Od bless ye, lad! I hae ither matters to mind. I hae a’ thae paulies to sell, an’, a’ yon Highland stotts down on the green, every ane; an’ then I hae ten scores o’ yowes to buy after, an’, If I canna first sell my ain stock, I canna buy nae ither body’s. I hae mair ado than I can manage the day, foreby ganging to houk up hunder-year-auld-banes.James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, first published in 1824, is widely considered one of the finest examples of Scottish Gothic literature. The novel is set during the period following the 1688 revolution, when the replacement of the Stuart monarchy with that of William III brought about, in Scotland, a shift in authority from the Episcopalians to the Presbyterians. This followed decades of brutal political and religious conflict in Scotland, in which different religious groups competed violently for dominance in Scottish society. Tom Devine notes that ‘a nationwide crusade was launched to enforce Presbyterian conformity after 1690’, which manifested in exclusion from public office and broader marginalisation for many Episcopalians, along with significant sectarian tensions which could manifest in the sort of street violence that the novel depicts, and would go on to fuel the Jacobite risings over the following decades.
However, as the 18th century progressed and Scotland became a centre of the Enlightenment, Presbyterianism, especially in its more extreme forms, gradually lost its cultural power. A new conception of Scotland became dominant among the cultural elites centred at Edinburgh, as a modern, secular, rational nation which had left its radical Presbyterian traditions firmly in the past. This cultural shift took place simultaneously with the movement of economic power from rural to urban areas with increasing urbanisation, and with the supplanting of the rural oral storytelling tradition by an urban-centred literary culture. The result was to leave strongly Presbyterian rural areas of the Lowlands marginalised, increasingly unable to maintain their oral traditions on their own terms, and finding their traditional memories of the violence of the 17th century buried under the dominant cultural narrative of progress.
Hogg was born in Ettrick, a small, predominantly Presbyterian community in the rural Borders in 1770. His family was heavily involved with the oral ballad tradition of the area, and as a young man Hogg assisted Walter Scott in transcribing this tradition for his collection Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, which became a bridge, for Hogg, to the literary society of Edinburgh. Moving to Edinburgh, Hogg would publish in both poetry and prose, primarily for Blackwood’s Magazine. His frequent nom de plume, ‘The Ettrick Shepherd’, suggests some of the contours of his literary career; his rural, working-class background, unusual in a writer of the time, gave him a credibility in writing about the rural which he was fully capable of exploiting, but could also be a constraining influence, preventing his being taken seriously as a writer except where he fulfilled the role assigned to him. He was frequently savagely caricatured, often within Blackwood’s itself. Inevitably, then, Hogg was keenly aware of the unequal relationship between the oral traditions of the Borders and the new literary tradition in Edinburgh. His argument for the continued validity of rural traditions and rural narratives was also an argument for his own place within the evolving Scottish nation.
Competing Historical Narratives
Memoirs and Confessions reflects these cultural faultlines in early-18th century Scotland, and Hogg’s complex position in relation to them, in its treatment of national memory and competing historical narratives. It principally concerns Robert Wringhim, a fanatic Presbyterian who comes to believe in a distorted version of Calvinist predestination: he believes that those chosen by God to be saved, the Elect, can perform no sin so grievous as to lose the surety of salvation, and that he has been chosen by God as ‘a scourge in the hand of the Lord’ to punish those who oppose what he considers to be the true faith. To this end, he commits several murders, including that of his brother, George Colwan, who is an Episcopalian. This story is told twice: first by an unnamed Editor, unmistakably an Enlightenment figure, who has ostensibly compiled a reliable narrative from ‘history, justiciary records, and tradition’, and then by Robert himself through a manuscript which he wrote, and of which the Editor tells us he has come into possession. These two narratives effectively take place in different worlds: the Editor’s narrative is rational and presents Robert’s actions as an aberration stemming only from psychological factors and extreme social division, while Robert’s takes place is a world of common interaction between the supernatural and the everyday, in which Robert’s violence is induced by a shapeshifting figure called Gil-Martin who, it is strongly implied, is Satan, and who at times takes on Robert’s identity. The two narratives clearly depict the same events, but beside contradicting each other, they operate with such different assumptions and worldviews that they are almost mutually unintelligible. The Editor remarks ‘WHAT can this work be? Sure, you will say, it must be an allegory; or (as the writer calls it) a religious PARABLE, showing the dreadful danger of self-righteousness? I cannot tell.'
In a short concluding section, the Editor describes his own journey to what he believes to be the burial site of Robert Wringhim, where he finds the corpse mysteriously preserved, with the manuscript which the reader has just read. At this point Hogg himself enters his own story, caricatured as a shepherd speaking broad Scots, who refuses to assist the Editor in finding the burial site with the words which this entry quotes at its beginning. The Editor does locate the corpse, and finds it an incomprehensibly, contradictory object in itself: it is not buried where he had expected, it is impossible to work out how it has been preserved, and it is wearing clothing of different periods and regions. The supernatural and the irrational thus force themselves into the Editor’s narrative; the ‘rage of fanaticism’ which the Editor laboured to relegate to the past refuses to remain buried. As Hogg’s self-insertion to the narrative suggests, the author refuses to endorse either version of the events of Robert’s life; he leaves the competing narratives unreconciled.
We will hardly be inclined to like or to agree with Robert, but Hogg makes it impossible to ignore his own narrative and experience of the period he lived through. If a unified national narrative is to emerge outside the bounds of the novel, it cannot, Hogg suggests, elide or suppress the experience of any party in Scotland’s historical contexts. Most especially, we must not ignore the traditions of the vernacular and the marginalised. As Douglas Mack notes, ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner ensures that the voices and insights of non-elite people are heard and valued, for example when the powerful oral testimony of the prostitute Bell Calvert plays a crucial role in undermining the certainties of the Editor’s world view’. The novel not only performs important work in expanding our awareness of the narrative history in Scotland, but challenges us pay proper attention and respect to the vernacular narratives which are so often ignored or overlooked in peacebuilding processes and post-war reconstruction in our own day.
What do you think?
- In what present-day examples might vernacular narratives be overlooked in the dominant narrative favoured by political, social or intellectual powers?
- To what extent can a society be considered or experienced as ‘peaceful’ when competing narratives of conflict remain unresolved?
- How can narratives which encourage violence, such as Robert’s, be acknowledged in a peacebuilding context without risking the perpetuation of violence? Is the risk unavoidable, and if so, is it worth taking?
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Thomas Frost, December 2022
 Tom Devine, The Scottish Nation (New York: Viking Penguin, 1999): 64.
 Ibid., 66.
 Valentina Bold and Suzanne Gilbert, “Hogg, Ettrick, and Oral Tradition” in The Edinburgh Companion to James Hogg, ed. Ian Duncan and Douglas S. Mack (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012): 12-3.
 James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (Urbana: Project Gutenberg, 2000).
 Douglas S. Mack, “Hogg’s Politics and the Presbyterian Tradition” in The Edinburgh Companion: 67.