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People > Scottish Writers > Sir Walter Scott

Notable Scots: Writers

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832):

"A sound head, an honest heart, and an humble spirit are the three best guides through time and to eternity."
~ Sir Walter Scott
Sir Walter Scott
Sir Walter Scott

Scott was born in College Wynd, Edinburgh, to Anne Rutherford of the Haliburtons of Newmains, and Walter Scott, Writer to the Signet and prominent solicitor. When Walter was just eighteen months old, he suffered polio, and was sent to his grandparents' farm in the Border region to heal in the cleaner country air. His aunt Janet entertained him with poems from Allan Ramsay's Tea-Table Miscellany while his grandmother filled his head with family legends about Border warfare adventures. This experience cemented in young Scott an attachment to story-telling and the oral tradition.

When Scott was eight years old, he went to school back in Edinburgh, where he flourished in history, loved to read travelogues, and translated Horace and Virgil into English. Although bouts of illness sent him back to the farm, Sandyknowe, several times to recuperate, he remained studious and apprenticed for his father in 1786. His father took him to visit the Highlands on business, where he met a client, Andrew Stewart of Invernahyle, who had once fought a duel with Rob Roy MacGregor. Young Scott's imagination was further enraptured when, later in the trip, he met Robert Burns for the first and only time in his life.

39 North Castle St.
39 North Castle St.

After three years of apprenticing with his father, Scott decided to resume his studies in pursuit of the Bar and became an Advocate in 1792. While at the university, he met his first love, Williamina Belsches, daughter of a family of much higher social standing than his own. This did not prevent him from courting her, though, and in 1795 he wrote her a letter boldly declaring his love. He remained hopeful until the autumn of 1796, when Williamina announced her engagement to William Forbes, heir of a banking family. Scott's profound hurt, feeling of betrayal, and frustrated passions were echoed in many of his literary works. The next year, however, he met Charlotte Carpenter while visiting an old college friend in Cumberland.

Charlotte was ethnically French (her surname was originally Charpentier) but was orphaned as a child and raised under the guardianship of Lord Downshire. Scott's parents objected when he proposed marriage after just three weeks of courtship, but softened at the reassurance that she came from stable financial circumstances. Their wedding took place on Christmas Eve, 1797, in St. Mary's Church in Carlisle. That night Scott took his bride to their new home at 50 George Street in Edinburgh, where they lived happily until Charlotte's death in 1826.

Scott's interest in the literary arts began early in childhood, but his poetry began to form during his law studies at university. He formed a Poetry Society and joined the Literary Society, where he delivered papers on his newly-found passion, Old Norse and Icelandic literature and mythology. His devotion to medieval culture and ballad-lore was further enhanced in his capacity as Librarian to the Speculative Society. After he became an Advocate in 1792, his work took him mainly on the Jedburgh circuit and to other Border courts, providing ample opportunity to compile and translate folk ballads he had grown to love while at Sandyknowe. At this same time, Scott discovered the pre-Romantic school of German poets and dramatists, such as Goethe and Schiller, who rejected neo-classical conventions, stressed subjectivity and emotional intensity, and depicted the inner primitive, irrational man at odds with contemporary society.

Thus Scott's literary career began with anthology compilations of Border ballads and translations of German poetic narratives. His true debut as an original poet happened in 1802 with Minstrelsy from the Scottish Borders, a two-volume collection based on the Border ballad tradition he had been studying since 1792.

By the middle of the decade, Scott was shooting firm roots into both literature and law. In 1799, Scott was appointed Sheriff- Depute of Selkirkshire, a role comparable to that of a county judge. This brought him a steady £300 annual salary and required him to spend just four months of the year in Selkirkshire, so that he did not have to quit his Advocacy practice in Edinburgh. Promotion came again in 1806, when the post of Principle Clerk of the Court of Sessions became vacant. The £800 annual salary provided financial security for his growing family (his fourth child arrived that year), allowed him to keep his sheriffdom, and required short hours. The security afforded by this post, which he kept the remainder of his life, freed him to devote more serious attention to writing.

Scott's Abbotsford Home
Scott's Abbotsford Home

Scott peaked as a poet in 1810 with The Lady of the Lake, a romantic ballad about the struggle between sixteenth-century monarch James V and the powerful Clan Douglas. It shattered sales records for poetry with twenty-five thousand copies sold in eight months, earned critical acclaim, and brought Scott to public attention in the United States. Although his 1813 follow-up, Rokeby, was also a critical and (relative) commercial success, sales did not meet Scott's financial needs (for he was falling into debt because of his investments with publishing companies). This, combined with the appearance of Lord Byron, a formidable new rival with whom Scott did not think he could compete, pushed him to experiment with prose.

Waverly, a historical romance set against the 1745 Jacobite Rising, appeared anonymously in 1814. The novel was not considered a "serious" form at the time, and Scott hoped to protect his reputation as a writer and a clerk if it failed. His novel was an experiment on public taste, and the first edition sold out within two days. Scott's appreciation of mystery kept him from letting his name appear on subsequent novels, their authorship only discernable as "by the author of Waverly."

Waverly gave birth to the historical fiction genre, which Scott continued to explore in the twenty-six novels he churned out over the next seventeen years. Rob Roy (1817), set against the 1715 Jacobite Rising, etched a permanent romantic image of the Highlands onto the public's imagination, and remains one of Scott's most translated and popular works. The original print run, an enormous ten thousand copies, sold out in two weeks; Scott devoted all of his talent to prose fiction thereafter, abandoning poetry. His contribution to arts and letters earned him a baronetcy, awarded in 1818.

Monument to Scott
Monument to Scott

Scott became an international phenomenon a year later with the publication of Ivanhoe. Set in twelfth-century England, the novel marked Scott's first attempt to venture outside of Scotland. It sold at a phenomenal rate, pushing printers to release a second edition after less than two weeks. It was translated into numerous languages and secured a Continental foothold for Scott while spreading a blueprint for the historical novel.

Perhaps even greater than Scott's contribution to literature, however, is the way his literature reinvented Scottish culture. His fanciful images of the Highlands lent a romantic allure to the region whose cultural identity had been suffering a dismantling since the Jacobite defeats.

In 1822, government ministers pushed the newly-coroneted, unpopular King George IV to visit Scotland, hoping it would calm unrest in the country. Scott, as chairman of the Celtic Society of Edinburgh, a club promoting Highland culture and dress, was sought to organize a reception for the king's visit. Scott seized the opportunity and invented a pageant in which ancient Scotland would be reborn, and George IV recast in the role of a Jacobite king to sway the public from reform movements. Scott persuaded George IV that he was a Stuart king and deserved the honour of wearing the ancient garb. Thus George IV placed an order for outfits of bright red Royal Tartan (later known as the Royal Stuart) complete with gold chains, dirks, and pistols.

King George IV
King George IV

Scott brought Highland Societies and Clan Chieftains together to organize the visit as one huge plaided pageantry, complete with an abundance of decoration and honour guards in elaborate costumes. Prior to the festivities, Scott made up booklets to distribute to the peers that described in great detail the strict dress codes and rules of etiquette for each function. The highlight was a Highland Ball, held by the peers, which required its guests to come wearing "ancient Highland dress," since the king himself would be wearing a kilt. Thus Lowland nobles frantically scrambled to find some distant Highland ancestry so that Edinburgh tailors could craft them suitable tartan kilts for the ball. This single incident is largely responsible for the emergence of the kilt, once seen as the primitive dress of a backwards people, as the national dress of Scotland.

Statue of Scott
Statue of Scott

King George IV's two-week trip was full of carefully orchestrated parades, banquets, and balls. Prior to his arrival, Midlothian Yeomanry and Highland companies escorted the Regalia of Scotland and the King's dignitaries from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. George IV disembarked in Leith, and proceeded to the Palace with an escort of Lowland regiments and pipe bands; the three-mile road was filled with cheering, waving crowds.

The outcome of the King's visit was a newfound Scottish national identity that united Highlanders and Lowlanders with the iconic symbols of kilts and tartans. Sir Walter Scott, a key figure in world literature, was also a key figure in introducing a new Scotland to the world.

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