Rob Roy in Northumberland

Aberfoyle on the edge of the Scottish Highlands is the setting for, perhaps, the most memorable scenes in Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, the action of which happens during Jacobite rising of 1715. What is sometimes forgotten is that much of the novel takes place in Northumberland and that, almost in spite of its title, it is really about the English supporters of the old pretender, James Stewart. Indeed it is the battle of Preston that Diana Vernon’s father takes part in, rather than Sheriffmuir.   Scott’s account of the English rising is accomplished as follows:

“…. it was judged proper that I should accompany a detachment of Highlanders, who, under Brigadier MacIntosh of Borlum, crossed the Firth of Forth, traversed the low country of Scotland, and united themselves on the Borders with the English insurgents.  I had hardly joined our English friends, when I became sensible that our cause was lost. Our numbers diminished instead of increasing, nor were we joined by any except of our own persuasion. The Tories of the High Church remained in general undecided, and at length we were cooped up by a superior force in the little town of Preston. We defended ourselves resolutely for one day. On the next, the hearts of our leaders failed, and they resolved to surrender at discretion.”

The novel deals at length with the atmosphere in Northumberland at the beginning of the eighteenth century. With the exception of Robert Campbell, ‘Rob Roy’ himself, the principal characters are fictional and, in drawing attention to Rob Roy’s acquaintanceship with Northumberland Scott extends what we think we know about him. As one character in the novel puts it:

“Campbell is a very extensive dealer in cattle, and has often occasion to send great droves into Northumberland; and, when driving such a trade, he would be a great fool to embroil himself with our Northumbrian thieves”.

In Rob Roy Francis Osbaldistone is the son of a rich London merchant, whose father summons him to return from Bordeaux. However, Frank declines an invitation to enter the family business, and he is banished to Osbaldistone Hall, the Northumberland home of the head of the clan, Sir Hildebrand Osbaldistone and his six sons. Illustrations in early editions of the novel are almost unanimous in suggesting that Osbaldistone Hall was Chillingham Castle.  Skene, who investigated the scenery in the Waverley Novels, does not mention it, but in The Country of Sir Walter Scott [1913] Charles S Olcott brooks no alternative to Chillingham. This view also appears to be held by William Mathie Parker, the eminent literary topographer, in his preface to the Everyman edition of 1962.

Chillingham Castle: The Courtyard

Chillingham Castle: The Courtyard

Scott was familiar with the setting of the novel, having visited Northumberland in the summer of 1791 and having seen Chillingham Castle, the seat of the Earl of Tankersville, on which he may have based Osbaldistone Hall, for, like the description of the hall, Chillingham looked something like ‘the inside of a convent or of one of the older and less splendid colleges of Oxford.’

However, in In The Border Country [1906] William Shillinglaw Crockett, identifies Biddlestone Hall as one of three possibilities, the other two being Chillingham and Naworth. Naworth is, of course, in the wrong place, but it is situated at Lanercost in Cumberland, with which Scott would have become familiar during his courtship of his wife, Charlotte Carpenter. As in other instances it is probably an amalgam of sites that the author, as he is perfectly entitled to, pretends is a single place.   It was in The Encyclopaedia Britannica [1884] that it was suggested that Biddlestone Hall might well have been the house that Scott had in mind, and, in his notable essay on “The Middle Marches” [1913], G.M.Trevelyan, the distinguished historian who was bred in Northumberland, takes it for granted that it was Biddlestone Hall: “… these steep slippery banks of Alwyn and Usway were hunted by Diana and the Osbaldistone pack; and these passages of the hills were threaded by Andrew Fairservice and his friends the smugglers, and his enemies the Jacobites.” In another passage he is quite definite about it:

“Walter Scott, from his encircling Cheviot Ridge, threw a few lines and phrases at our English streams, –Coquet and Rede picked crumbs from the table he spread for Ettrick and Teviot and Yarrow. Also he gave us Diana Vernon; her hunt upon the mountainside was above Biddlestone Hall, where spurs of the English Cheviots, green, round and steep in that district, overlook the Coquet, as it breaks from the hills and spreads down over the plain towards Rothbury.”

In a long note to the 1914 Oxford edition of Rob Roy, C.B.Wheeler argues the case for Biddlestone.   His arguments are credible, but not conclusive. He begins by pointing out that Frank must diverge from the Great North Road to reach Osbaldistone Hall, and that the turn for Chillingham at Alnwick is too far from Darlington. It would probably be just as difficult to reach Biddlestone as to reach Chillingham. However, Scott has Campbell say that he has business in Rothbury which makes Biddlestone more likely.

Wheeler is altogether more persuasive in drawing attention to the situation of the house. The following passage in Rob Roy surely refers to Biddlestone rather than to Chillingham since Chillingham is not situated in a glen, but in open country, some distance from the foot of the Cheviot Hills:

“The streams now more properly deserved the name, for, instead of slumbering stagnant among reeds and willows, they brawled along beneath the shade of natural copsewood; were now hurried down declivities, and now purled more leisurely, but still in active motion, through little lonely valleys, which, opening on the road from time to time, seemed to invite the traveller to explore their recesses. The Cheviots rose before me in frowning majesty; not, indeed, with the sublime variety of rock and cliff which characterizes mountains of the primary class but huge, round-headed, and clothed with a dark robe of russet, gaining, by their extent and desolate appearance, an influence upon the imagination, as a desert district possessing a character of its own. …The abode of my fathers, which I was now approaching, was situated in a glen, or narrow valley, which ran up among those hills.”

Wheeler is most convincing when he draws attention to Frank Osbaldistone’s flight to Scotland accompanied by Andrew Fairservice. We learn from Diana Vernon that Scotland is visible from the vicinity of Osbaldistone Hall:

“Casting her eyes around, to see that no one was near us, she drew up her horse beneath a few birch-trees, which screened us from the rest of the hunting-field:

‘Do you see yon peaked, brown, heathy hill, having something like a whitish speck upon the side?’

‘Terminating that long ridge of broken moorish uplands? — I see it distinctly.’

‘That whitish speck is a rock called Hawkesmore Crag, and Hawkesmore Crag is in Scotland.’

‘Indeed! I did not think we had been so near Scotland.’

‘It is so, I assure you, and your horse will carry you there in two hours.’

‘I shall hardly give him the trouble; why, the distance must be eighteen miles as the crow flies.’ ”

It is altogether more likely that one might catch a glimpse of Scotland from Biddlestone (which sounds like Osbaldistone) than from Chillingham. Frank makes his way northwards as follows:

Andrew Fairservice. From an old Postcard

Andrew Fairservice. From an old Postcard

“Extricating ourselves by short cuts, known to Andrew, from the numerous stony lanes and by-paths which intersected each other in the vicinity of the Hall, we reached the open heath and riding swiftly across it, took our course among the barren hills which divide England from Scotland on what are called the Middle Marches.”

The key phrase here is “the Middle Marches” which is the name given to the border between England and Scotland between the Cheviot and Peel Fell, including the head of Coquetdale and Carter Bar. The way from Chillingham into Scotland would be by the Eastern Marches.

Biddlestone Hall was for long the seat of the Selbys who were granted the estate by Edward I.  It was a pele tower, which was later extended so that there was a small courtyard.

“The building afforded little to interest a stranger, had I been disposed to consider it attentively; the sides of the quadrangle were of various architecture, and with their stone-shafted latticed windows, projecting turrets, and massive architraves, resembled the inside of a convent, or of one of the older and less splendid colleges of Oxford.”

This sounds rather like Chillingham but if it was Biddlestone Scott must have based Osbaldistone Hall on the old house, since it was rebuilt in a different style after a disastrous fire in 1796. When A.G. Bradley, author of The Romance of Northumberland [1908], in which there is an enthusiastic account of Biddlestone Hall, visited Coquetdale the house was still in the hands of the Selbys who finally sold it in 1914.  In Upper Coquetdale [1903] David Dippie Dixon points out that, in addition to appearing in Rob Roy, Biddlestone Hall appears in a ballad by James Hogg describing a raid by the Kerrs of Cessford in 1549:

“Ride light ride light, my kinsmen true

Till since the daylight close her ee’

If we can pass the Biddleston Tower,

A harried warden there shall be.”

The Selbys, like the Osbaldistones, were Catholics and, very likely, Jacobites. One indication that the Selbys may have been the model for the Osbaldistones is that when Scott knew Biddlestone Thomas Selby had a family consisting of seven sons which is reminiscent of the six Osbaldistones, and, two generations earlier, Ephraim Selby who, together with his steward, joined the real rising at Plainfield outside Rothbury in 1715 had five brothers. What is not known is if or when Scott visited Biddlestone, but it may have been when he was in the Cheviots in 1791. Scott spent his twentieth birthday at Langleeford six miles from Wooler with his uncle, Robert Scott. In a letter to William Clerk he wrote “…. Flodden, Otterburn, Chevy Chase, Ford, Coupland Chillingham and many another scene of blood are within a forenoon’s ride.” It is this reference which has persuaded editors that Chillingham may well have been “Osbaldistone Hall”, but Scott could equally well have visited Biddlestone en route to Otterburn, or at the beginning of this trip when he entered Northumberland by ‘a pass in the Cheviots’. There is a local tradition that he visited the Rose and Thistle in Alwinton. Scott also traversed Northumberland when he visited Hexham in 1792.

There is further evidence in a letter which Scott wrote to Robert Surtees (1779-1834) in which he thanks him for sending ‘anecdotes of the Selbys’. It was Surtees who played a trick on Scott by sending him a Border ballad, which he, Surtees, had composed himself, which was subsequently published in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. However, there is no reason to suppose that Surtees, a distinguished antiquarian, who later regretted his practical joke, supplied Scott with false information about Biddlestone.  It suggests an important connection between Scott and Coquetdale.  Incidentally Surtees was also the author of “Lord Derwentwater’s Farewell”, said to have been written by Derwentwater, the most famous Northumbrian Jacobite, on the eve of his execution. James Hogg published it in his Relics of Jacobite Poetry.

A further curiosity in the neighbourhood is the occurrence of a Rob Roy’s Cave at Holystone. No one locally seems to be quite sure how it got its name. Perhaps it was from the veritable Rob Roy who must have traversed the district as a cattle dealer following one of the several drove roads, which traverse the county. However, it is unlikely that the real Rob Roy would have found it necessary to hide in Northumberland, or that he would have been well enough known there to give his name to a cave. It is rather more likely that it was the novel that gave rise to the name – just the kind of label that the Victorians would attach to this rather inaccessible cave. There are, indeed, two passages in the novel where Rob Roy hangs about in the vicinity of Rothbury.

The landscape of Northumberland may be less well known than the scenery about Aberfoyle but it adds considerable interest to Rob Roy.

Louis Stott

Further Notes:

William Ruddick Sir WaIter Scott’s Northumberland in Scott and His Influence Edited J .H.Alexander and David Hewitt 1983 draws attention to the following points:

1. “In addition to re-creating its character in 1715 on the eve of the first Jacobite rebellion, [Scott] also dashed off a lengthy introduction to Border Antiquities (written in 1817) in which he vividly dramatises the earlier history of the lawless Middle Marches through which Frank and Andrew Fairservice take flight along moorland tracks known only to smugglers; latter day degenerate descendants of the Border Reivers of Tudor Times.

2. Andrew Fairservice’s cottage is in the traditional style of the area

Ruddick also draws attention to the parallels with Macaulay Vol. 1 pp 285-6; with Swinburne; and with John Buchan’s Island of Sheep

3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    louisstott said,

    Thanks for your comment. Sorry there isn’t a newsletter. Good wishes

  2. 2

    louisstott said,

    Dear Phillippa,
    I tried to find Rob Roy’s Cave, too, but without success. I did encounter a local landowner who stated that there was a sort of cave but it wasn’t really worth seeking out. I am sorry I can’t be of more help.
    With good wishes,

    Louis Stott

  3. 3

    louisstott said,

    I am sorry to say that many older editions of Rob Roy are not worth very much. You could try visiting “abebooks” to see if anyone else is trying to sell a book like yours and what price it is.

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