Walter Scott

1771 - 1832

Biography

Scott was a poet, novelist, ballad-collector, critic and man of letters, but is probably most renowned as the founder of the genre of the historical novel, involving tales of gallantry, romance and chivalry. Beginning with the publication of Waverley in 1814, one of the most significant books of the nineteenth-century, his anonymously published Waverley novels proved hugely popular in Europe and America, and established his reputation as a major international literary force. It is a measure of Scott's influence that Edinburgh's central railway station, opened in 1854, is called Waverley Station.

Scott spent his childhood years in Edinburgh, with occasional extended visits to his grandfather Robert Scott's farm in Tweeddale in the Borders, where he became versed in his family's history, and in Borders culture in general. He attended the famed Edinburgh High School, and then followed in his father's wake by taking a law degree at Edinburgh University, being called to the Bar in 1792. At 25 he began writing, first translating works from German then moving on to poetry. In 1797 he married the daughter of a French refugee, Charlotte Carpenter, with whom he had four children. Five years later, he published a three-volume set of collected Scottish ballads, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders. This was an early indicator of his interest in Scotland and history from a literary standpoint.

He consolidated his legal career by becoming Sheriff-Depute of Selkirk and a Principal Clerk to the Court of Session at Edinburgh. As well as continuing to publish literary work, the versatile and prolific Scott reviewed widely, edited works, set up a theatre in Edinburgh, and helped found the Quarterly Review in 1809.

By the 1820s, Scott was probably the most famous of living Scotsmen, and was consequently chosen to organise the visit to Edinburgh in 1822 of George IV. He was heavily criticised by his Scottish contemporaries for the resultant tartan pageantry, in which the King appeared in Highland dress complete with salmon-pink leggings.

In 1825, his financial state deteriorated drastically, and rather than declare bankruptcy he placed his home, Abbotsford, and income into a trust belonging to his creditors, and proceeded to write his way out of debt. He continued to live at Abbotsford near Melrose, where he died on the 21st September 1832. Among other tributes, the Scott monument was raised on Princes Street in Edinburgh, and a biography was published by his son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, in 1837-8.



Works

Scott's first major Scottish work was his ballad collection, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, in 1802-3, for which he spent much time researching and collecting in the Borders, and where he famously met and established a friendship with James Hogg. He followed up the Minstrelsy with a series of hugely popular narrative poems, including The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808), The Lady of the Lake (1810), Rokeby (1813), and The Lord of the Isles (1815). With their romantic, often sublime, depictions of landscape, they fuelled the taste for the 'picturesque' and encouraged the trend for the inclusion of Scotland in the 'Grand Tour,' the cultural European tour that enticed much of the travel-minded gentry in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Lady of the Lake contains all the trappings of romance. Set in sixteenth-century Scotland around the border between the Highlands and the Lowlands, it depicts a love story against a background of conflicting communities and cultures, both sides of which Scott typically demonstrates a degree of understanding and sympathy for.

However, it was as the author of Waverley that Scott was to reach the pinnacle of his literary reputation and popularity. Waverley itself, subtitled Sixty Years Since, was published anonymously in 1814. It marks the establishment of the genre of the historical novel at which Scott excelled, and relates the story of a young dreamer and soldier, Edward Waverley, as he journeys North from his aristocratic family home, Waverley-Honour, in the south of England, first to the Scottish Lowlands and the home of family friend Baron Bradwardine, then into the Highlands and the heart of the 1745 Jacobite uprising and aftermath. Bonnie Prince Charlie himself makes a cameo appearance. Edward falls in love with romantic Jacobite heroine Flora McIvor, but eventually marries the Baron's daughter Rose and settles at Tully-Veolan in the Lowlands, symbolising the resolution or at least the compromise of the conflict between North and South. The Highlands here are portrayed as romantic and sublime, but also dangerous and primitive - a portrayal for which Scott has been heavily criticised. However, his depiction of the character of the Highlanders themselves is not unsympathetic; he shows them to be capable of both nobility and violence, loyalty and brutality.

Another of the Waverley novels, as they are collectively known, dealing with the Highlands and Jacobitism, is Rob Roy (1817). Rob Roy, however, is set during the 1715 Jacobite uprising, which provides the background for a journey of self-discovery for another young romantic protagonist. The hero this time is a similarly naïve Southerner, Francis Osbaldistone, who travels first to the North of England and then to Scotland after having been wrongly accused of highway robbery during his journey, due to the machinations of his villainous cousin Rashleigh. In the wild place of the North, the land of lawlessness and loyalty, Frank, like Edward Waverley, finds something that is both liberating and disturbing. The 'Robin Hood of Scotland', Robert Roy MacGregor, embodies this ambivalence. He is both educated and capable of barbarism, fiercely attached to his cause and intensely practical. Frank is aided in his quest to clear his name, and also uncover greater truths, by the outlaw Rob, and by the sharp-tongued, strongly principled Amazonian Die Vernon, one of Scott's most attractive and well-rounded heroines. The novel portrays that which must be left behind for progress to take place, but there is also a strain of regret for the lost and past, as represented by the primitive but appealing aspects of Rob's character.

In 1818, Scott followed Rob Roy with The Heart of Midlothian, like Waverley, a tale that ultimately presents a regenerative vision of Scotland. Scott's wonderfully drawn underdog character, Jeannie Deans, the 'cow-feeder's daughter', is an every-Scot figure, whose selfless quest for justice represents the nobility and decency of the everyday community. She is a Northerner who journeys South, in an attempt to gain a pardon for her sister Effie, who has been wrongly accused of murdering her child. On this journey, she encounters extreme corruption, both Scottish and British. Jeannie is a heavily symbolic figure, whose ultimate 'happy ending' suggests a future redeemed and hopeful.

A later Waverley novel, which again returns to concern with Jacobitism, is Scott's 1824 Redgauntlet. Set in the summer of 1765, the historical subject this time is the build-up to a possible and mythical third Rebellion, a main player in which is the formidably Gothic, potentially even demonic, fanatical supporter of the Stewart cause, Edward Hugh, Laird of Redgauntlet. His ambiguous and often confrontational relationship with the young and at times naive friends, Darsie Latimer and Alan Fairford, is explored and ultimately, painfully, resolved in a dramatic adventure tale. The narrative often takes the form of epistolary episodes, allowing the reader to fully engage with the thoughts and opinions of individual characters.

Reading Lists

Poetry

An Apology for Tales of Terror (1799)

Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3)

The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805)

Marmion (1808)

The Lady of the Lake (1810)

The Vision of Don Roderick (1811)

Rokeby (1813)

The Bridal of Triermain (1813)

The Lord of the Isles (1815)

The Field of Waterloo (1815)

Harold the Dauntless (1817)

Fiction

Waverley (1814)

Guy Mannering (1815)

The Antiquary (1816)

The Black Dwarf (Tales of My Landlord, First Series) (1816)

The Tale of Old Mortality (Tales of My Landlord, First Series) (1816)

Rob Roy (1817)

The Heart of Midlothian (Tales of My Landlord, Second Series) (1818)

The Bride of Lammermoor (Tales of My Landlord, Third Series) (1819)

A Legend of Montrose (Tales of My Landlord, Third Series) (1819)

Ivanhoe (1819)

The Monastery (1820)

The Abbot (1820)

Kenilworth (1821)

The Pirate (1821)

The Fortunes of Nigel (1822)

Peveril of the Peak (1823)

Quentin Durward (1823)

Saint Ronan's Well (1823)

Redgauntlet (1824)

The Betrothed (Tales of the Crusaders) (1825)

The Talisman (Tales of the Crusaders) (1825)

Woodstock (1826)

Chronicles of the Canongate, First Series (1827)

The Fair Maid of Perth (Chronicles of the Canongate, Second Series) (1828)

Anne of Geierstein (1829)

Count Robert of Paris (Tales of My Landlord, Fourth Series) (1831)

Castle Dangerous (Tales of My Landlord, Fourth Series) (1831)

Miscellaneous Prose

Paul's Letters to His Kinsfolk (1816)

Letters of Malachi Malagrowther (1826)

The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (1827-8)

Tales of a Grandfather (1828-31)

Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830)

Writing Scotland themes