‘the Pirate,’ by Walter Scott

The earth is rented from its surface down to its most central mines; — the fire, and the means of feeding it, are currently bought and sold; — the wretches that sweep the boisterous ocean with their nets, pay ransom for the privilege of being drowned in it. What title has the air to be exempted from the universal course of traffic?

In early 1725, a pirate named John Gow (or Goff) returned to his birthplace of Orkney, passing himself off as a prosperous merchant. He even courted a local girl. However, he was recognized and denounced by a genuine merchant. He and his men stormed a mansion and hid there for a while, but finally fled by ship. They were captured when their vessel ran aground. Goff was tried at Newgate in London, and hanged in the customary style.

Nearly 100 years later, Sir Walter Scott took that basic story and added romantic elements, along with lore and local color he’d collected on a visit to the Northern Isles some years before, and produced the novel, The Pirate. It is this novel I’ve been reading for about a week, and have finished at length.

Most of the story is set in the Shetlands (here called Zetland). There are two main characters. The first is a handsome young man named Mordaunt Mertoun (seriously, that’s his name). He’s a “stranger” on Zetland, in the sense that his father came from England, and is not of the old Norwegian stock. Nevertheless, he’s popular with the islanders, and a favorite at the home of the island chieftain, Magnus Troil, known as the “Udaller.” Magnus has two beautiful daughters, Minna and Brenda, and people speculate as to which of them Mordaunt will choose to marry.

One day a ship is wrecked at Sumberg Head, and Mordaunt rescues (against his neighbors’ advice, see my blog post further below) the lone survivor, with the help of a local character called Norna of the Fitful Head. She is an old woman believed to have powers of prophecy and weather control. The survivor calls himself Captain Cleveland. Captain Cleveland is rich, handsome, and refined, and soon becomes a new favorite with the Udaller. Mordaunt can’t help noting that his own welcome at the Troil home grows cold after Cleveland’s arrival. Nevertheless, he attends a big house party there. There he clashes with Cleveland, there is a fight, and both men mysteriously disappear.

The action comes to a crisis somewhat later at the annual fair at Kirkwall in Orkney, where Cleveland has to balance his chance of escape against his desire to see his beloved, Minna, one last time. The conclusion of the story is romantic, semi-tragic, and implausible.

I like to pose as someone who can appreciate older literature better than the average modern, but I have to admit The Pirate was a bit of a slog. The language is ornate and dense, a problem not improved by this Kindle edition, produced with OCR technology and not vetted for word mistakes. Also, footnotes are frequently not recognized as such, and so get stuck, confusingly, in the middle of sentences.

Modern writers know they’re competing with television and movies, and make it a point to grab the reader from the first sentence and run, to avoid distractions. Authors in Scott’s time had more latitude. They staged their novels like salons, introducing you to each character in a leisurely way, and leaving you with them to get acquainted, even if they’re bores. Sometimes especially if they’re bores – bores are considered good for a laugh.

For me, the glimpses into “Zetland” lore and legend (there’s magic here, but it’s rationalized) was intriguing, and made it worth my time. You might not find it as rewarding. Even among the field of Scott’s novels, I don’t think The Pirate is in the first rank. And boy, was it long.

One thought on “‘the Pirate,’ by Walter Scott”

  1. You’re right about this one not being regarded as in the front rank, in contrast to novels such as The Heart of Midlothian, Old Mortality, The Bride of Lammermoor — if I can go by what I remember from various critical comments.

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