Walter Scott genius

Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Walter Scott Signature

Walter Scott  (1771-1832)
Walter Scott Signature

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College Wynd, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland
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Abbotsford, Roxburghshire, Scotland
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Novels, poetry and history
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Revenge, the sweetest morsel to the mouth that ever was cooked in hell.

Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet was a Scottish historical novelist, poet, playwright, and historian. Many of his works remain classics of both English-language literature and of Scottish literature. Famous titles include The Lady of the Lake narrative poem and the novels Waverley, Old Mortality or The Tale of Old Mortality, Rob Roy, The Heart of Mid-Lothian, The Bride of Lammermoor, and Ivanhoe.

Although primarily remembered for his extensive literary works and his political engagement, Scott was an advocate, judge and legal administrator by profession, and throughout his career combined his writing and editing work with his daily occupation as Clerk of Session and Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire.

A prominent member of the Tory establishment in Edinburgh, Scott was an active member of the Highland Society, served a long term as President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1820–1832 and was a Vice President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 1827–1829.

Scott's knowledge of history, and his facility with literary technique, made him a seminal figure in the establishment of the historical novel genre, as well as an exemplar of European literary Romanticism.

He was created a baronet "of Abbotsford in the County of Roxburgh," Scotland, in the Baronetage of the United Kingdom on 22 April 1820, which title became extinct on the death of his son the 2nd Baronet in 1847.


Walter Scott was born on 15 August 1771, in a third-floor apartment on College Wynd in the Old Town, Edinburgh, a narrow alleyway leading from the Cowgate to the gates of the University of Edinburgh Old College. He was the ninth child six having died in infancy of Walter Scott 1729–1799, a member of a cadet branch of the Clan Scott and a Writer to the Signet, by his wife Anne Rutherford, a sister of Daniel Rutherford and a descendant of both the Clan Swinton and the Haliburton family the descent from which granted Walter's family the hereditary right of burial in Dryburgh Abbey. Walter was thus a cousin of the property developer James Burton d.1837, born "Haliburton," and of his son the architect Decimus Burton. Walter subsequently became a member of the Clarence Club, of which the Burtons were also members.


He survived a childhood bout of polio in 1773 that left him lame, a condition that would have a significant effect on his life and writing. To cure his lameness he was sent in 1773 to live in the rural Scottish Borders at his paternal grandparents' farm at Sandyknowe, adjacent to the ruin of Smailholm Tower, the earlier family home. Here he was taught to read by his aunt Jenny Scott, and learned from her the speech patterns and many of the tales and legends that later characterised much of his work. In January 1775 he returned to Edinburgh, and that summer went with his aunt Jenny to take spa treatment at Bath in Somerset, Southern England, where they lived at 6 South Parade. In the winter of 1776 he went back to Sandyknowe, with another attempt at a water cure at Prestonpans during the following summer.

Scott's childhood at Sandyknowes, in the shadow of Smailholm Tower, introduced him to the tales and folklore of the Scottish Borders

In 1778 Scott returned to Edinburgh for private education to prepare him for school and joined his family in their new house, one of the first to be built in George Square. In October 1779 he began at the Royal High School in Edinburgh in High School Yards. He was by then well able to walk and explore the city and the surrounding countryside. His reading included chivalric romances, poems, history and travel books. He was given private tuition by James Mitchell in arithmetic and writing, and learned from him the history of the Church of Scotland with emphasis on the Covenanters. In 1783 his parents, believing that he had outgrown his strength, sent him to stay for six months with his aunt Jenny at Kelso in the Scottish Borders: there he attended Kelso Grammar School where he met James Ballantyne and his brother John, who later became his business partners and printers.


Meeting with Blacklock and Burns

Scott began studying classics at the University of Edinburgh in November 1783, at the age of 12, a year or so younger than most of his fellow students. In March 1786, aged 15, he began an apprenticeship in his father's office to become a Writer to the Signet. At school and university Scott had become a friend of Adam Ferguson, whose father Professor Adam Ferguson hosted literary salons. Scott met the blind poet Thomas Blacklock, who lent him books and introduced him to the Ossian cycle of poems by James Macpherson. During the winter of 1786–87 the 15-year-old Scott met the Scots poet Robert Burns at one of these salons, their only meeting. When Burns noticed a print illustrating the poem "The Justice of the Peace" and asked who had written it, Scott alone named the author as John Langhorne, and was thanked by Burns. Scott describes this event in his memoirs where he whispers the answer to his friend Adam who tells Burns; another version of the event is described in Literary Beginnings. When it was decided that he would become a lawyer, he returned to the university to study law, first taking classes in moral philosophy under Dugald Stewart and universal history under Alexander Fraser Tytler in 1789–90. During this second spell at university Scott played a prominent role in student intellectual activities: he co-founded the Literary Society in 1789, and he was elected to the Speculative Society the following year, becoming librarian and secretary-treasurer the following year.

The Scott family's home in George Square, Edinburgh, from about 1778

After completing his studies in law, he became a lawyer in Edinburgh. As a lawyer's clerk he made his first visit to the Scottish Highlands directing an eviction. He was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1792. He had an unsuccessful love suit with Williamina Belsches of Fettercairn, who married Scott's friend Sir William Forbes, 7th Baronet. In February 1797, with the threat of a French invasion, Scott along with many of his friends joined the Royal Edinburgh Volunteer Light Dragoons, with which he served into the early 1800s, and was appointed quartermaster and secretary. The daily drill practices that year, starting at 5am, provide an indication of the determination with which this role was undertaken.

Start of literary career, marriage and family

Scott was prompted to embark on his literary career by the enthusiasm in Edinburgh during the 1790s for modern German literature. Recalling that period in 1827 Scott said that he 'was German-mad'. In 1796 he produced English versions of two poems by Gottfried August Bürger, Der wilde Jäger and Lenore, publishing them as The Chase, and William and Helen. Scott responded to the contemporaneous German interest in national identity, folk culture, and medieval literature. This linked up with his own developing passion for traditional ballads. One of his favourite books since childhood had been Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, and during the 1790s he engaged in research in manuscript collections and on Border 'raids' to collect ballads from oral performance. With the help of John Leyden he produced a two-volume collection Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border in 1802 containing 48 traditional ballads and two imitations apiece by Leyden and himself. Of the 48 traditional items, 26 were published for the first time. A greatly enlarged edition appeared in three volumes the following year. With many of the ballads Scott fused different versions to create more coherent texts, a practice he later repudiated. The Minstrelsy was the first, and most important, of a series of editorial projects over the following two decades, including the medieval romance Sir Tristrem which Scott wrongly assumed to have been produced by Thomas the Rhymer in 1804, the works of John Dryden 18 vols, 1808, and the works of Jonathan Swift 19 vols, 1814.

On a trip to the English Lake District with old college friends he met Charlotte Charpentier Anglicised to "Carpenter", a daughter of Jean Charpentier of Lyon in France, and a ward of Lord Downshire in Cumberland, an Anglican. After three weeks of courtship, Scott proposed and they were married on Christmas Eve 1797 in St Mary's Church, Carlisle in the nave of Carlisle Cathedral. After renting a house in Edinburgh's George Street, they moved to nearby South Castle Street. They had five children, of whom four survived by the time of Scott's death. His eldest son Sir Walter Scott, 2nd Baronet 1801–1847, inherited his father's estates and possessions: on 3 February 1825 he married Jane Jobson, only daughter of William Jobson of Lochore died 1822 by his wife Rachel Stuart died 1863, the heiress of Lochore and a niece of Lady Margaret Ferguson. In 1799 Scott was appointed Sheriff-Depute of the County of Selkirk, based in the Royal Burgh of Selkirk. In his early married days Scott had a decent living from his earnings as a lawyer, his salary as Sheriff-Depute, his wife's income, some revenue from his writing, and his share of his father's modest estate.

A copy of Scott's Minstrelsy, in the National Museum of Scotland

After Walter Jr was born in 1801, the Scotts moved to a spacious three-storey house at 39 North Castle Street, which remained as Scott's base in Edinburgh until 1826, when it was sold by the trustees appointed after his financial ruin. From 1798 Scott had spent the summers in a cottage at Lasswade, where he entertained guests including literary figures, and it was there that his career as an author began. There were nominal residency requirements for his position of Sheriff-Depute, and at first he stayed at a local inn during the circuit. In 1804 he ended his use of the Lasswade cottage and leased the substantial house of Ashestiel, 6 miles 9.7 km from Selkirk, was sited on the south bank of the River Tweed and incorporating an ancient tower house.

At Scott's insistence the first edition of the Minstrelsy was printed by his friend James Ballantyne at Kelso. In 1798 James had published Scott's version of Goethe's Erlkönig in his newspaper The Kelso Mail, and in 1799 he included it and the two Bürger translations in a small privately printed anthology Apology for Tales of Terror. In 1800 Scott suggested that Ballantyne set up business in Edinburgh and provided a loan for him to make the transition in 1802. In 1805 they became partners in the printing business, and from then until the financial crash of 1826 Scott's works were routinely printed by the firm.

The poet

Between 1805 and 1817 Scott produced five long narrative poems, each in six cantos, four shorter independently published poems, and many small metrical pieces. Until Lord Byron published the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in 1812 and followed them up with his exotic oriental verse narratives, Scott was by far the most popular poet of the time.

The Lay of the Last Minstrel 1805, in medieval romance form, grew out of Scott's plan to include a long original poem of his own in the second edition of the Minstrelsy: it would be 'a sort of Romance of Border Chivalry & inchantment'. He owed the distinctive irregular accentual four-beat metre to Coleridge's Christabel, which he had heard recited by John Stoddart it was not to be published until 1816. Scott was able to draw on his unrivalled familiarity with Border history and legend acquired from oral and written sources beginning in his childhood to present an energetic and highly-coloured picture of sixteenth-century Scotland which both captivated the general public and, with its voluminous notes, also addressed itself to the antiquarian student. The poem has a strong moral theme, as human pride is placed in the context of the last judgment with the introduction of a version of the 'Dies irae' at the end. The work was an immediate success with almost all the reviewers and with readers in general, going through five editions in one year. The most celebrated lines are those which open the final stanza:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
  This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned,
  From wandering on a foreign strand!—
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell.

Three years after The Lay Scott published Marmion 1808 telling a story of corrupt passions leading up to the disastrous climax of the Battle of Flodden in 1513. The main innovation involves the prefacing of each of the six cantos with an epistle from the author to a friend: William Stewart Rose, The Rev. John Marriot, William Erskine, James Skene, George Ellis, and Richard Heber: the epistles develop themes of moral positives and the special delights imparted by art. In an unprecedented move, the publisher Archibald Constable purchased the copyright of the poem for a thousand guineas at the beginning of 1807 when only the first epistle had been completed. Constable's faith was justified by the sales: the three editions published in 1808 sold 8,000 copies. The verse of Marmion is less striking than that of The Lay, with the epistles in iambic tetrameters and the narrative in tetrameters with frequent trimeters. The reception by the reviewers was less favourable than that accorded The Lay: style and plot were both found faulty, the epistles did not link up with the narrative, there was too much antiquarian pedantry, and Marmion's character was immoral. The most familiar lines in the poem sum up one of its main themes: 'O what a tangled web we weave,/ When first we practice to deceive!'

Scott's meteoric poetic career reached its zenith with his third long narrative The Lady of the Lake 1810 which sold no fewer than 20,000 copies in the first year. The reviewers were very largely favourable, finding that the defects they had noted in Marmion were largely absent from the new work. In some ways it is a more conventional poem than its predecessors: the narrative is entirely in iambic tetrameters, and the story of the transparently disguised James V King of Scots 1513‒42 is predictable: Coleridge wrote to Wordsworth: 'The movement of the Poem is between a sleeping Canter and a Marketwoman's trot—but it is endless—I seem never to have made any way—I never remember a narrative poem in which I felt the sense of Progress so languid'. But the metrical uniformity is relieved by frequent songs and the Perthshire Highland setting is presented as an enchanted landscape, which resulted in a phenomenal increase in the local tourist trade. Moreover the poem touches on a theme that was to be central to the Waverley Novels, the clash between neighbouring societies in different stages of development.

Sir Walter Scott, novelist and poet – painted by Sir William Allan

The remaining two long narrative poems, Rokeby 1813, set in the Yorkshire estate of that name belonging to Scott's friend J. B. S. Morritt during the Civil War period, and The Lord of the Isles 1815, set in early fourteenth-century Scotland and culminating in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Both works had generally favourable receptions and sold well but without rivalling the enormous success of The Lady of the Lake. Scott also produced four minor narrative or semi-narrative poems between 1811 and 1817: The Vision of Don Roderick 1811; The Bridal of Triermain published anonymously in 1813; The Field of Waterloo 1815; and Harold the Dauntless published anonymously in 1817.

Throughout his creative life Scott was an active reviewer. Although himself a Tory he reviewed for The Edinburgh Review between 1803 and 1806, but that journal's advocacy of peace with Napoleon led him to cancel his subscription in 1808. The following year, at the height of his poetic career, he was instrumental in the establishment of a Tory rival, The Quarterly Review to which he contributed reviews for the rest of his life.

In 1813 Scott was offered the position of Poet Laureate. He declined, due to concerns that "such an appointment would be a poisoned chalice," as the Laureateship had fallen into disrepute, due to the decline in quality of work suffered by previous title holders, "as a succession of poetasters had churned out conventional and obsequious odes on royal occasions." He sought advice from the 4th Duke of Buccleuch, who counseled him to retain his literary independence, and the position went to Scott's friend, Robert Southey.

The novelist

The beginning of Scott's career as a novelist is attended with uncertainty. It is thought most likely that he began a narrative with an English setting in 1808 and laid it aside. The success of his Highland narrative poem The Lady of the Lake in 1810 seems to have put it into his head to resume the narrative and have his hero Edward Waverley journey to Scotland. Although Waverley was announced for publication at that stage, it was again laid and not resumed until late 1813 and completed for publication in 1814. Only a thousand copies were printed, but the work was an immediate success and 3,000 more copies were produced in two further editions the same year. Waverley turned out to be the first of 27 novels eight of them published in pairs, and by the time the sixth of them, Rob Roy, was published the print run for the first edition had been increased to 10,000 copies, thereafter the norm.

Given Scott's established status as a poet, and the tentative nature of Waverley 's coming into being, it is not surprising that he followed a common practice at the period and published the work anonymously. Until his financial ruin in 1826 he continued this practice, and the novels mostly appeared as 'By the Author of Waverley' or variants thereof or as Tales of My Landlord. It is not clear why he chose to do this no fewer than eleven reasons have been suggested, especially since it was a fairly open secret, but as he himself said, with Shylock, 'such was my humour'.

Scott was an almost exclusively historical novelist. Of his 27 novels only one Saint Ronan's Well has an entirely modern setting. The dates of the action in the others range from 1794 in The Antiquary back to 1096 or 1097, the time of the First Crusade, in Count Robert of Paris. Sixteen take place in Scotland. The first nine, from Waverley 1814 to A Legend of Montrose 1819, all have Scottish locations, and 17th- or 18th-century settings. Scott was better versed in his material than anyone: he was able to draw on oral tradition as well as a wide range of written sources in his ever-expanding library many of them rare, and some of them unique copies. In general it is these pre-1820 novels that have attracted the attention of modern academic critics—especially: Waverley with its presentation of those 1745 Jacobites drawn from the Highland clans as obsolete and fanatical idealists; Old Mortality 1816 with its treatment of the 1679 Covenanters as fanatical and in many cases ridiculous which prompted John Galt to produce a contrasting picture in his novel Ringan Gilhaize in 1823; The Heart of Mid-Lothian 1818 with its low-born heroine Jeanie Deans who makes a perilous journey to Windsor in 1737 to secure a promise of a royal pardon for her sister, falsely accused of infanticide; and the tragic The Bride of Lammermoor 1819, with its stern representative of a declined aristocratic family Edgar Ravenswood and his fiancée as the victims of the wife of an upstart lawyer in a time of political power-struggling preceding the Act of Union in 1707.

A Legend of Montrose, illustration from the 1872 edition

In 1820, in a bold move, Scott shifted both period and location for Ivanhoe 1820 to 12th-century England. This meant that he was dependent on a limited range of sources, all of them printed: he had to bring together material from different centuries and also invent an artificial form of speech based on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. The result is as much myth as history, but the novel remains his best-known work, the most likely to be encountered by the general reader. Eight of the subsequent seventeen novels also have medieval settings, though most of them are set towards the end of the period, for which Scott had a better supply of contemporaneous sources. His familiarity with Elizabethan and 17th-century English literature, partly resulting from his editorial work on pamphlets and other minor publications, meant that four of his works set in the England of that period—Kenilworth 1821, The Fortunes of Nigel and Peveril of the Peak 1821, and Woodstock 1826—are able to present rich pictures of their societies. The most generally esteemed of Scott's later fictional creations, though, are three short stories: a supernatural narrative in Scots, 'Wandering Willie's Tale' in Redgauntlet 1824, and 'The Highland Widow' and 'The Two Drovers' in Chronicles of the Canongate 1827.

As with any major writer there is no end to the complexity, subtlety, and contestability of Scott's work, but certain central linked themes can be observed recurring in most of his novels.

Crucial to Scott's historical thinking is the concept that very different societies can be observed moving through the same stages as they develop, and also that humanity is basically unchanging, or as he puts it in the first chapter of Waverley that there are 'passions common to men in all stages of society, and which have alike agitated the human heart, whether it throbbed under the steel corslet of the fifteenth century, the brocaded coat of the eighteenth, or the blue frock and white dimity waistcoat of the present day'. It was one of Scott's main achievements to give lively and detailed pictures of different stages of Scottish, British, and European society while making it clear that for all the differences in the forms they took the human passions were the same as those of his own age. His readers could therefore appreciate the depiction of an unfamiliar society while having no difficulty in relating to the characters.

"Edgar and Lucie at Mermaiden's well" by Charles Robert Leslie (1886), after Sir Walter Scott's Bride of Lammermoor. Lucie is wearing a full plaid.

Scott is fascinated by striking moments of transition between stages in societies. In a discussion of his early novels Coleridge observed that derive their 'long-sustained interest ' from 'the contest between the two great moving Principles of social Humanity—religious adherence to the Past and the Ancient, the Desire & the admiration of Permanence, on the one hand; and the Passion for increase of Knowledge, for Truth as the offspring of Reason, in short, the mighty Instincts of Progression and Free-agency, on the other'. This is evident, for example, in Waverley as the hero is captivated by the romantic allure of the Jacobite cause embodied in Bonnie Prince Charlie and his followers before accepting that the time for such enthusiasms has gone and accepting the more rational, if humdrum, reality of Hanoverian Britain. Another example can be found in 15th-century Europe in the yielding of the old chivalric worldview of Charles Duke of Burgundy to the Machiavellian pragmatism of Louis XI. Scott is intrigued by the way that different stages of societal development can exist side by side in one country. When Waverley has his first experience of Highland ways after a raid on his Lowland host's cattle it 'seemed like a dream that these deeds of violence should be familiar to men's minds, and currently talked of, as falling with the common order of things, and happening daily in the immediate neighbourhood, without his having crossed the seas, and while he was yet in the otherwise well-ordered island of Great Britain'. A more complex version of this situation can be found in Scott's second novel, Guy Mannering 1815, which, 'set in 1781‒2, offers no simple opposition: the Scotland represented in the novel is at once backward and advanced, traditional and modern—it is a country in varied stages of progression in which there are many social subsets, each with its own laws and customs.'

Scott's process of composition can be traced through the manuscripts which have mostly been preserved, the more fragmentary sets of proofs, his correspondence, and publisher's records. He did not create detailed plans for his stories, and the remarks by the figure of 'the Author' in the Introductory Epistle to The Fortunes of Nigel probably reflect his own experience: 'I think there is a dæmon who seats himself on the feather of my pen when I begin to write, and leads it astray from the purpose. Characters expand under my hand; incidents are multiplied; the story lingers, while the materials increase—my regular mansion turns out a Gothic anomaly, and the work is complete long before I have attained the point I proposed'. Nevertheless, the manuscripts rarely show major deletions or changes of direction, and it is clear that Scott was able to keep control of his narrative. That was important, because as soon as he had made fair progress with a novel he would start sending batches of manuscript to be copied to preserve his anonymity, and the copies were sent to be set up in type as usual at the time the compositors would supply the punctuation. He received proofs, also in batches, and made many changes at that stage, but almost always these were local corrections and enhancements.

As the number of novels accumulated they were from time to time republished in small collections: Novels and Tales 1819: Waverley to A Tale of Montrose; Historical Romances 1822: Ivanhoe to Kenilworth; Novels and Romances 1824 : The Pirate to Quentin Durward; and two series of Tales and Romances 1827: St Ronan's Well to Woodstock; 1833: Chronicles of the Canongate to Castle Dangerous. In the last years of his life Scott marked up interleaved copies of these collected editions to produce a final version of what were now officially called the Waverley Novels: this is often referred to as the 'Magnum Opus' or 'Magnum Edition'. Scott provided each novel with an introduction and notes, and he made mostly small and piecemeal adjustments to the text. Issued in 48 well-produced monthly volumes between June 1829 and May 1833 at the modest price of five shillings 25p these were an innovative, and highly profitable, marketing enterprise aimed at a wide readership: the print run was an astonishing 30,000.

In his 'General Preface' to the 'Magnum Edition' Scott wrote that one factor prompting him to resume work on the manuscript of Waverley in 1813 had been a desire to do for Scotland what had been achieved in the fiction of Maria Edgeworth 'whose Irish characters have gone so far to make the English familiar with the character of their gay and kind-hearted neighbours of Ireland, that she may be truly said to have done more towards completing the Union, than perhaps all the legislative enactments by which it has been followed up '. Most of Scott's readers were English: with Quentin Durward 1823 and Woodstock 1826, for example, some 8000 of the 10,000 copies of the first edition went to London. In the Scottish novels the lower-class characters normally speak Scots, but Scott is careful not to make the Scots too dense, so that those unfamiliar with the language can follow the gist without understanding every word. Some have also argued that, although Scott was formally a supporter of the Union with England and Ireland his novels have a strong nationalist subtext for readers attuned to the appropriate wavelength.

Scott's embarkation on his new career as a novelist in 1814 did not mean that he abandoned poetry. The Waverley Novels contain much original verse, including familiar songs such as 'Proud Maisie' from The Heart of Mid-Lothian Ch. 41 and 'Look not thou on Beauty's charming' from The Bride of Lammermoor, Ch. 3. In most of the novels Scott preceded each chapter with an epigram or 'motto': most of these are in verse, and many are of his own composition, often imitating other writers such as Beaumont and Fletcher.

Recovery of the Crown Jewels, baronetcy and ceremonial pageantry

Prompted by Scott, the Prince Regent the future George IV gave Scott and other officials permission in a Royal Warrant dated 28 October 1817 to conduct a search for the Crown Jewels "Honours of Scotland". During the years of the Protectorate under Cromwell the Crown Jewels had been hidden away, but had subsequently been used to crown Charles II. They were not used to crown subsequent monarchs, but were regularly taken to sittings of Parliament, to represent the absent monarch, until the Act of Union 1707. Thereafter, the honours were stored in Edinburgh Castle, but the large locked box in which they were stored was not opened for more than 100 years, and stories circulated that they had been "lost" or removed. On 4 February 1818, Scott and a small team of military men opened the box, and "unearthed" the honours from the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle. On 19 August 1818 through Scott's effort, his friend Adam Ferguson was appointed Deputy Keeper of the "Scottish Regalia." The Scottish patronage system swung into action and after elaborate negotiations the Prince Regent granted Scott the title of baronet: in April 1820 he received the baronetcy in London, becoming Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet.

George IV landing at Leith in 1822

After George's accession to the throne, the city council of Edinburgh invited Scott, at the sovereign's behest, to stage-manage the 1822 visit of King George IV to Scotland. 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 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. Probably fortified by his vivid depiction of the pageant staged for the reception of Queen Elizabeth in Kenilworth he, along with his "production team," mounted what in modern days could be termed a PR event, in which the King was dressed in tartan, and was greeted by his people, many of whom were also dressed in similar tartan ceremonial dress. This form of dress, proscribed after the 1745 rebellion against the English, became one of the seminal, potent and ubiquitous symbols of Scottish identity.

Financial problems and death

In 1825, a UK-wide banking crisis resulted in the collapse of the Ballantyne printing business, of which Scott was the only partner with a financial interest; the company's debts of £130,000 equivalent to £10,700,000 in 2019 caused his very public ruin. Rather than declare himself bankrupt, or to accept any kind of financial support from his many supporters and admirers including the king himself, he placed his house and income in a trust belonging to his creditors, and determined to write his way out of debt. To add to his burdens, his wife Charlotte died in 1826.

Whether in spite of these events, or because of them, Scott kept up his prodigious output. Between 1826 and 1832 he produced six novels, two short stories and two plays, eleven works or volumes of non-fiction, and a journal, in addition to several unfinished works. The nonfiction works included the Life of Napoleon Buonaparte in 1827, two volumes of the History of Scotland in 1829 and 1830, and four installments of the series entitled Tales of a Grandfather – Being Stories Taken From Scottish History, written one per year over the period 1828–1831, among several others. Finally, Scott had recently been inspired by the diaries of Samuel Pepys and Lord Byron, and he began keeping a journal over the period, which, however, would not be published until 1890, as The Journal of Sir Walter Scott.

Sir Walter Scott's grave at Dryburgh Abbey – the largest tomb is that of Sir Walter and Lady Scott.

By then Scott's health was failing, and on 29 October 1831, in a vain search for improvement, he set off on a voyage to Malta and Naples on board HMS Barham, a frigate put at his disposal by the Admiralty. He was welcomed and celebrated wherever he went, but on his journey home he had a final stroke and was transported back to die at Abbotsford on 21 September 1832.

Scott was buried in Dryburgh Abbey, where his wife had earlier been interred. Lady Scott had been buried as an Episcopalian; at Scott's own funeral three ministers of the Church of Scotland officiated at Abbotsford and the service at Dryburgh was conducted by an Episcopal clergyman.

Although Scott died owing money, his novels continued to sell, and the debts encumbering his estate were discharged shortly after his death.


Scott was raised as a Presbyterian in the Church of Scotland. He was ordained as an elder in Duddingston Kirk in 1806, and sat in the General Assembly for a time as representative elder of the burgh of Selkirk. In adult life he also adhered to the Scottish Episcopal Church: he seldom attended church but read the Book of Common Prayer services in family worship.


Scott's father was a Freemason, being a member of Lodge St David, No.36 Edinburgh, and Scott also became a Freemason in his father's Lodge in 1801, albeit only after the death of his father.


As a result of his early polio infection, Scott had a pronounced limp. He was described in 1820 as 'tall, well formed except for one ankle and foot which made him walk lamely, neither fat nor thin, with forehead very high, nose short, upper lip long and face rather fleshy, complexion fresh and clear, eyes very blue, shrewd and penetrating, with hair now silvery white'. Although a determined walker, on horseback he experienced greater freedom of movement.

Abbotsford House

When Scott was a boy, he sometimes travelled with his father from Selkirk to Melrose, where some of his novels are set. At a certain spot, the old gentleman would stop the carriage and take his son to a stone on the site of the Battle of Melrose 1526.

During the summers from 1804, Scott made his home at the large house of Ashestiel, on the south bank of the River Tweed, 6 miles 9.7 km north of Selkirk. When his lease on this property expired in 1811, he bought Cartley Hole Farm, downstream on the Tweed nearer Melrose. The farm had the nickname of "Clarty Hole," and Scott renamed it "Abbotsford" after a neighbouring ford used by the monks of Melrose Abbey. Following a modest enlargement of the original farmhouse in 1811–12, massive expansions took place in 1816–19 and 1822–24. Scott described the resulting building as 'a sort of romance in Architecture' and 'a kind of Conundrum Castle to be sure'. With his architects William Atkinson and Edward Blore Scott was a pioneer of the Scottish Baronial style of architecture, and Abbotsford is festooned with turrets and stepped gabling. Through windows enriched with the insignia of heraldry the sun shone on suits of armour, trophies of the chase, a library of more than 9,000 volumes, fine furniture, and still finer pictures. Panelling of oak and cedar and carved ceilings relieved by coats of arms in their correct colours added to the beauty of the house.

Abbotsford House

It is estimated that the building cost Scott more than £25,000 equivalent to £2,100,000 in 2019. More land was purchased until Scott owned nearly 1,000 acres 4.0 km2. In 1817 as part of the land purchases Scott bought the nearby mansion-house of Toftfield for his friend Adam Ferguson to live in along with his brothers and sisters and on which, at the ladies' request, he bestowed the name of Huntlyburn. Ferguson commissioned Sir David Wilkie to paint the Scott family resulting in the painting The Abbotsford Family in which Scott is seated with his family represented as a group of country folk. Ferguson is standing to the right with the feather in his cap and Thomas Scott, Scott's Uncle, is behind. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1818.

Abbotsford later gave its name to the Abbotsford Club, founded in 1834 in memory of Sir Walter Scott.


Later assessment

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 19th 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 20th century. For example, in his classic study Aspects of the Novel 1927, E. M. Forster harshly criticized Scott's clumsy and slapdash writing style, "flat" characters, and thin plots. In contrast, the novels of Scott's contemporary Jane Austen, once appreciated only by the discerning few including, as it happened, Scott himself rose steadily in critical esteem, though Austen, as a female writer, was still faulted for her narrow "feminine" choice of subject matter, which, unlike Scott, avoided the grand historical themes traditionally viewed as masculine.

Nevertheless, Scott's importance as an innovator continued to be recognized. He was acclaimed as the inventor of the genre of the modern historical novel which others trace to Jane Porter, whose work in the genre predates Scott's and the inspiration for enormous numbers of imitators and genre writers both in Britain and on the European continent. In the cultural sphere, Scott's Waverley novels played a significant part in the movement begun with James Macpherson's Ossian cycle in rehabilitating the public perception of the Scottish Highlands and its culture, which had been formerly been viewed by the southern mind as a barbaric breeding ground of hill bandits, religious fanaticism, and Jacobite rebellions. Scott served as chairman of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and was also a member of the Royal Celtic Society. His own contribution to the reinvention of Scottish culture was enormous, even though his re-creations of the customs of the Highlands were fanciful at times. Through the medium of Scott's novels, the violent religious and political conflicts of the country's recent past could be seen as belonging to history—which Scott defined, as the subtitle of Waverley "'Tis Sixty Years Since" indicates, as something that happened at least 60 years ago. His advocacy of objectivity and moderation and his strong repudiation of political violence on either side also had a strong, though unspoken, contemporary resonance in an era when many conservative English speakers lived in mortal fear of a revolution in the French style on British soil. Scott's orchestration of King George IV's visit to Scotland, in 1822, was a pivotal event intended to inspire a view of his home country that, in his view, accentuated the positive aspects of the past while allowing the age of quasi-medieval blood-letting to be put to rest, while envisioning a more useful, peaceful future.

The Abbotsford Family by Sir David Wilkie, 1817, depicting Scott and his family dressed as country folk, with his wife and two daughters dressed as milkmaids

After Scott's work had been essentially unstudied for many decades, a revival of critical interest began in the middle of the 20th century. While F. R. Leavis had disdained Scott, seeing him as a thoroughly bad novelist and a thoroughly bad influence The Great Tradition , György Lukács The Historical Novel and David Daiches Scott's Achievement as a Novelist offered a Marxian political reading of Scott's fiction that generated a great deal of genuine interest in his work. These were followed in 1966 by a major thematic analysis covering most of the novels by Francis R. Hart Scott's Novels: The Plotting of Historic Survival. Scott has proved particularly responsive to Postmodern approaches, most notably to the concept of the interplay of multiple voices highlighted by Mikhail Bakhtin, as suggested by the title of the volume with selected papers from the Fourth International Scott Conference held in Edinburgh in 1991, Scott in Carnival. Scott is now increasingly recognised not only as the principal inventor of the historical novel and a key figure in the development of Scottish and world literature, but also as a writer of a depth and subtlety who challenges his readers as well as entertaining them.

Memorials and commemoration

During his lifetime, Scott's portrait was painted by Sir Edwin Landseer and fellow Scots Sir Henry Raeburn and James Eckford Lauder. In Edinburgh, the 61.1-metre-tall Victorian Gothic spire of the Scott Monument was designed by George Meikle Kemp. It was completed in 1844, 12 years after Scott's death, and dominates the south side of Princes Street. Scott is also commemorated on a stone slab in Makars' Court, outside The Writers' Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, along with other prominent Scottish writers; quotes from his work are also visible on the Canongate Wall of the Scottish Parliament building in Holyrood. There is a tower dedicated to his memory on Corstorphine Hill in the west of the city and Edinburgh's Waverley railway station, opened in 1854, takes its name from his first novel.

In Glasgow, Walter Scott's Monument dominates the centre of George Square, the main public square in the city. Designed by David Rhind in 1838, the monument features a large column topped by a statue of Scott. There is a statue of Scott in New York City's Central Park.

Numerous Masonic Lodges have been named after Scott and his novels. For example: Lodge Sir Walter Scott, No. 859 Perth, Australia and Lodge Waverley, No. 597, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Sketch of Scott c.1800 by an unknown artist

The annual Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was created in 2010 by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, whose ancestors were closely linked to Sir Walter Scott. At £25,000, it is one of the largest prizes in British literature. The award has been presented at Scott's historic home, Abbotsford House.

Scott has been credited with rescuing the Scottish banknote. In 1826, there was outrage in Scotland at the attempt of Parliament to prevent the production of banknotes of less than five pounds. Scott wrote a series of letters to the Edinburgh Weekly Journal under the pseudonym "Malachi Malagrowther" for retaining the right of Scottish banks to issue their own banknotes. This provoked such a response that the Government was forced to relent and allow the Scottish banks to continue printing pound notes. This campaign is commemorated by his continued appearance on the front of all notes issued by the Bank of Scotland. The image on the 2007 series of banknotes is based on the portrait by Henry Raeburn.

During and immediately after World War I there was a movement spearheaded by President Wilson and other eminent people to inculcate patriotism in American school children, especially immigrants, and to stress the American connection with the literature and institutions of the "mother country" of Great Britain, using selected readings in middle school textbooks. Scott's Ivanhoe continued to be required reading for many American high school students until the end of the 1950s.

A bust of Scott is in the Hall of Heroes of the National Wallace Monument in Stirling. Twelve streets in Vancouver, British Columbia are named after Scott's books or characters.

Literature by other authors

Letitia Elizabeth Landon was a great admirer of Scott and, on his death, she wrote two tributes to him: On Walter Scott in the Literary Gazette, and Sir Walter Scott in Fisher's Drawing Room Scrap Book, 1833. Towards the end of her life she began a series called The Female Picture Gallery with a series of character analyses based on the women in Scott's works.

In Charles Baudelaire's La Fanfarlo 1847, poet Samuel Cramer says of Scott:

Oh that tedious author, a dusty exhumer of chronicles! A fastidious mass of descriptions of bric-a-brac ... and castoff things of every sort, armor, tableware, furniture, gothic inns, and melodramatic castles where lifeless mannequins stalk about, dressed in leotards.

In the novella, however, Cramer proves as deluded a romantic as any hero in one of Scott's novels.

In Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall 1848 the narrator, Gilbert Markham, brings an elegantly bound copy of Marmion as a present to the independent "tenant of Wildfell Hall" Helen Graham whom he is courting, and is mortified when she insists on paying for it.

In a speech delivered at Salem, Massachusetts, on 6 January 1860, to raise money for the families of the executed abolitionist John Brown and his followers, Ralph Waldo Emerson calls Brown an example of true chivalry, which consists not in noble birth but in helping the weak and defenseless and declares that "Walter Scott would have delighted to draw his picture and trace his adventurous career."

In his 1870 memoir, Army Life in a Black Regiment, New England abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson later editor of Emily Dickinson, described how he wrote down and preserved Negro spirituals or "shouts" while serving as a colonel in the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first authorized Union Army regiment recruited from freedmen during the Civil War. He wrote that he was "a faithful student of the Scottish ballads, and had always envied Sir Walter the delight of tracing them out amid their own heather, and of writing them down piecemeal from the lips of aged crones."

The Scott Monument on Edinburgh's Princes Street

According to his daughter Eleanor, Scott was "an author to whom Karl Marx again and again returned, whom he admired and knew as well as he did Balzac and Fielding."

In his 1883 Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain satirized the impact of Scott's writings, declaring with humorous hyperbole that Scott "had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war," that he is "in great measure responsible for the war." He goes on to coin the term "Sir Walter Scott disease," which he blames for the South's lack of advancement. Twain also targeted Scott in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he names a sinking boat the "Walter Scott" 1884; and, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court 1889, the main character repeatedly utters "great Scott" as an oath; by the end of the book, however, he has become absorbed in the world of knights in armor, reflecting Twain's ambivalence on the topic.

The idyllic Cape Cod retreat of suffragists Verena Tarrant and Olive Chancellor in Henry James' The Bostonians 1886 is called Marmion, evoking what James considered the Quixotic idealism of these social reformers.

In To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Ramsey glances at her husband:

He was reading something that moved him very much ... He was tossing the pages over. He was acting it – perhaps he was thinking himself the person in the book. She wondered what book it was. Oh, it was one of old Sir Walter's she saw, adjusting the shade of her lamp so that the light fell on her knitting. For Charles Tansley had been saying (she looked up as if she expected to hear the crash of books on the floor above) – had been saying that people don't read Scott any more. Then her husband thought, "That's what they’ll say of me;" so he went and got one of those books ... It fortified him. He clean forgot all the little rubs and digs of the evening... and his being so irritable with his wife and so touchy and minding when they passed his books over as if they didn't exist at all ...[Scott's] feeling for straight forward simple things, these fishermen, the poor old crazed creature in Mucklebackit's cottage [in The Antiquary] made him feel so vigorous, so relieved of something that he felt roused and triumphant and could not choke back his tears. Raising the book a little to hide his face he let them fall and shook his head from side to side and forgot himself completely (but not one or two reflections about morality and French novels and English novels and Scott's hands being tied but his view perhaps being as true as the other view), forgot his own bothers and failures completely in poor Steenie's drowning and Mucklebackit's sorrow (that was Scott at his best) and the astonishing delight and feeling of vigor that it gave him. Well, let them improve upon that, he thought as he finished the chapter ... The whole of life did not consist in going to bed with a woman, he thought, returning to Scott and Balzac, to the English novel and the French novel.

In 1951, science-fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote Breeds There a Man...?, a short story with a title alluding vividly to Scott's The Lay of the Last Minstrel 1805.

In To Kill a Mockingbird 1960, the protagonist's brother is made to read Walter Scott's book Ivanhoe to the ailing Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose.

In Mother Night 1961 by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., memoirist and playwright Howard W. Campbell Jr. prefaces his text with the six lines beginning "Breathes there the man..."

In Knights of the Sea 2010 by Canadian author Paul Marlowe, there are several quotes from and references to Marmion, as well as an inn named after Ivanhoe, and a fictitious Scott novel entitled The Beastmen of Glen Glammoch.

Scott and the other arts

Although Scott's own appreciation of music was basic, to say the least, he had a considerable influence on composers. Some ninety operas based to a greater or lesser extent on his poems and novels have been traced, the most celebrated being Rossini's La donna del lago 1819 and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor 1835 . Many of his songs were set to music by composers throughout the nineteenth century. Seven songs from The Lady of the Lake were set, in German translations, by Schubert, one of them being 'Ellens dritter Gesang' popularly known as 'Schubert's Ave Maria', and three lyrics, also in translation, by Beethoven in his Twenty-Five Scottish Songs, Op. 108. Other notable musical responses include three overtures: Waverley 1828 and Rob Roy 1831 by Berlioz, and The Land of the Mountain and the Flood 1887, alluding to The Lay of the Last Minstrel by Hamish MacCunn.

Sir Walter Scott by Robert Scott Moncrieff.

The Waverley Novels are full of eminently paintable scenes and many nineteenth-century artists responded to the stimulus. Among the outstanding examples of paintings of Scott subjects are: Richard Parkes Bonington's Amy Robsart and the Earl of Leicester c. 1827 from Kenilworth in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Delacroix's L'Enlèvement de Rebecca 1846 from Ivanhoe in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Millais's The Bride of Lammermoor 1878 in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.



The Waverley Novels is the title given to the long series of Scott novels released from 1814 to 1832 which takes its name from the first novel, Waverley. The following is a chronological list of the entire series:

  • 1814: Waverley
  • 1815: Guy Mannering
  • 1816: The Antiquary
  • 1816: The Black Dwarf and Old Mortality or The Tale of Old Mortality – the 1st instalment from the subset series, Tales of My Landlord
  • 1817: Rob Roy
  • 1818: The Heart of Mid-Lothian – the 2nd instalment from the subset series, Tales of My Landlord
  • 1819: The Bride of Lammermoor and A Legend of Montrose or A Legend of the Wars of Montrose – the 3rd instalment from the subset series, Tales of My Landlord
  • 1820: Ivanhoe
  • 1820: The Monastery
  • 1820: The Abbot
  • 1821: Kenilworth
  • 1822: The Pirate
  • 1822: The Fortunes of Nigel
  • 1822: Peveril of the Peak
  • 1823: Quentin Durward
  • 1824: St. Ronan's Well or Saint Ronan's Well
  • 1824: Redgauntlet
  • 1825: The Betrothed and The Talisman – a subset series, Tales of the Crusaders
  • 1826: Woodstock
  • 1827: Chronicles of the Canongate — containing two short stories 'The Highland Widow' and 'The Two Drovers' and a novel The Surgeon's Daughter
  • 1828: The Fair Maid of Perth – the 2nd instalment from the subset series, Chronicles of the Canongate
  • 1829: Anne of Geierstein
  • 1832: Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous – the 4th instalment from the subset series, Tales of My Landlord

Other novels:

  • 1831–1832: The Siege of Malta – a finished novel published posthumously in 2008
  • 1832: Bizarro – an unfinished novel or novella published posthumously in 2008


Many of the short poems or songs released by Scott or later anthologized were originally not separate pieces but parts of longer poems interspersed throughout his novels, tales, and dramas.

  • 1796: The Chase, and William and Helen: Two Ballads, translated from the German of Gottfried Augustus Bürger
  • 1800: Glenfinlas
  • 1802–1803: Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border
  • 1805: The Lay of the Last Minstrel
  • 1806: Ballads and Lyrical Pieces
  • 1808: Marmion
  • 1810: The Lady of the Lake
  • 1811: The Vision of Don Roderick
  • 1813: The Bridal of Triermain
  • 1813: Rokeby
  • 1815: The Field of Waterloo
  • 1815: The Lord of the Isles
  • 1817: Harold the Dauntless

Short stories

  • 1827: "The Highland Widow" and "The Two Drovers" see Chronicles of the Canongate above
  • 1828: "My Aunt Margaret's Mirror," "The Tapestried Chamber," and "Death of the Laird's Jock" – from the series The Keepsake Stories


  • 1799: Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand: A Tragedy – an English-language translation of the 1773 German-language play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe entitled Götz von Berlichingen
  • 1822: Halidon Hill
  • 1823: MacDuff's Cross
  • 1830: The Doom of Devorgoil
  • 1830: Auchindrane


  • 1814–1817: The Border Antiquities of England and Scotland – a work co-authored by Luke Clennell and John Greig with Scott's contribution consisting of the substantial introductory essay, originally published in 2 volumes from 1814 to 1817
  • 1815–1824: Essays on Chivalry, Romance, and Drama – a supplement to the 1815–1824 editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica
  • 1816: Paul's Letters to his Kinsfolk
  • 1819–1826: Provincial Antiquities of Scotland
  • 1821–1824: Lives of the Novelists
  • 1825–1832: The Journal of Sir Walter Scott — first published in 1890
  • 1826: The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther
  • 1827: The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte
  • 1828: Religious Discourses. By a Layman
  • 1828: Tales of a Grandfather; Being Stories Taken from Scottish History – the 1st instalment from the series, Tales of a Grandfather
  • 1829: The History of Scotland: Volume I
  • 1829: Tales of a Grandfather; Being Stories Taken from Scottish History – the 2nd instalment from the series, Tales of a Grandfather
  • 1830: The History of Scotland: Volume II
  • 1830: Tales of a Grandfather; Being Stories Taken from Scottish History – the 3rd instalment from the series, Tales of a Grandfather
  • 1830: Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft
  • 1831: Tales of a Grandfather; Being Stories Taken from the History of France – the 4th instalment from the series, Tales of a Grandfather
  • 1831: Tales of a Grandfather: The History of France Second Series — unfinished; published 1996

More facts

Gender: Male
Best Known For: Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Waverley, Old Mortality, The Heart of Mid-Lothian and The Bride of Lammermoor,
Fulfilled his Potential: Yes
Religion: Presbyterianism
Number of spouses: 1
First Marriage To: Charlotte Carpenter
Children: 5
Children names: Sir Walter Scott, 2nd Baronet
Father’s Name: Walter Scott
Father’s Occupation: Member of the cadet branch of the Clan Scott
Mother’s Name: Anne Rutherford
Citizen Of: Scotland
Museums: Abbotsford - The Home of Sir Walter Scott

Lights Out (1946-1952)

The Heart of Midlothian (1914)

Ivanhoe (1913)

Walter Scott
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