Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet was born on 15 August 1771 in College Wynd in the Old Town of Edinburgh, Scotland and died on 21 September 1832. Sir Walter Scott was a prolific Scottish historical novelist and poet popular throughout Europe during his time.
In some ways Sir Walter Scott was the 1st English-language author to have a truly international career in his lifetime, with many contemporary readers all over Europe, Australia, and North America. Sir Walter Scott’s novels and poetry are still read, and many of his works remain classics of both English-language literature and of Scottish literature. Famous titles include Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Lady of The Lake, Waverley, The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermoor.
Sir Walter Scott’s childhood at Sandyknowe farm, seen across the lochan from Smailholm Tower, introduced him to the Borders. Sir Walter Scott was the son of a solicitor, the young Walter Scott survived a childhood bout of polio in 1773 that would leave him lame. To cure his lameness he was sent in that year to live in the rural Borders region at his grandparents’ farm at Sandyknowe, adjacent to the ruin of Smailholm Tower, the earlier family home. Here he was taught to read by his aunt Jenny, and learned from her the speech patterns and many of the tales and legends which characterized much of his work. In January 1775 he returned to Edinburgh, and that summer went with his aunt Jenny to take spa treatment at Bath in England. In the winter of 1776 he went back to Sandyknowe, with another attempt at a water cure being made at Prestonpans during the following summer.
In 1778 Sir Walter Scott returned to Edinburgh for private education to prepare him for school, and in October 1779 he began at the Royal High School of Edinburgh. Sir Walter Scott was now well able to walk and explore the city as well as the surrounding countryside. Sir Walter Scott’s reading included chivalric romances, poems, history and travel books. Sir Walter Scott was given private tuition by James Mitchell in arithmetic and writing, and learned from him the history of the Kirk with emphasis on the Covenanters. After finishing school he was sent to stay for 6 months with his aunt Jenny in Kelso, attending the local Grammar School where he met James Ballantyne who later became his business partner and printed his books.
Sir Walter Scott began studying classics at the University of Edinburgh in November 1783, at the age of only 12, so he was a year or so younger than most of his fellow students. In March 1786 he began an apprenticeship in his father’s office, to become a Writer to the Signet. While at the university Sir Walter Scott had become a friend of Adam Ferguson, the son of Professor Adam Ferguson who hosted literary salons. Sir Walter Scott met the blind poet Thomas Blacklock who lent him books as well as introducing him to James Macpherson’s Ossian cycle of poems. During the winter of 1786–87 the 15 year old Walter Scott saw Robert Burns at one of these salons, for what was to be their only meeting. When Robert Burns noticed a print illustrating the poem “The Justice of the Peace” and asked who had written the poem, only Sir Walter Scott could tell him it was by John Langhorne, and was thanked by Robert Burns. When it was decided that he would become a lawyer he returned to the university to study law, 1st taking classes in Moral Philosophy and Universal History in 1789–90.
After completing his studies in law, he became a lawyer in Edinburgh. As a lawyer’s clerk he made his 1st visit to the Scottish Highlands directing an eviction. Sir Walter Scott was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1792. Sir Walter Scott had an unsuccessful love suit with Williamina Belsches of Fettercairn, who married Sir William Forbes, 6th Baronet.
Sir Walter Scott’s childhood at Sandyknowes, close to Smailholm Tower, introduced him to tales of the Scottish Borders. At the age of 25 he began dabbling in writing, translating works from German, his 1st publication being rhymed versions of ballads by Bürger in 1796. Sir Walter Scott then published a 3 volume set of collected Scottish ballads, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. This was the 1st sign of his interest in Scottish history from a literary standpoint.
Sir Walter Scott then became an ardent volunteer in the yeomanry and on one of his “raids” he met at Gilsland Spa Margaret Charlotte Charpentier (or Charpenter), daughter of Jean Charpentier of Lyon in France whom he married in 1797. They had 5children. In 1799 he was appointed Sheriff-Deputy of the County of Selkirk, based in the Royal Burgh of Selkirk.
In his earlier married days, Sir Walter Scott had a decent living from his earnings at the law, his salary as Sheriff-Deputy, his wife’s income, some revenue from his writing, and his share of his father’s rather meagre estate.
After Sir Walter Scott had founded a printing press, his poetry, beginning with The Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805, brought him fame. Sir Walter Scott published a number of other poems over the next 10 years, including the popular The Lady of the Lake, printed in 1810 and set in the Trossachs. Portions of the German translation of this work were later set to music by Franz Schubert. One of these songs, Ellens dritter Gesang, is popularly labelled as “Schubert’s Ave Maria”.
When the press became embroiled in pecuniary difficulties, Sir Walter Scott set out, in 1814, to write a cash-cow. The result was Waverley, a novel which did not name its author. It was a tale of the “45” Jacobite rising in the Kingdom of Great Britain with its English protagonist Edward Waverley, by his Tory upbringing sympathetic to Jacobitism, becoming enmeshed in events but eventually choosing Hanoverian respectability. The novel met with considerable success. There followed a succession of novels over the next 5 years, each with a Scottish historical setting. Mindful of his reputation as a poet, he maintained the anonymous habit he had begun with Waverley, always publishing the novels under the name Author of Waverley or attributed as “Tales of…” with no author. Even when it was clear that there would be no harm in coming out into the open he maintained the façade, apparently out of a sense of fun. During this time the nickname The Wizard of the North was popularly applied to the mysterious best-selling writer. Edward Waverley’s identity as the author of the novels was widely rumoured, and in 1815 Sir Walter Scott was given the honour of dining with George, Prince Regent, who wanted to meet “the author of Waverley”.
In 1819 he broke away from writing about Scotland with Ivanhoe, a historical romance set in 12th-century England. It too was a runaway success and, as he did with his 1st novel, he wrote several books along the same lines. Among other things, the book is noteworthy for having a very sympathetic Jewish major character, Rebecca, considered by many critics to be the book’s real heroine – relevant to the fact that the book was published at a time when the struggle for the Emancipation of the Jews in England was gathering momentum.
As his fame grew during this phase of his career, he was granted the title of baronet, becoming Sir Walter Scott. At this time he organised the visit of King George IV to Scotland, and when the King visited Edinburgh in 1822 the spectacular pageantry Sir Walter Scott had concocted to portray George as a rather tubby reincarnation of Bonnie Prince Charlie made tartans and kilts fashionable and turned them into symbols of Scottish national identity.
Sir Walter Scott included little in the way of punctuation in his drafts which he left to the printers to supply.
Beginning in 1825 he went into dire financial straits again, as his company nearly collapsed. That he was the author of his novels became general knowledge at this time as well. Rather than declare bankruptcy he placed his home, Abbotsford House, and income into a trust belonging to his creditors, and proceeded to write his way out of debt. Sir Walter Scott kept up his prodigious output of fiction (as well as producing a biography of Napoléon Bonaparte) until 1831. By then his health was failing, and he died at Abbotsford in 1832. Though not in the clear by then, his novels continued to sell, and he made good his debts from beyond the grave. Sir Walter Scott was buried in Dryburgh Abbey where nearby, fittingly, a large statue can be found of William Wallace—one of Scotland’s most romantic historical figures.
When Sir Walter Scott was a boy he sometimes travelled with his father from Selkirk to Melrose, in the Border Country where some of his novels are set. At a certain spot the old gentleman would stop the carriage and take his son to a stone on the site of the battle of Melrose (1526). Not far away was a little farm called Cartleyhole, and this he eventually purchased. In due course the farmhouse developed into a wonderful home that has been likened to a fairy palace. Through windows enriched with the insignia of heraldry the sun shone on suits of armour, trophies of the chase, fine furniture, and still finer pictures. Panelling of oak and cedar and carved ceilings relieved by coats of arms in their correct colour added to the beauty of the house. More land was purchased, until Sir Walter Scott owned nearly 1,000 acres (4 km²), and it is estimated that the building cost him over £25,000. A neighbouring Roman road with a ford used in olden days by the abbots of Melrose suggested the name of Abbotsford.
The last of his direct descendants to inhabit Abbotsford House was his great-great-great granddaughter Dame Jean Maxwell-Scott (8 June 1923 – 7 July 2004). Dame Jean Maxwell-Scott inherited it from her elder sister Patricia in 1998. Patricia and Jean turned the house into one of Scotland’s premier tourist attractions, after they had to rely on paying visitors to afford the upkeep of the house. It had electricity installed only in 1962. Dame Jean Maxwell-Scott was at one time a lady-in-waiting to Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester; patron of the Dandie Dinmont Club, for a breed of dog named after one of Sir Walter Scott’s characters; and a horse trainer, one of whose horses, Sir Wattie, ridden by Ian Stark, won 2 silver medals at the 1988Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
Among the early critics of Sir Walter Scott was Mark Twain, who blamed Sir Walter Scott’s “romanticisation of battle” for what he saw as the South’s decision to fight the American Civil War. Mark Twain’s ridiculing of chivalry in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which Mark Twain has the main character repeatedly utter “great Scott” as an oath, is considered as specifically targeting Sir Walter Scott’s books. Mark Twain also targeted Sir Walter Scott in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where he names a sinking boat the Walter Scott. 3 crooks drown on this wreck.
From being one of the most popular novelists of the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott suffered from a disastrous decline in popularity after the First World War. The tone was set early on in E.M. Forster’s classic “Aspects of the Novel” (1927), where Sir Walter Scott was savaged as being a clumsy writer who wrote slapdash, badly plotted novels. Sir Walter Scott also suffered from the rising star of Jane Austen.
Considered merely an entertaining “woman’s novelist” in the 19th century, in the
20th Jane Austen began to be seen as perhaps the major English novelist of the 1st few decades of the 19th century. As Jane Austen’s star rose, Sir Walter Scott’s sank, although, ironically, he had been one of the few male writers of his time to recognise Jane Austen’s genius.
Sir Walter Scott’s ponderousness and prolixity were fundamentally out of step with Modernist sensibilities. Nevertheless, Sir Walter Scott was responsible for 2 major trends that carry on to this day. 1st, he essentially invented the modern historical novel; an enormous number of imitators (and imitators of imitators) would appear in the 19th century. It is a measure of Sir Walter Scott’s influence that Edinburgh’s central railway station, opened in 1854 for the North British Railway, is called Waverley Station. 2nd, his Scottish novels followed on from James Macpherson’s Ossian cycle in rehabilitating the public perception of Highland culture after years in the shadows following southern distrust of hill bandits and the Jacobite rebellions. As enthusiastic chairman of the Celtic Society of Edinburgh he contributed to the reinvention of Scottish culture. It is worth noting, however, that Sir Walter Scott was a Lowland Scot, and that his re-creations of the Highlands were more than a little fanciful. Sir Walter Scott’s organisation of the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822 was a pivotal event, leading Edinburgh tailors to invent many “clan tartans” out of whole cloth, so to speak. After being essentially unstudied for many decades, a small revival of interest in Sir Walter Scott’s work began in the 1970s and 1980s. Ironically, postmodern tastes (which favoured discontinuous narratives, and the introduction of the ‘first person’ into works of fiction) were more favourable to Sir Walter Scott’s work than Modernist tastes. Despite all the flaws, Sir Walter Scott is now seen as an important innovator, and a key figure in the development of Scottish and world literature.
Sir Walter Scott was also responsible, through a series of pseudonymous letters published in the Edinburgh Weekly News in 1826, for retaining the right of Scottish banks to issue their own banknotes, which is reflected to this day by his continued appearance on the front of all notes issued by the Bank of Scotland.
Many of his works were illustrated by his friend, William Allan.
In addition to Landseer, fine portraits of him were painted by fellow-Scots Sir Henry Raeburn and James Eckford Lauder.
Sir Walter Scott is commemorated in Makars’ Court, outside The Writers’ Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh.
Selections for Makars’ Court are made by The Writers’ Museum; The Saltire Society; The Scottish Poetry Library.
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