On This Day – 250 Years of Walter Scott

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In a first-time departure from our celebration of 200th anniversaries here on ‘On This Day’, we celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Sir Walter Scott, Dr Anna Fancett explores the formation of his creative identity and imagination, and introduces the Walter Scott 250 programme of events for 2021. See here for Anna’s previous On This Day post on Scott’s 1821 novel, The Pirate.

See all posts in the ‘On This Day’ series here.

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Walter Scott is a figure of firsts. Although the longstanding claims that he is the father of the historical novel and the creator of a romanticised view of Scotland have been challenged in recent years,[1] it is undeniable that his oeuvre began a change in literature that snowballed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leaving the literary landscape completely altered. This all began with the birth of Walter Scott on the 15th August 1771, two hundred and fifty years ago today.

Walter Scott grew up to become a poet and author who published some of the most popular and influential literary works of the Romantic period. He began publishing in the 1790s with translations of ballads from German, followed by his own compositions. His first major work, however, was his 1802 Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, which included ballads that he had collected and adapted over the previous decade. Although the ballads were successful, it was his narrative poems that first won him true popularity. The Lay of the Last Minstrel, first published in 1805, was well-received by critics and the public alike, and was rapidly followed by other commercial successes including Marmion (1808) and The Lady of the Lake (1810). Today, Scott is predominantly known for his novels, the first of which, Waverley, was published in 1814 to unprecedented success.[2] Indeed, in his recent monograph, Walter Scott and Fame, Robert Meyer argues that Scott’s popularity established him as one of the first celebrities.[3]

Sir Walter Scott, engraved by John Horsburgh after Sir Henry Raeburn (1837). Horsburgh originally engraved Raeburn’s 1808 portrait of Scott for the 2nd edition of J.G. Lockhart’s Life of Scott in 1837. The print above is the frontispiece to the Centenary Edition of Waverley (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black. 1886). Image (c) Walter Scott Library.

All these successes had their origins in Scott’s early years. His love of storytelling, literature, folklore, romance, military history, and nature can be traced back to his early experiences and explorations. Scott wrote about the literary and folkloric influences of his childhood, beginning with the stories and songs that he imbibed in his paternal grandfather’s house, which he had been sent to as a child on account of his health. In the following years, he was introduced to different types of texts by teachers, friends, and acquaintances, building his knowledge through access to libraries, meeting literary greats, such as Burns, and joining literary societies. His early life as a reader closely resembles that of his first novel’s hero. While young Waverley read without plan or purpose, focusing on the texts that amused him the most so that he ‘drove through the sea of books like a vessel without a pilot or a rudder’,[4] Scott himself ‘perused with avidity such books of history or poetry or voyages and travels as chance presented to me—not forgetting the usual, or rather ten times the usual, quantity of fairy tales, Eastern stories, romances, etc. These studies were totally unregulated and undirected’.[5]

One area in which Scott did direct his studies was military history. As with his love of romance, Scott’s interest in military endeavours began with oral tales. As a small child at Sandyknowe, he eagerly listened to accounts of current and past conflicts, and then, when still a child, befriended a military veteran at Prestonpans with whom he engaged in lively discussions. For Scott, military history crossed over into the landscape so that ‘the love of natural beauty, more especially when combined with ancient ruins, or remains of our fathers’ piety or splendor, became with [him] an insatiable passion’.[6]

As his taste included both oral and written tales, so too did his ability to tell stories cross between storytelling and story writing. The young Scott was passionate about telling stories, writing in his autobiography that among his school friends his ‘tales used to assemble an admiring audience round Lucky Brown’s fireside’,[7] and that ‘[i]n crossing Magus Moor, near St. Andrews, the spirit moved me to give a picture of the assassination of the Archbishop of St. Andrews to some fellow-travellers with whom I was accidentally associated, and one of them, though well acquainted with the story, protested my narrative had frightened away his night’s sleep’.[8]

Hardie, Charles Martin; The Meeting of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott at Sciennes Hill House; Abbotsford, The Home of Sir Walter Scott, Image (c) Abbotsford, The Home of Walter Scott

The Meeting of Burns and Scott, oil on canvas painting by Charles Hardie, 1893, Dunedin Public Art Gallery. https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-meeting-of-robert-burns-and-sir-walter-scott-at-sciennes-hill-house-208636

A youthful friendship gave Scott more opportunities to create and tell stories:

We lived near each other, and by joint agreement were wont, each of us, to compose a romance for the other’s amusement. These legends, in which the martial and the miraculous always predominated, we rehearsed to each other during our walks, which were usually directed to the most solitary spots about Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. We naturally sought seclusion, for we were conscious no small degree of ridicule would have attended our amusement, if the nature of it had become known. [This] had, I believe, no small effect in directing the turn of my imagination to the chivalrous and romantic in poetry and prose.[9]

His imagination, through his poetry and novels, remains influential today, and the year of his birth is being commemorated in a vibrant variety of different ways. Today, families are gathering at Abbotsford for Scotfest, which will be full of activities like jousting and storytelling. If you’ve missed Scotfest, however, there are many other ways to learn about Scott this year. Walter Scott 250, a partnership network of over fifty organisations, has a comprehensive list of activities on their website, including talks by leading academics, events run as part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, and exhibitions. More information can be found here:

There have been at least four academic books published on Scott within the past year. Walter Scott at 250 includes essays by ten Scott scholars,[10] while Susan Oliver’s Walter Scott and the Greening of Scotland: Emerging Ecologies of a Nation,[11] and Daniel Cook’s Walter Scott and Short Fiction[12] focus on specific aspects of Scott’s work. Shorter Poems, edited by Peter Garside and Gillian Hughes,[13] continues the work of the Edinburgh Edition team to provide scholarly editions of all of Scott’s work.

[1] George Lukács’ seminal The Historical Novel began with Scott, and later studies, such as Harold Orel’s The Historical Novel from Scott to Sabatini have likewise recognised Scott as starting a tradition of historical novels. However, criticism has also recognised the importance of earlier historical novelists. Scott’s representation of Scotland has been considered by various scholars, including James Robertson in his Scott-land: The Man who Invented a Nation.

[2] For more information, see: Bautz, Annika, The Reception of Jane Austen and Walter Scott, (London: Continuum, 2007)

[3] Mayer, Robert, Walter Scott and Fame, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)

[4] Scott, Walter, Waverley, 1814 repr.

[5] Lockhart, John Gibson, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, repr.

[6] Memoirs

[7] Memoirs

[8] Memoirs

[9] Memoirs

[10] McCracken-Flesher, Caroline & Wickman, Matthew (eds), Walter Scott at 250 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021)

[11] Oliver, Susan, Walter Scott and the Greening of Scotland: Emerging Ecologies of a Nation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021)

[12] Cook, Daniel, Walter Scott and Short Fiction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021)

[13] Garside, Peter & Hughes, Gillian (eds), Shorter Poems (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020)