Sir Walter Scott, novelist, poet, translator, historian, ballad collector, critic and man of letters, died on the 21st of September, 1832.
Sir Walter Scott is probably best known for his novels such as ‘Waverley’, ‘The Heart of Midlothian’, ‘Ivanhoe’ and ‘Rob Roy’, but there was more to the man than a’ that. In his day, he was regarded as one of the greatest writers and, although his popularity and influence have since waned, he is still seen as an important innovator and a key figure in the development of Scottish – and world – literature. He is renowned as the founder of the genre of the historical novel and, at the time of King George’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, Scott was probably the most famous of living Scotsmen. As the organiser of Geordie’s visit, Scott was heavily criticised for the tartan pageantry. Conjure up the image of the portly King in full Highland dress with his salmon-pink leggings and you can appreciate Scott’s sense of humour.
In keeping with that criticism, Scott's reputation has been the subject of intense scrutiny over the years and he has often been condemned for presenting a mythical, overly romantic image of Scotland. He is even credited with inventing tartan or at least being responsible for the ‘tartan tat’ and ‘shortbread tin’ history offered up to gullible tourists. Part of the disapproval is because the reviewers can’t see beyond his tales of medieval gallantry, romance and chivalry, but they ignore the fact that those were written purely to get him out of debt and it’s unreasonable that they be so critically focussed. Many others have a different view, including Virginia Woolf, who wrote of Scott’s novels in a 1924 essay in ‘The New Republic’ that, “what can one do when one has finished the last but wait a decent interval and then begin again upon the first.” Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Hugh Walpole were fans and disciples who acknowledged the influence of Scott. Tolstoy, Thackeray, Robert Louis Stevenson and John Buchan all owe a debt to Scott for the historical novel. It is difficult to argue with Buchan who wrote of ‘Ivanhoe’ being “a glittering pageant” or with Goethe, who called it “a wholly new art,” but Scott’s poetry and his novels set in 17th and 18th Century Scotland are his real legacy.
In ‘On the Historical Novel’, Alessandro Manzoni wrote that “It would be difficult to name, from among both modern and ancient works, many read more widely and with greater pleasure than the historical novels of Walter Scott.” Allan Massie, in his excellent 1994 novel of the life of Sir Walter Scott, ‘The Ragged Lion’, concludes that not only was Scott incomparably the greatest Scottish writer, but that his only rival amongst English novelists is Dickens. He also records that the biographer, Hesketh Pearson, wrote of Scott as “the noblest man of letters in history” and that “he was the only person within my knowledge whose greatness as a writer was matched by his goodness as a man.” Massie’s novel combines ‘imaginative plausibility with his own deep knowledge and love for Scott, and reveals the intimate thoughts a good and courageous man’.
Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh on the 15th of August, 1771. He went to the famed Edinburgh High School and took a law degree at Edinburgh University, after which he was apprenticed to his father, in 1786, and ‘called to the bar’ in 1792. He was appointed Sheriff Depute of the County of Selkirk in 1799 and, in 1806, became Principal Clerk to the Court of Session in Edinburgh. He began writing at the age of twenty-five and at first he translated works from German, before he moved on to poetry and novels. The versatile and prolific Scott also reviewed widely, edited others’ works, set up a theatre in Edinburgh, and in 1809, helped found the ‘Quarterly Review’. He famously set up a printing and publishing business with his friend James Ballantyne, and when that enterprise crashed, Scott accepted all the debts and, good man that he was, he set about paying them off by his writing.
Scott’s ‘Waverley’ novels were what established his reputation as a major international literary force, with the book of that title being one of the most significant books of the 19th Century. Scott used history as a means of showing how contemporary Scotland came to be what it was and as Thomas Carlyle identified, his talent lay in being able to remind us that historical figures were not abstractions, but men and women of flesh and blood, like the rest of us, and that events in the past were once in the future. Many have since followed Scott’s example of using completely fictional characters to present the lives and times of real-life historical figures, maintaining verisimilitude in a novel manner. The subtitle for ‘Waverley’ was ‘Tis Sixty Years Since’, which is a reference to the 1745 Jacobite Rising that took place in the lifetime of Scott’s father. As a result, Scott grew up in the company of men who had been ‘out’ in the Stuart cause. He was as close to that history as we are today to Vietnam or the Falkland’s conflict and was able to draw on those events to delight readers of his generation and the next, and the next...
One of Scott’s earliest creations was ‘Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field’, which is an historical romance in tetrameter, printed by J. Ballantyne and Co. for Archibald Constable and Co. and published in Edinburgh in 1808. One of the most famous quotations in English poetry is derived from Canto VI, XVII:
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!”
Another famous quote, which should be known to Scots the world over is from Scott’s long narrative poem, ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’:
“Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!”
Sir Walter Scott died on the 21st of September, 1832, and amongst the many tributes there stands on Princes Street in Edinburgh, the 61.1 metre high, Victorian Gothic spire, which was designed by George Meikle Kemp. It is a muckle, dirty, black monstrosity in need of a good clean, but the sentiment is what matters, eh.