Written in 1810, The Scottish Chiefs tells the romanticized story of William Wallace, the Scots hero we know today as Braveheart. Jane Porter was a contemporary and acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, who deemed her the first author of historical fiction, then went on to write some himself.
The novel begins in 1296 and covers roughly eight years. After the untimely death of Alexander III, Scotland could not decide between two claimants to the throne—Robert Bruce or John Baliol—and called upon its neighbor, Edward of England, to adjudicate. He chose the weakest candidate, Baliol, and shortly afterwards seized the country for England. At the start of the novel, his governors have been mistreating Scotland for two years by imprisoning its leaders and taking their property for themselves.
William Wallace has been minding his own business and trying to stay out of trouble when he is summoned to meet with Sir John Monteith. Monteith passes him a metal box given to him by Lord Douglas before Douglas was kidnapped by the English. Monteith’s home is overrun by English soldiers, and he is afraid someone will discover the box, so he asks Wallace to remove it. However, the soldiers glimpse it under his plaid, and assuming it is treasure, they soon arrive at his home to take it. Wallace escapes, but his wife Marion is murdered by the dastardly Heselrigge, English governor of Lanark.
After his wife’s murder, Wallace vows to devote his life to freeing Scotland from the English. The novel follows his adventures and his defeats of the English in battle. Wallace’s victories are muddied by the jealousy and treachery of many of the Scottish chiefs, who refuse to believe the purity of his motives and fear his growing power over the populace.
The novel is written in the overblown style of Romanticism. It features a godlike Wallace, heroic figures like beautiful and saintly Helen Mar and faithful Edwin Ruthven and villains such as the perfidious Lady Mar and vicious Heselrigge. The dialogue is florid. However, the deeds described are truly exciting, and Porter manages at times to build quite a lot of suspense. The introduction by Kate Douglas Wiggan, educator and author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, relates how her copy of the novel was in tatters from re-reading when she was a child and how she would beg for ten more minutes of reading time when called to supper.
While reading this novel, I was trying to decide whether a modern youngster would love it or be bogged down by its style and length. I am not sure, but children read for plot, and there is much in this tale to make it a page-turner. That it is about a man who was truly a hero should make it even more exciting to them. In any case, if the writing style of early 19th century Romanticism doesn’t bother you, I think anyone might enjoy reading this novel.