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The Devil in Scotland

What follows is a consideration of some of the more canonical moments in Scottish literature when the Devil features (or in some cases, as we shall see, fails to feature). Many more examples might be adduced, but those chosen here are selected not only for their prominence, but for the way in which they congregate around conceptions of moral discernment and the divine economy (the universe as presided over by the Christian God) and in relation to what I argue to be the overdriven Calvinist perception of the fallen world. Arguably, in trailing the Devil in Scottish literature, we become especially aware of a widely diagnosed flaw in the Scottish cultural imagination precipitated by the theological tincture of Scotland's Reformation. Though this 'flaw', it can also be argued, is somewhat recouped as literature, in its fundamentally imaginative propensity, flushes it out.

The Scottish ballads of the 14th-17th centuries provide plentiful material on the Devil. 'The Daemon Lover' sees a married woman visited by a former paramour missing for seven years, who returns to claim her 'former vows'. The woman though insists on the sacredness of the marital pledge to her husband and her loyalty to her children. However, the old lover points out his material wealth and the woman immediately agree to go off with him on his ship. Unsurprisingly, all does not go well:

She had not sailed a league, a league,
      A league but barely three,
When dismal grew his countenance,
      And drumlie grew his ee.

They had not sailed a league, a league,
      A league but barely three,
Until she espied his cloven foot,
      And she wept right bitterlie.

'O hold your tongue of your weeping,' says he,
      'Of your weeping now let me be;
I will shew you how the lilies grow
      On the banks of Italy.'

'O what hills are yon, yon pleasant hills,
      That the sun shines sweetly on?'
'O yon are the hills of heaven,' he said,
      'Where you will never win.'

'O whaten a mountain is yon,' she said,
      'All so dreary wi frost and snow?'
O yon is the mountain of hell,' he cried,
      'Where you and I will go.'

He strack the tap-mast wi his hand,
      The foremast wi his knee,
And he brake that gallant ship in twain,
      And sank her in the sea.1

We should notice the theological rules, where the Devil or his demon-disciples cannot abduct humans gratuitously. The woman gives in to the temptation of riches, and, indeed, not only acts basely but is wilfully blind to the signs that there is something of the night about her former lover, the number of years which she ignores, and which he has been gone, seven, being one of those numbers associated in folklore with the supernatural.

The scenario of 'The Daemon Lover' represents a kind of morality test. There is perhaps some suspicion that the woman, with her 'former vows' has been unfaithful to her first lover, now reappeared in wraith form, and so God (who in the Divine Economy allows even Satan and his minions to operate) has sanctioned another testing of the woman. She is given the definitive chance to prove herself faithful on her second encounter, a challenge which she fails. The ballads are sometimes anti-feminist, and, certainly, 'The Daemon Lover' might be said to feature a rather jaundiced view of female caprice. However, I would suggest that we are invited to feel some sympathy for the woman, especially as Satan, or his minion, taunts her with romantic dreams, declaiming as they sail off: 'I will shew you how the lilies grow [in] Italy'. It is not only the woman who is carried away, but also the demon lover who promptly sinks the boat while the woman weeps (contritely?) and so, as the Medieval audience would know, is more likely to be ushered into Purgatory rather than Hell. We should be aware also that the original lover has deserted his prospective bride, going off to plunder Ireland (perhaps as one of Robert the Bruce's troop on Scotland's earliest ill-fated colonial adventure). He has lost his life and has, presumably, as the nature of his return shows, gone to Hell; sent back to ruin another soul he takes her life, but perhaps fails to accomplish her damnation.

We might glance at another ballad,'Thomas the Rhymer', about Thomas of Erceldoune, the poet and visionary of the thirteenth century. While out walking, Thomas encounters a beautiful woman, before whom he kneels taking her for Our Lady, Mother of Christ. She informs him, however, that she is actually the Queen of Elfland and dares him to kiss her, telling him if you do so you are mine forever. Ignoring this warning, Thomas kisses the Queen and is carried off to Fairyland for seven years. We see them on their journey:

O they rade on, and farther on,
      And they waded thro rivers aboon the knee,
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
      But they heard the roaring of the sea.

It was mirk mirk night, and there was nae stern light,
      And they waded thro red blude to the knee;
For a' the blude that's shed on earth
      Rins thro the springs o' that countrie.2

Here Thomas undertakes, essentially, the journey into Hell, in an episode that recalls the Apostolic Creed ('He descended into Hell'), as well as one of the Apocraphyl gospels where Jesus Christ is depicted freeing from Hell those souls condemned because they had lived before his birth. There are strange goings on here, clearly, as we have something of an analogy between the Queen of Elfland/Satan and Fairyland/Hell. How do we explain this? The key lies in the fact that when Thomas returns to the human world he is now 'True' Thomas; he has the gift of prophecy or seeing the truth. This gift is also, however, a searing pain, a Christ-like burden of recognising human sin and suffering (knowledge gained in Elfland/Hell, a place of depressing knowledge where human misery and evil are computed). This distillation of all the bitterness of human life made known to Thomas represents a version of the story of the pain that Christ must know in the incarnation. Christ in opening the gates of Hell must go there and taste human despair. If it is not exactly the case that the Devil has 'shape-changed' to appear as the Queen of Elfland, the Christian narrative of good and evil, of life and suffering is deeply imbued within the 'folk materials' of the ballad (rather than folk materials being deeply impregnated within or appropriated by Christian narrative, a lazy, erroneous assumption often made in the 'post-Christian' era).

More overtly orthodox in voice, the great fifteenth century makar, William Dunbar, features the Devil in a song of Eastertide, 'Done is a battell on the dragon blak'. Dunbar's hymn features the cross amidst fierce, guttural beasts (a reversal of the nativity narrative in the stable). Even as it is a cry of triumph, it features the ongoing human situation: as the vulnerable, sacrificed Christ-lamb has emerged triumphant from being surrounded by ghastly forces and improbable odds, so too humanity in all its frailty is promised redemption. The predatory, nightmarish beasts of Hell are both an acknowledgement of the Devil and a counsel not to despair. With Dunbar we see the orthodox bestiality of Satan and one might mount the argument that it is because of the loss of the iconography of the diabolic in art in Scotland following the Reformation that Calvinists tend to see the Devil everywhere. The extreme, puritanically Calvinist outlook sees the world as a fallen, outcast place a place where all human joy might be read as a deceitful trick of the Devil, grace residing not potentially in nature (as Medieval Catholicism had allowed) but subsisting only within the word of scripture.

If we are to seek solid, imaginative portrayals of the Devil in Scotland between the medieval period and the eighteenth century, these are far and few between. One of the most dramatic examples concerns the case of John Graham of Claverhouse (1648-89), Royalist persecutor of the Covenanters, killed at the Battle of Killiecrankie. In Scottish poetry between the 1690s and the 1770s, Claverhouse is a hero in the pantheon Jacobite heroes, certainly so far as writers such as Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson are concerned. In the Covenanting/Presbyterian tradition, however, Graham is 'bluidy Clavers' and is even seen as the Devil, reputedly because of the uncanny number of failed Covenanting attempts to kill him. Paradoxically, Claverhouse contributes to a tradition of the Devil as swashbuckling hero, a general idea promulgated most famously in John Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667). It would seem to be the case that those on the dissenting, anti-Royalist side in the British dynastic and religious struggles of the seventeenth century do most to project an ambiguous or glamorous Satanic 'other'.

We find fairly precisely an echo of the Satanic Cavalier/Jacobite in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Master of Ballantrae (1888) where James Durisdeer, inveterate adventurer goes off to support Charles Edward Stuart in 1745 after 'winning' the toss of a coin so that his younger brother, Henry, stays at home as loyalist heir to safeguard the family inheritance. Returning an outlaw, James ignores the reality of the sensible family expedience and the fact that Henry had tried to insist that he as younger brother ought to be 'out' with the highly risky, ultimately failed rebellion, and proceeds to persecute Henry for having 'usurped' him, while Henry attempts at various points to accommodate his brother as well as he can. A very typical Stevensonian manoeuvre is to replay narratives from the Bible. In The Master of Ballantrae, the parable of the Prodigal Son is revisited (an item of the New Testament that is problematic a propos God's banishing of Lucifer in the Old Testament). James, no matter the enormities he commits, remains the favourite of Lord Durisdeer and is always welcomed home. James responds by being evermore the Satanic figure, shouting down chimneys pretending to be a possessed voice and burying himself alive, intending to resurrect himself.

A question is asked implicitly: is James really evil or just a shoddy stage-trickster? The narrator of the novel, the dour, Calvinistic Ephraim Mackellar, is the family steward, and for much of the novel he is attracted to James; however, eventually he reaches the conclusion that, simply, James is a bad man and Henry a good one, with the implication, then, that James is motiveless evil. James's childish cheap tricks, in fact, are a sign of evil, not things of lesser magnitude. If it looks like the Devil at work, then probably it is the Devil. There is no real reason for James's badness, which we see before and after he loses his patrimony. He makes himself outcast, Satan-like: 'Non serviam', a very profound, though ultimately inexplicable, evil. [...]

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1 Emily Lyle (ed.), Scottish Ballads (Canongate: Edinburgh, 1994), pp.80-81.

2 Lyle (ed.), Scottish Ballads, p.134.