xxxxxThe Scottish poet and novelist Walter Scott came to literary fame in 1803 by compiling a collection of Scottish ballads entitled Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. He then went on to make a fortune by composing his own romantic narrative poems, beginning with his Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805, and including Marmion, The Lady of the Lake and Lord of the Isles. From 1814 he concentrated on the writing of historical novels, and he met with equal success in this new genre. His first work, Waverley, proved extremely popular, and he followed this over the years with a series of stories which came to be known as the Waverley Novels. These included such well-known adventures as Guy Mannering, Rob Roy, Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward. These were remarkable above all for the way he integrated his characters into the historical events of their time, be it in the middle ages or from the recent past. A born storyteller with gifted powers of description and clarity, he gave his stories various settings, but the majority were set against the wild landscape of his native Scotland. Success brought wealth and position, but in 1826 his business enterprise in printing and publishing collapsed, and he faced debts of some £120,000. For the last six years of his life he wrote with a frenzy and managed to pay off most of his creditors. His verse and prose earned him a prominent place in the English romantic movement, but he also took part in a wide range of other literary activities, including the publication of the works of the English writers Dryden and Swift. Among the many his work influenced were the American James Fenimore Cooper, the French novelists Dumas and Balzac, and the English writers Dickens, Thackeray and Buchan.

WALTER SCOTT (SIR) 1771 - 1832

(G3a, G3b, G3c, G4, W4)


Scott: by the Scottish portrait painter Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), 1822 – Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Abbotsford: engraving after the English artist Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1792-1864) – private collection. Landscape: by the Scottish painter Horatio McCulloch (1805-1867), 1861, contained in Highland Landscapes, Paintings of Scotland in the 19th Century by Marcus Halliwell, published London 1990. Edgeworth: detail, by the Welsh portrait painter John Downham (1750-1824), 1807. Sinclair: by the Scottish portrait painter Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), 1794 – Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Hogg: detail, by the Scottish portrait painter John Watson Gordon, 1830 – Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

xxxxxThe Scottish poet and novelist Walter Scott was born into a middle-class family in Edinburgh. A serious illness in childhood, possibly poliomyelitis, left him lame in his right leg and, by way of convalescence, he spent some time on his grandfather’s farm in the border country. This doubtless accounted for his love of the Scottish countryside, and his knowledge of the songs and legends of the border lands. He was educated at the city’s high school and, after being taught law by his father, combined his work as a legal official with a love of poetry, particularly ballads and legends.

xxxxxAt the age of 25 he translated a number of German romances and then, putting together a three-volume collection of Scottish ballads, gained public acclaim with his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, completed in 1803. On the strength of this work, he produced several romantic narrative poems of his own, notably his The Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805 and Marmion three years later. These were immensely successful, and he followed them up with a series of money-spinners, such as The Lady of the Lake in 1810, Rokeby in 1813, and Lord of the Isles, published in 1815. It was at this stage that, using the large amount of money made from his poems, he established, together with his partners, the printer James Ballantyne and, later, the publisher Archibald Constable, the firm of Ballantyne & Co.

xxxxxIn 1814, however, he moved away from poetry and turned to prose fiction, partly it would seem because Byron’s verse romances were beginning to be so popular. For Scott this change of direction proved no less successful and far more productive. It was in that year that he produced his first historical novel Waverley, written around the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. This was a resounding success and, as it was written anonymously, it then gave its name to the long series of like novels that followed in quick succession. Over the next fifteen years, in fact, he wrote 20 adventure stories, some with different settings, but all with their own subjects and characters. In the first five years, these included Guy Mannering, Old Mortality, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, and The Bride of Lammermoor. Then in the 1820s came such works as Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, Quentin Durward, The Talisman, and Woodstock. Until 1827 these works were published anonymously, but for many years their authorship had hardly been a well-kept secret.

xxxxxGiven the substantial income from these “Waverley Novels” Scott was able to convert his farmhouse, bought in 1811 and then called Carley Hole, into an imposing country house in the guise of a Gothic baronial mansion. Called Abbotsford, and situated beside the river Tweed in the Borders region, it was completed in 1825. It served as a valuable retreat, and the surrounding countryside was a major source of inspiration to him, but, lavishly furnished, it proved a heavy drain on his financial resources.

xxxxxIt was in 1826 that his money problems caught up with him. For some ten years, in fact, his business enterprise, Ballantyne & Co., had been struggling to survive. The economic slump of that year brought about its collapse, bringing down the printing firm of James Ballantyne and the publishing house of Archibald Constable, in both of which Scott had a substantial share. His partners declared themselves bankrupt, and Scott was suddenly faced with financial disaster, left with a debt to creditors of something like £120,000. It is much to his own credit that he refused to accept bankruptcy as an option, or financial assistance from friends. Instead, he took up his pen at the age of 55, and set about meeting his liabilities. “This right hand, he said, “shall work it all off.”

xxxxxThere followed six frantic years in which he produced a flurry of works in an attempt to meet his debts, the quality of some of his writing suffering as a result. To this painful period belongs the completion of his Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, The Fair Maid of Perth, Tales of a Grandfather, Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, and his novels Castle Dangerous and Count Robert of Paris. In 1831, worn out by his efforts, he took a cruise to Italy, but his health did not improve. On his return to Abbotsford the following year he suffered a nervous breakdown and, following a series of strokes, died in the September. He did not quite manage to wipe the slate clean in his lifetime, but, by 1847 all his outstanding debts had been met by the sale of copyrights.

xxxxxScott was a Romantic poet and novelist to whom we owe the creation of the historical novel in its true form. Whilst his verse romances were popular in his time, it is his vivid adventure stories, skilfully set within a variety of exciting historical periods, by which he is best remembered today. He was, first and foremost, a brilliant storyteller. His accomplished powers of description and clarity, his well-drawn characters - taken from every walk of life - and his mastery of dialogue, brought to life the very atmosphere and social texture of his chosen historical setting, be it from medieval times or from the recent past. Above all, he skilfully integrated his vast array of characters into the religious and/or political upheavals of their time, providing what was, in essence, a meaningful glimpse into some dramatic historical event or series of events. Some of his stories are realistically set in England or in France, but especially attractive are those played out against the landscape of his native Scotland, such as Waverley, Old Mortality and Rob Roy. Such works awakened a deep interest in Scotland and its history, heightened by the romantic appeal of its wild landscape and powerful traditions.

xxxxxHis poems and gothic romances earned him unprecedented popularity, a European reputation, and a prominent place in English romanticism, but Scott also took part in a wide range of other literary activities. For example, he contributed to the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review, was founder and first president of the Bannatyne Club in Edinburgh - which printed rare works on Scottish history and literature - and he published the works of the English writers John Dryden and Jonathan Swift, a not inconsiderable task.

xxxxxScott loved life and had a capacity for happiness. He enjoyed a contented married life, and prided himself on being a good father to his four children. And he found pleasure in entertaining guests and mixing with society in general. In 1821 he wrote to a colleague, “I have had many friends, few unfriends and, I think, no enemies. And I have had more fame and fortune than mere literature ever procured for a man before. I dwell among my own people and have many whose happiness is dependent on me and which I study to the best of my power.” However, his last seven years, having lost his wife and being burdened with financial problems, were not happy ones, as his Journal 1825-1832 frankly and movingly records. He died at Abbotsbury and was buried in Dryburgh Abbey.

xxxxxAs one would expect, Scott greatly influenced the works of contemporary and later writers in both Britain and abroad. Among those who followed in his literary footsteps were the American James Fenimore Cooper (often known as the “American Scott”), the French novelists Alexandre Dumas and Honoré de Balzac, the English writers Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, and his fellow countryman, the adventure writer John Buchan - who produced a life of Scott in 1932.  


xxxxxIncidentally, Scott was influenced in his historical novels by the writings of his friend, the Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849). He once declared that her vivid picture of Ireland and its people inspired him to do the same for Scotland. Her best known works, including Castle Rackrent in 1800, Belinda, the following year, and The Absentee, published in 1812, were centred on the life of a particular region and had historical content. An able, attractive writer, she also wrote a number of moral stories for children and was a strong advocate of women’s education. ……

xxxxx…… Thexportrait of Scott above was by the talented Scottish artist Henry Raeburn (1756-1823). Born near Edinburgh in 1756, his portraits became highly fashionable after he returned from Rome in 1787. He painted rapidly and without any preparatory drawing, and this gave his work a lively spontaneity, and a feeling of space. He produced some 600 portraits, the vast majority of his sitters being from the Scottish upper classes, and such was his standing that he was often referred to as the “Scottish Reynolds”. He became a member of the Royal Academy in 1815 and was knighted in 1822. Among his best-known works are The Reverend Robert Walker Skating of 1784, and his imposing portrait of Sir John Sinclair, completed in 1795 and considered by some to be the best male portrait of all time (illustrated here). He was appointed painter to George IV in 1823, but died that same year. ……

xxxxx…… The little Dandie Dinmont terrier, noted for its long body and short legs, originated in the Scottish border country. Its name comes from the character in Scott’s Guy Mannering who trained this breed for hunting small animals.


Henry Raeburn

and James Hogg


xxxxxAnother Scottish romantic poet and prose writer at this time was James Hogg (1770-1835). He was encouraged and assisted by Walter Scott in the publication of his early poems, which included Scottish Pastorals, Poems and Songs in 1801, and Mountain Bard six years later. A poet in the true Scottish folk tradition, among his works were The Queen’s Wake, Queen Hynde and the Shepherd’s Calendar. As a prose writer he is remembered above all for his The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner of 1824, a macabre tale of the supernatural written by a deranged religious fanatic. He also wrote parodies on the major poets of the day, including Wordsworth and Byron, and one of his last works was The Domestic Manners and Private Life of Sir Walter Scott. A shepherd of Ettrick, Selkirkshire, he was sometimes known as the “Ettrick Shepherd”.

xxxxxAnother Scottish romantic poet and writer at this time, and one whom Scott assisted and encouraged, was James Hogg (1770-1835). A shepherd by trade and with little or no formal education, he was born at Ettrick in Selkirk County, and is sometimes known as the “Ettrick Shepherd”. He produced his first collection of verse, Scottish Pastorals, Poems and Songs, in 1801, and came to the notice of Scott the following year when he contributed to his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Scot recognised his lyrical gift, and helped him in the publication of his second volume of verse, Mountain Bard, in 1807.

xxxxxOne of his most notable works, The Queen’s Wake, a collection of poems concerning Mary Stuart, was published six years later and this, together with such works as Queen Hynde and The Shepherd’s Calendar, both published in the 1820s, established his standing as a poet in the true Scottish folk tradition. His prose work included a terrifying work entitled The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, completed in 1824. A weird, macabre tale of the supernatural, it is the fictional autobiography of a mentally disturbed religious fanatic, and conjures up a frightening materialisation of the devil. As such it is regarded as a remarkable piece of Scottish fiction.

xxxxxIn 1816 Hogg produced his The Living Bards of Great Britain, a series of clever parodies on the major poets of his day, including Coleridge, Scott himself, and three he had met in Edinburgh some years earlier, Southey, Wordsworth and Byron. In 1834 he published one of his last works, The Domestic Manners and Private Life of Sir Walter Scott. He was a close friend of the Scottish poet Allan Cunningham.