Having exercised my brain all week with the knotty legal issues involved in murder and manslaughter cases (as research for my own Short Story) it seemed like a real coincidence to come across "The Two Drovesr" by Sir Walter Scott. Perhaps not. Perhaps the subliminal mind was at work.
Yes, this story had everything I was looking for in terms of handsome swashbuckling Highland heroes, peat fires and long-haired Highland cattle being driven to market through the heather-scented Scottish scenery.
But the first two Scott stories I considered (My Aunt Margaret's Mirror for example) although having similar desired attributes, rambled inconsequentially for so long at their beginning, that I switched off instantly and rejected them.
Initially attracted by the typically Scottish setting of "the Doune Fair" where the bonny Highland lads gather their cattle ready for market beyond "the drove roads which lie over the wildest tracks of the country," I began to realise that the story was to take a more gory and intellectually challenging turn.
Our poor misunderstood hero Robin Oig is delayed from setting off with herd by his ancient aunt who wishes to "walk the deasil" (circle a person for good luck) round him as she has seen the portentous vision of
``Blood, blood---Saxon blood again." and exhorts him
"Robin Oig M`Combich, go not this day to England"
One particular feature of this short story (and of the poetry of Rober Burns) which I enjoyed was the inclusion of some Scots Gaelic terms. This has produced educational and evocative prose. For example we have the description of Robin's knife(dirk)....
had drawn from his side the dirk which lodged in
the folds of his plaid, and held it up, exclaiming,
although the weapon gleamed clear and bright
in the sun,"
Needless to say the "Braveheart" boy is none too keen to part with his trusty weapon but agrees, in compromise, to pass it to his friend who is droving the herd behind him. We are then introduced to Robin's other great friend and travelling companion, Harry.
Despite language and nationality challenges (Harry Wakefield is English), the two have built a strong realtionship based upon trust. A breach in that trust, however, is caused by a treacherous bailiff who leases his master's grazing to Harry without permission. Robin has unknowingly been leased the same fields by the master himself - and Robin's arrival with his lowing herd means that Harry's hungry cattle have to be driven off.
Robin apologises and offers to share, but Harry is sulking...
"Ay, ay---thou is a cunning lad for kenning the
hours of bargaining. Go to the devil with thyself,
for I will neer see thy fause loon's visage again---
thou should be ashamed to look me in the face " says he.
Robin keeps his temper both here, and later in the ale-house, where egged on by the bailiff and other miscreants Harry refuses his friendly advances and suggests a fight to end the quarrel. Keenly aware of his noble Scottish blood and the lack of his beloved weapon, Robin refuses base unarmed combat and tries to defuse the situation and leave.
He is prevented however, by Harry, who hits his friend a dizzying blow. Now accused of cowardice, the sharp wound to his pride causes Robin to gallop miles back along the drove-track to find the friend who is guarding his trusty knife. Crucially, as Scott later points out, the journey gives him ample time to reconsider his murderous plan.
Unrelenting, however, our Rob Roy-style hero convinces his friend that he only needs the knife as he has decided to 'go for a soldier' and enlist. But he returns to stab his best friend in the heart.
plunged the dagger, which he suddenly displayed,
into the broad breast of the English yeoman, with
such fatal certainty and force, that the hilt made a
hollow sound against the breast-bone, and the
double-edged point split the very heart of his victim."
He then gives himself up, and at his execution, says
"``I give a life
for the life I took...... ``and what can I do
Scott then launches into a wordy legal essay, which is nonetheless interesting for those with a legal inclination, for it examines the differences between a crime of passion and a cold-blooded murder. Needless to say, the judge, and Scott (by profession himself a lawyer - surprise,surprise) pronounce poor long-suffering and patient Robin guilty of Murder in cold blood, or also perhaps Malice Aforethought or Premeditated Murder.
For my purposes, the premise that "self-defence is no offence" holds
similar twists. It is thought by some that women, by virtue of their weaker frames can only be convicted of premeditated murder because they have necessarily pre-armed - in order to protect themselves from threats of wife-battering and violence from men.
I would so love to hear Sir Waltwer Scott's opinion on that.