Sir Walter Scott

by Andrew Crumey

Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh on 15 August 1771 (a plaque at 8 Chambers St marks the approximate spot). His father (also called Walter) was a Writer to the Signet (solicitor); his mother Anne Rutherford was the daughter of a professor of medicine.

At the age of 18 months his right leg was rendered permanently lame by polio, and as an infant he was sent to his grandfather's farm in the Borders. He would divide his time between Edinburgh and the Borders for the rest of his life. In 1775 the family moved to a more spacious house at 25 George Square, where Scott was to live until 1797. He was educated at home until October 1779, when he was enrolled at the High School of Edinburgh. He also attended Kelso Grammar School during stays in the Borders.

He studied law at Edinburgh University from 1783, with interruptions because of his illness. He was indentured in his father's legal practice on 31 March 1786, but did not qualify as an advocate until 11 July 1792. Scott was to continue in his legal career until retiring in 1830.

Scott's interest in traditional ballads was formed in childhood, and during his stays in the Borders he began collecting them. He was also interested in German literature, and his first publications were translations of ballads by Gottfried Augustus Burger (1796), and of Goethe's "Gotz von Berlichingen" (1799).

He married Charlotte Carpenter on 24 December 1797, and their first homes were at 108 George St (lodgings), 10 South Castle St, and then 39 Castle St (a statuette of him can be seen above the door) which was to be their Edinburgh home from 1798 until March 1826.

Scott was appointed Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire on 16 December 1799 and went to Ashestiel in the Borders. Here he completed the ballad collection "The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border" with the assistance of John Leyden, Richard Heber, William Laidlaw and James Hogg. The first two volumes were printed by his Kelso friend James Ballantyne, and their success led Scott to lend Ballantyne £500 so that he could set up a printing works in Edinburgh. Scott became his partner and principal shareholder, and also backed the new publishing business of Ballantyne's brother John.

Scott's first wholly original publication was the ballad epic "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" (1805), which was an immediate critical and financial success. He followed it with "Marmion" (1808) and the hugely popular "The Lady of the Lake" (1810).

Aspiring to baronial country life, Scott began in 1811 to build himself a gothic castle, Abbotsford, near Galashiels, and it was partly to raise money for the project, and also so as to ensure his literary supremacy over Byron, that Scott turned to fiction. Another reason was a crisis in Ballantyne's business in 1813, which threatened Scott with bankruptcy. Scott wrote his way out of trouble with "Waverley" (1814), which defined a new literary genre and was to be followed by a stream of similar successes.

Scott published all his novels anonymously. Initially this may have been a precaution against the possible failure of "Waverley"; but even after its enormous success, Scott seems to have enjoyed prolonging the mystery (he was nicknamed "The Great Unknown" and "The Wizard Of The North"). His identity as the author of "Waverley" and its successors soon became an open secret, fairly widely known, but it was not until February 1827 that he officially "revealed" himself, at a public dinner in Edinburgh.

Though the novels were all published without his name (even after his "unmasking"), they were grouped into various series which associated them with a common author. Some were published as "By The Author of Waverley"; two appeared under the title "Tales From Benedictine Sources", another two as "Tales of the Crusaders", and four as "Chronicles of the Canongate". The remainder of Scott's novels were published under the heading "Tales of my Landlord", though there is no real connection between the various "Tales", other than the conceit (introduced in the prologue to "The Black Dwarf") that they were all written down by one Peter Pattison from stories told to him by the landlord of the Wallace Inn at Gandercleugh, then reworked and sold to the publisher by the village schoolmaster and parish clerk, Jedediah Cleishbotham.

Scott's novels made him one of Europe's most famous literary figures, and he was created a baronet in 1818. In 1820 his daughter Sophia married John Gibson Lockhart, who was later to write a vast biography of him. In 1823, with Lord Henry Thomas Cockburn (1779-1854), Scott founded the Edinburgh Academy, a school for boys. But the financial disaster he had averted in 1813 finally hit him in January 1826, when Ballantyne's business failed and Scott was declared bankrupt. His wife died on 14 May. Resolving to settle his debts in the only way he knew, Scott announced (according to Lord Cockburn) that his "right hand shall work it all off", so that in his last years there could be no letting up of his prodigious output, which he had maintained while continuing to practise as an advovate. He retired from the court in 1830, by which time his health was failing. In 1831 he cruised the Mediterranean, then in July of the following year he returned to Scotland. He died at Abbotsford on 21 September 1832 and is buried at Dryburgh Abbey.

Edinburgh's Scott Monument (1844), and the nearby Waverley Station, bear witness to his extraordinary status in Victorian Britain; it was Scott who largely defined Scotland's image in the last century, even including the clan tartans which he helped invent for the occasion of George IV's visit to Edinburgh in August 1822.


trans Gottftied Burger: The Chase, and William and Helen, Two Ballads from the German (1796) trans Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Goetz of Berlichingen (1799) ed The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border 3 vols (1802-3) The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Ballads and Lyrical Pieces (1806), ed Memoirs of Capt George Carleton (1808) ed Memoirs of Robert Corey and Fragmenta Regalia, by Sir R Naunton (1808) ed Original Memoirs Written during the Great Civil War (1806) Marmion (1808) ed. Joseph Strutt: Queenhoo Hall, and Ancient Time (1808) ed The Works of John Dryden, with Notes and a Life of the Author (1808) ed A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts 3 vols (1809) ed The Life of Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbery (1809) ed English Minstrelsy (1810), The Lady of the Lake (1810), ed The Poetical Works of Anna Seward (1810) ed Memoirs of Count Grammont (1811) ed Secret History of James the First (1811) The Vision of Don Roderick (1811) ed. Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (1811) ed A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts 7 vols (1812)' The Bridal of Triermain (1813) Rokeby (1813) ed Sir Philip Warwick: Memoirs of the Reign of King Charles I (1813) The Border Antiquities of England and Scotland (1814-17) Waverley (1814) ed The Works of Jonathan Swift with Notes and a Life of the Author (1814)' The Field of Waterloo (1815)' Guy Mannering (1815) The Lord of the Isles (1815); ed., Memoirs of the Somervilles (1815); ed., Samuel Rowland, The Letting of Humours Blood in the Head Vaine (1815); The Antiquary (1816); Paul's Letters to his Kinsfolk (1816); Tales of my Landlord, 1st series, The Black Dwarf and Old Mortality (1816); Harold the Dauntless (1817); ed., with Robert Jamieson, Burt's Letters from Scotland (1818); Rob Roy (1818); Tales of my Landlord, 2nd series, The Heart of Midlothian (1818); Provincial Antiquities of Scotland (1819-26); Tales of my Landlord, 3rd series, The Bride of Lammermoor and A Legend of Montrose (1819); Ivanhoe (1820); Tales from Benedictine Sources, consisting of The Abbot and The Monastery (1820); ed., Richard Franck, Northern Memoirs (1821); Kenilworth (1821); Lives of the Novelists (1821-24); ed., Chronological Notes of Scottish Affairs from 1688 to 1701 (1822); The Fortunes of Nigel (1822); Halidon Hall (1822); ed., Military Memoirs of the Great Civil War (1822); Peveril of the Peak (1822); The Pirate (1822); Quentin Durward (1823); Redgauntlet (1824); Sir Ronan's Well (1824); Tales of the Crusaders, consisting of The Betrothed and The Talisman (1825); Woodstock (1826); Chronicles of the Canongate, 1st series, The Highland Widow, The Two Drovers and The Surgeon's Daughter (1827); The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (1827); Chronicles of the Canongate, 2nd series, The Fair Maid of Perth (1828); Religious Discourses (1828); Tales of a Grandfather, 1st series (1828); Anne of Geierstein (1829); History of Scotland, 2 vols. (1829-30); ed., Memorials of George Bannatyne (1829); Tales of a Grandfather, 2nd series (1829); The Doom of Devorgoil (1830); Essays on Ballad Poetry (1830); Tales of a Grandfather, 3rd series (1830); Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1831); Tales of my Landlord, 4th series, Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous (1832); Letters, 12 vols. (ed. H. J. C. Grierson, 1932-7); Journal, 3 vols. (ed. J. 0. Tait, 1939-6).

Andrew Crumey © 1999 (last updated 16 November)

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