Today is the 241st anniversary of the birth of Sir Walter Scott. A full appraisal of the importance of any author is impossible within the limits of a blog post, but this is particularly true of Scott. This page will confine itself to a brief biography, an assessment of his impact on literature, and some links to other sources.
Scott was born on August 15, 1771 in College Wynd, Edinburgh. He was the ninth child of Walter Scott, Writer to the Signet, and Anne Rutherford, but five of his siblings had already died in infancy, and a sixth, Barbara, was to die when he was five months old. In infancy Scott contracted polio, the effects of which made him lame in his right leg for life. In an attempt to cure his lameness he was sent in 1773 to live in the rural Borders region at his paternal grandparents' farm, where he was taught to read by his aunt Jenny, and he learned from her the speech patterns and many of the tales and legends that characterised much of his work. Scott never lost his early fascination with the folk tales and histories of Scotland’s outlying places, and travelled the countryside to collect them throughout his younger adulthood. After returning to Edinburgh for his education at the Royal High School and the University, Scott qualified as a lawyer, joining the Faculty of Advocates in 1792.
The first sign of Scott’s literary interest in Scottish history and folk tales came in 1802 with the publication of a three-volume set of collected ballads, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. This work immediately captured the public imagination and established its Scott’s reputation as a writer, and it was followed by Marmion in 1808, which contains the famous lines:
Yet Clare's sharp questions must I shun
Must separate Constance from the nun
Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!
A Palmer too! No wonder why
I felt rebuked beneath his eye.
Although Scott had attained celebrity through his poetry, he soon tried his hand at documenting his researches into the oral tradition of the Scottish Borders in prose fiction – stories and novels. In 1814, in an innovative and astute action, he wrote and published his first novel, Waverley, a tale of the Jacobite rising of 1745, and it was followed by a string of other historical novels with Scottish settings, collectively known now as the Waverley Novels. These included Guy Mannering (1815), The Antiquary (1816), Rob Roy (1817), and Ivanhoe (1819), and were published anonymously, as at the time novels were considered aesthetically inferior to poetry (above all to such classical genres as the epic or poetic tragedy) as a mimetic vehicle for portraying historical events. Such was the popularity of these works that by 1827 Scott was happy to abandon anonymity and publish under his own name.
Scott's fame grew as his explorations and interpretations of Scottish history and society captured popular imagination. Impressed by this, the Prince Regent (the future George IV) gave Scott permission to search for the fabled but long-lost Crown Jewels ("Honours of Scotland"), which during the years of the Protectorate under Cromwell had been squirrelled away and had last been used to crown Charles II. In 1818, Scott and a small team of military men unearthed the honours from the depths of Edinburgh Castle. A grateful Prince Regent granted Scott the title of baronet. Later, after George's accession to the throne, the city government of Edinburgh invited Scott, at the King's behest, to stage-manage the King's entry into Edinburgh.
With only three weeks for planning and execution, Scott created a spectacular and comprehensive pageant, designed not only to impress the King, but also in some way to heal the rifts that had previously destabilised Scots society. He used the event to contribute to the drawing of a line under an old world that pitched his homeland into regular bouts of bloody strife. He, along with his 'production team', mounted what in modern days could be termed a PR event, in which the rather obese King was dressed in tartan (worn over pink tights), and was greeted by his people, many of whom were also dressed in similar tartan ceremonial dress. This form of dress, previously proscribed after the 1745 rebellion against the English, subsequently became one of the seminal, potent and ubiquitous symbols of Scottish identity.
In 1825 and 1826, a banking crisis swept through the cities of London and Edinburgh. The Ballantyne printing business, in which he was heavily invested, crashed, resulting in his being very publicly ruined. Rather than declare himself bankrupt, he determined to write his way out of debt. He kept up his prodigious output of fiction, as well as producing a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, until 1831. By then his health was failing. Notwithstanding this, he undertook a grand tour of Europe, being welcomed and celebrated wherever he went. He returned to Scotland and, in September 1832, died (under unexplained circumstances) at Abbotsford, the home he had designed and had built, near Melrose in the Scottish Borders. Though he died owing money, his novels continued to sell and the debts encumbering his estate were eventually discharged.
Although he continued to be extremely popular and widely read, both at home and abroad, Scott's critical reputation declined in the last half of the nineteenth century as serious writers turned from romanticism to realism, and Scott began to be regarded as an author suitable for children. This trend accelerated in the twentieth century, and today he must be one of the least-read of our 'famous' authors. In his homeland, where to some extent he was responsible for creating the image of Scotland that still dominates across the world, he is celebrated today chiefly through the naming of Edinburgh’s Waverley railway station and the iconic gothic architecture of the Scott Monument in Princes Street. To many observers, including the author of this blog, this seems a great pity. Scott’s importance as the inventor of the historical novel and as the creator of Scotland’s ‘shortbread tin’ romantic imagery is not in doubt, but several of his greatest works are genuine masterpieces and should be much more widely read today. He has ‘out of fashion’ for far too long, and very unfairly.
The following link leads to G. K. Chesterton’s appraisal of Scott, and is well worth reading:
There follow some other links that the reader may find useful:
The Walter Scott Digital Archive: http://www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/home.html
Encyclopedia Britannica: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/529629/Sir-Walter-Scott-1st-Baronet