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Sir Walter Scott and Scotland

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We in OUP UK are all very excited about the new edition of The Oxford Guide to Literary Britain and Ireland, edited by Daniel Hahn and Nicholas Robins, which publishes here today. In the odd spare moment (not that we publicists get many of those!) we have all been looking up references to places we have lived in, or have been to, and we’ve not been disappointed. With patriotic Scottish pleasure, then, I bring you this extract from the book, written by Christopher MacLachlan, which discusses Sir Walter Scott and Scotland.

Scott is usually acknowledged as the father of the historical novel but he might be called the father of the geographical novel too. The Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe use extended descriptions of scenery but the effect is undermined by the knowledge that she never visited the countries where her fiction is set. Not so with Scott, who repeatedly assures the reader that his places are real, and he has seen them himself. To the thirtieth chapter of Rob Roy (1817), when the hero emerges from his miserable sleeping quarters to view Aberfoil (as Scott spells it) after his first night in the Scottish Highlands, Scott attached a note that ‘the Clachan of Aberfoil now affords a very comfortable little inn’ and that the reader ‘will find himself in the vicinity of the Rev Dr Patrick Grahame… whose urbanity in communicating information on the subject of national antiquities, is scarce exceeded even by the stores of legendary lore which he has accumulated’. But in a later edition Scott added an update: ‘The respectable clergyman alluded to has been dead for some years.’ The reader cannot fail to infer that Scott has personally visited the scene he describes in the novel, and such assurances are scattered through the rest of his work, especially that set in Scotland.

Scott was born in Edinburgh and there, in what he called ‘mine own romantic town,’ he go his education and his profession. In his earliest years, however, he contracted the illness that left him permanently lame and, to recover, was dent to his grandparents’ farm at Sandyknowe, the Borders near Smailholm and its ancient tower-house. There he learnt, mainly from his grandmother, the legends of the Scott family and became enthused by the romance of the Border reivers and the violence and supernatural of the ballads, which he would go on to collect in his first major publication, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3). Though he became Clerk to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, his vacations were spent on forays into the Borders and the Highlands, in quest of folklore and history, and he managed to combine his profession with his heritage by becoming Sheriff-depute of Selkirkshire in 1799.

No wonder then that his first major poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), is woven around the Borders landscape, with copious use of place names and central use of the ruins of Melrose Abbey in a scene both topographical and Gothic. Scott foreshadows his later novels in the combination of a journey through accurately described countryside, decorated with local allusions and anecdotes, and striking use of individual locations, to whose fame he adds the literary colouring of his romantic imagination. The effect on the public was strong and lasting. The Lady of the Lake (1810) so enthralled readers with its vision of the Trossachs that they soon became the tourist attraction they remain to this day, with steamer trips on Loch Katrine past Ellen’s Isle, named after the poem’s heroine. Scotland became through Scott the ‘land of the mountain and the flood’ he eulogizes as ‘meet nurse for a poetic child’ in Marmion (1808).

When, in 1814, feeling the rising power of Byron, Scott turned from verse to prose and published Waverley (1814), he began the series of over 30 novels, most set in Scotland, that carry on the combination of fiction and geography found in his poems. Waverley, a novel of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, presents the principal factions involved not just as historical forces but also as geographical ones. The hero’s introduction to the Highlands is via the Lowlands and the contrast between them. His journey goes back in time but also through different cultures. Scott is heir to Enlightenment views of the progress of society through key stages. Behind the tartan and claymores he indicates the problem facing Fergus MacIvor, his Highland chief, of maintaining a populous clan in a land where resources are scarce and traditionally supplemented by cattle-rustling and blackmail that the modern British state will not longer tolerate. Scott’s sense of place can be full of nostalgia, with his commemoration of past events and his notes on relics and ruins, but the converse is that his is not a static but a dynamic vision. Places are as subject to change as the people who live there.

The economic sinews of Scott’s anatomy of Scotland are perhaps most evident in Rob Roy, where again a young Englishman ventures into remote glens, this time just before the 1715 rebellion, and with a loquacious guide, the Glasgow merchant Bailie Nicol Jarvie. While Frank Osbaldistone, with his poetical pretensions, gives way to somewhat anachronistic feelings of the sublime and the beautiful, Mr Jarvie reminds the reader of the economic facts of life behind the clan turmoils they find themselves in. When, near the end of their adventures, they down Loch Lomond, Frank muses that he ‘could have consented to live and die a lonely hermit in one of the romantic and beautiful islands amongst which our boat glided’, but simultaneously the Bailie is speculating on draining the lake for farming, leaving just enough water for the passage of coal barges.

The ‘Waverley’ novels cover the length and breadth of Scotland, from the Solway Firth in Redgauntlet (1824) to Shetland in The Pirate (1821), from Inveraray in A Legend of Montrose (1819) to the places in the titles of The Fair Maid of Perth (1828) and The Bride of Lammermoor (1818). It is as though Scott followed a programme of novelizing in turn every major region of Scotland. Modern detractors have tried to ridicule the result by naming it ‘Scottland’, a land of makebelieve, but there is truth even in derision and Scott’s image of his native land is still a powerful part of the Scottish scene. Certainly his successors – Stevenson, Buchan, Neil Munro and regional novelists like Lewis Crassic Gibbon and Neil Gunn – often seem to be left colouring in the few blank spaces left in the map of Scotland that Sir Walter drew.

Recent Comments

  1. Tom Huchko

    Nice post. I posted a link to this page in my Avenues to Success Notes for 09/29/08 posting which features Sir Walter Scott.

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