Sir Walter Scott


Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott was born in College Wynd in Edinburgh in 1771 and came to be the most well known Scottish writer ever. He attended Edinburgh High School before moving on to the University of Edinburgh in order to follow in his father's footsteps and study law. He was called to the Bar in 1792 and despite his writing success, he never gave up the legal profession, remaining as Clerk of the Court of Session in Edinburgh from 1806 until a year or so before his death in 1832. Scott started his writing career with the book Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border which was published in 1802. He went on to write a number of long verse narratives, such as Marmion (1808), The Lady of the Lake (1810), and Rokeby (1813). Competition, in the shape of the highly popular Byron, persuaded Scott to move towards prose writing and leave his poetry behind. In 1814 his career as a novelist began with the publication of Waverley. He soon followed this success with Old Mortality (1816), Rob Roy (1817) and The Heart of Midlothian (1818). However, Ivanhoe (1819) is probably the best known of all his works throughout the world.Through his writing Scott used historical fact to build a framework for fiction. He was able to bring the past to life for new generations and combined his historical knowledge, with a life long study of folklore, minstrelsy and the oral tradition, to create and preserve myths.

The Gothic revival in British Victorian society was recognized and cleverly exploited by Scott. Although his was not the first attempt at medieval romance, it was arguably the best, and certainly the most popular. The ideals and beliefs in his books reflected the mood of the society in which Scott was living. In many ways he provided an alternative to the literary movement of the time. Scott was more in tune with Victorian society, by imbuing his tales with spiritual values and a strong moral tone he appealed to Victorian ideals. His semi-mythical tales helped fulfill a need for nostalgia amongst the public as they struggled to deal with the rapid industrialization and urbanization which was transforming society and creating unprecedented social problems.

Sir Walter Scott has suffered repeatedly at the hands of literary critics. Although his books enjoyed a wide readership, and still do, a perception formed that they were not serious literature. As Robin Mayhead points out in his profile of Scott, "Although he has continued to be read, there has been a widespread feeling in the present century that Scott is not really worth the serious attention of adults" (quote from Robin Mayhead author of Profiles In Literature: Walter Scott). The most telling part of that quote may be the statement that he has continued to be read. Despite the criticism and the passage of years, Scott has continued to bring joy, excitement and imagination to new generations. Well-respected authors such as the master storytellers, Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo, have cited Scott as a major influence on their work.

Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh

In Scotland his writing was a sensation and proved highly popular across society. He had studied the law and read history widely, not to mention his frequent trips to various parts of Scotland to record old stories or songs. In particular his knowledge of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Scottish history and politics was excellent. Scott was also the mentor of many of the historical clubs in Scotland. He founded the Bannatyne Club, the first and greatest, which produced 118 works between 1823 and 1867. Most are still the standard texts of Scottish history. Scott's fiction writing was essentially history for the mass market. His most popular novels set in Scotland were the Waverley books. They recreated the Jacobite rebellions and made Jacobitism, not only acceptable, but also romantic.

He significantly influenced the perception of Scotland's natural beauty and contributed a great deal to the popularity of Highland travel. Scott's books often speak of the wild beauty of nature, and indeed the use of wild and picturesque landscapes was a feature of the Romantic movement. Later in the nineteenth century Queen Victoria began to visit the Balmoral estate, in Scotland, more frequently. What once was considered brutal and desolate had come to represent the awe-inspiring beauty and power of nature. Tourism grew as many people sought to emulate the Queen, and still others were keen to visit the places described in Scott's books. The Scottish Highlands are still considered a place of great natural beauty today and the economy is now largely based on tourism.

Scott's effect on Scottish culture was also strong, as Lowland society adopted Highland culture wholesale, after he had popularized symbols such as the tartan kilt and the bagpipes. There remains, however, a section of Scottish society who blame Scott for creating what is often described as a 'shortbread tin' image of Scotland which bears little resemblance to the reality. In August 1822 Scott organized the reception for the visit of King George IV, the first time a British monarch had come to Scotland for 171 years. The kilt had been banned after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and was only made legal again in 1782. Scott encouraged the Highland clan chiefs to dress traditionally, and King George himself was persuaded to don a kilt, thereby sparking off a new popularity for the cult of tartan, bagpipes and the clans. The Highlands had always been a small, and often a disparate, area of Scotland, yet the Lowlands accepted and embraced Scott's conception of Highland culture.

Sir Walter had gone into partnership with his publisher John Ballantyne, a decision he was to regret, when in 1826 the business failed. Scott worked incredibly hard to pay off the debt, writing prolifically for the last seven years of his life. A few months after the business failed Scott's wife died and he was left alone owing over £100,000. It is a testament to his strength and determination that, by the time of his death in 1832, he had paid off over £70,000 and the rest was secured from the copyrights of his great works. His output included more novels, such as Castle Dangerous (1831) and a host of historical writings, from a nine volume study of Napoleon to a children's history entitled Tales of a Grandfather.

By 1831 his health was evidently failing and the government allowed him to use one of their frigates to tour the Mediterranean sea. When he returned in June 1832, his life was fading fast, and he retired to his beloved home, Abbotsford, where he died in September of the same year. A ceremonious funeral was held at Dryburgh Abbey as the nation was plunged into mourning. His own carriage horses were used to pull the hearse and it is said that they stopped atop Bemersyde Hill, as Scott had often stopped there, in life, to enjoy his favorite view of the Eildon Hills. The Scott Monument, erected in Edinburgh in 1840, is the largest monument ever dedicated to a writer in Britain, and was paid for by contributions from the people of Scotland.

Scott was a fantastic writer, he was able to churn out richly descriptive prose and he was in possession of a deep skill for character creation. The worlds he recreates for his readers are fully functional and believable. He was influenced by the writing of Cervantes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Burns and many of the old, classic medieval tales such as Beowulf. However he created a style that belonged exclusively to him, perhaps best summed up by another, later, Scottish writer, John Buchan, who said of Scott's Ivanhoe, "....a pageant so far flung and glittering that, in spite of its artificiality, it captivates the fancy. There are no less than one hundred and fifty three characters at some time or another on the stage. With generous profusion he (Scott) piles excitement upon excitement, weaving, like his favorite Ariosto, many different narratives into one pattern, and managing it all with such skill that there are no gaps in his web. Improbabilities, impossibilities, co-incidences are accepted because the reader's mind is beguiled out of scepticism." Buchan was the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps amongst others and he also wrote an excellent biography of Scott's life, from which this quote is taken.