The Tale of Tod Lapraik (and others)

Tales from End to End
The Tale of Tod Lapraik (and others)

by Ian Campbell

Ian Campbell
Ian Campbell

On the route through Edinburgh, Nancy and I had lunch with Ian Campbell, a retired Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh University. Ian has a special interest in Robert Louis Stephenson and a great gift of verbal story telling. Ian told us briefly with gripping drama the following tales, which are summarised here by Ian.

Tod Lapraik, by R. L. Stephenson, is a short story, based in North Berwick, a town with a long history of witchcraft trials and tradition. The Bass Rock, offshore but visible, is the scene for a devilish dancing where Tod Lapraik, a local weaver, is seen dancing – can it be he? In real life he weaves in his cottage, but falls into fits, during which his mind seems elsewhere. Convinced that this is what he does, taking a devil’s form and dancing ecstatically, local figures row out to Bass Rock and shoot the devil-figure with a silver bullet (which, tradition tells us, is the only way to kill the devil). The story is told in the voice of a strongly religious local.

Bass Rock
Bass Rock

Redgauntlet, by Sir Walter Scott, has the wonderful short story of Wandering Willie’s Tale built into it. This is about a man, Steenie, who goes to Hell to find his just-deceased employer and gain from him the receipt for his rent which he could not complete before suddenly being snatched away. Steenie’s vision of Hell is curiously reminiscent of Stevenson’s. It’s a place where people, gruesomely, have fun – though there are undertones of something horrible. Scott populates Hell with all the villains of Scottish history, having fun – but underneath, there is a suggestion of torture and brimstone.

Hell is the common theme to these stories. Obviously the strong religious background of Scottish authors would make them familiar with orthodox versions of Hell, though both these extracts (and Burns’s vision in Tam O’Shanter) are laced with older Scottish traditions which pre-date the Christian Hell. What’s striking in both these stories is the idea that Hell is not a simple two-dimensional place of punishment, but a three-dimensional world with grotesque possibilities of enjoyment.

The theme carries forward to what many consider the masterpiece of Scottish fiction, Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which was exactly contemporary with Redgauntlet. Here the central character is befriended, accompanied, hounded and finally snatched off to Hell by a charming, articulate, horribly personable Devil. Hogg writes a masterpiece of self-examination where the central character falls under the spell of a wholly delightful (to begin with!) devil. His eventual collapse into madness is chilling. One of the most striking scenes is set just outside Edinburgh, on the very summit of Arthur’s Seat, where something – it could be the Devil – stalks through thin air above Edinburgh’s rooftops.

The ends of the stories are deliberately omitted so that we do not spoil the drama and tension for you – read them for yourself!