Grand opera in four acts.
Libretto by Joseph Bennett based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel Heart of Midlothian.
First performed in Edinburgh on 15 November 1894.

Act 1
The opera tells the story of two sisters, Jeanie and Effie Deans.  Their father, Davie Deans, upbraids the village young people for dancing outside his house.  The local laird (landowner), Dumbiedykes, has arrived to pay court to Jeanie (he is characterised as far less stuffy than in the novel, and attracts far more audience sympathy), but Jeanie is preoccupied with her sister – she senses that Effie is in trouble.  And so it proves: Effie has had a baby, and refuses to say what she has done with the child, although she insists that the child’s father has done nothing wrong.  Two constables arrive to arrest Effie on suspicion of murdering the baby – at first, Dumbiedykes tries to pay them off, but Deans curses his daughter as a wanton harlot and banishes her from his house and from his life.  Nothing will dissuade him to take back the curse, and Effie is taken away.

Act 2
Muschat’s Cairn – the grave of a murderer.
Jeanie has been led to a forlorn spot in the middle of nowhere by Madge Wildfire, who then leaves, and a character named George Staunton appears and tells Jeanie that Effie is innocent (he is actually the father of the child).  Staunton too is made much more likeable than he is in the novel, even though he does pull a gun on Jeanie when she says that she cannot tell a lie to save Effie.  A storm is gathering throughout the scene, which culminates in Madge Wildfire reappearing and Staunton and Madge exchanging clothes. 

The scene changes to the infamous Tolbooth Prison (known as the ‘Heart of Midlothian’, hence the title of the opera), where Effie is being held.  She muses on happier times as a riot is building up outside (based on a real-life incident, the Porteous Riot).  The rioters burst in, among them Staunton disguised as Madge.  He tries to persuade Effie to run away with him under cover of the riot, but she refuses and he eventually has to leave without her.

Act 3
Tolbooth prison
Jeanie now visits Effie in her cell in the prison and tells her that she will go to London to plead with the royal court for Effie’s pardon.  Staunton arrives disguised as a clergyman (an event which is not in the novel).  Again, he tries to persuade Effie to escape if he can arrange another riot, but she will not leave the prison unless she is proved innocent.  When he hears of Jeanie’s plan, Staunton is impressed by her courage, and tells her that when she gets to London, she must see the Duke of Argyll first, reminding her that the present Duke is the descendent of the Duke who suffered during the persecution of the Cameronians, the religious sect to which the Dean family belongs.  In the next scene, Jeanie goes to see Dumbiedykes – braving his coarse housekeeper Mrs Balchristie in the process.  Dumbiedykes asks Jeanie to marry him but she turns him down.  She asks him for money for her journey to London, and though he first refuses, he does eventually give her money – with no conditions attached to it.

Act 4
Richmond Park in London.
Jeanie has arrived to see the Queen in order to appeal for Effie’s pardon and release.  A group of ladies-in-waiting sing a madrigal and an off-stage orchestra plays the Minuet from Handel’s Water Music: then the Duke of Argyll introduces Jeanie to the Queen and Jeanie pleads for Effie’s life.  The Queen is impressed by Jeanie’s loyalty and Effie’s sincerity and determination and promises to do what she can to help. 

Back in Edinburgh, outside Tolbooth Prison.
crowd is waiting for Effie’s execution, and they ask Madge Wildfire to sing for them – Staunton arrives, with a group of men; he is prepared to attack the gaolers in a delaying tactic hoping that a pardon will come.  Dumbiedykes and Deans arrive, and Deans, in a u-turn from his curse in Act I, urges Effie to be brave – he will be reunited with her in heaven.  Staunton’s men attack and in the ensuing chaos, Jeannie arrives with a pardon, escorted by Argyll’s men.  The constables now try to arrest Staunton on a charge of riot and murder, but, in another departure from the novel, Jeanie produces a second pardon for him.  It then transpires that his father has just died, and he is now Baronet of Willingham.  He asks Effie to marry him and then leads a final chorus in praise of Jeanie.  Everything ends happily.


Related OperaStory articles can be found on

  • Hamish MacCunn’s life and operas
  • The plot of MacCunn’s other major opera, Diarmid
  • Other operas based on the works of Sir Walter Scott
  • Other operas based on Scott’s novel Heart of Midlothian
  • and a whole host of articles on operas with a Scottish connection in Scotch Corner

 ©  Roger Witts 2009