Sir Walter Scott

Posted in Scottish Writers

Sir Walter Scott / Writers

Scott was born in Edinburgh, the son of a lawyer, on 15 August 1771. His mother was the daughter of a physician. A crucial illness occurred when he was 18 months old, when he contracted poliomyelitis. This left him with lameness in his right leg but as so often happens led to useful influences during his formative years. He was sent to recuperate on his grandfather's farm near Kelso. For the next five years he was immersed in an atmosphere of Borders culture; ballads, tales of heroes, historical buildings.

He returned to Edinburgh in 1777, received a good grounding in Latin at the High School of Edinburgh (1779-83), and two sessions at Edinburgh University. He became apprenticed to his father at the practice of law, but found this to be desperately tedious; he then studied for the Bar, being admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1792. By 1782 he had started writing, but his first claim to public attention was easily that of the publication in 1802-3 of his ballad collection Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.

This collection may be judged as flawed, as Scott was not a field collector; rather, he drew in fragments and the common stock and reworked them creatively. This was followed by a full-length narrative poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel ( 1805). His good knowledge of the Scottish countryside, its peoples and its history were persuading his readers that the country had a traditional literature which could also be a great literature. Unfortunately, exposure to this literature while at school was often a mistake, as many generations of Scots have found that Scott did not write for children.

In 1797 he married Charlotte Charpentier, a French emigre. It was a happy marriage, through with little intellectual understanding. They had four children, and lived in Edinburgh while Scott was working at the Court of Session, and Abbotsford near Melrose out of term. This house became a sink for Scott's earnings, as he built it up and bought up nearby land.

Scott began to move on from ballads and poetry, taking up an unfinished manuscript of a novel he had begun in 1805. This he finished in 1814, after a year of work on it, and it was published as Waverley, the first of what became known as his Waverley Novels. In this series of books he had discovered a flair for the description of historical events involving not only knights in shining armour, but also the people of the land. It was a happy synthesis, putting together all of his accumulated knowledge and experience.

Just as well, for financial disaster was about to hit. He had become a partner in a printing firm, James Ballantyne & Co. In the financial crisis hitting the country in 1826, Scott became insolvent when they failed. Rather than declare himself a bankrupt, he determined to pay off all debts, a massive, in those days, #120,000. He began to write feverishly. The biggest project was a new edition of his own works, in all 48 volumes appearing at monthly intervals, between 1829-33. His wife died in 1826, just after the financial crash. His house in Edinburgh was sold, to help pay off the debts.

The result was predictable; he wore himself out with overwork. Between 1830-2 he suffered four strokes. A holiday abroad was too late for recovery, and he returned home, to die at Abbotsford on 21 September 1832. When he died he had paid off #50,000.

His major claim is probably the virtual invention of the historical novel. Many of them were allegorical; he wrote of events using the history of Scotland, a country which though without statehood, was yet a nation. And he was one of its greatest story-tellers.