Maureen M. Martin (William Paterson University)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Crimes of Authorship: The Master of Ballantrae, Scottish Masculinity, and the Telling of the National Tale’

In The Master of Ballantrae, Stevenson locates the writer of Scotland’s national tale (himself included) at the center of a shifting web of lies, biases, and evasions that can only exacerbate Scotland’s interwoven dilemmas of national identity and Lowland masculinity.  Indeed, in this national tale that is also about telling the national tale, the most important actor, and most morally ambiguous character, is the storyteller himself.

The novel explores the cost of Scottish difference defined as a romantically rugged primal masculinity to which few Scots could measure up.  Scottish authors, Stevenson implies–inevitably responding to constructions that divide divergent Scottish experience into warring poles (and a market that expects Scottish types)—can only compound and deepen the impact of Scotland’s divisions.

Mackellar, the narrator who chronicles and disastrously manipulates the novel’s feuding psychological doubles, is the figure of the Scottish author telling his nation’s tale. Unable to stand outside what they narrate, both exacerbate a conflict between models of masculinity in which they are implicated.   Master of Ballantrae’s destabilizing interplay of competing, suspect, and suppressed texts, which undermine each other and themselves, suggests the impossibility of fairly narrating Scotland.  If there is no credible unified national identity then perhaps the national tale cannot be told without the authorial crimes–the biases, omissions, suppressions, naiveties, hypocrisies, deceptions–committed by Mackellar and his fellow writers.

So should Scotland be left un-narrated?  The novel’s undercurrent of textual suppression, self-censorship, and editorial censorship (by “RLS,” Mackellar’s supposed editor) suggests some ambivalence on this.  But Stevenson does write Master of Ballantrae.  For without narration, albeit flawed, biased, even pernicious, there is no Scottish nation – which Stevenson, a Scottish patriot, ultimately cannot accept.  With no state and no ambition for one, Scotland must rely on the meanings with which its writers invest it.  The story cannot be told; the story must be told.

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