Sir Walter Scott and the anti-hero: Rob Roy

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Historical Background
George III of Hannover reigned over Britain from 1760 to 1820. From 1811 his son George exercised the function of Prince Regent because of the king’s permanent insanity.
It was a period of great changes:

Inner policy:
England underwent a radical change that transformed its economy from basically agricoltural to mainly industrial. This happened thanks to the technical inventions in the mining and textile fields and to the increased demand of goods due to the growth of the population.

Foreign policy:
In 1775 George Washington started a fight against the British troops in the American colonies. In 1776, July 4 the Declaration of Independence was issued in Philadelphia. In 1783 the British had to sign the treaty of Versailles that recognised the independence of the thirteen ex British colonies. 

After 1793, with the end of the French revolution, the British army was engaged in the fight against Napoleon Bonaparte till 1815, when the French emperor was defeated in the battle of Waterloo.
In the course of the century England consolidated her power in India.

Literary Background

The XVIII century was dominated by the figure of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). He wrote dramas, novels, issues, but, in particular, he became well known for his critical works and his Dictionary of the English Language (1775).
O. Goldsmith (1730-1774) and R. B. Sheridan (1751-1816) were famous for their prose writings and dramas.


After The mouthpieces of the rise of the novel, D. Defoe, S. Richardson and H. Fielding, other writers approached the genre:
T. Smollet (1721-1771) wrote about life on ships and social scenes in England and Scotland (Roderick Random; Humphrey Clinker)
F. Burney (1752-1840) wrote humoristic and realistic novels such as Eveline; Cecilia and Camilla.
L. Sterne (1715-1768) evoked the rules of language with a flux of thoughts in his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.
H. Walpole (1717-1791), A. Radcliff (1764-1833) and M. G. Lewis (1775-1818) started writing stories full of mystery and imagination, the so called Gothic novels based on supernatural events and emotional characters.
Sir W. Scott (1771-1832) wrote novels based on Scottish folklore and tradition (Waverly; Rob Roy) and on England’s past (Ivanhoe)

Poets shifted their focus from reason to emotions and imaginations; they dealt with
individual and nature, basing their form on more popular patterns and their language on common words for a larger public.
The Graveyard School: E. Young, W. Collins and T. Gray’s poems are about melancholy thoughts and desolate landscapes, ruins and tombs.
The Antiquary School: J. Macpherson’s The Works of Ossian (1765), T. Percy and T. Chatterton shared the same enthusiasm for Celtic studies and Norse literature and popularised poems and legends of barbaric ages.
The Pre-Romantics: R. Burns’s lyrics speak of genuine feeling and the beauty of nature. W. Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience stress the contrast between the innate goodness of man and the corruption of society, with a simple and imaginative language with new symbols and energetic creative power.
The Romantic Poets: W. Wordsworth (1770-1850) and S. T. Coleridge (1772-1834) published the Lyrical Ballads (1798), the manifesto of Romanticism that stressed the importance of imagination and of nature and described the poet as a prophet.
Second generation of Romantic poets: P. B. Shelley, Lord Byron, and J. Keats start writing their poems in which they declare their love for remote stories, events and forms of art, their individualism and stress the role of the poet as a prophet.

Sir Walter Scott

Life and works

1771 W. Scott was born in Edinburgh; his parents were descendants from the chiefs of famous border-clans.

1779-83 He attends the High School in Edinburgh

1783-86 Walter studies Humanity, Greek and Latin at the University of Edinburgh where he receives the first influences of Romantic Literature in German (Goethe and Götz Von Berlichingen) and decides to write a picture of the ancient borders.

1786 The author makes apprenticeship by his father, an attorney.

1789-92 Walter returns to the University and this time he attends courses on Scots Law and Moral Philosophy

1797-99 He marries Charlotte Charpentier, daughter of French exiled and becomes Sheriff of Selkirkshire.

1802 The author starts The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.

1805-10 W. Scott plans a financial association with J. Ballantyne, printer and then publisher, a co-operation that influences his career.To this period belong his narrative poems: The Lay of Last Minstrel; Marmion; The Lady of the Lake. After this literary production he passes on to prose.

1812 The writer buys land near Melrose and builds the house of Abbottsford, living like a Scottish feudal laird (lord), according to his ambitions.

1815-19 Scott starts his literary production of novel based on the Scottish history. (The Waverly Cycle; Guy

1815-20 Mannering; The Antiquary; Old Mortality; Rob Roy; The Bride of Lammermore; The Legend of Montrose). He writes these works anonymously till 1827 because he considers writing novels beneath his dignity.

1820 He becomes famous with Ivanhoe about English History and is made baronet by George IV.

In the same year the author writes The Monastery.

1821-25 W. Scott continues writing novels: Kenilworth; The Fortunes of Nigel; Quentin Durward; Redgauntlet; The Talisman. His association bankrupted and had to work for his creditors, an effort that influenced his health. He writes Woodstock and The Fair Maid of Perth (published in 1828)

1830 His health rapidly declines and he sails to Italy, but he has the first paralytic stroke. He continues writing Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous.

1832 Walter Scott becomes completely invalid and then dies in Abbottsford.

ROB ROY (1817) 

Brief Summary
The story takes place at the time of the ’15 Jacobite Rising.
Frank Osbaldistone, the narrator, quarrels with his father and is sent to his uncle, Sir Hildebrand Osbaldistone, in Northumberland. On his way he meets a man who helps him against some outlaws. Once at his uncle’s, Frank falls in love with Diana Vernon, Sir Hildebrand’s niece, whose father has been forced to go into hiding because of his Jacobite sympathies. Frank’s cousin, Rashleigh, steals important documents vital to the honour of Frank’s father, William, and Frank pursues Rashleigh to Scotland. There he meets Robert Roy MacGregor, an associate of Diana’s father. When Rashleigh attacks Frank, Rob Roy kills Rashleigh. All Sir Hildebrand’s other sons are killed in the Jacobite rebellion, and Frank inherits Sir Hildebrand’s property and marries Diana.
The novel is a brutally realistic depiction of the social conditions of the Scottish Highlanders in the early 18th Century. were compared with American Indians, as regards to their primitive, isolated lifestyle.

Historical sources: Scotland, because of its geography, has always had two different cultures during the centuries . In the northern part there are mountains called Highlands which were inhabited by rude and warrior-like people, while in the East and the South the mountains (Lowlands) are gentler, the land is easier to farm and the people were more influenced by England. The control of the Highlands always meant a problem for England. This territory until the mid 18th century was ruled by chiefs belonging to clans (which in Gaelic means children), that is members of one family, or groups of families which tried through frequent battles to have the ownership of the land and cattle. They wore highland dress (composed of a tartan kilt worn with a shirt, jacket and tie, and a plaid for ornament). This dress changed its colour according to the clans.
England always wished to control Scotland and this was possible when King James VI of Scotland ascended the throne of England with the name of James i. In order to understand what happens in the novel Rob Roy by W. Scott, we must go back to King James II (1685-88), the first Catholic King after a long period of Protestantism. He tried to obtain tolerance for the Catholics, but as parliament did not agree to modify the Anti-Catholic laws, he suspended their executions. Parliament called William Ii of Orange (husband of Mary, James II’s daughter) to London and declared them sovereigns of England (The Glorious Revolution). At Mary’s death the throne passed to her sister Anne.
In the meantime James II took shelter in Ireland where he looked for help among the local Catholics. Thirty thousand Protestants locked themselves in the city of Londonderry and James was not able to defeat them. He had to flee to France and never return to England.
In 1707 The Act of Union was signed, by which the Scottish and English governement were united. It was detested in the Highlands and there were many risings in favour of the exiled Stuarts by their supporters who were called Jacobites.
James II’s son would have probably been crowded James III (at Anne’s Death in 1714) if he had given up Catholicism. But like most members of his family he was unwilling either to accept Anglican religion or to abandon his claims to the throne. In 1715 he started a rebellion against George I, who had by this time arrived from Hannover. James III (known as The Old Pretender) had a large number of followers among the Jacobites, but he was a hesitant leader and he was defeated at Preston in November 1715. His son Charles Edward Stuart (The Young Pretender), known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, would face a similar sort in the 1745 rising.
Only in September 1997 the Scots got some autonomy under the leadership of the prime Minister Tony Blair.


Rob Roy: The hero of the novel is a Scottish Highlander that embodies all the values of the chivalric past. Robert MacGregor Campbell has become an outlaw for the Scottish and English legal system after suffering the deprivation of his lands and properties. The narrator feels sympathy for him without neglecting his aims and faults. In the novel Rob Roy acts as a deus ex machina that always intervenes to save Frank in crucial moments.

Frank Osbaldistone: The protagonist and narrator of this story is the go-between that mediates the old chivalric value of the past and the new prototype of man that cares more on financial matters. Francis’s love for poetry leads him to quarrel with his father, a man with a commercial mentality and supplies the first example in literature of generational gap. The journey from London to the Highlands represents his development from an inexperienced boy to a conscious adult.
The Bailie: He is the new middle class man: honest, loyal, able to judge people. He is ready to help anybody that deserves. Comic and humorist statements pervade his speeches; his conversations with Andrew Fairservice and the quotations of his father, the deacon, are good examples of Scott’s fine art of writing.
Andrew Fairservice: The servant, ignorant, loyal, rich in every-day common sense, Andrew is able to turn every situation on his side. He embodies the fool of the novel, but with a different physiognomy: his function is to give the reader a moment of relief among the various dangerous adventures, but also to help his master to solve different matters of everyday life. He represents a new class of workers that in developing and acquiring its own personality.
Diana Vernon: Some critics have underlined her rectitude and propension to sacrifice the make her too perfect to be realistic. Unlike the other characters she lacks introspection. She is controlled, reflexives, she could be the perfect heroine for a Gothic novel, submitted to her father and contrasted by a villain.
Rashleigh Osbaldistone: He is the real villain of the novel; his hypocrisy and dishonesty obey to the common canons of the anti-hero. His life is just a sequence of bad actions, his clever mind only satisfies his desire of vengeance: he wants to revenge his unmutual love for Diana, and his weak, ugly physical aspect.
Sir Hildebrand Osbaldistone and his sons : They are not described in details; each of them embodies a different aspect of a personality and a vice. For this reason they can be considered more figures than characters: like in morality pay they are the exemplification of faults and sins of human nature.
Diana Vernon’s father: He personifies the old chivalry and the old values: he is the man ready to sacrifice his own life and his daughter’s future for his unrealistic ideals of freedom, independence and faith.
Owen : He is the faithful clerk that has devoted his entire life to his master and to his master’s business. He seems to have neglected his own future in order to be more ready to satisfy the exigencies of Mr.Osbaldistone’s house and family. Owen, in fact, not only tries to solve the financial problems of his master but even the relationship between Francis and his father. According to his values and ideas, MacVitties and MacFin, ossequient and kind, are better than the Bailie, ruder and more frank in his words, but he is also ready to admit his fault when Jarvie reveals his honesty and follows his advice without questions.


The contemporaries adored Sir Walter Scott’s fiction and way of writing: the first copies of Rob Roy were sold in a fortnight. W. Wordsworth even wrote an epitaph on Rob Roy’s tomb after a visit to Scott in Scotland in 1803: Rob Roy’s Grave (1805-6).

His fame remained unchanged for almost all the 19th century, till a first blow in 1837 when J. G. Lockhart published Life of Scott revealing the sometimes haphazard way of working and his commercial motivations.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the critics of the Bloomsbury group judged him a mere storyteller. In the same period, fortunately, the Marxist criticism began to analyse Scott’s works as very important according to a modern ideology of looking and revisiting history (G. Lukács).

During the 1950s and 1960s David Dachies dignified Scott as one of the major British writers stressing at the different points of view present in the story as to Scotland’s independence “Rob Roy represents the old heroic Scotland, while the worthy Bailie represents the new” (Scott’s achievements as a Novelist; 1951)

Contemporary critics have followed Daiches’s opinions appreciating the way Scott deals with his characters, in particular the Bailie Nicol Jarvie, but stress the arbitrariness of the novel’s structure and narrative labelling the book as a picaresque novel for its plot, unbalanced in its parts.

Recently, the criticism does not divide so neatly the different aspects of the novel evidencing, on the contrary, the subtleties of his narrative technique, the uneasiness hidden under an apparent conventional plot and the liveliness of the characters.

Notes The Stuarts:
James I (1603-1625), James Vi of Scotland.
Charles I (1625-1649), Civil War and the King’s execution.
The Republic (1649-60), Cromwell’s leadership.
Charles Ii (1660-85), Restauration.
James II (1685-88), James VII of Scotland, Catholic King.
William II of Orange and Mary, James II’s daughter.
Queen Anne died in August 1714 and the Sturat dinasty ended. She was succeed by George, Elector of Hannover, who became King George I of England. (1714-27).

Second Generation of Romantic poets: A second generation of Romantic poets followed. George Noel Gordon Byron (1788-1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and John Keats (1795-1821), confronted themselves with an external world which they felt as alien and unfriendly: they tended to withdraw from it and to rely on the individual as the subject of inner experiences and the centre of art and life.