How many Tales?

It seems a simple and not unreasonable question. My answer tends to be; “ It depends how you count them “. This perhaps requires some explanation.
Firstly, what do we count as a Tale?

There are several examples of Tales within Tales. For instance “The Dominies class” where a teacher recounts the fate of seven of his former pupils. Another is the “Floshend Inn” where a group of Packman, traveling salesman of their time, tell each other tales to pass the time. Or “The Lykewake “, where six tales are told amongst the mourners at a funeral wake. In some of them, such as The Dominies class, they have their own distinct headings and are self-contained. (Solitary Sandy; Glaikit Willie; Venturesome Jamie; Cautious Witty; Leein’ Peter; Jock the Dunce; The Doctor’s story). Others they are embedded in the main Tale with connecting narrative. So, Separate Tales or one Tale?

What about Tales that come in several parts? Many Tales were split between two editions of the originals. Separate Tales or continuations of the same Tale? An extreme example is perhaps “The Ministers Daughter” . This comes in 9 distinct numbered chapters spread over 3 editions. It is by Wilson himself and was published towards the end of his life . My suspicion is that this was in fact a novel Wilson had written (perhaps the one he was struggling to get published in the early 1830’s?) , which had been serialised when he was in ill health and perhaps not able to write any new material?

Talking of Wilson’s death, in issue 49 , there is an announcement of his death and the request for readers to keep buying the Tales as there Tales as yet untold and a worthy widow still to be supported. The announcement is not a “Tale”. It latter editions, however , the printers removed this section and put three short Tales in its place. Two of these are moved from their original place elsewhere. But that still left some space, so the Robert Burns poem, “To a Mouse “ is also inserted. Does that count ?

Whilst we are on poems , Should poems and for that matter , Ballads count ? “Edmund and Helen; a metrical Tale” is one of Wilson’s own romantic poems. He calls it a tale, so I suppose it counts? But what “The Hermit” another of his poems?
We then come to Volume 24 of the Walter Scott Publishing Co. edition of the Tales, which is principally full of Ballads by Thomas Leighton also editor of this edition. Most of them did not feature in the original Editions of the Tales.

We also have Plays to consider. “The Siege; a dramatic tale” again written by Wilson himself and the only known surviving play of the four he is known to have written. As he has subtitled it “A dramatic tale” and it was in the originals, I guess we count it. Though incidentally the idea seems to have come from (I hate to say plagiarised) a similar play written a few decades earlier by Jerningham, of Longridge Towers and Berwick MP at one stage. (Wikipedia entry : The Siege of Berwick is a four-act verse tragedy by Edward Jerningham, acted in 1793 and published the following year.[1] The text was republished in the third volume of Jerningham’s Poems and Plays (1806)[2] and then in a separate edition as The Siege of Berwick: a tragedy by Mr Jerningham as performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, edited by his great grand-nephew Hubert Jerningham in 1882.[3] The subject concerns a supposed incident during the English invasion of Scotland in 1333. Though the play is of historical interest, it was not a critical success.) They do actually have slightly different outcomes, both of which apply some poetic licences to the actual events of 1333.

How about Tales that are in the originals twice?
There are at least three examples of this I have noticed. The first , “Helen Palmer” and “The Legend of Fair Helen of Kirconnel” both tell what they believe to be the true Tale behind the Ballad “Fair Helen Of Kirconnel”. They are however different Tales of what led to the Ballad being written. In the latter Tale the author even questions whether the principal heroine was known as Helen Irving or Helen Bell, and in reference to the earlier version , which appears as part of the “Gleanings of the Covenant” series, he challenges the author of that version for his authority: “We must have his authority”.

The second example is “Polwarth on the green” which first appears in edition 38 in July 1835 from Wilson’s pen. It concerns the abduction of the Sinclair sisters by their wicked Uncle and subsequent rescue by their suitors, the Hume’s of Wedderburn with some help from Johnny Faa the gypsy. The same Tale , differently written and entitled “The Sinclairs of Polwarth” then appears again in the 2nd March edition of 1839. Had the editor simply forgotten or overlooked this was a repeat?

“The Avenger” appears in edition 57 of the original, written by Thomas Leighton , but reappears in Volume 19 of editions edited by him , in a slightly edited version as the slightly more grandly named “ The Avenger; or The legend of Katherine”. It’s a tale of the rather brutal revenge of a scorned woman. However it also sounds very similar to “The Ballad of Mary Lee”, one of the ballads added into the latter W. Scott editions, also written by Leighton.

Something similar happens with “ A legend of Holyrood House” as it appears in the original and as “A legend of Holyrood” in the latter editions. A tale of deception by Ritzio in the Royal Court.

We also have the question of which edition are we talking about? Some editions , in the larger A4 size format appear to be full sets. But are missing various tales. The McCready edition for instance ends not with “The Last Tale” but about 10 tales short of the full original publication. Perhaps to leave room to include “The Glossary of the Scots Dialect”? There are other examples of odd Tales missing to perhaps accommodate illustrations, adverts or other printing issues.

The big elephant in the room is the Walter Scott Publishing Company’s very popular editions from the late 1800’s. These miss out about half of the original Tales and add in a further 25 Tales that were never part of the original publication as well as 22 Ballads , almost exclusively written by the Editor himself, the very verbose Thomas Leighton. Should any of these count?

If they do, then should “The New Border Tales” written in 1892 by Sir George Douglas of Springwood Park, Kelso also be counted? He had a literary career and these extra Tales were included in a Walter Scott edition that included the first two volumes of Leightons edited version together with his 12 new ones.
Going forward in time in the 20th century, we also have Walter Elliott who contributed “Tales of the Borders” for “The Southern Reporter” , a sister paper to “The Berwick Advertiser”. These were published as compilation editions in 1996 with a shorter second edition in 2004.

As well as additional tales, we also have missing Tales. “The Shoes Reversed” one of The “Gleanings of the Covenant” series, is in the body of the original editions, but has been complete missed from contents pages of bound editions.
We then have the missing , or at least as yet unfound, Tales. The Berwick Advertiser had an advert on 19th April 1834 advising of the publication of Tales of the Borders from 7th June in which several tales are mentioned by name. This publication date is earlier than the main publication editions we know of and referred to in Wilsons correspondence and latter adverts, which didn’t happen till 1st November 1834. So whether it got delayed or this was a pilot run, especially as it mentions a shorter number of proposed editions, we don’t know at present. I suspect delay and expansion of ambition for the scale of the publication plans. Some of the Tales mentioned did appear in due course, some possibly appeared with different titles and some such as “Fat Lips”, “The Iron cage” and the rather intriguingly entitled “John Thompsons adventure in search of a wife” did not.

Whilst I have now read 530 odd tales which claim to be part of Wilsons Tales of the Borders , my own view is that the true number which should be counted are those that appeared in the original continuous editions from 1834 to 1840. And of these only those which get a mention on the contents page of the compilation editions. (So the Dominies tales are one tale ).

But even then , one needs to take care, as for instance as mentioned “The shoes reversed “ has been missed whilst tales within the selection of “Gleanings of the Covenant” and “Sketches from a Surgeons Note-book” get two mentions, one under that heading and separately in their own right.
Using this basis, it gets me to 474, so that is my answer. Though the proliferation of the Walter Scott editions and derivatives of it mean we can’t ignore the additional Tales that appeared in them, though I see the Ballads in volume 24 as a bit of self-indulgence by Leighton.

Andrew Ayre – Director, The Wilsons Tales Project.
December 2023.