Sir Quixote of the Moors
This was John Buchan’s first novel written in the spring of 1895 when Buchan was 19 and an undergraduate in his third year at Glasgow University. It was published in October 1896, by which time Buchan was in his first year at Brasenose College in the University of Oxford. The full title is Sir Quixote of the Moors, being some account of an episode in the life of the Sieur de Rohaine. (Buchan had not approved of the addition to the title by his publishers of the words ‘of the Moors’.) The hero is described as ‘Sir Quixote’ only in the title which one assumes is intended to draw attention to his chivalrous nature. There is little other similarity between him and Don Quixote.
The novel is less than 30,000 words in length. It is not likely to be of great interest to the modern reader unless you are interested in the development of Buchan’s work. Because it purports to have been written in English by a 17th-century French nobleman, the style is inevitably stilted and old-fashioned.
It has interest to Buchan fans because in it can be seen many of the notable features of his later novels: compelling descriptions of place and weather, narrative pace, skilful storytelling, and concepts of honour and duty. Those fans may also find it fitting that the idea of the nobility of sacrifice is basic not only to Sir Quixote but also to JB’s final novel, Sick Heart River, written over 40 years later.
Sir Quixote is set in Galloway in Scotland in the late 17th century. From gaming and improvidence, the middle-aged Jean Sieur de Rohaine has become impoverished. He has taken up an invitation to stay with Quentin Kennedy, an old friend of his youth. Kennedy invites him to join in the persecution of Covenanters in the district (clergy and congregations who have refused to accept government interference). The persecution is so brutal that the two men fall out and Jean leaves indignantly. He and his horse, Saladin, ride off among the moors in bad weather and are soon lost. He finds an inn where the innkeeper is about to rob him when an unknown stranger helps him escape. He continues to fare badly on the moors and finally falls exhausted on the threshold of a house.
This is the manse of Lindean where he is taken in by the minister, Ephraim Lambert and his daughter, Alice. Also in the house is Henry Semple, a young local laird who has been hounded from his own house and estate of Clachlands. The minister’s flock are being persecuted and forbidden to follow their religion. Semple and Anne are expecting to marry.
While Jean is recovering, information reaches the manse that the minister and Semple are to be arrested. The minister and Semple take to the moors having persuaded Jean to make a solemn undertaking to look after Anne while they are away.
The friendship which then develops between Jean and Anne is skilfully told. Gradually Anne changes from the sombre and serious person she has been into a more normal and light-hearted individual. Jean does nothing to betray his position of trust. He does however recognise the changes in Alice, the growth of Anne’s feeling for him and of his own feelings for her, though they never speak of their feelings to each other.
Jean receives information that the authorities have discovered where the minister and Semple are hiding. As arranged before they left, Jean has to demolish a cairn of stones which will indicate to the fugitives that they are in danger. Semple appears in the grounds of the manse and tells Jean that the minister is near death. Semple also asks Jean to arrange for him to see his fiancée, which he does.
Semple has become wild-eyed and fanatical. Jean sees that Semple is not a suitable match for Anne. If it were not for his pledge to protect her for her fiancée, Jean would himself aspire to marry her. Rather than betray his trust, he decides to leave. There is a painful scene when they part. Jean writes ‘Her eyes were filled with an unutterable longing, which a man may see but once in his life –and well for him if he never sees it.’ He rides off onto the moors.
(A pirated American edition of the novel changed the whole nature of the story by having him return to Anne after riding for an hour!)
Ronald H Hargreaves, 2001
Available to read at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46345/46345-h/46345-h.htm