Discovering Sir Walter Scott – Or, Confessions of an Historical Author

I had better start this post with a confession – I have never read anything by Sir Walter Scott, the Regency’s favourite author and the man who almost single-handed created the historical novel genre as we understand it today. And that is bad of me, because for someone who writes historical novels and who specialises in the Regency, I should have done. And I will read some, just as soon as I’ve met my current deadline.

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We were driving back from a touring holiday in Scotland in August when I looked at the map and saw Abbotsford marked, dredged in my memory, came up with Scott and suggested we visit.
My husband grumbled that he knew nothing about Scott (he’s a zoologist, so he has an excuse), so I had better fill him in while we were driving there. All I could come up with was that Scott was blamed for the excesses of the “tartan and shortbread” Scottish tourist industry, had been hugely prolific, wildly popular with the reading public and had got himself into vast debt. We had encountered him on numerous occasions when researching for Following the Great North Road (available for Kindle) because he was a constant traveller between Scotland and London, considering the Swan at Ferrybridge to be the best inn on the Great North Road.
He was also kicked in the head by his horse while drilling with the Edinburgh Light Horse at Portobello just outside Edinburgh (and also on the GNR) and finished The Lay of the Last Minstrel while confined to bed recovering.
None of this amounted to much of an introduction, let alone an explanation of why Scott was so popular at the time and still has such a grip that Abbotsford has become a literary shrine.

AbbotsfordThe visit to the house was preceded by an excellent exhibition in the visitor centre, so we studied that and got the basic facts straight. Scott was born in 1771 in Edinburgh to a very respectable professional family. (Lawyers, medics, professors). He spent his first four years in Roxburghshire while recovering from the polio that left his left leg permanently affected and this encounter with Borders history apparently fired his precocious imagination.
He returned to Edinburgh for his education, became a rather unsuccessful Advocate and then was appointed Sherriff-Depute of Selkirkshire in 1799. He was already writing poetry and was obsessed with Scottish history and legends, so this new post was ideal, giving him the opportunity to travel widely.
He wrote his vast Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders (1802), followed by epic poems The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808) and The Lady of the Lake (1810) which proved hugely popular with a reading public whose tastes were embracing the romantic and who were fascinated by wild and rugged landscapes. But poetry was not enough for him, and besides, Byron was beginning to encroach on his territory. He turned to fiction with Waverley (1814), Guy Mannering (1815), The Antiquary (1816), The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818), The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) and Ivanhoe (1820). He was also writing essays, lyrics, short stories, historical and biographical work and highly-regarded critiques of contemporary fiction – he reviewed both Emma and Frankenstein, for example.
Despite being staggeringly prolific in his writing, Scott was still holding the Sherriff-Depute post and needed a base for his travels that would also accommodate his family. In 1812 he bought Newarthaugh, a farmhouse “on a bare haugh and bleak bank by the side of the Tweed.” It was small for a man with a wife and four childrgardensen, but he started by making only small changes to the house, which he renamed Abbotsford, instead buying land to increase the estate from 110 acres to 1,400.

The house grew in stages almost haphazardly. “I have always had a private dislike to a regular shape of a house…when the cottage enlarges itself and grows out of circumstance, which is the case at Abbotsford, the outs and the inns [sic] afford, without, so much variety and depth of shade, and, within, give such an odd variety of snug accommodation that they far exceed in my estimation the cut-lugged bandbox with four rooms on a floor and two stories rising regularly above the other!”
Money was no object – it was pouring in from his writing – and Scott could afford architects and builders, artists and craftsmen.

Hall He also collected voraciously, acquiring books for his wonderful working library, which survives intact, and curios and historical pieces. There are too many to do more than just mention a few – a cast of the skull of Robert the Bruce, the original keys to Edinburgh’s Old Tolbooth prison, the gaol door and some of its stonework, oak panelling from Dunfermline Abbey and a piece of oatcake from Culloden battlefield are amongst the wealth of historic, curious and just plain odd items. The great hall, is shown left, Scott’s study is  below, right, and the library, below left.
Scott could afford to indulge himself with his building and collecting until disaster struck in 1826. His publishers, Archibald Constable of Edinburgh, went bankrupt and Scottstudy2 was financially involved through a partnership. There was no limited liability in those days and Scott himself was bankrupted. But in an extraordinary move the creditors allowed him to write himself out of debt. Abbotsford was put in trust and the Scott family permitted to remain there while he worked – “My own right hand shall pay the debt.” From then on he worked relentlessly, despite the death of his wife and his own failing health. By the time he died in September 1832 the debt was virtually cleared.

libraryScott is often “blamed” for the outbreak of tartan-itis that culminated in Queen Victoria’s obsessive use of the pattern at Balmoral and the proliferation of tartan tourist goods today, but this stemmed from his efforts to help George IV. George, who was not such a fool as he is often portrayed, wanted to heal the rifts between England and Scotland that led to the Jacobite rebellions. He wanted to throw himself into Scottish history and completely bought into Scott’s romantic vision of the Scottish past. When he visited in 1822 the Edinburgh city council commissioned Scott to stage manage the event and he created a wonderful show, including assisting the king to dress in tartan, which had been outlawed since the 1745 rebellion.
Despite the fact that George managed to create the most ludicrous version of Highland dress that a portly middle-aged man could ever have worn (shown here in a detail of the portrait by Wilkie), this was an important gesture and enthusiasm for tartan as a potent symbol of national identity surged.GIVWilkie
Four years before the royal visit, in 1818, Scott had used the then Prince Regent’s enthusiasm for his work to petition him to allow a search for the “Honours of Scotland” – the Scottish crown jewels.
In 1707, the Act of Union between England and Scotland decreed that they must always remain in Scotland. But there were fears that they might become a symbol of Scottish independence, so they were put into a strongbox in the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle which was then locked, barred with double doors, and the key conveniently ‘lost’.
George agreed to Scott’s request and the room was broken into, the chest opened and the crown, sword of state and sceptre – the oldest surviving crown jewels in Europe – were found safely inside. They still remain in Scotland today, on display in Edinburgh Castle.
Abbotsford House remains essentially as Scott left it, although with some 1850s extensions at the side. But his study, the library and the wildly eccentric great hall feel as though he has only just walked out to stroll beside his beloved River Tweed for some more inspiration.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Discovering Sir Walter Scott – Or, Confessions of an Historical Author

  1. Fascinating! There is a quote from Jane Austen to the effect that it was too bad of Scott publishing ‘Waverley’ because he was a poet and should leave the writing of novels to authors.

  2. Wonderful piece, so interesting. I had seen a program on his “castle” but hadn’t realised how much of it is preserved. I did plough my way through The Bride of Lammermoor after seeing the opera, but gave up on Ivanhoe. I’d probably enjoy them more now, but at the time I found them stodgy and difficult. Waverley gets a mention in The Grand Sophy, I remember, when I think Hubert praises the book at the dinner table.

    • It would probably take a while to get attuned to the style – after all, there are over 200 years of novel development between us and Scott. I somehow don’t expect to find myself taking one of his as a beach read…

  3. I’m trying to read Waverley, but it’s slow going. Compared to Austen’s modern prose, it’s pretty dense and pretentious. There’s no real dialog between characters yet and the protagonist has said little. It’s mostly characters declaiming. I’m reminded of the Doctor Johnson episode of Blackadder, where Edmund is making up words to confound the good doctor who’s just finished his dictionary.

    I think Scott is trying to make fun of some characters’ penchant for Latin and French and Scottish dialect, but it makes hard reading. Quite often I highlight a word in the Kindle app and no definition comes up. If I google the word, the only reference I see is to the novel.

    It’s possible the novel was clever when written, but now it’s nearly unreadable.

    • Oh dear – that hasn’t done much for my resolution to read some Scott! I suspect his novels would make better TV these days – filet out the plot and the characters perhaps.

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