Why Were Early Vampires So… Scottish?
For almost a century before Dracula became the dominant force in vampire fiction, there was one granddaddy bloodsucker who you could find lording it over books, poetry, and theater. And that was Lord Ruthven.
Ruthven was the dawn of the aristocratic vampire — not a shambling corpse or a reanimated peasant from some Romanian village — but a vampire with pinache. Big fang energy. A Sean Connery in this Zack Galifinackis world. Y’all could never.
In short, he could — as they say — get it.
And get it he did. Always the villain, Ruthven would, in many different stories, ravage families, corrupt the innocent, and leave ruin in his wake as he waltzed away to his next prey. By the time anyone realized what was happening, it was too late. Well, except in the stories where the heroes kill him.
Sometimes “getting it” means getting what’s coming.
Ruthven appeared in, I don’t know, let’s say TONS of places after he made his debut, reworked and rehashed by lots of different authors in different mediums.
He was not tightly-controlled IP, in today’s language.
But why is he Scottish?
To be fair, Lord Ruthven (usually pronounced RITHven or RIVVen but this is print, you say it in your head however you like I’m not the boss of you) didn’t start out as a haggis fan.
He didn’t even start out as a vampire.
To keep it brief, he originally appeared as the villainous fukboi in Lady Caroline Lamb’s book Glenarvon as a stand-in for the very real Lord Byron. Byron was noted for being a brilliant writer and a dirty dog and Glenarvon was step one on his journey to being 19th-century-cancelled. #BelieveAllDubutantes
Step 2 was when his former doctor and traveling companion John Polidori took the name Ruthven from Lamb, added a lordship, made him undead, and set him loose on the continent. This was where Ruthven ascended from being a mortal scumbag to being a supernatural dillweed. For comparison: guy catcalling from his car is now promoted to head of a major film distributor. I’m not sure which film distributor, you decide that for yourself.
True facts: Lord Byron’s body was dug up and examined years after his death, not unlike what we might do to a real vampire. Unclear whether his body was later staked.
But none of this gets us closer to a vampire in Trainspotting
And “Trainspotting With Vampires” has been my pitch to Channel 4 Films ever since Renton stole that money from Begby and Sick Boy and I don’t know why they aren’t returning my calls.
Neither Lamb nor Polidori designated Ruthven as specifically Scottish. So how did Lord Ruthven become a porridge feaster?
In the year after Polidori’s novella was released (in a cruel and complicated twist of irony, the book was attributed to Lord Byron), no less than nine plays made it to the stage, all with vampires and almost all with Lord Ruthven as a character.
The best known of these plays in the English speaking world is James R. Planche’s “The Vampire; Or, The Bride Of The Isles”. Planche set the action in Scotland, and as theater director Peter Moore laughed “It’s the only time you’ll see a vampire in a kilt”
Why did Planche bagpipe his audience? The answer is simple: because… well, um… the theater manager had a bunch of Scottish costumes left over from the last play, and they still fit, so why not?
That’s not a joke. That happened.
But you can’t completely blame Planche. After all, he was plagiarizing.
Planche’s play was the first vampire play in England, but it wasn’t the first in the world. In the wake of Polidori’s The Vampyre, it was open season on copying vampire fiction from someone else, and Planche was no hero— he adapted an the earlier French play by Charles Nodier called — brace yourself for the stroke of originality here— “Le Vampire”.
Charles Nodier’s play also featured Lord Ruthven (“Rutwen”), and Nodier’s Ruthven was Scottish.
Let me help you scratch your head: Nodier claimed to have traveled to Illyria and seen an actual vampire. For reference, Illyria is Greece and Greece is in Eastern Europe. Again: He saw a vampire in Eastern Europe.
But yet: he made Lord Ruthven Scottish.
I mean, at least Planche had an out. He could resort to every respectable artist’s go-to move — throwing the producer and the source material under the hearse. But what was Nodier’s excuse for going full Caber Tosser?
Theater historians are still pondering this*, and I don’t know that we will ever have a firm answer.
It’s just not clear why Nodier chose Scotland for Lord Ruthven’s domain. Maybe it seemed exotic enough to a Parisian? Maybe he liked Greece and didn’t want to sully it’s reputation? Maybe he hoped Belle and Sebastian would score his play?
According to Matthew Gibson in Dracula and the Eastern Question, Nodier was trying to “milk the presentation of the Byronic hero within a setting made popular by Sir Walter Scott.”
If that seems flimsy to you, join my club. Our dues are reasonable and our punch is spiked.
But aich! There is this…
To this day, there’s a very real, flesh and blood, non-undead Lord Ruthven. His title is descended from Sir Walter Ruthven who — get this — really did march with Scot hero William Wallace.
It’s not all face-painting and shouting “Freeeeeeeedommmm!” with the Ruthven’s, though. The most infamous of the Ruthven’s — Patrick Ruthven — took part in a grizzly murder right in front Mary Stuart, aka the Queen of Scots. The murder of Mary’s (possible) lover and the conspiracy around it garnered so much attention that, to this day, it’s the thing that the Ruthven name is most known for after vampirism.
But the real Ruthvens needn’t worry. Googling “Lord Ruthven” will get you so many entries about the fictional vampire, that the very real murder-while-forcing-a-pregnant-woman-to-watch is buried six feet down. That’s just good SEO.
To this day, there’s a Lord Ruthven Assembly that meets annually to trade academic ideas about vampires in literature. There is still someone out there with the title “Lord Ruthven”. There is still a Castle Ruthven you can visit (now called Huntingtower).
You only need to walk 500 miles to get there, then 500 more.
*They probably aren’t.
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Image Sources: Minnesota Centennial Showboat, Prana Films, Channel Four Films, The Murder of Rizzio, by John Opie