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Issue 42 - Sir Walter Scott

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 42
December 2008


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Sir Walter Scott

The latest in our series on famous Scots looks at the great novelist and poet.

Unlike many famous authors, Walter Scott was hugely successful in his own lifetime, but he was also plagued by debt for much of his literary career. Fortunate, then, that he was a prolific writer, establishing the genre of the historical romance for generations of fans around the world.

Born on 15th August 1771, Walter Scott was the son of a solicitor in the city of Edinburgh, and he was well set up to follow his father into the legal profession.

He was educated at Edinburgh University and soon entered his father’s practice as a law clerk, but Walter Scott always had a creative and romantic spirit that could never be satisfied by his first career.

Things could have turned out very differently if he had not recuperated as well as he did after contracting polio as a boy, and if he had not spent long periods at his grandfather’s farm in the Scottish Borders while he convalesced. The Borders provided the inspiration for Scott’s first published work, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, in 1802.

Scott’s poems proved very popular, and in 1806 he started out in the publishing business with his friend, James Ballantyne.

Scott published a succession of poems before branching out into novels, which continued to display his interest in Scottish history and culture but also in medieval England. Great epics such as Rob Roy and Ivanhoe are now part of our collective culture, which probably would have made Scott proud.

For many, he is thought to epitomise ‘Scotland.’ He did a lot to reinvent the country’s image after the systematic destruction of Scottish culture following the Battle of Culloden. His depiction of clan culture may have been romanticised, but he put Scotland back on the world map, making sure no one could ever mistake it for an annexe of England.

This is not to say that Scott was hostile towards England. In fact he was sometimes criticised for his sympathetic portrayal of the English in works such as Ivanhoe. By the 1820s Scott was a true Scottish celebrity, created a baronet in 1820, and he was chosen as the royal escort during King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. Many of Scott’s fellow countrymen were not impressed when he invented ‘traditional’ clan tartans for the benefit of the king, who was nicely decked out in a made-up Highland costume including some very fetching pink leggings.

Despite his immense fame and popularity, Scott’s humility is implied by a few significant acts.

He turned down an offer to make him poet laureate in 1813, recommending Robert Southey instead. He also published his novels anonymously, only revealing himself as the author in 1826, the same year that his publishing company went bankrupt and Scott was saddled with massive debt.

His country house, Abbotsford near Melrose, was placed in the hands of his creditors while Scott frantically attempted to pay off the debt. His speed in producing poems and novels served him well. His first novel, Waverley, had been written with very little pre-planning, and he is said to have dictated Ivanhoe within two weeks.

By the time Sir Walter Scott died in 1832, he had paid off a large part of his debt, and the continued popularity of his published works soon made up the rest, so his estate at Abbotsford was passed to his children without encumbrance. The house opened its doors to the public within a few months of Scott’s death, and remains a place of pilgrimage for Walter Scott fans around the world.

Sir Walter Scott was held in great esteem in Scotland. The people were rightly proud of what he had done for their national pride.

The scale of the public’s love of Walter Scott comes across in the Scott Memorial on Princes Street in Edinburgh; the largest memorial ever constructed in honour of a British author.

And it is no coincidence that the main railway station in Edinburgh, opened in 1854, was named Waverley Station.