The Two Drovers

17/01/2023

Walter Scott’s The Two Drovers is a great example of turning a series of generalisations into a particular. Scott tells us that Highlanders are “masters of this difficult trade of driving, which seems to suit them as well as the trade of war.” He speaks of the “Celt’s natural curiosity and love of motion”, and says the “Highlander, a child amongst flocks, is a prince amongst herds”, feeling “himself nowhere more at home than when following a gallant drove of his county cattle in the character of the guardian.”

Here we have Robin Oig taking his cattle down to England and meeting a Yorkshire friend on the way. It is 1795 and, while the Union has been in place for almost 90 years, there is still a great deal of difference between a Scottish Highlander and an English northerner. Despite having little in common — Robin’s English is limited and Yorkshireman Harry Wakefield speaks no Gaelic — the narrator leaves us in no doubt though that they are very close as they travel down to Cumberland. If they couldn’t speak each other’s language, Wakefield could sing and Oig whistle. Their stories weren’t much use to each other but they managed to become great companions nevertheless. “Thus, though Robin could hardly have comprehended his companion’s stories about horse-racing, cock-fighting or fox-hunting", and Wakefield Robin's "own legends of clan-fights and creaghs…they contrived nevertheless to find a degree of pleasure in each other’s company.”

This is so until a misunderstanding. Going their separate ways to secure land for their cattle, Robin gets the use of some pastures after talking to a squire; Harry after speaking with a bailiff. The trouble is while they have spoken to different people, they have secured the same land. Robin is given it and Harry is annoyed; exacerbated by various locals up for watching a fight. The burly Wakefield insists on a physical confrontation and the slight Robin resists, feeling that there is no need to turn to aggression after a misunderstanding. The fight takes place nevertheless and Robin is defeated. 

But the point of the story rests on all those generalisations turned into particulars. By viewing Robin as very much a product of his environment, as someone who does things in a particular way like other Highlanders, we see Robin cannot accept defeat and see, like Robin, the conflict as unjust not only in that Harry has turned a misunderstanding into a grievance, but that Harry beats Robin using his pugilistic skills while Robin’s gift is for using the skene-dhu: a small, black dagger usually worn with full Highland clothing. He didn’t have it with him during the altercation because his aunt who is gifted with second sight told him when he set off for England that “there is blood on your hand, and it is English blood.” He has thus given the knife to a fellow drover and travels a dozen miles to retrieve it after the altercation, and on his return plunges it into Harry’s heart. The prophecy has come true and we might wonder if the aunt’s determination to protect her nephew will really be the death of him. 

After all, the judge looking at the case can only see it as revenge no matter the sympathy he possesses for Robin’s predicament. Perhaps if Robin had on him the blade when the fight took place the judge may have been able to view it as self-defence. But as the judge notes, walking a dozen miles to fetch your weapon gives a man plenty of opportunity to calm down. “…The violence with which he carried his purpose into effect, with so many circumstances of deliberate determination, could neither be induced by the passion of anger, nor that of fear.” The judge must see it as pre-meditated and cold-blooded. With a sorrowful heart and with tears in his eyes he announces, after the jury finds Robin guilty, that Robin will be sentenced to death. 

But before doing so, much thought is given to the specifics of the case, with the narrator intruding when he says “my story is nearly ended…I was myself present, and as a young Scottish lawyer…” he was allowed on the bench and got to hear the judge’s words. What makes the case unusual rests on notions of honour and bravery. It could seem that a man who loses a fistfight and hours later stabs the victor in the heart could be deemed a coward but that isn’t how the judge sees it, even if he will be forced to put Robin to death for this reason: that the law cannot allow for such nuance. He is aware that if he didn’t have Robin executed, “should this man’s actions remain unpunished, you may unsheath, under various pretences, a thousand daggers betwixt Land’s End and the Orkneys.”  

He also sees that Robin is an honourable man from a particular place and this thus makes the case peculiar. If honour for a Yorkshireman rests on using his fists and for a Highlander on using his blade, and if Harry is clearly a much bigger and broader man than Robin, then a fair fight would have to be based on equitable terms. But these terms weren’t justly agreed and instead, Harry beats Robin with his means and Robin kills Harry with his. Robin doesn’t kill him because he wants Harry dead; that is just how he defeats his opponent. Harry goes into the fight protecting what he believes is his honour; Robin returns doing likewise. Even though Robin offers to share the land, Harry allows his pride to rule and, after failing to find decent pasture, leaves his cattle on some barren moor next to the alehouse. The humiliation is complete and a fight inevitable, but while Harry can restore his pride by mildly pasting an opponent, Robin must use his knife to defeat him and thus leave his friend dead. 

The story hinges on the problem of generalisation and the importance of particularity. Robin is a Highlander and the broad picture the narrator draws of Highland people can seem at first like a series of cliches and commonplaces. But Scott wants to make clear that here is a people but contained within a broader notion of national character courtesy of a union that means the Highlander and the Yorkshireman are expected to share the same values legally even if they don’t culturally. Speaking of Scott, Edwin Morgan reckoned “…I was forced to account for the hiatus in Scott's endowment by considering the environment in which he lived, by invoking the fact — if the reader will agree it is one — that he spent most of his days in a hiatus, in a country, that is to say, which was neither a nation nor a province, and had, instead of a centre, a blank, an Edinburgh, in the middle of it.” (‘Constituting Scotland’)

Cairns Craig quotes Morgan in discussing Scott’s more general status for 20th-century writers who were wary of Scott’s romanticisations. But without getting involved in a debate that has generated an enormous amount of examination (as Cairns Craig’s essay testifies) what we can see is that Scott’s story explores well the difficulties of assuming that one set of values can work unimpeded with others. When the judge says he must be wary of setting precedent that could be used by anyone from Land’s End to the Orkneys, he recognises in the difficulty of the case that what can seem fair and just to one part of the Union might not be fair to another. But whose values count? The judge is the perplexed figure trying to make sense of contrary customs within what had become a single country. The story may be about two drovers who share a profession but they do not, finally, share a value system and Scott’s fine tale might leave us wondering whether some of these divisions are still in place centuries later, as Scotland has already had one independence referendum this century, and happens to be seeking another. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Two Drovers

Walter Scott's The Two Drovers is a great example of turning a series of generalisations into a particular. Scott tells us that Highlanders are "masters of this difficult trade of driving, which seems to suit them as well as the trade of war." He speaks of the "Celt's natural curiosity and love of motion", and says the "Highlander, a child amongst flocks, is a prince amongst herds", feeling "himself nowhere more at home than when following a gallant drove of his county cattle in the character of the guardian."

Here we have Robin Oig taking his cattle down to England and meeting a Yorkshire friend on the way. It is 1795 and, while the Union has been in place for almost 90 years, there is still a great deal of difference between a Scottish Highlander and an English northerner. Despite having little in common Robin's English is limited and Yorkshireman Harry Wakefield speaks no Gaelic the narrator leaves us in no doubt though that they are very close as they travel down to Cumberland. If they couldn't speak each other's language, Wakefield could sing and Oig whistle. Their stories weren't much use to each other but they managed to become great companions nevertheless. "Thus, though Robin could hardly have comprehended his companion's stories about horse-racing, cock-fighting or fox-hunting, and Wakefield Robin's own legends of clan-fights and creaghs...they contrived nevertheless to find a degree of pleasure in each other's company."

This is so until a misunderstanding. Going their separate ways to secure land for their cattle, Robin gets the use of some pastures after talking to a squire; Harry after speaking with a bailiff. The trouble is while they have spoken to different people, they have secured the same land. Robin is given it and Harry is annoyed; exacerbated by various locals up for watching a fight. The burly Wakefield insists on a physical confrontation and the slight Robin resists, feeling that there is no need to turn to aggression after a misunderstanding. The fight takes place nevertheless and Robin is defeated.

But the point of the story rests on all those generalisations turned into particulars. By viewing Robin as very much a product of his environment, as someone who does things in a particular way like other Highlanders, we see Robin cannot accept defeat and see, like Robin, the conflict as unjust not only in that Harry has turned a misunderstanding into a grievance, but that Harry beats Robin using his pugilistic skills while Robin's gift is for using the skene-dhu: a small, black dagger usually worn with full Highland clothing. He didn't have it with him during the altercation because his aunt who is gifted with second sight told him when he set off for England that "there is blood on your hand, and it is English blood." He has thus given the knife to a fellow drover and travels a dozen miles to retrieve it after the altercation, and on his return plunges it into Harry's heart. The prophecy has come true and we might wonder if the aunt's determination to protect her nephew will really be the death of him.

After all, the judge looking at the case can only see it as revenge no matter the sympathy he possesses for Robin's predicament. Perhaps if Robin had on him the blade when the fight took place the judge may have been able to view it as self-defence. But as the judge notes, walking a dozen miles to fetch your weapon gives a man plenty of opportunity to calm down. "...The violence with which he carried his purpose into effect, with so many circumstances of deliberate determination, could neither be induced by the passion of anger, nor that of fear." The judge must see it as pre-meditated and cold-blooded. With a sorrowful heart and with tears in his eyes he announces, after the jury finds Robin guilty, that Robin will be sentenced to death.

But before doing so, much thought is given to the specifics of the case, with the narrator intruding when he says "my story is nearly ended...I was myself present, and as a young Scottish lawyer..." he was allowed on the bench and got to hear the judge's words. What makes the case unusual rests on notions of honour and bravery. It could seem that a man who loses a fistfight and hours later stabs the victor in the heart could be deemed a coward but that isn't how the judge sees it, even if he will be forced to put Robin to death for this reason: that the law cannot allow for such nuance. He is aware that if he didn't have Robin executed, "should this man's actions remain unpunished, you may unsheath, under various pretences, a thousand daggers betwixt Land's End and the Orkneys."

He also sees that Robin is an honourable man from a particular place and this thus makes the case peculiar. If honour for a Yorkshireman rests on using his fists and for a Highlander on using his blade, and if Harry is clearly a much bigger and broader man than Robin, then a fair fight would have to be based on equitable terms. But these terms weren't justly agreed and instead, Harry beats Robin with his means and Robin kills Harry with his. Robin doesn't kill him because he wants Harry dead; that is just how he defeats his opponent. Harry goes into the fight protecting what he believes is his honour; Robin returns doing likewise. Even though Robin offers to share the land, Harry allows his pride to rule and, after failing to find decent pasture, leaves his cattle on some barren moor next to the alehouse. The humiliation is complete and a fight inevitable, but while Harry can restore his pride by mildly pasting an opponent, Robin must use his knife to defeat him and thus leave his friend dead.

The story hinges on the problem of generalisation and the importance of particularity. Robin is a Highlander and the broad picture the narrator draws of Highland people can seem at first like a series of cliches and commonplaces. But Scott wants to make clear that here is a people but contained within a broader notion of national character courtesy of a union that means the Highlander and the Yorkshireman are expected to share the same values legally even if they don't culturally. Speaking of Scott, Edwin Morgan reckoned "...I was forced to account for the hiatus in Scott's endowment by considering the environment in which he lived, by invoking the fact if the reader will agree it is one that he spent most of his days in a hiatus, in a country, that is to say, which was neither a nation nor a province, and had, instead of a centre, a blank, an Edinburgh, in the middle of it." ('Constituting Scotland')

Cairns Craig quotes Morgan in discussing Scott's more general status for 20th-century writers who were wary of Scott's romanticisations. But without getting involved in a debate that has generated an enormous amount of examination (as Cairns Craig's essay testifies) what we can see is that Scott's story explores well the difficulties of assuming that one set of values can work unimpeded with others. When the judge says he must be wary of setting precedent that could be used by anyone from Land's End to the Orkneys, he recognises in the difficulty of the case that what can seem fair and just to one part of the Union might not be fair to another. But whose values count? The judge is the perplexed figure trying to make sense of contrary customs within what had become a single country. The story may be about two drovers who share a profession but they do not, finally, share a value system and Scott's fine tale might leave us wondering whether some of these divisions are still in place centuries later, as Scotland has already had one independence referendum this century, and happens to be seeking another.


© Tony McKibbin