Walter Scott's 1821 novel builds relentlessly to its mystery-unraveling climax in a few weeks of the summer of 1689. Most of THE PIRATE plays out on the "Mainland" of Scotland's Shetland (Scott's Jetland) Islands. The scene shifts in August at novel's climax 60 miles south to Kirkwall and Scapa Floe in the Orkneys.
In the prequel, a vague five or ten years before 1689, a dark, morose, woman-hating disguised pirate, Basil Mertoun, with his neglected young son Mordaunt, had retired from the sunny Caribbean. Mertoun Senior did not lack funds and rented Jarlshof, a ruined stone dwelling on Sumburgh Head, southernmost promontory of the Jetland mainland, hundreds of feet above the tempestuous sea.
Genial landlord of Basil and Mordaunt Mertoun is wealthy shipping magnate and whale hunter Magnus Troil, descendant of ancient Norwegian Earls. Magnus lives twenty trackless miles north of Sumburgh Head at Burgh Westra. He has two beautiful, innocent daughters, Minna and Brenda. They were orphaned when their mother died a dozen or so years earlier. Minna is a natural leader, dark, fearless, mystical and immersed in the lore of the old Vikings. Brenda is younger, blonde, timid, but thoroughly sceptical of Jetland's pre-Christian Nordic beliefs. "Minna believed them without trembling and ... Brenda trembled without believing them" (Ch. 19).
The girls have a first cousin once removed, dear to their father, born Ulla Troil, better known for the past 25 years as the witch or prophetess "Auld Norna of Fitful Head" (the latter being the place of her lofty Jetland abode). Norna embodies and preaches the old Norwegian language and ways. She claims to rule winds and waves and is treated with respect and awe by the islanders. Norna appears wherever and whenever she pleases and regularly and successfully predicts the future.
In the spring of 1689 Mordaunt is 20, Minna 18 and Brenda 17. Mordaunt's father is inexplicably cold to him. So young Mordaunt is on his own. When he is not out climbing cliffs, shooting birds or learning to be a fisherman, he spends many, many happy weeks visiting Burgh Westra and the Troils. He loves both Minna and Brenda equally well, as his sisters. He is the best dancer in the islands and the light of every party.
One April afternoon he sets out for home after a stay at Burgh Westra. Halfway to Jarlshof a terrible storm forces Mordaunt to seek shelter at the only nearby house, called, indifferently, Stourburgh or Harfra. There lives the English agricultural pioneer Triptolemus Yellowley and his sister Barbara, commonly called Mistress Baby. Yellowley is official representative of the Scottish overlord of the Orkneys and Shetlands and is there to improve agricultural and livestock practices. Auld Norna arrives and abates the storm. Also there seeking shelter is an ostensibly comic character, the devious merchant Bryce Snailsfoot. By this point almost all the novel's principal movers have been introduced and the plot becomes henceforth thicker and even more mysterious.
The final major player appears shortly after Mordaunt's return to Jarlshof. A dismasted ship is cast on the rocks below. Mordaunt rescues a drowning man, the ship's captain, Clement Cleveland, very likely a pirate, who is perhaps 25 years of age. Mordaunt saved Cleveland in the teeth of the ancient Jetland belief that a man drowning in the sea must under no circumstances be rescued, lest the rescuer surely suffer dreadfully at the hand of invisible powers.
Cleveland makes himself a welcome house guest of Magnus Troil. Weeks pass without the usual invitations from Magnus or his daughters to Mordaunt to visit Burgh Westra and enjoy himself. This is unprecedented coolness. Is Captain Cleveland to blame? Did Mordaunt provoke the powers by saving a drowning man? Mordaunt does not receive the expected invitation to Magnus's annual June celebrations commencing the eve of Saint John the Baptist. But he goes to Burgh Westra any way, accompanying Triptolemus and Mistress Baby.
Not wishing to spoil the story for new readers, let me skirt some of the subsequent happenings. Minna falls madly in love with Captain Cleveland. Brenda does the same with Mordaunt Mertoun. Auld Norna of Fitful Head, however, is determined that Mordaunt will be heir of her ample estates and will marry Minna. Bluff old Magnus Troil will marry his daughters only to a Norseman of island aristocracy, which prima facie neither Clement nor Mordaunt is. The two young men instinctively dislike each other. At the close of the Saint John's celebrations, the Captain stabs an unarmed Mordaunt who has annoyed him as he serenaded Minna.
Norna nurses Mordaunt back to health and commands all parties to assemble in the Orkneys capital of Kirkwall in August for the Lammas or Saint Olla's Fair. Basil Mertoun, father of Mordaunt, goes to Kirkwall to meet Norna at Saint Magnus's Cahedral to learn the whereabouts of his missing son. Captain Cleveland sails to the Orkneys to link up with mates from a second pirate vessel which survived the great storm. A British warship seeks and finds the pirate ship. And all mysteries of blood and superstition are unraveled.
Walter Scott places his novel during the heyday of British pirates at the time of the Glorious Revolution when Queen Mary Stuart and her Dutch Prince William of Orange replaced on the throne the decamped King James II.
It will not be long before rich men from the Scottish mainland take over the Orkneys and Shetlands and submerge what is left of the old Viking language and culture. We are therefore treated to a last hurrah in Scotland of the Viking spirit.
Young Minna longs for the Islands to regain independence and then rejoin Norway or Denmark. She sees Captain Cleveland not as a blood-stained pirate but as a latter-day Viking who can liberate Jetland from Scottish tyranny. Her sister Brenda is suspicious of Cleveland. But Minna tells her: "I am a daughter of the old dames of Norway, who could send their lovers to battle with a smile, and slay them with their own hands, if they returned with dishonour. ... my lover must be a Sea-king" (Ch. 20).
Feminists are fascinated by Auld Norna. When young she falls passionately in love with an Englishman and bears his child, which is taken from her. Falling in and out of madness, she achieves greatness through natural means (spreading money about, an intelligence network, knowing every secret passage in the islands and cannily reading the signs of nature) combined with credible claims to supernatural powers flowing from her claimed union with old Norse deities. What else was an embittered, ambitious girl to do in late 17th Century Jetland?
THE PIRATE is one of my two or three personal favorites among Walter Scott novels. I love it for its landscapes and seascapes and such minor characters as a Jetland poet who once dipped snuff with John Dryden and for a former actor turned buccaneer.
Thanks to the current popularity of pirates and vikings, I suspect that Sir Walter Scott's PIRATES will also bring you much reading pleasure.