The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

St Valentine’s Day villainy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Catherine Glover, generally known as the Fair Maid of her hometown of Perth, is beloved by the town’s famed armourer, Henry Smith of the Wynd. But she has also caught the eye of the pleasure loving and dissolute Earl of Rothsay*, eldest son and heir to King Robert III. On St Valentine’s Day, these men will both try to win Catherine, one honourably, one dishonourably, setting in motion a chain of events that will involve the citizens of Perth in the high politics and treacheries of the nobility, and the wild feuds of the Highland clans which inhabit the land to the north of the Fair City.

I first read this book as a young teenager back in the Dark Ages and remembered nothing about it except that I loved it. Since then I’ve read a fair amount of Scott, with varying levels of appreciation. Most recently, I read and was rather disappointed by what is probably his most famous work, Waverley, and wondered if I had simply fallen out of love with Scott’s style over the years. Not so! This book, in my opinion, is vastly superior to Waverley, having all of its strengths and none of its weaknesses. It’s a top rank historical novel that deserves to be more widely read, and is undoubtedly the book I would recommend to people coming to Scott for the first time. It’s written almost entirely in standard English (none of the annoying Latin, French and Gaelic which pepper Waverley) so is easily accessible to the modern reader. And it’s as powerful in its way as A Tale of Two Cities, with a deep understanding of the history and politics of the time but also, more importantly, of the workings of the human heart and mind.

Catherine seeks advice from her spiritual adviser

The period is the tail end of the 14th century, when Scotland was in name one nation under one monarch, but where the Highlands clans operated as separate fiefdoms and were a constant threat to the peace of the nation from the north. At the southern border, Scotland and England were in a perpetual state of enmity – sometimes warring, sometimes skirmishing, but never truly at peace. It’s a period about which I know very little, but didn’t need to – Scott gives all the information that the reader needs to understand the plot without bogging the book down in unnecessary historical detail. He actually shortens the timeline, compressing various events that happened at different times to bring them together into his story, but he manages to do this without seriously distorting the underlying significance of them. In Scott’s story, events that in real time took place over a decade or so happen in a period of weeks, starting on St Valentine’s Day and ending on Palm Sunday.

“True — true,” said the monarch, reseating himself; “more violence — more battle. Oh, Scotland! Scotland! if the best blood of thy bravest children could enrich thy barren soil, what land on earth would excel thee in fertility! When is it that a white hair is seen on the beard of a Scottishman, unless he be some wretch like thy sovereign, protected from murder by impotence, to witness the scenes of slaughter to which he cannot put a period? Let them come in, delay them not. They are in haste to kill, and, grudge each other each fresh breath of their Creator’s blessed air. The demon of strife and slaughter hath possessed the whole land!”

Scott tells the story in the third person, taking the reader in turn to the various participants, so that sometimes we are in the presence of the weak King Robert and his nobles, all scheming and jostling for power; sometimes we are with Rothsay and his disreputable followers, taking their pleasure at the expense of the decent burghers of Perth; and mostly we’re with those burghers – Henry, Catherine, her father Simon Glover and various other townspeople, as they try to live honest Christian lives in a time when security was scarce and men had to be willing to fight for their own safety and to protect the women they loved. Later, we spend time with the Highland clans, seeing how they lived (perhaps – Scott has a reputation for creating the modern image of the clans from his imagination, but it rings true enough for this reader).

The monk and the glee maiden

There are lots of great characters in the novel. Henry is a famed fighter, trying to tame his warring nature for the sake of peace-loving Catherine. Through her, we get a glimpse at the state of the Church, with the first hints of the Reformation to come and with the fear of being accused of heresy ever present. Simon is a good and decent man, and a loving father. Conachar, the young Highland boy who is his apprentice, allows us to see the attitudes of the townspeople to their wild Highland neighbours. The Royals are excellent – poor Robert III, who means well but is ineffective as either King or father, his scheming and disloyal brother Albany and the feuding Earls of March and Douglas, each given extraordinary power due to the weakness of the King. Rothsay’s followers include some great baddies – Ramorny, who has a personal reason to want vengeance against Henry; Bonthron, Ramorny’s beast-like assassin; and the marvellous Henbane Dwining, a skilled physician who uses his arts for evil as well as for good and is deliciously sinister and manipulative.

“There is no room for pardon where offence must not be taken,” answered the mediciner. “An insect must thank a giant that he does not tread on him. Yet, noble knight, insects have their power of harming as well as physicians. What would it have cost me, save a moment’s trouble, so to have drugged that balm, as should have made your arm rot to the shoulder joint, and your life blood curdle in your veins to a corrupted jelly? What is there that prevented me to use means yet more subtle, and to taint your room with essences, before which the light of life twinkles more and more dimly, till it expires, like a torch amidst the foul vapours of some subterranean dungeon? You little estimate my power, if you know not that these and yet deeper modes of destruction stand at command of my art. But a physician slays not the patient by whose generosity he lives, and far less will he the breath of whose nostrils is the hope of revenge destroy the vowed ally who is to favour his pursuit of it.”

But it’s the plot that makes the novel. It moves along at a good pace, never losing track of the various strands – Henry and Catherine, the Royal power plays, Rothsay and his scurrilous followers. And it all leads up to one of the most harrowingly dramatic climaxes I’ve read, as the Highland feud is brought to a bloody and horrific halt. I don’t want to say too much about the Highland strand since it develops late in the book and so takes us into spoiler territory, but it’s a brilliant depiction of a blood feud, of the savagery of hand-to-hand battle, of sacrifice and the loyalty of kinship, of the honour given to the physically brave and the shame heaped on the coward. It moved me to tears for more than one reason. And even more horrifyingly, this part of it is based on actual events.

Book 42 of 90

A great book, and a true classic. If you only ever read one Scott novel, make it this one. It gets my highest recommendation!

*Some modern publications show this as Rothesay, the modern spelling of the town from which the title derives. However, my copy gives the old spelling throughout, so I’ve stuck with that, despite my spell-checker’s frantic attempts to change it!

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46 thoughts on “The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

  1. This sounds fab! I’ve never read Scott, I’ve always found the romantic label attached to him a bit off-putting. But this really appeals – its been ages since I read a pacey, plot-driven period novel. I’m off to the library…

    • Oh, I do hope you enjoy it! I was relieved – I really though I’d gone off Scott, so it was good to know the magic of this one still works. And this one isn’t nearly as romantic in its portrayal of the Highlands as some of the others – it felt reasonably realistic to me… If you do read it, I’d love to hear what you think!

  2. I’m convinced, and The Fair Maid is now downloaded. I’m looking forward to reading a good story set in an interesting time in a country of significance to me. Thank you for this recommendation.

    • Hurrah! I’m doing well with this one – Scott should put me on commission! 😉 I do hope you enjoy it – I don’t know that period of history much at all, but apparently it’s reasonably accurate about the political side of it even though he shortens the timeframe considerably.

    • Well remembered – there is indeed! Though I cannot lie – the dog’s only got a very small part. Yes, the standard English was a relief to me too – Waverley just about drove me up the wall with all the Latin and French, not to mention the Gaelic! Hope you enjoy it! 😀

  3. I’m so glad you enjoyed this return to Scott’s work, FictionFan. I’ll confess I’ve not read it (yet), but you’re not the first to tell me that I should. I really do appreciate it when an author can give me a sense of time and place and society without overloading me with the details. And it sounds like a solid and strong plot, too. Politics, society, romance, and the intrigue and tension, too? Little wonder you liked this as well as you did.

    • I was so pleased to enjoy it again. I’m always wary about revisiting books I loved when I was young in case they don’t live up to my memories, but this one exceeded my expectations if anything. And now I’ll be able to forgive him for Waverley, and start planning which one to choose next… 😀

    • I’m pretty sure this was the first Scott I read back in the day, and for a time I thought he was going to be my favourite author, even over my beloved Dickens! It didn’t work out that way, but this one definitely still lives up to my memories of it… 😀

    • Ha! Perfect timing! I was a bit late starting it this year, but finished just before Palm Sunday when it ends. Hope you enjoy it! I’m doing well with selling this one… 😀

  4. I’ve never read any Scott but I might have to try this one. Is he the reason we have such a romantic view of the Highland clans? (Or is that only in Canada, where we all like to talk about how Scottish we are?)

    • I find him variable, but when he’s good, he’s very good, and he’s good in this one! He gets the blame for it, but I must say I didn’t find the clans over-romanticised in this one. He goes a bit over the top about them in Waverley though. Haha – my Canadian uncle is crazy about his Scottish heritage. He had me going all over the place at one point, photographing gravestones for him…!!

      • Hahaha, I don’t know why we’re so obsessed with being Scottish. When I was a kid I wanted to go to Scotland and meet Scottish people with the same last name as me. I think I would have met a lot of people!

        • Haha, I don’t know either! Every time my uncle came over, he would have a massive list of places he wanted to visit – he knew far more about the country and the history than any of us did! Made me feel properly ashamed… 😉

  5. I, too, read Scott ages ago, but this wasn’t one I read. Sounds very interesting, though, and it must be good if it garnered such high praise from you. Thanks for the recommendation, FF!

    • I’ve read a few over the years and found them variable, but this one is definitely my favourite. And much easier to read than some of them because it doesn’t have much dialect, which is a bonus! 😀

  6. I’m so glad to see that I’m not the only one who hasn’t read any Scott. Maybe there were excerpts in school, but nothing in its entirety. This one sounds appealing in so many ways – excellent review! I’m off now to put it on my wish list.

    • I must admit I’ve found them quite variable – I’ve liked a few and a couple I haven’t really enjoyed much at all. But this one I loved! And much easier for non-Scots than some of his books because there’s very little dialect and he doesn’t assume the reader will know all the historical background as he sometimes does. If you do get to read it some time, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

  7. Sold! I read Waverley when a teen and absolutely hated it and haven’t gone near him since but this sounds exciting and you mention A Tale of Two Cities, so it must be good!

    • I only read Waverley for the first time a couple of years ago and I was hugely disappointed in it. I really wish it wasn’t the one that gets recommended when people are looking for their first Scott. This one was my first, just because there was a copy in the house, and it made me a fan, even though I’ve found his books variable over the years. If you do get a chance to read this one, I hope it restores him to your good opinion! 😀

        • Ha! Yes, he is, and I’m glad to be recommending him this time – I felt deeply unpatriotic for not loving Waverley… 😉 I’m also glad to know I’m not the only one who’s already preparing her next CC list. 😀

    • I must admit I splash five stars around all over the place, but very few books get my highest recommendation, and this is definitely one of them! It did make me think of A Tale of Two Cities – not because the story is in any way similar, but because he got the same great mix of showing the history through the stories of the ordinary people caught up in events. 😀

  8. I’ve had mixed feelings about the Scott novels I’ve read so far, but this sounds great! I have a different one – The Pirate – on my Classics Club list, but now I’m tempted to change it for this one instead.

    • Me too, Helen – some good, some pretty tedious to read, but this one really does stand out for me. I haven’t read The Pirate, so can’t compare them, but I think this one would look very good on your CC list… 😉

  9. Many, many years ago I read Scott’s Ivanhoe, but other then vaguely remembering enjoying it, I don’t remember any real detail or why. So I have put it on my new Classics Club list for a re-read. I am hoping I will still enjoy it and then go on to try more of Scott’s books, especially after reading your thoughts on this.

    • I also read and enjoyed Ivanhoe long ago and don’t remember much about it, but I also don’t remember loving it quite as much as this one. Of course, the Scottish setting of this one gave it an added level of enjoyment for me. I hope you enjoy your re-read enough to tempt you to add this one to your list… 😀

  10. I do hope Sir Walter pays you a decent commission! I, too, have decided to read this book based on your review. On this side of the pond we didn’t learn much about his work, so this will be my first Scott book. Thank you!

    • Hahaha – I reckon this has been my most successful review in terms of numbers of people tempted to read the book – hurrah! Oddly, we didn’t get exposed to Scott much at school or college either – it was all Dickens and the English greats. I do hope you enjoy this one… 😀

  11. Well I like the fact that this is written in plain, modern english-gives the rest of us hope! And of course the St. Valentine’s angle is a nice one, for some reasons, I’m a real sucker for holiday tie-ins 🙂

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