Sir Walter Scott
“Teach your children poetry; it opens the mind, lends grace to wisdom and makes the heroic virtues hereditary”
Renaissance Man. Born into an affluent Edinburgh family but raised in the Scottish Borders, Walter Scott was a product of the Scottish Enlightenment and one of Britain’s most important literary figures. After surviving a bout of polio he was sent to the Southern Borders to be raised away from the squalor of the city. While there he learned the stories and legends of the Border lands and developed the Romanticism that would come to define so much of his literary works. Like so many writers of his day Walter juggled multiple jobs, having been educated in law at Edinburgh University. While there, he met with the other famous son of Scottish literature, Robert Burns.
His Works. Walter initially became renowned as a poet before turning his hand to novels. Publishing in 1796, his poems caught the public imagination and gained him international fame almost immediately. His first novel was Waverley which he published anonymously. Most suspected that it was indeed Walter who had written the novel but he did not admit as much until 1827. In the meantime the speculation proved something of a PR masterstroke for Walter whose stock rose with each new novel he wrote.
Making Friends & Influencing People. Such was the popularity of Walter’s works within his own lifetime that he struck up a friendship with the Prince Regent and future King George IV. In 1818, Walter convinced George to allow him to seek out the Scottish Crown Jewels which had been ‘lost’ for 150 years. George agreed a short while later, Walter and his team uncovered the lost regalia at Edinburgh Castle! The Prince rewarded Walter with a Baronetcy. George visited his Scottish subjects in 1822 to celebrate his coronation as King. The event was organised at short notice by Walter himself. The King arrived wearing tartan, a Scottish dress which had been banned since the Jacobite rebellion and which is now a symbol of Scottish identity. It wasn’t Walter’s only PR coup!
Making & Losing Money. Walter was the first writer who is known to have used literary agents to sell his novels to publishers. In doing so he negotiated deals that were hugely favourable to the writer and unknown in those days. He used his money to invest in his estate at Abbotsford and made investments into a publishing company but by 1825, a run on commercial banks across the UK saw widespread bankruptcies as the financial system ground to halt. Walter was bankrupt but his unusual request of paying off his debts by writing rather than selling assets was allowed by the creditors, such was the high regard in which he was held.
Influences from Unlikely Places. There is no question that the tales of the Scottish borders influenced Walter as much as his collection of books. Yet many recurring themes in his works come from his experiences as a child. Sometime before his 8th birthday, some Highland soldiers were killed during a mutiny. Their bloodied corpses were brought to Edinburgh where folk were charged a penny to see the Highlanders lying stiff. Walter himself later wrote: “never was a penny… so well laid out for I saw nothing for ten days after but the highlanders lying stiff and stark and so had my penny worth for a whole week.” The dark humour is evident and like much of Walter’s work, sought to challenge the intellect. In particular, dead bodies lying exposed is a recurrent image in his writing.
Abbotsford. At his home in the Scottish Borders the library of books accumulated by Walter in his lifetime remains. Containing 9,000 books his library reflects the interests of the man: ranging from Saints to witchcraft and antiques to technology it could be easy to mistake his personality as something of a contradiction. He was rather, a man of the world with a thirst for knowledge. While a proud Scot he spoke highly of the English calling them ‘Scotland’s greatest allies’ and seems to have believed in the concept of the Union, often challenging historic traditions and speculating on how to free oneself from the past.
Death & Legacy. Appropriately, Walter died at Abbotsford in the Borders surrounded by his family and within the earshot of the river Tweed. His works were hugely successful during his lifetime as they were easily acceptable for the conservative English aristocracy who feared political unrest. Walter’s accounts of clan warfare amongst the Scots made the events seem from another age, which contrasted with the enlightenment. He befriended many literary greats throughout his lifetime, including Lord Byron who published a poem in his honour. He even boosted the career of Jane Austen following his review of Emma. Nowadays it is often Jane who has posthumously boosts the profile of Walter having written a letter about Waverley to her niece Anna Austen: “Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. It is not fair. He has fame and profit enough as a poet and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. I do not like him and I do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but I fear I must!” (28 September 1814).