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Sir Walter Scott invented the great historical novel

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Scotland on Friday, 28 February 2014

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This edited article about Walter Scott first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

Walter Scott,  picture, image, illustration

Walter Scott by Sir Edwin Landseer

The small boy sat in an inglenook by his grandfather’s hearth, hardly daring to move a muscle lest anyone realised he should long since have been in bed. Every now and then a booted figure would kick the logs into a sudden, blazing flurry of sparks and fire, the dogs would yawn and stretch and Walter Scott would be certain he would be discovered. But as so often happened the talk was so enthralling that no one noticed the spellbound boy in the corner. He was drinking in every word, and one day he would tell it all again, to a much wider audience.

Most nights, particularly when there was company, the talk would turn to the feuds and friendships of the Border country. This was where the Scott family had their roots and tales of their own ancestors and neighbouring clans would continue until the embers glowed dimly and the wine was finished. Walter Scott had been born in Edinburgh but a paralysis when very young had left him partly lame and he had been sent here to his grandparents in the Cheviot Hills to recover.

Not only did the wind-blown countryside restore him to health, but it also gave him a love of its history that he never forgot. The desolate Border country had a troubled and a lawless past. For 300 years the English and Scottish fought each other intermittently in this area, and in quieter times local Lords pursued feuds, cattle and sheep rustling were common and the peal of bells was as much a warning as an invitation to church.

Reminders of these grim times still abound. Ruined castles, and solid stone built towers used as strongholds can still be seen everywhere, while barns with eight-foot walls were a necessity if animals and supplies were to be kept safe. All too often a dark night, with the moon shining fitfully through windswept clouds, would find a small raiding party choosing an isolated target. Old scores could be settled, animals stolen, and the morning would see grim-faced defenders swearing revenge as they, too, planned an attack.

Yet there was another side to Border life. The courage and hardiness of the clansmen was matched by their love of poetry and music, and their skill at both. In addition to the stories of daring there were ballads in which love and adventure were nicely mixed. These, too, were remembered by Walter Scott. More than anything else, these childhood experiences shaped the man who was to become the most famous novelist and poet that Scotland has produced.

Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh in 1771, and it was to this city that he returned for his schooling when, despite his lameness, the stay in the Border country had made him fit and well. He was remarkable more for his mischievous exploits than his learning and was described as an “incorrigibly idle imp.” Wherever there were fights, or pitched battles with the town boys, Walter Scott could be found. He climbed the “kittle nine stanes” on the great Castle rock and scrambled over Salisbury Crags.

But at the same time the boisterous high-school boy, with his uniform of round black hat, a gaudy waistcoat and brown corduroy breeches, was filling his head with other things. Much of the encouragement came from his mother. She would let him read on by the fire in her dressing room when he should have been in bed and only when he heard the sounds of the family rising from supper did he put down his books and creep, silently and undiscovered back between the sheets.

All during these years he would return to the wild countryside of the Cheviots during his holidays, and he grew to know them as well as any man. He thought nothing of walking 30 miles a day, and would ride a horse for as long as it could carry him. Later, he and a friend collected ballads, songs and stories which had been handed down for centuries by word of mouth and with these as the fabric he wove his tales in the years which followed.

Walter followed his father by choosing the Law as his profession but the dry, hardworking and pedantic atmosphere of the legal offices did not depress him, nor quench his bubbling enthusiasm for life. He had loved to hear tales of the ’45 rebellion and the American War of Independence when he stayed with his grandfather and now the French revolution was producing as much turmoil. Walter was not only quick to argue, but he sometimes had to defend his point of view much more vigorously.

One night he was on his way home, alone, when three assailants jumped on him. He recognised them as Irish students with whom he had been arguing fiercely earlier that evening, but now they clearly meant to settle the matter. Walter had only his stick to defend himself, but his alert mind showed him the one place where he could make the battle more equal. He quickly backed up to the stonework of the great Tron clock and faced his opponents. For almost an hour they launched one attack after another, but the memory and experience of schoolboy fights and a fierce pride kept Walter Scott battling on until at last his adversaries made off.

These early years of his adult life were as delightful as anyone could wish for. He was comfortably off, happily married and still returning to his beloved Border country – digging deeper into its history and all the time learning more about Mankind and himself. Days were spent in sun and rain on the windswept hills; nights by a comforting peat fire, and all the time he was getting ready to turn this experience to good account.

It was in 1805 that he laid his claim to fame with a long poem called “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” in which he recounted much of the wild but chivalrous life of the Border folk. Its success was immediate and more poems, all of which sold over 30,000 copies, followed in succeeding years. “Marmion” and “The Lady of the Lake” not only established him as a writer, but brought him considerable wealth. The former was sold for one thousand guineas without the publisher even seeing it, and the latter brought him no less than £2,000.

Scott used this money to extend a large house called Abbotsford which he had built on some land near the river Tweed in the countryside he loved so much. It was a passion which never died and even when he could not afford it he continued to enlarge and beautify the home he had created. Abbotsford is now a museum, with Scott’s study preserved just as he used it and it is easy to imagine the pattern of his life as he spent more and more time there.

He was a hard-working and methodical writer, getting up at 5 a.m. and lighting his own fire in cold weather. After dressing and going down to see his horses, he would be at work by six, and writing steadily until a stop for breakfast three hours later. More writing until lunch at one o’clock, and he was a “freeman” for the rest of the day. Then he could enjoy his estate with Tom Purdie, the poacher who became his bailiff, hunt, fish or spend the afternoon with family and friends.

Here at Abbotsford a stream of books – sometimes three or four a year – poured forth from Scott’s pen until he became easily the most popular novelist of his day. Some, like “Guy Mannering” are about the Scottish countryside he knew so well; others are historical, such as “Ivanhoe” and “Rob Roy.” But all had the romance, the vitality and the enthusiasm of Scott’s vision of his own country. It was an enthusiasm which millions of readers were able to share.

Despite his prodigious output, Scott’s life was not only concerned with writing. He never gave up his connections with the Law, and legal work and his interest in a publishing firm still took up a good deal of his time. But he had never been a good businessman and the publishing firm brought him disaster. After some years it collapsed and Scott realised that he was suddenly responsible for debts of more than £100,000. As always, Abbotsford had taken up all his money, but his action was characteristic and prompt.

He redoubled his efforts and resolved to pay off the creditors by his writing. In two years he had earned £40,000 but the task was simply too great for him and his health failed. He died at Abbotsford in 1832, aged 61, the greatest Scotsman of his time. For in his books and poems he gave Scotland to the world. The changeless hills and bubbling streams of the Border country were his inspiration and now, with his body buried in the nearby ruins of Dryburgh Abbey, they are his memorial.

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