In our Real English video this month we are talking about Walter Scott, who he was, why he was so popular, and how he helped to shape Scottish identity
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Who was Walter Scott?
You don’t have to go far in Edinburgh to see the writer Sir Walter Scott’s influence on the city. The main railway station is called Waverely, after his acclaimed novel, and the Scott Monument takes centre stage on the main shopping area of Princes Street. This was the highest monument ever built for a writer until it was moved into second place by the José Martí monument in Havana in 1953. This can give you an idea as to how admired Scott was in his day. So, why on earth was he so popular?!
Walter Scott was born on 15 August 1771 in Edinburgh’s Old Town,. During his childhood he got polio and although he survived the illness it left him lame. In order to help with his recovery and ill health, he was sent to live in the rural Scottish Borders at his paternal grandparents’ farm at Sandyknowe.
This would end up having a profound impact on his future writing as he was taught to read by his aunt. Her speech pattern and the tales and legends that she taught him would influence his novels and poems. He went back to Edinburgh to finish his education but went back to the Borders in 1783 when his strength was being affected again and studied at Kelso Grammar school. Here he would make two important friendships – James Ballantyne and his brother John, who later became his business partners and printers.
Although he is now remembered for being a famous writer, Scott’s main profession was actually as a lawyer, judge and legal administrator. He combined his writing and editing work with his day job as Clerk of Session and Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire throughout his career combined.
The start of his literary career was actually as an antiquarian. He had always been interested in literature, and he had a particular love for traditional ballads. In 1802 he produced a collection called Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders. This contained 48 traditional ballads, and two imitations which were written by him and his printing partner. Scott was the editor of these poems and made some changes to the original words. This editing of tradition is something that would shape his future work and also Scotland, and would be a reason for Scott falling out of favour in the 20th century.
This work inspired his first poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805). It saw unprecedented sales and made him a celebrity overnight. The poem mentions Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders and it would be the beginning of tourism to Scotland inspired by his writing. This was the first of a number of long narrative poems.
His writing career starts to take off
His poem Lady of the Lake was another best seller. The poem is set in Loch Katrine, and it made the loch and the Trossachs a must-see destination which it still is to this day. In fact, you can even take a trip on the Walter Scott Steamer! His writing started a tourist boom in Scotland, especially in the Highlands. This poem broke all previous sales records and outsold poets who were considered “proper” poetry, like William Wordsworth. The big difference with Scott, and what ultimately made him so popular, was that he wrote for entertainment, not to “enlighten”. He also used history as the inspiration or context for his writing, and this would be a constant feature of his work. It wasn’t until Byron started to publish his more narrative poems that he had any competition
After Byron started to outsell him, he looked for another challenge and he landed on the novel. At this point, novels were considered trashy literature. They weren’t seen as proper writing, just something fit for the lesser brains of women and children. Tackling a novel was a big risk for his literary career and could have spelled the end of it. However Scott masculinised it, and this in turn made it an art form in the eyes of his contemporaries. Scott almost exclusively wrote historical fiction and is widely credited with having invented the historical novel.
In 1814, he published the novel Waverley anonymously. Scott in fact published all of his work under pseudonym or anonymously until 1826. This was quite normal for writers who were experimenting with a new style or format, but we still don’t know why he continued to remain anonymous after his success even though his identity was an open secret by then. The mystery of the writer did however seem to add to the novel’s success. Waverley was a story about the Jacobites, the supporters of King James II over King George I who led an ultimately disastrous rebellion. Scott chose major events in Scottish history as the features of his novels such as the Union of the Crowns. the wars between the Covenanters and the Royalist forces, and of course the Jacobite Rebellion. The way he approached them would have mammoth cultural implications for Scotland. Scott made the differences between the two sides (which were essentially Scotland and England) cultural not political. He recorded Scottish traditions, but like in the Minstrelsy, edited some things! He gave the country its own traditions, many of which were from the Highlands, nothing to do with the Lowlands, and many which he tweaked to suit the story. He also celebrated modern advances which came out of the Act of Union and post the battle of Culloden. His books celebrated the Highlands, but also encouraged the reader to see his words as real history.
I really can’t emphasize enough how popular Scott was by this point. He had been given the nickname the Magician of the North and at a time when the average print run for a novel was 750, the Waverly novels alone were 6000-10,000!
The then Prince of Wales and future King George IV loved the books so much he demanded to know the author, and Scott became very friendly with him. This friendship would have a significant impact on the future of Scottish identity, as we shall see!
Scott was writing at the same time as Britain was going through the industrial revolution. His work was an escape from the ever-growing industrialisation of the country. Queen Victoria was also a huge fan, and the Royal family’s interest in Scotland made it even more fashionable.
There was an irony to this tourist boom in Scotland. The romantic, wild and empty landscape was what drew crowds, but they didn’t stop to ask why they were empty. The love affair with the Highlands was happening simultaneously with the Clearances, the period when landlords were evicting tenant farmers from the land in order to bring in more modern and profitable farming, such as sheep.
By the mid-19th century, Scott was the biggest seller in the English language. Advances in printing made his novels more and more accessible. He also oversaw every single aspect of the novels, from writing, to editing, to printing, to plays. In 1822 he was made a baronet and got cosy with the Scottish gentry and aristocracy which would prove useful in the future.
He solved one of Scotland’s most bizarre mysteries – he found the Honours of Scotland (Crown Jewels). They had been missing since the coronation of Charles II. By tracking the history of them, he found them in a box in the bowels of Edinburgh castle. Scott’s discovery was absolutely sensational in its day, and sparked widespread displays of Scottish patriotism that never really went away.
Scott was a devoted Unionist, but also extremely proud of his Scottish heritage. He wanted Scotland to have an identity within the Union and the union was at threat. Some Scots were looking at what had happened in America and France and these “Radicals” began to cause unrest. They saw the British state as corrupt, and they weren’t wrong. George IV (the previous Prince of Wales and Scott’s friend) was a very unpopular king. He treated his wife terribly and used parliament to try and divorce her. Parliament also seen as a corrupt oligarchy.
Scott saw that Scotland needed to connect to their king. He persuaded the King that he was a highlander and Jacobite too thanks to the Stuart Kings and got him to make a visit to Scotland. It was the first visit by a monarch in over 200 years! The irony was that his re-invention of King George as a Jacobian king was a celebration of the culture that his grandfather made sure to eradicate after the battle of Culloden. George was delighted with the idea and commissioned a full “Highland” outfit. It cost the equivalent of £120,000 in today’s money. A new tartan was Invented, the Royal Stuart, which was a totally ridiculous choice for the original purpose of a kilt. Tartan and kilts were originally colours similar to the land as they were made with natural dyes and allowed the wearer to camouflage themselves with their surroundings. The Royal Stuart tartan was bright red! The rest of the outfit was also fairly creative and had little in common with a traditional highland plaid.
George IV Comes to Scotland
Scott set about organising the event with gusto. The aim was for Scots to fall in love with their “Jacobite” king and move away from these new radical ideas. He got his actor friend William Henry Murray to design elaborate sets inspired by the Highlands for the balls, and even wrote a hand book on how to dress for the arrival of the king. As he was friendly with the gentry, he got them all to wear “traditional” dress for the event which resulted in a frenzy of trying to get kilts made. King George was delighted.
This top picture how David Wilkie painted him in his Highland outfit, but it was a very flattering painting. In reality his kilt was far too short. He had to wear flesh-coloured (read pink) pantaloons to cover his extremely fat legs, like in the picture below.
The celebrations lasted around 2 weeks and was a great success. King George got a show of all the things that we consider to now be typically Scottish; Pipe bands, traditional dances, traditional music and of course, kilts. Tartan became the most fashionable fabric around. But the King only visited Edinburgh. This perception of Scotland’s cultural life stating and ending in its capital is still felt very much today by Scots. The image that Scott created for King George would become the image of Scotland. It’s the one you will find in every tourist shop in the country.
By the start of the 20th Century, people were starting to question both Scott’s writing and his view of Scotland. The Scottish Renaissance, led by Hugh MacDiarmid, fought against this image, and importantly, from a socialist perspective. Many criticised him for re-writing Scottish history. While he has been recognised for putting Scotland on the map internationally, some consider him to have been too successful.
The end of Scott’s life was a far cry from his previous successes. 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 decided to write his way out of debt. To add to his problems, his wife Charlotte died in 1826.
Over the next few years, he would continue to write prodigiously, but his health ultimately failed him and he died 21 September 1832.
Whether or not you are a fan of his writing, there is no denying that Walter Scott is one of the most important players in Scottish history. Without his contributions, Scotland would be a very different country right now, and our identity would not be the same. There is no doubt that Scott’s image of Scotland sells. You can see it in popular culture such as the Outlander series or the film Braveheart, and it brings millions of tourists to the country. Tourism is worth £10.5bn to the Scottish economy a year, one of the reasons why the Covid 19 pandemic has hit so hard.
However, Scotland is a modern nation. The Independence referendum of 2014 sparked a conversion of what kind of country we want to be. It is a world leader in renewable energy and punches above its weight in science and research, not to mention its celebrated food and drink sector and famous educational institutions. How we can reconcile this with Scott’s image of the romantic warrior in the Highlands is a balance the country will need to find.