The Fair Maid of Perth

The Fair Maid of Perth (or St Valentine’s Day) was published in May 1828 and became an immediate success. The book is set in 1396 during the reign (1390-1406) of Robert III of Scotland (1337-1406).

(i) Principal Characters

Catharine Glover, a dark haired beauty of a pious religious nature, is the daughter of Simon Glover, widower, honest burgher, successful glove maker, and deacon of The Glover Incorporation of Perth. Her title, the ‘Fair Maid of Perth’, is an acknowledgement that she is the most beautiful of all the women of Perth and its district. At the start of the novel, Conachar, later Eachin (Hector) MacIan, the chief of Clan Quhele is apprenticed to Simon Glover and lives with Simon, Catharine, and their housekeeper Dorothy at their home in Curfew Row. Central to Scott’s tale of romance is the brawny armourer, accomplished fighter, and maker of weapons Henry Gow, known as Hal o’ the Wynd or the Gow Chrom (Harry Smith, Gobha Chrom, and the ‘bent’ that is the bandy-legged smith of St Johnstoun).

(ii) Other Characters

Scott sets his principal characters against a backdrop of royal intrigue bringing into the plot King Robert III of Scotland; his deceiving brother the Duke of Albany; the imprudent and unfortunate David, Duke of Rothesay, the king’s son and heir to the throne; the Earl of March and his jilted daughter Elizabeth; and the Duchess of Rothesay, daughter of the feared and renowned Earl of Douglas (known as the Black Douglas). Oliver Proudfute (frivolous and boastful bonnet maker); his wife Magdalen; the scheming apothecary Henbane Dwinning; Sir Patrick Charteris of Kinfauns (Provost of Perth); Sir John Ramorny of Fife (Master of the Horse to the Duke of Rothesay); Prior Anselm (Prior of the Dominican friary); Father Clement, a free thinking Carthusian monk in dispute with the established church; and Louise the glee maiden (an entertainer from Provence) all feature in the story. So too do the minor characters Bailie Craigdallie (the city’s most senior Bailie); the murderer Anthony Bonthron and Eviot of Balhousie (attendant and steward to Sir John Ramorny, respectively); the Earl of Errol (Lord High Constable of Perth); Torquil of the Oak (foster father to Conachar); Mac Gillie Chattanach (chief of Clan Chattan); Gilchrist MacIan (chief of Clan Quhele and father of Conachar); Simon Smotherwell (the executioner); Father Francis (a Dominican monk); the Devil’s Dick of Hellgarth (kinsman of the Black Douglas); Kitt Henshaw (agent to Sir Patrick Charteris); Lindsey, the young Earl of Crawford; Sir Louis Lundin (clerk to Perth town council); Niel Booshalloch, an old friend of Simon Glover; and Norman-nan-ord (Norman of the Hammer) clansman of Clan Quhele.

(iii) Synopsis

Simon Glover, Catharine his daughter, and Conachar his apprentice attend mass at the Dominican friary close to their home in Curfew Street (now known as Curfew Row). At the church a noble in disguise seeks to persuade Catharine to allow him to present himself at her window the next morning so that he may become her Valentine for the year. Catharine’s refusal results in the nobleman’s angry departure. Henry Gow, who has just returned from a tour of Scotland selling armour (made at his smithy) calls upon the home of his friend Simon Glover. A meal is prepared by Dorothy the housekeeper. Simon hopes for the marriage of Catharine to Henry but Henry’s martial nature initially displeases Catharine. Conachar and Henry quarrel after which the young highlander draws his weapon and lunges at Henry. Easily dealt with by Henry, Conachar retires to his loft room. Although backed by Catharine’s father, Henry who loves the mild-mannered Catharine appears too pugnacious to win her over. He is encouraged by Simon Glover to return early the next morning to secure Catharine as his Valentine for the year.

The following morning, dressed in his finest but with the protection of his chain mail and a sword below his cloak, Henry makes his way to Curfew Row. As he arrives, he sees a group of courtiers (unbeknown to him the sovereign’s son, the Duke of Rothesay, and men of his company) attempting to abduct Catharine. The kidnap is thwarted by the intervention of Henry who in the ensuing fight severs the hand of one man and briefly seizes another. The amputated man is Sir John Ramorny, Rothesay’s Master of Horse. As the prospective kidnappers run off, the citizens of Perth rush to the streets. Oliver Proudfute holds the severed hand aloft. Henry is invited into Simon Glover’s home where he eventually dozes off in a chair. As the sun rises the next day Catharine who has observed Henry in his slumber kisses him on the lips. Henry awakes and soon Catharine is his Valentine for the year. This delights Simon Glover. Conachar is far from pleased and after taking breakfast leaves his apprenticeship to return home to the Highlands.

Early on St Valentine’s Day, King Robert is engaged in conversation with the Duke of Albany at the Dominican friary, the prior is in attendance. The Earl of March and his men arrive at the friary. So too does the Earl of Douglas. The glee maiden, a courtesan and entertainer, makes an appearance and some trouble ensues. Henry is charged by Rothesay to escort the glee maiden to a place of safety. Against his desire, he agrees to Rothesay’s request. Henry and the glee maiden sneak out of the friary. Henry, unsure of what to do with the girl, eventually takes her to his home where she is placed in the charge of his housekeeper. En route to his house, the pair are spotted by Dwinning the apothecary. Meanwhile the king, March, Albany, Anselm, and Rothesay discuss the incident in Curfew Row; the severed hand is produced. They also discuss the long-standing feud between Clan Chattan and Clan Quhele. It is agreed that the feud will be resolved by a judicial mortal combat between thirty members of each clan in the presence of the sovereign.

Dwinning attends Ramorny for the loss of his hand and shares with him his hatred of Henry Gow. Revenge is plotted. Instructing his servant Bonthron to murder Henry, Ramorny tries to avenge himself on Henry. Morris dancers and revellers fill the streets of Perth. Oliver Proudfute is caught up in the revelry. The scared bonnet maker makes his way to the home of Henry Gow. Proudfute has borrowed Henry’s buff-coat and cap of steel, and believing that mimicking the blacksmith in gait and manner will keep him safe, is attacked as he makes his way to his own dwelling. A blow from behind ends his life. Ramorny’s assassin has killed the wrong man.

Rothesay, accompanied by the revellers enter the home of Ramorny, who having taken an opiate supplied by the apothecary is indisposed. Undeterred by Ramorny’s attendant Eviot, Rothesay gains entrance to Ramorny’s bedchamber where he discovers it was he who lost his hand in the Curfew Row skirmish. Eviot receives instruction to bring Bonthron before Rothesay; Bonthron appears, bloodied with axe in hand fresh from the murder of Proudfute.

Outraged by the murder of one of their own, the people of Perth assemble in the Council Chamber. Henry is called for but is reluctant to become involved having pledged martial temperance to his beloved Catharine. No longer able to avoid the matter he joins his kinfolk who through intelligence are aware of the involvement of Ramorny’s household in the slaying of Proudfute. It is decided to use the ancient rule of ‘Bier Right’ – the ordeal of appearing before the corpse one is alleged to have slain, the bleeding of the corpse indicating guilt – to confront members of that household and thus find the killer. Henry is appointed champion by Proudfute’s widow. Ramorny’s household appear before King Robert and his court at St John’s Kirk. At the appointed moment Bonthron refuses to present himself to the corpse and instead chooses combat. Bested by Henry Gow, Bonthron admits his guilt and accuses Rothesay of complicity. Bonthron is taken away to be hanged. With the aid of Dwinning and the executioner Smotherwell, Bonthron survives the hanging to be released from the scaffold and whisked away to Newburgh under cover of night.

In danger of accusations of heresy, Catharine and Simon Glover receive the help of Provost Charteris. The three of them make their way to Kinfauns where Catharine remains whilst Simon Glover travels towards the north-west of Scotland. Reaching Bullough near Loch Tay, the old glover arrives at the home of Niel Booshalloch, an old friend who informs him of the death of Gilchrist MacIan, chief of Clan Quhele, and the ascendency of Conachar to that title. The funeral of Clan Quhele’s former captain is held at Loch Tay. From a nearby hill, Simon Glover, in the company of Father Clement, watch the highlanders honour their chief. Conachar, now Eachin (Hector) MacIan, is inaugurated as clan chief on the banks of the loch. Simon Glover joins some 200 clan members at the celebratory banquet. After the succession, Simon Glover spends some time as a guest of Niel Booshalloch. As the weeks go by political developments offer fortune to Catharine and Simon Glover’s predicament. Father Clement informs Simon Glover that the accusation of heresy brought by the High Court of Commission no longer stands.

At Perth, Ramorny’s anger at the Duke of Rothesay spurs him to seek bloody vengeance. Rothesay is lured by the chance of frolics with Catharine Glover to accompany his old friend to the castle at Falkland, home of the Duchess of Rothesay. Taking a boat, Ramorny, Rothesay, Dwinning, and Eviot sail down the River Tay. During that journey the royal party meet another boat. Rothesay, spying Louise the glee maiden on board, has her brought to his vessel. At Newburgh, Rothesay and the others mount horses to complete the final part of the journey to Falkland. Unbeknown to Catharine, the Duchess of Rothesay is not at Falkland, and the ‘lady’ who she finds lying in her bedchamber is a disguised Duke of Rothesay. Catharine kisses the gloved hand of the person she believes to be the duchess. Rothesay places his arm around her and showers Catharine with kisses to which the Fair Maid reacts with revulsion. Rothesay’s passion is calmed by Catharine’s purity and nobility of words and he is contrite. After taking dinner with Ramorny and Dwinning, Rothesay, drugged by the apothecary, is taken ill. After convincing the rest of the household that Rothesay has a contagious illness, the three conspirators, Ramorny, Dwinning, and Bonthron take Rothesay by a secret staircase to a dungeon wherein he is placed in irons and denied food. Bonthron acts as his warder. The three conspirators are but pawns in the undertaking, for it the Duke of Albany who has hatched the foul deed in pursuance of his and his family’s designs on the throne. Catharine and the glee maiden imprisoned within the castle become close and Catharine learns the truth of how Henry assisted the
glee maiden’s escape from Perth. The two women whilst in the castle gardens hear Rothesay’s cries through a crack in the wall. Small amounts of food are passed to the prisoner through the crack. An escape plan is determined and executed successfully by the two women.

The glee maiden makes her way to the Black Douglas who marches upon the castle with a body of horse. His arrival is too late for Rothesay is dead in his chamber, his lifeless body thrown on the bed in haste before his murderers could arrange his body to hide foul play. The murderers are captured, hastily executed by hanging from the castle battlements, and then found guilty by a court of Douglas’s men. Aware of Albany’s role in the crime, Douglas decides it is politic to let the matter be left to God’s judgement. Meanwhile, a bitter rivalry develops between Henry and Conachar, as both contend for Catharine’s affections. Henry fashions the best mail harness he has ever wrought, which Norman-nanord (Norman of the Hammer) attempts to buy for Conachar. Hoping that providing Conachar with this protection will ensure his rival’s survival in the clan combat and thus provide him with a later chance at
fighting Conachar himself, Henry agrees to the sale of the armour.

A couple of days before the judicial combat the two sides march to Perth where they are kept separate and the people of Perth are commanded not to approach within half a mile of the two camps. Clan Chattan bivouac at Kinfauns whilst Clan Quhele are billeted at the Abbey of Scone. Shortly before the scheduled day and time of the battle, Simon Glover returns to Perth. He meets Henry on the North Inch. The two clans enter the specially built arena. Clan Chattan find themselves short of one fighter; the youngest of the clan. Torquil attempts to save Conachar by offering to withdraw Clan Quhele’s youngest fighter, their clan chief, from the combat. The plan fails and Clan Chattan seek a volunteer from the people of Perth with an offer of a gold crown. Henry relishes the opportunity of confronting Conachar and takes up the offer.

The battle begins and is bloody and terrible. The eight sons of Torquil perish one after the other in defence of their clan chief; Torquil too falls in defence of Hector. At the end of the conflict, Henry and Conachar, who is the only man of his clan still alive, face each other. Fear overcomes Conachar, who flees by throwing himself into the River Tay and swimming to safety. At Campsie, Conachar meets Catharine who along with the glee maiden has been brought to stay with the Duchess of Rothesay under the order of the Douglas. Overcome with shame, Conachar confesses his failure to Catharine and throws himself into a raging cataract.

After the battle, King Robert learns of the death of his son. Henry offers a vow that in future he will only draw his sword to defend Scotland and is finally accepted by Catharine whom he marries.

Learn more about Walter Scott’s Fair City: