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Issue 22 - Epic tales & Border ballads

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 22
August 2005


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Epic tales & Border ballads

John Hannavy continues his series tracing the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott

Any writer will tell you that writing about what you know is easier than making it all up! Using locations with strong personal ties draws on your own memories, and helps you weave your own emotional responses into the narrative. Sir Walter Scott was no exception.

Scott’s family associations with the Scottish borders go back a long long way. Numerous properties in the area were owned or tenanted by his ancestors, and as a child and as a young man he visited several of them.

The nearby castles, abbeys and priories would also all have been regular childhood haunts.

Their dramatic locations and mystical beauty were to inspire several of his works – both famous and less well known – throughout his literary career.

One of the most evocative, Smailholm Tower, was a ruin visited frequently by Scott in his childhood, for he lived for a time at nearby Sandyknowe Farm, in turn owned by both his grandfather and his uncle – having been purchased by Sir William Scott as early as 1645.

In his grandfather’s day, the young Walter was a frequent visitor to this dramatic landscape, and images of the ruined tower would have been etched into his mind from an early age.

Indeed, in the introduction to The Eve of St John, a poem full of Gothic mystery and drama, it is described as the ‘scene of the author’s infancy’.

Some accounts say that The Eve of St John, dedicated as it was to the Duke of Buccleuch, was part of Scott’s ‘payment’ to the Duke for putting up some of the money for the tower’s restoration.

Today its associations with Scott are continued through regular exhibitions drawing on his Border ballads, and on the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders which he collected and published. At the time of our visit, in late May 2005, each floor of the tower house offered beautifully crafted dolls in tableaux from some of the many border poems and ballads he published for the first time.

Smailholm also features in Marmion, Scott’s epic poem published in 1808 and woven around the 1513 Battle of Flodden (Northumberland), a significant Scottish defeat, and a battle which cut deep into the Scottish psyche.

In the Introduction to Canto Third in that work, written as a letter in verse from Scott to William Erskine, a Scottish judge in the early 19th century “the shatter’d tower, The mightiest work of human power” is offered as a metaphor for the country’s turbulent past. But as a counter to that turbulence, Scott offers the romantic ideal that “honeysuckle loved to crawl, Up the low crag and ruin’d wall”.

The great epic poems – like Lay of the Last Minstrel, also set in the border country – also draw on locations familiar to many of his readers. Thus the great border abbeys of Dryburgh – where Scott himself is buried – Jedburgh, Kelso and Melrose also serve as stages on which the action in several works is played out.

While Smailholm Tower was one of the many castles which did not make it into my earlier series on Scottish castles, several of the castles I did feature in that series have strong Scott associations.

Afew miles further north, the mighty shell of Crichton Castle was also a setting for scenes in Marmion, and Scott also takes his reader to Tantallon Castle, Linlithgow Palace, Borthwick Castle, Edinburgh Castle, and the Palace of Holyrood amongst others – all places familiar to him – but in his epic verses these buildings ring to the sounds of his unique interpretation or reinvention of Scotland’s history.

Some of the places used by Scott are now amongst the most romantic and the most visited ruins in the country, while other stand almost unnoticed. The shell of the domestic buildings of North Berwick Priory – a 13th century Cistercian Nunnery – described by Scott as a ‘venerable pile, whose turrets viewed afar the lofty Bass [Rock] and Lambie Isle’, now stand in the grounds of an old people’s home. The Bass Rock itself, no longer visible from the priory ruins, can however be seen in my photograph from the ramparts of Tantallon.

Anchoring his stories and his verses in real locations was obviously attractive to his readers – who bought his works in their tens of thousands – and also ensured the enduring appeal of these romantic blends of fact and fiction.

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