Fantasy and the Ultimate Dismantling of the 1890s Power Relations in Fiona Macleod’s “Morag of the Glen”

© 2019 Fatima Khan, Ryerson University.


William Sharp (Fiona Macleod), 1894. The writer of “Morag of the Glen”.

Fiona Macleod’s “Morag of the Glen” in Volume 7 of The Savoy is best explored through the critical lens of 1890s power relations in Britain and how the realm of fantasy co-existed with religion. The phenomenon of mysticism as a legitimate remedy against hardships that were grounded in the realities of 1890s Scottish Highlanders played a key role in challenging patriarchy and colonialism and thus liberating feminist agency. Moreover, Macleod managed to morph the fantastic components of the story to complement the religious, further proposing unconventional remedies to combat systemic oppression.

Fiona Macleod was best known as a Celtic revivalist who was the pseudonym of William Sharp’s identity. While it is unclear through my research the explicit purpose of this occurrence, one thing remains for certain: she struggled considerably in bringing to the forefront the several unconventional perspectives explored in “Morag of the Glen”, attributed to her determination of proving her identity as a legitimate writer to her male counterparts (Garbáty 466). At the same time, Garbáty states that Macleod was aptly described by W. B. Yeats “… as an integral part of the Celtic movement” (465).  This phenomenon of validating Macleod’s work yet invalidating her professional standing illustrated the power dynamics existing in 1890s British Literature, pertaining to the treatment of female authors in a sea of their male counterparts. It again further highlights unconventional ideas (a female pseudonym) to combat an imbalance in power relations (the under-representation of female writers at the time).

“Morag of the Glen” debuted in The Savoy, an avant-garde literary and critique magazine. One such reason may have been due to the folktale’s free-spirited nature. In “ Farewell, Victoria! British Literature 1880-1900”, Weintraub explores how Beardsley, editor of The Savoy played a critical role in shaping the magazine’s production through his unconventional personality (Weintraub 182-213). Perhaps then, “Morag of the Glen[‘s]” publication in Volume 7 of The Savoy was due to its unusual character development to which Beardsley took a liking towards.

The Nameless Female Narrator

During the course of my research on the topic of agency in “Morag of the Glen”, my initial observation was directed towards exploring why the narrator’s identity is not validated. She is similar to Macleod in the sense that she is the only character who is nameless, yet the only one to vocalize the struggles of all characters. Lisa Sternlieb in “The Female Narrator in the British Novel: Hidden Agendas” draws on a very important observation in the concluding chapter of her book: “Refusing to Tell” (ch. 7).  She states that “… woman narrators have made themselves unknowable to their readers and yet, paradoxically, have encouraged a degree of intimacy which has invited an overwhelming amount of (often misguided) criticism” (Sternlieb 132). Macleod perhaps employed this strategy for several reasons. A nameless female narrator is emblematic of a broader issue being the insignificance of a name to illustrate how often women live through similar ordeals of being marginalized yet being viewed as objects of curiosity. Indeed, the reader reading “Morag of the Glen” may have initially been unaware of the role the nameless narrator played in sustaining the foundation for character and plot development of the folktale, only to be inquisitive and critical of her own character development, or a lack thereof.

Furthermore, the identity of the narrator is not the only phenomenon open to interpretation. The authenticity of the narrator’s feelings plays a role in the extent to which Macleod’s true stance was showcased. Sternlieb puts forth valid queries:

“Are we ostensibly reading the narrator’s actual words or those transcribed by an editor? Are we privileged to watch the process of writing or can we only guess at the conditions under which the narrative was created? Is the narrative being written with a particular reader in mind? Has the narrator constructed her ideal reader?” (2).

This leaves me to ponder whether the publisher (Leonard Smithers) and editors of The Savoy (Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Symons) viewed Macleod’s identity as a means to capitalize on the rather unprecedented concept of a pseudonym writer through the embellishment of feministic and Gaelic principles.

The narrator’s possible identity conflicts may even stem from the displacement of her own home; drawing on how she was once “…glad to leave [her] lonely home…” in Carse o’ Gworie but was suddenly struck with “… an unspeakable weariness” upon arrival in Strathglas, here, the narrator foreshadows the patriarchal and colonial struggles responsible for such a feeling for several characters in the story besides herself (Macleod 14-15; vol. 7). Her literal lack of identity thus speaks to the displaced sense of belonging she may feel that embodies aspects from each character’s journey- be it patriarchal or colonial in nature.

Aubrey Beardsley, Front Cover for The Savoy Vol. 7, 1896. Yellow Nineties Online. Public Domain.

The Light at the End of the Tyranny: Fantasy

The extent to which the folktale intertwines the complex subjects of feminism, patriarchy and colonialism are heavily blurred and the resolutions to combat them- (fantasy fused with religion), are too. Upon first reading “Morag of the Glen”, Archibald Campbell’s tyrannical nature is highlighted, however, little insight has been provided as to why this may be. Readers are to assume this is due to the archaic, systemic and oppressive family structures prevalent in 1890s Britain. A closer read of the story draws on a secondary reason as well: the possible correlation between the looming restraints of colonialism and the inflexibility of Goromalt. Upon Lord Greyshott banishing the Campbell’s from their ancient land, the lack of control that Goromalt struggles to come to terms with soon translates to him exercising rigid control upon members of his family. Indeed, Goromalt leaves little capacity for agency with regards to his family. As such, when the “sorrow of sorrows” strikes the Campbell household, Archibald Campbell is merciless upon hearing the news that his eldest daughter, Muireall has poisoned herself after conceiving an illegitimate child with her former lover and colonizer, Jasper Morgan. (Macleod 13). Upon pleas of Archibald’s wife ( aunt Elspeth) to rescue Muireall falls on deaf ears, she turns to Gaelic incantations in hopes her oppressor has a sudden change of heart. In a strange turn of events involving animals, mysticism and the Gaelic Bible, Gorromalt is prompted to no more shun his daughter and pay a visit to her after all. This scene of the story is truly marked by Archibald’s’ transformative journey despite the colonization of his land by the Londoners, in particular- Lord Greyshott.

However, the very situation of being forced to adapt to the structures of the English people seems to be a turning point for Campbell. In a book article titled “The Burden of English”, Spivak argues that “… one must somehow see the entire colonial system as a way out of… patriarchy” (41). In this sense, Goromalt, having experienced the effects of such an oppressive structure, ultimately has a change of heart and decides to pay a visit to his dying daughter, breaking the rigid cycles of oppression.

Delving deeper into the story, it is interesting to explore why fantasy played an integral part as remedial measures to such a serious matter. In her article “The Madman amongst the Ruins: The Oral History and Folklore of Traditional Insanity Cures in the Scottish Highlands”, Donoho devotes significant research to highlight how supernatural “cures” heavily prevailed in the nineteenth century and took precedence over science (22). Her article lists several indicators as to why folks in the Scottish Highlands took the route of fantasy as opposed to realism; one of them being how fantastical elements were at the forefront of medicine: “Gaelic medicine was an amalgamation or oral traditions, supernaturalism and text-based learning…” (Donoho 24). Donoho also alludes to poverty as another reason. Shunned and displaced from their homeland, the Campbell’s were an average working-class family whose sociopolitical circumstances may have encouraged them to resort to mysticism.

Hell Hath No Fury Like the New Woman Scorned

At the heart of the folktale exists the blurred line between conventional moral codes and reclaiming feminist agency through the binary of the colonizer and the colonized. Morag displays clear agency by defying her father’s wishes, urging Jasper (male antagonist and colonizer) to commit suicide nearing the end of the story in a twisted attempt at justice to try and save her sister- Muireall. Prior to this, however, Morag had a love affair with her sister’s lover, leaving readers with an understanding of the blurred moral of the story that is anything but black and white in nature.

This calls for an introduction of the New Woman. Sally Ledger, a professor whose research contributed significantly to nineteenth-century women’s literature describes the New Woman as a complex force of nature in that she had “multiple identities” (1). “She was, variously, a feminist activist, a social reformer, a popular novelist…” but also, because she was often a fictional creation she “…did not always coincide at all exactly with contemporary feminist beliefs and activities” (Ledger 1). Ledger impeccably describes the emergence of the New Woman because she conveys them to be modernists with multi-dimensional facets, much like the women in “Morag of the Glen”. Ledger’s definition also highlights why Morag and her mother chose to take peculiar routes when seeking justice and forgiveness and how this displayed their primitiveness. It also showed readers that the need for a protagonist and antagonist pertaining to womanhood is not a necessity in every narrative despite the clear binary of the colonizer and the colonized, thereby revealing the blurred moral codes about this particular story and thus about society then and now. As such, the audience of the folk-tale back then as well as readers now will be able to connect with or at least comprehend the over-arching feministic issues of the 1890s and realize that discourse surrounding womanhood has a long history that is just as relevant today as it was in the 1890s.

This ending of the folktale also critically engulfs “Morag of the Glen” as it conveys and speaks to the identity of the Gaelic culture and their strength to withstand the effects of colonialism through not only the defeat and eventual suicide of Jasper Morgan, but also because of Morag’s thorough survival instincts that were showcased through this act.


Morag in “Morag of the Glen” is representative of the nuanced argument of the good and the bad. The ballad foreshadows the deed that Morag dares to commit at the end and is depicts Macleod’s rationale: the justification for Gaelic Revivalism. Moreover, I feel W. J. Thomas’ definition of folklore: “the traditional beliefs, legends, and customs current among the common people; and the study of them” aptly encapsulates the beauty and extraordinary life that the humbled people of the Scottish Highlands experienced. Folklore places importance on archaic traditions and beliefs that are heavily intertwined with legends and superstitions held by ordinary folks. My curation of Morag of the Glen falls under Thomas’s simple definition for one reason. This Celtic folktale juxtaposes the life of the ‘’common people’’ in the 1890s who lead ordinary lives with the underlying and transformative elements of customs and beliefs at the heart of mysticism. Initially, the story follows no particular direction or mission but is rather the narration of a typical family dynamic consisting of a patriarchal household, catastrophic marriage and complacent daughters. The sudden strike of tragedy, however, prompts an unsettling turn of events where a directionless story is now showing clear character development to reclaim feminine agency through the help of incantations, animals, Gaelic revivalism and religion- a phenomenon that undoubtedly piques my curiosity.


Works Cited

Donoho, Emily. “The Madman Amongst the Ruins: The Oral History and Folklore of Traditional Insanity Cures in the Scottish Highlands.” Folklore, vol. 125, no. 1, 2014, pp. 22-39.

Garbáty, Thomas J. “Fiona Macleod: Defence of Her Views and Her Identity.” Notes and Queries, vol. 7, 1960, pp. 465-467.

Ledger, Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin De Siècle. Manchester UP, 1997.

Macleod, Fiona. “Morag of the Glen.” The Savoy, vol. 7, 1896, pp.13-34.

Spivak, Gayatri C. “The Burden of English.” Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia. Edited by Carol A. Breckenridge, and Peter v. d. Veer. U of Pennsylvania P, 1993.

Sternlieb, L. (2002). The female narrator in the British novel: Hidden agendas. Palgrave.

Thomas, W. J. “Folklore.” The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. 3rd ed. 2007.

Weintraub, Stanley. Farewell, Victoria! British Literature 1880-1900. Greensboro, 2011.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

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