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Issue 20 - More wanderings in Scott's steps

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 20
April 2005


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More wanderings in Scott's steps

John Hannavy on the trail of Sir Walter Scott's landscapes

One of the most enduringly appealing aspects of Sir Walter Scott’s writings was his ability to evoke the various faces and moods of the Scottish landscape in his works. Read some of his descriptions – actually they go beyond mere description – and you can see the places, experience the terrain, feel the wind, and smell the flora.

Add to that a uniquely well developed ability to weave historical fact and fiction seamlessly together and set them amidst those hugely evocative word pictures, and Scott’s enormous popularity becomes easy to understand.

It is Scott’s vivid description of the rugged landscapes of Scotland which attracted me to his epic poems, and The Lord of the Isles, first published in the year of Waterloo, 1815, is no exception. The great Battle of Waterloo was itself the subject of a poem completed a few months later.

The Lord of the Isles is set in the year 1307, with Robert the Bruce making his return to Scotland from exile on the island of Rachrin off the coast of Ireland. In telling the story, Scott draws heavily on Lord Hailes’ account of the history of Scotland and, as with all his narratives, both in verse and in prose, embellishes it as he goes along.

Although the poem is titled The Lord of the Isles, very little of it is set in the islands themselves – although I have concentrated on the islands in my selection of images – the majority of it being set in Scott’s favourite countryside around the Tweed, on the Argyllshire coast, on Arran, and around Stirling.

In each location, the atmosphere of the place is captured and serves as a word picture, an almost visual backdrop, for the narrative. If Scott had still been around half a century later, might not photography have attracted him as well?

The importance of Scotland’s imposing scenery in establishing that sense of place is underlined in the appendix notes to the poems.

Scott’s love of that landscape is epitomised in one such note (note three) in which he says “The Sound of Mull, which divides that island from the continent of Scotland (sic!) is one of the most striking scenes which the Hebrides afford to the traveller”.

Other notes attest to Scott’s location research. In a note dated 26th August 1814, he records the boat trip to Eigg and Muck in search of authentic locations for The Lord of the Isles. Of Eigg he records “It is well known … to others whom chance or curiosity may lead to the island, for the astonishing view of the mainland and the neighbouring isles, which it commands”.

Right from the first canto of The Lord of the Isles, the picture is painted:

Autumn departs—but still his mantle’s fold
Rests on the groves of noble Somerville,
Beneath a shroud of russet dropped with gold
Tweed and his tributaries mingle still;
Hoarser the wind, and deeper sounds the rill
Yet lingering notes of sylvan music swell,
The deep-toned cushat, and the red-breast shrill;
And yet some tints of summer splendour tell
When the broad sun sinks down on Ettrick’s western fell.

The combination of the sound of the cushat, the old name for the wood pigeon, with that of the robin, and the setting amidst the autumn colours, would remind almost anyone of those balmy days of late autumn before the temperature plummets towards a cold Scottish winter. We are looking at the scene through Scott’s eye just as clearly as if it was being viewed through the lens of a camera.

From the introduction to his epic The Bridal of Triemain, Scott defines his objectives as including the depiction of “a scene immediately presented to the imagination, and directly brought home to the feelings” – underlining the essential requirement that those ‘word-pictures’ on which the action of both his poems and his novels are painted, transport the reader immediately to the scene of the narrative.

Over the coming months in Scotland Magazine I hope to bring my ‘take’ of many of his locations to your attention. Some of them will be landscapes, many of them will be buildings, but all of them will be uniquely Scottis