13 – The Laird’s Inheritance

Published in 1987 as Introduction to The Laird’s Inheritance, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s Castle Warlock



Dedicated to my sons: Robin Mark, Patrick Jeremy, and Gregory Erich.

To them I offer myself, with the prayer and hope that both their mother Judy and I might give to them in some small measure what Cosmo’s father passed along to him–the exhortation to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

This inheritance I as a father would pass along to you, my sons, with all the fullness of God’s blessings, in the inheritance he gives us when we lay everything on the altar for him–an inheritance not made with hands, nor an inheritance of houses, lands or possessions–but an inheritance of God’s spirit dwelling within us.

And to all fathers everywhere who love their sons and daughters and desire for them the true inheritance of God’s children as inheritors of the earth, I would also dedicate my part in this present volume.


George MacDonald (1824-1905)–Scottish novelist, poet, preacher, essayist, and literary figure of the late 19th century–was a household name in Britain and many parts of the United States between 1870 and 1910. His more than fifty books sold in the multiple millions, and he was widely recognized in the first rank among an impressive roster of English-speaking authors.

However, in the seventy years following his death, MacDonald’s fame, like that of many of his Victorian colleagues, diminished; one by one his books went out of print. By the latter half of the 20th century his name as a literary force had vanished from sight, with the exception here and here of pockets of interest in his fantasy and fairy stories. But in the genre for which he was most widely known in his own time–the adult Victorian novel, of which he wrote approximately thirty–not a single book remained in print.

One of his own books, however, proved prophetic concerning the spiritual truths which MacDonald planted in his lifetime but which seemingly had been forgotten. In Paul Faber, Surgeon, reissued in this series as The Lady’s Confession, his memorable character Joseph Polwarth says, “Perhaps you are not aware that many of the seeds which fall to the ground, and do not grow, yet, strange to tell…retain the power of growth…It is well enough known that if you dig deep in any old garden, such as this one, ancient–perhaps forgotten–flowers will appear. The fashion has changed, they have been neglected or uprooted, but all the time their life is hid below.”

Indeed, through the years there were those who continued to spade the ground and upturn the soil where the long-buried seeds of George MacDonald’s imaginative work had been concealed, each playing a unique part in bringing the forgotten novels back into public attention.

The first new shoots began to break through in earnest in the 1970s with increased reissuings of MacDonald’s works by a variety of publishers. These publications ushered in the full flowering of MacDonald’s reputation for a whole new generation in the 1980s, with the republication of his adult fiction in a widespread way for the first time since his own lifetime.

As part of this resurgence of interest, it has been my privilege to edit the Classic Reprint Series of George MacDonald novels issued since 1982 by Bethany House Publishers, in which MacDonald’s original books of 400-600 pages–often heavily infused with old Scots dialect–have been pared down and translated, making them accessible to today’s readers.

Those who have read other of his novels, or are familiar with his life through his biography, are well acquainted with MacDonald’s passionate love for his Scottish homeland. Most of the novels considered by critics as his strongest achieve their excellence because they capture what must be regarded as the essential flavor of this land as viewed through MacDonald’s eyes.

Certainly high in this rank must be included this book, originally published in 1881 under the title Warlock O’Glenwarlock, which was changed the following year to Castle Warlock, and is here reprinted as The Laird’s Inheritance. It came at the very height of MacDonald’s career, in the midst of a period of phenomenal output. Warlock O’Glenwarlock, one of MacDonald’s longest books (714 pages) presented a memorable and vivid picture of the Highlands southwest of MacDonald’s hometown of Huntly. The setting is the remote valley known as “The Cabrach,” situated some twelve to fifteen miles from MacDonald’s birthplace, between Rynie and Dufftown, in what  could be considered the foothills of the Grampian Mountains, the most expansive region of Scotland’s central Highlands. The area is barren and solitary, beautiful only to one who loves the Highlands as MacDonald did. It made an impression on the young boy who vacationed there with his family, and he returned to it several times later in life in preparation for this book. His opening sketch of the region must stand as one of the most graphic descriptions ever to flow from his pen, and paints a true portrait of the essential mystique of the area.

            There are those who voice concern about the spiritual implications of fiction, thinking that the novel is somehow less “real” than a more didactic book. The reality of fiction, however, lies on a deeper plane than mere “factness.” Reality is a function of truth. And truth–however conveyed–is real. There is, therefore, a reality pervading the novels of George MacDonald, because the situations and characters point toward truth, and toward the One in whom is contained all truth.

By communicating his message in such a fashion, George MacDonald was following the example of his Lord. For fiction was frequently the vehicle the Lord used in order to best convey principles of life in God’s kingdom. As he spoke to ordinary people, he found that telling them stories through nonfactual characters was the best means to express realities and truths they might not have grasped so deeply in any other way. “Do good to your neighbor” was not a teaching which originated with Jesus but had been set forth by hundreds of great men before. But it was Jesus who penetrated clearly and incisively to the very heart of the matter with his parable of the Good Samaritan, immortalizing the truth as no one before or after has ever done. In fictional format, the truth came alive for all time. Through the nonfactual, but highly real genre of the parable, Jesus brought spiritual principles to life.

Similarly, George MacDonald employed fiction to achieve precisely the same goal. The Laird’s Inheritance illustrates in story form many abiding truths of the Kingdom. When the disciples asked Jesus about giving up all for him, his reply was, “No one who has left home, or land, or family for the sake of the kingdom will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come.” George MacDonald used a plot revolving around the loss of an earthly inheritance of land to tell of the deeper inheritance of God’s kingdom. Whether the earthly inheritance is won or lost is beside the point; the riches of the Kingdom outshine all earthly gain. In the old castle, so insignificant in the world’s eyes, good only as a ruin to him who would buy it from Cosmo’s father, lies a secret–what Jesus calls “the mystery of the kingdom”–found in the heart of Cosmo’s father, a secret that illuminates the riches of God’s life within us. The true inheritance was there all along–but only for those with eyes to see it. The value in the eternal realm is not on the surface, but in the heart.

Yet such an inheritance is not won without sacrifice. As Jesus said, the inheritance of houses and lands and riches, in this age and in the age to come, does not come to everyone–it comes to those who have left everything for the sake of the Kingdom. Thus, the inheritance which comes to Cosmo in the end comes as a direct result of his sacrificial laying down of everything he holds dear on a worldly plane. He has to lay down his ancient family home, the land, the inheritance that in the world should rightfully be his, and lay them all on the altar. Cosmo’s true and lasting inheritance comes only after he is stripped of every last vestige of self, and is ready to go out into the world as a beggar with only the shirt on his back. At that point God can step in and give him fully of Himself. For though our earthly inheritance may be lost, Jesus has said that his people will inherit the whole earth.

It is precisely the legacy of this inheritance–an inheritance not passed down by the hands of men, but by the hand of God into men’s hearts–that Cosmo’s father gives to him. Cosmo then passes it into future generations in the flow of his descendants and God’s people. As has been the case since Old Testament times, the heritage of God is passed from fathers to sons, from mothers to daughters, from parents to children.

Warlock o’ Glenwarlock is, like several other of MacDonald’s novels, highly autobiographical. We instantly recognize in young Cosmo Warlock the thoughtful Robert Falconer, and indeed the boy George MacDonald himself. Cosmo’s grandmother is reminiscent of George’s own. The boy has grown up without his mother, reminding us of the death of George MacDonald’s mother when he was eight. As Cosmo matures, he goes to college, turns to writing poems, and takes a job as a tutor–all of which parallels MacDonald’s experience. The description of the tutorship is almost purely autobiographical, revealing almost exact insight into what we know of MacDonald’s assignment in London between 1845 and 1847. And like MacDonald’s, Cosmo’s father managed a rather large estate of land whose fortunes were on the decline.

Most striking of all, however, is the love which exists between Cosmo and his aging father–in the heart of which pulsated the earliest attraction of the boy toward the heartbeat of God himself. Through this relationship the inheritance of God is passed, hand to hand, from father to son, just as–though Jesus performed the miracle–it was in the hands of the disciples that the loaves and fishes actually multiplied. MacDonald unquestionably draws upon the memory of his own long relationship with his father when he says: “Nobody knows what the relation of father and son may yet come to. Those who accept the relationship in Christian terms are bound to recognize that there must be in it depths more infinite than our eyes can behold, ages away from being fathomed yet. For is it not a small and finite reproduction of the loftiest mystery in human ken–that of the infinite Father and infinite Son? If man be made in the image of God, then must not human fatherhood and sonship be the earthly image of the eternal relation between God and Jesus?”

Through the mouth of Cosmo’s father, the essence of what makes up the godly life is articulated. What matters, he says to his son, is not the accumulation of wealth, not the inheritance, not the land, not the castle; what matters–what comprises the life, the inheritance I give you–is to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

The desire of his father’s heart is particularly moving: “But gien I’ve ever had onything to ca’ an ambition, Cosmo, it has been that my son should be ane o’ the wise, wi’ faith to believe what his father had learned afore him, an’ sae start farther on upo’ the narrow way than his father had startit.”

As reflected in Warlock’s words, the Scots dialect is an intrinsic part of this book’s unique Highland flavor. People often ask about the nature of the dialect, but the study of the origins of languages is a complex field, and being no linguistic historian, I can only offer some rudimentary observations. It seems there are essentially four major language groups identifiable in the Scots dialect called “doric.” George MacDonald grew up with this dialect, and it found its way into at least ten of his books; MacDonald himself once referred to it as “the broad Saxon of Aberdeen.” Those elements are Gaelic (an ancient Celtic language, now almost dead except for remote Highland and island regions of western Scotland and Ireland), Scandinavian, German, and English.

The Scots dialect, at first glance can be difficult to decipher, though with practice and familiarity it becomes easier. The Scots tend to drop certain consonants, and differences in pronunciation make Scots distinct from common English. Thus, “of” in a MacDonald original or a Robert Burns poem becomes o’, “have” becomes hae, “all” becomes a’, “so” becomes sae, “with” becomes wi’, “you” becomes ye, “and” becomes an’, “own” becomes ain, “young” becomes yoong, “how” becomes hoo, “about” becomes aboot, “well” becomes weel, “our” becomes oor, “old” becomes auld, and so on.

A number of words and phrases, though still English, take on a peculiarly Scottish tone or flavor when spoken–still recognizable, but altered to fit the rough, rhythmic, and rapid Scottish tongue. Thus, “where” becomes whaur, “from” becomes frae, “don’t” becomes dinna, “can’t” becomes canna.

Any language has colloquialisms, and Scottish has more than its share–words such as gloamin‘ (dusk), mind (remember), gowk (fool or lout), burn (stream), laird (landowner), and bairn (child).

And finally, many thousands of Scottish words are simply foreign to contemporary English, such as: ken (“know” from German), ilk (every), lauchen (“laugh” from German), gar (make), lippen (trust), lave (rest or remainder), speir (ask), ohn (“without” from German), gien (if), gaein (“go” or “going” from German), and siller (money).

Most of the dialect has been removed from the other MacDonald reprints, but in this particular book the dialect seems fundamentally linked to the Highlands and the struggle of the people who lived there in the 19th century. Thus, in The Laird’s Inheritance most of the foreign words, phrases, and expressions have been translated, but a healthy portion of Scottish spellings of words remain, sometimes altered a bit to make them look more familiar.

Both the publisher and I encourage your response to this, and to any of George MacDonald’s books. I have prepared a small pamphlet on George MacDonald, his life, and his work, which is available upon request at the address below. And for those of you interested further in the life of George MacDonald, I would point you in the direction of the Bethany House publication George MacDonald: Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller.

God bless you!

An’ noo I wiss ye a’ a guid readin’!

Michael Phillips

c/o One Way Book Shop, 1707 E Street, Eureka, California 95501