Religious and Political Background

Though it takes place at the turn of the 18th century, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is deeply coloured by the Scottish Reformation which occurred roughly 150 years previously. This was part of a Europe-wide reaction against the corruption and materialism of the Catholic Church, ultimately leading to a split within the church and to the development of Protestantism. Scotland formally broke with papacy in 1560 when the Calvinist Presbyterian Church of Scotland was established. In the decades that followed, tensions between the two factions rode high, reaching crisis point when the anti-Calvinist Charles I attempted to impose a modified version of the Anglican Prayer Book on the Scottish Presbyterians in 1637. Scotland reacted by drawing up the National Covenant defending their faith. The resulting battle of wills spiralled into a series of bloody civil wars that ultimately saw Scotland defeated. This, of course, did nothing to resolve the conflict on an ideological level: it merely meant that Covenanters were persecuted for their beliefs and that complex disputes continued to fracture the Scottish body politic.


Anti-Catholic sentiment again came to the fore in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. When the papist King James II (VII of Scotland) fathered a son, fears surrounding a Catholic succession reached boiling point. The Protestant William of Orange was summoned to overthrow King James, triggering a series of ferocious battles. When his army deserted him, James fled the country. This was treated as an abdication and William III and Mary II were installed in his stead. Their ascendancy saw the Bill of Rights come into force, ensuring that never again would monarchs be able to curtail the religious and social freedoms of their subjects. Not all were sympathetic to the dethroning of King James with his supporters, the Jacobites, insisting that hereditary rights were ineradicable. Several Jacobite risings, aimed at his reinstatement, caused yet more blood to be shed on the soils of Scotland.


Articles of Union
Public DomainArticles of Union - Credit: Queen Anne

Scotland was further riven by political tensions around the time of her unification with England. Previously, though the two countries had shared a monarch, they were separate states with separate legislatures. On 1st May 1707, the Treaty of Union was signed, consolidating them into Great Britain. There were various political and religious dynamics underlying this act. England wanted to ensure that succession took place along Protestant lines and to circumvent the possibility of a Scottish alliance forming against her; Scotland wanted access to English subsidies to ease her out of the debt she was in and to remove English trade sanctions. This is not to say that everyone supported unification. The Jacobites, in particular, were opposed to forming an alliance with a parliament they saw as having illegitimately interfered with monarchic rule. As had been the case over the preceding couple of centuries, political and religious motivations were inextricably intertwined, causing passions to escalate to an epic degree.


Beyond Edinburgh
Robert's flight from Gil-Martin
Public DomainRobert's flight from Gil-Martin - Credit: Google maps

When Robert attempts to flee the persecution of Gil-Martin, he takes a path south that leads him through Midlothian and Roxburghshire, then back northwards through Selkirkshire. This map shows the places that Robert stops off at: (A) is Edinburgh; (B) is Chesters; (C) is Ancrum; (D) is Altrive; (E) is Cowan’s Croft.


The end of Robert’s journey sees him arrive very close to Ettrick where James Hogg spent most of his life. Once a royal hunting ground for the Scottish monarchy, it had since become a sheep-farming district, all rolling hillside studded with farms. The transformation deprived the area of much of its former forest but it retained the strong oral tradition it had accrued during its earlier incarnation. Hogg gathered from this a rich store of folklore that was to furnish his tales, and Ettrick and its neighbouring areas exert a strong presence in much of his writing.


Ettrick Valley
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeEttrick Valley - Credit: M. J. Richardson



Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh from the Calton Hill
Public DomainEdinburgh from the Calton Hill - Credit: David Roberts
Most of the action in Private Memoirs takes place in Edinburgh. In the late 17th to early 18th century, this was still a relatively small settlement restricted to one main street (now called the Royal Mile). Various dark, narrow alleys (or, to use the Scots terms, wynds and closes) issued from this thoroughfare, housing a rapidly expanding population that grew from 25–30,000 people in the 1660s to around 45,000 by 1700. To the west of the city was Edinburgh Castle, an ancient fortress which still dominates the skyline today. To the east lay Holyrood Park, a former royal hunting estate riddled with lochs, glens, hills and rocky cliffs. At the centre of this is Arthur’s Seat, the highest peak in Edinburgh and site of one of the most terrifying scenes in Private Memoirs.