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Issue 24 - A glimpse of scott's Edinburgh

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 24
January 2006


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A glimpse of scott's Edinburgh

Part six of our journey through Scott's Scotland. Written and photographed by John Hannavy

When Henry Fox Talbot published Sun Pictures in Scotland in 1845 – the first picture book dedicated to the life and works of Sir Walter Scott – he concentrated almost exclusively on Scott’s beloved border country and the Trossachs settings of several of his most popular works.

Despite the importance of Scotland’s capital city, only two images of Edinburgh were included – and one of those was the partly completed Scott Monument.

And yet, Scott retained addresses in the city for much, much longer than he lived at Abbotsford. He was born in College Wynd in the Old Town, a street long since demolished – the approximate location of his birthplace is marked with a plaque in Chambers Street – and with only a short childhood break due to ill-health, the city was his home for at least part of each year for most of his life, as well as the setting for several of his major works.

His knowledge of the city was a key element in several of his books, where intimate experience of the old city ensured his stories were anchored in real locations.

He practised law for more than 40 years – initially having been articled in his father’s chambers – which perhaps explains the number of legal figures in his novels.

Admitted as a member of the Faculty of Advocates in 1792, and serving as Depute Sheriff of Selkirkshire from 1799, he developed a detailed knowledge of Scotland’s multi-layered legal system.

As I have said before, one of his strengths was in writing about things, people and places he knew intimately.

Scott referred to that quest for the understanding which comes with intimate knowledge – perhaps his own quest for knowledge – in Guy Mannering, when he wrote ‘Alawyer without history or literature is a mechanic, a mere working mason; if he possesses some knowledge of these, he may venture to call himself an architect.’

In his ability to weave history and literature seamlessly together, Scott was certainly no mere ‘working mason’.

His home town figures in the title of several works – The Heart of Midlothian and two series of novelettes under the title of Chronicles of the Canongate – and serves as location for key scenes in many more.

In 1775, at the age of four, the young Walter Scott moved with his family to a new house at No.25 George Square in Edinburgh’s New Town, where the family lived until 1797.

Scott’s father, also Walter, was a successful Writer to the Signet – the Scottish equivalent of a solicitor – and presumably a very successful one, as these houses, built only a few years earlier, were rather expensive!

Walter Scott only fully left the family home when he married in 1797, moving first to lodgings in nearby George Street, in the following year, to a recently completed property at No.10 South Castle Street.

In 1801 the family moved again – to a new house he had built at No.39 North Castle Street and where a statue of him sits over the doorway today.

It was at that address that he spent the winter months of each year until 1826.

Despite having lived for most of his childhood and adolescence in the New Town, it was to the closes and wynds of the Old Town to which he turned for many of literary locations.

A year after his marriage, he rented a cottage in Lasswade, on the banks of the River Esk six miles from the city, where the family spent each summer until 1804.

In 1804 Scott rented a house at Ashestiel in Selkirkshire to fulfil the residency rules of his part time Depute Sheriff role.

By 1806 he also had another part time role – as Clerk to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, and despite the grandiose titles of both these positions, they took up only a few hours per day, leaving him plenty of time to develop his career as Scotland’s premier author.

Despite his affection for the border country, Edinburgh remained his primary home, and Scott remained active in Edinburgh city life, a leading light in social as well as literary circles.

In January 1822, he was one of the signatories to an appeal to establish a National Monument on the Calton Hill – a modern-day Parthenon to sit overlooking the ‘Athens of the North’ and stand as a memorial to those Scots who had fallen in the Napoleonic Wars.

Work started the following year, but sufficient funds were never to materialise, and the great vision was never realised. Today, the fragment which was erected stands alone an isolated on the hill above the former Royal High School of Edinburgh – another classical-style building which is soon hopefully to become the permanent home for the impressive Scottish National Photography Collection.

Scott died at Abbotsford on September 21, 1832, and almost immediately there was a widespread campaign to erect a monument to him in his native city.

The first meeting was held less than three weeks after Scott’s death, and a decision made to hold a competition to find a suitable design for a memorial. The Scott Monument which today dominates Princes Street was designed not by an eminent Victorian architect, but by George Miekle Kemp, a joiner and draughtsman.

The design includes 32 niches, each of which now contains a statue of a character from Scott’s works.

The monument was completed and opened in 1846, but it took almost 30 more years before all the statues were in place.