Scott, Keats and Meg – a Conundrum

Sometime around the year 1800, Margaret Hawthorne, a fugitive from Galloway in southern Scotland, arrived at the hilly area between Westhouses and Chesterhill, near Dalkeith in Midlothian which, centuries before, had been a Roman Camp. She set up home in an abandoned cottage that had previously been constructed as a watch point in case there was a Napoleonic invasion.

Legend has it that Margaret, a widow of some means with a young son, had shot dead a neighbour who attempted to usurp her property and, after leaving her son in the care of friends, had fled to Midlothian where she would remain until her death in 1827.

She gradually became an integral part of the community and became known generally as Camp Meg. Her veterinary prowess was soon evident and that ability used widely by neighbouring farmers and horse dealers. Meg was very religious and held classes at her hilltop home for local children. She dressed, and rode her horse “Skewball” like a man – but, during her time at “The Camp” although friendly with her neighbours and acquaintances, she remained fundamentally private.

John Keats travelled through Galloway on holiday with his friend Charles Brown, who told him that “this was Meg Merrilees country” – which subsequently caused Keats to compose his famous poem of that name which begins Old Meg she was a gypsy and lived upon the moors. The tale, of course is pure fiction, as there never was a Meg Merrilees other than the gypsy of that name in Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering – a tale published in 1815 and set, strangely enough in Galloway and the north of England.

Scott allegedly based his Merrilees character on the infamous Jean Gordon, an 18th Century gypsy from Kirk Yetholm in the Cheviot Hills. Gordon certainly was notorious and a rabid Jacobite – something which led to her death in Carlisle in 1745. She also had a family and was a fairly heavy person – unlike Keats’ description of ‘Meg’ in his poem where that depiction of her compares her manner of dress favourably with the description provided of Camp Meg by the Reverend J. C. Carrick in his classic 1907 account.

When Scott published Guy Mannering he still had a cottage at Lasswade and was a frequent visitor to his friend, the 2nd Viscount Melville at Melville Castle near Dalkeith in Midlothian. He would undoubtedly have known of Camp Meg who moved freely in those same areas and, while being able to adopt some of her characteristics, could not actually use her in a work of fiction.

Keats produced his work based entirely on the tale he was told and if Scott really based his Merrilees on Jean Gordon why use the name Meg? The Galloway connection is further involved being the original home of Camp Meg, and the locus for Guy Mannering. There may may further significance in that Camp Meg’s son traced her shortly before publication of Scott’s book and made an abortive trip to Midlothian in an attempt to persuade his mother to return home to Galloway.

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