Hogg’s The Devil I Am Sure


‘I began seriously to doubt which of us was the right James Beatman.’

James Hogg, also known as The Ettrick Shepherd, is remembered today as the author of the unsettling novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. To his contemporaries, though, he was better known for his poems and for his stories – especially his supernatural tales – which often drew upon Scottish folk beliefs. David Robb introduces Hogg and his work here, and you can also read an extract from Hogg’s dark doppelganger tale Strange Letter of a Lunatic.

Extracts from The Devil I Am Sure: Three Stories by James Hogg
By James Hogg
Published by ASLS

By David Robb

James Hogg, “The Ettrick Shepherd” (1770–1835), was a prominent member of the literary world of Walter Scott’s Edinburgh. A shepherd indeed, he was born into a farming family at Ettrick, south-west of Selkirk. His mother, Margaret Laidlaw, a noted tradition-bearer, provided ballad material for Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Hogg himself was drawn to literature while still a teenager and wrote poems and plays for local entertainment. He began, however, to have poems printed in periodicals and in 1801 he published his first collection, Scottish Pastorals.

At first, his reputation was as a poet, although he also published on sheep-farming. In 1810 he moved to Edinburgh with a view to making a literary career and started his own weekly periodical, The Spy, which ran for a year. It was his long poem The Queen’s Wake which, in 1813, cemented his reputation. However, it was his involvement in the newly launched Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1817 which turned him into a star: he was at the heart of its boldly scurrilous and innovative journalism and became the principal attraction (as a fictionalised character) of its long-running series of the Blackwood’s group’s supposed table-talk, the Noctes Ambrosianae.

He continued to write poems and songs, and tales which drew on the history, legends and fairy beliefs of the Scottish Borders. In 1818 he published a full-length novel, The Brownie of Bodsbeck, encouraged (as were others) by the fashionable enthusiasm for Scottish fiction sparked by Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels. In 1822 he published an even more innovative work, steeped in his Romantic vision of Border history and legends, The Three Perils of Man, which was followed a year later by The Three Perils of Women. In 1824 there appeared an equally ingenious and original novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This is now regarded as his masterpiece. Always a kenspeckle personality in the circles around Scott and Blackwood’s, he created one of the most distinctive bodies of work, in poetry and prose, of the Scottish nineteenth century.

And in the nineteenth century, it was probably for his tales and poems, rather than his novels, that he was remembered best. In the wake of the modern enthusiasm for The Justified Sinner, however, his stories, with the rest of his substantial output, have had to be rediscovered and reclaimed as achievements in their own right. As regards the three reprinted here, “The Brownie of the Black Haggs” and “Mary Burnet” appeared in Blackwood’s in 1828, and “Strange Letter of a Lunatic” was published in Fraser’s Magazine in 1830.

His most characteristic fictions, which certainly include these three tales as well as the novels mentioned above, are usually compounded of several types of source material and narrative interest. In other words, they combine, in varying degrees, stories of the supernatural, stories which draw particularly on the folk beliefs of the Scottish countryside (familiar to Hogg, surely, from his mother’s tales in particular) and stories which reflect a prominent awareness on Hogg’s part of the quirks and possibilities of human psychology. Sometimes, too, they seem to foreshadow the murder mysteries which have become such standard popular reading for more recent generations. The “mix” of these elements inevitably varies from story to story, and this is what makes each of his tales, at their best, stand apart: the reader notes the features which are constantly present in his writing, but finds that Hogg is by no means a formulaic writer and that each of his best tales feels like a fresh inspiration, while being clearly his and no one else’s.

The pleasure for the reader, then, is double and, in a way, contradictory (things being “double” are entirely characteristic of Hogg, in all sorts of ways, as anyone who reads a number of his works can easily ascertain). Thus, the reader experiences, at one and the same time, the escapist pleasure of reading a tale of wonder (a supernatural tale, or a modernised folktale of the fairy people and their doings) and also the pleasing challenge of what we might call a tale-to-be-made-sense-of – in other words, a tale in which we feel challenged to work out what “really” happened. Hogg makes sure that we never succeed. To this end, he is a master of narrative framing: his tales usually rely on the creation of doubt as to what even the narrator can “know” and reliably tell us, either because the narrator is recounting material from a distant past derived from the oral tradition (that great domain of fascinating but unreliable stories), or because the narrator is inherently untrustworthy.

“The Brownie of the Black Haggs” features, obviously, that folk-tale supernatural creature, the household “brownie”, though there is surely room for doubt (again, a constant device of Hogg’s) as to whether Merodach – despite his weird name – is anything other than a very peculiar-looking mortal. As we get into the tale, however, the interest shifts from Merodach to the psychology of the always out-of-control Lady Wheelhope, and the tale is shaped by the destructive spiral of the relationship between the two.

The shape of “Mary Burnet”, on the other hand, is episodic and chainlike: it gives us a sequence of three mysteries, and while we can begin to make sense of it in terms of the possible experiences of real people (at one level, it is a tale of attempted seduction, of disastrous sexual obsession and of a child lost through marriage into a higher social sphere), its principle appeal derives from the fairy-tale quality which pervades it.

As for “Strange Letter of a Lunatic”, the supernatural hints of the opening pages take second place to the psychological puzzle which emerges. In it, Hogg draws less upon the folk heritage of his Scottish background than he does upon the Romantic motif of the doppelgänger. At which point, all readers of The Justified Sinner feel on familiar ground.

Extract from Strange Letter of a Lunatic
By James Hogg

Strange Letter of a Lunatic by James Hogg – has only been published twice before: once in Fraser’s Magazine in 1830; and once by ASLS, in James Hogg: Selected Stories and Sketches, edited by Douglas S. Mack, in 1982.

to mr james hogg, of mount benger

Sir;—As you seem to have been born for the purpose of collecting all the whimsical and romantic stories of this country, I have taken the fancy of sending you an account of a most painful and unaccountable one that happened to myself, and at the same time leave you at liberty to make what use of it you please. An explanation of the circumstances from you would give me great satisfaction.

Last summer in June, I happened to be in Edinburgh, and walking very early on the Castle Hill one morning, I perceived a strange looking figure of an old man watching all my motions, as if anxious to introduce himself to me, yet still kept at the same distance. I beckoned him, on which he came waddling briskly up, and taking an elegant gold snuff-box, set with jewels, from his pocket, he offered me a pinch. I accepted of it most readily, and then without speaking a word, he took his box again, thrust it into his pocket, and went away chuckling and laughing in perfect ecstasy. He was even so overjoyed, that, in hobbling down the platform, he would leap from the ground, clap his hands on his loins, and laugh immoderately.

“The devil I am sure is in that body,” said I to myself, “What does he mean? Let me see. I wish I may be well enough! I feel very queer since I took that snuff of his.” I stood there I do not know how long, like one who had been knocked on the head, until I thought I saw the body peering at me from a shady place in the rock. I hasted to him; but on going up, I found myself standing there. Yes, sir, myself. My own likeness in every respect. I was turned to a rigid statue at once, but the unaccountable being went down the hill convulsed with laughter.

I felt very uncomfortable all that day, and at night having adjourned from the theatre with a party to a celebrated tavern well known to you, judge of my astonishment when I saw another me sitting at the other end of the table. I was struck speechless, and began to watch this unaccountable fellow’s motions, and perceived that he was doing the same with regard to me. A gentleman on his left hand, asked his name, that he might drink to their better acquaintance. “Beatman, sir,” said the other: “James Beatman, younger, of Drumloning, at your service; one who will never fail a friend at a cheerful glass.”

“I deny the premises, principle and proposition,” cried I, springing up and smiting the table with my closed hand. “James Beatman, younger, of Drumloning, you cannot be. I am he. I am the right James Beatman, and I appeal to the parish registers, to witnesses innumerable, to———”

“Stop, stop, my dear fellow,” cried he, “this is no place to settle a matter of such moment as that. I suppose all present are quite satisfied with regard to the premises; let us therefore drop the subject, if you please.”

“O yes, yes, drop the dispute!” resounded from every part of the table. No more was said about this strange coincidence; but I remarked, that no one present knew the gentleman, excepting those who took him for me. I heard them addressing him often regarding my family and affairs, and I really thought the fellow answered as sensibly and as much to the point as I could have done for my life, and began seriously to doubt which of us was the right James Beatman.

Strange Letter of a Lunatic by James Hogg – has only been published twice before: once in Fraser’s Magazine in 1830; and once by ASLS, in James Hogg: Selected Stories and Sketches, edited by Douglas S. Mack, in 1982.

The Devil I Am Sure: Three Short Stories By James Hogg, introduced by David Robb, is out now published by ASLS. You can view, and download, the PDF for free here.


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