Walter Scott

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Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott was more than just a writer. He was a brilliant, romantic storyteller who informed the whole world about the beauty and power of his native land.

Scott is, quite simply, one of the most famous people this country has ever produced. His literary works are so important that they place him alongside Burns, Wallace and the Bruce as one of the most revered and influential figures in Scottish history.

His romantic novels, focusing on the country's proud history, painted a glorious image of Scotland's past which helped to keep the flame of nationhood burning at a time when it could easily have been consumed by the union with England.

Scott invented the historical novel, united Highlander and Lowlander in admiration of his work, and created a powerful shortbread-tin perception of Scotland which many foreigners still believe to be a true reflection of what the country is like.

Yet - despite his genius - Scott was something of a loner who spent his later years struggling against ill health and massive debts.

He was born into a prosperous Edinburgh family in 1771 as the sixth surviving child of 12 children. His father was a wealthy lawyer living in the Old Town, and his mother the daughter of a physician.

Unfortunately, the Old Town of the time was squalid and disease ridden, and the young Scott contracted polio and became lame in the right leg. His parents moved to the elegance of the New Town, and he was sent to his grandfather's farm at Sandyknowe in the Borders to recuperate.

During the five years he spent on the farm, Scott found himself immersed in the culture, history and rich language of the region. As a youngster, he was entranced by tales of Border heroes and the Jacobites, and heard local songs and ballads. They were to provoke the interest in history which would eventually make him a household name.

On returning to Edinburgh, Scott went to the High School and then on to Edinburgh University. He became an apprentice to his father as a writer to the signet - in other words, a solicitor - but hated it and instead became an advocate in 1792.

His real love, however, was literature. He had penned his first verse by the age of 11, and by 1796 he had translated two poems from German. The following year he married Charlotte Carpenter, a woman from an old French royalist family, and they would spend the rest of their lives together.

It was the rekindling of his interest in Border ballads, however, which made his name. In 1802, Scott published his three-volume work, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, after searching out local material and reproducing it as powerful, romantic poems.

The work immediately established him and made his literary abilities known to the public. Other romantic works of poetry followed, including The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion and The Lady of the Lake. He deliberately used the Scottish tongue in his works, which created atmosphere and helped him to bring history alive.

Scott also edited other literary works, such as his 18-volume Life and Works of John Dryden and his epic 19-volume Life And Works of Jonathan Swift. At the same time, his prodigious output included contemporary history such as a nine volume Life of Napoleon, collections of historical documents, and long poems.

In 1811, he bought a small four-roomed farmhouse near Melrose for #4000. It was eventually to become his beloved Abbotsford and in the process, it was to virtually ruin him.

Over 14 years, Scott transformed Abbotsford into an estate, building a new house and adding to the land. The trouble was that to pay for the project meant he had to take large advances from his publishers, Archibald Constable.

By 1813, Scott had started to change direction. He had become tired of the narrative poetry he had been writing until then, and decided to turn his hands to novels instead.

He found the unfinished manuscript of a work had had begun but then left back in 1805, and throughout 1814 he finished it off. The end result was Waverley, a romantic tale of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion which captured the colour and imagery of a by then vanished Highland society.

The readers loved it. It was immediately recognised as a unique and powerful work, and there was a ready audience for more. Scott followed it up with other historical works in the same vein, which are now known as the Waverley novels.

The most famous of these were The Antiquary, Old Mortality, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian and A Legend of Montrose. Despite the fame and money they brought, however, Scott wanted more new challenges.

From 1819 onwards, he started to write novels based on English history as well as Scottish ones. Ivanhoe, set in the England of the 12th century, was published at this time and remains his most popular work.

Other books in this vein included Kenilworth, Redgauntlet and The Talisman, which was set in the Palestine of the crusades. By this stage, he was satisfying an insatiable public demand for historical books - a demand which he had himself created.

Scott was, however, more than just a writer: he was a historian and an adventurer too. In February 1817, he and some friends forced open a sealed door in Edinburgh castle and discovered a dust covered oak chest containing the ancient Honours - the royal sword, sceptre and crown - of Scotland. They had not been claimed or used since the days of Charles II.

Scott also helped to organise the hugely successful visit of George IV to Scotland in 1820. This helped to further cement his reputation as an important figure in Scottish society, though it left him exhausted.

In January 1826, Scott's world finally fell in on him. Archibald Constable failed and the printing company in which he was a partner, James Ballantyne and Co, also collapsed. Scott was liable for part of the debt, which came to a horrifying #120,000 - a King's ransom at the time.

One way out of the problem would have been for him to make himself bankrupt. However, Scott refused to do this, preferring instead to try and pay off the money owed all by himself.

He set up a special trust into which he paid his earnings, meaning that his creditors gradually got their money back. However this financial burden, combined with the almost ruinous cost of the Abbotsford project, forced him to produce more literary output than ever before.

His problems were compounded by the fact that his wife died just before his financial collapse. Scott almost literally worked himself to death, suffering four strokes in quick succession. To try and improve his health, he undertook a tour of Malta and Italy during 1831 and 1832, but it did nothing to aid his recovery and he finally died back home at Abbotsford on 21 September 1832.

Scott's contribution to the literature of his native country, like that of Burns, was massive. He was hugely popular even in his own time, and he did a huge amount through his writings to keep the spirit of Scotland alive.

In a sense, his brilliance united the nation. Other forces, however, were about to drive a wedge right through Scottish society again?.


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