetland here allows for another meditation on this topic. I am not suggesting that Scott is simply revisiting old themes but he is to some extent seeing how themes that recur are played out in a different terrain. As so often in Scott’s work no real solutions are proposed, but problems are certainly raised.
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Alison Lumsden is Professor in English Literature at the University of Aberdeen. She is a General Editor of the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels, a scholarly edition of Scott's fiction in thirty volumes, and has edited and co-edited several volumes of that edition including The Heart of Mid-Lothian, Peveril of the Peak, and The Pirate, which is set in Orkney and Shetland. She has recently begun work on a scholarly edition of Scott's poetry. She is co-director of the Walter Scott Research Centre at the University of Aberdeen and has also worked on many aspects of Scottish literature. Walter Scott Research Centre http://www.abdn.ac.uk/english/centres/walterscott.php
Jen Hadfield is currently working on her third poetry book, Byssus, due out in 2014. She lives in Shetland. In her sometimes-chaotic creative life, walking, foraging for wild food and material for her visual art are as important as her language-centered practice. Audio samples of her work are available at www.poetryarchive.org She blogs intermittently at rogueseeds.blogspot.com