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Sir Walter Scott - Biography & Selected Products

Selected products from Sir Walter Scott

 

Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet, FRSE, was a Scottish playwright, novelist and poet who became the first English-language author to be internationally celebrated within their own lifetime, with an established readership across North America and Europe. Although he wrote extensively, he was by profession an advocate and judge, and he continued to practice alongside his writing career.


He was born on the 15th August 1771 in Edinburgh in his solicitor father’s third floor flat on College Wynd, part of the Old Town and just beneath the old University of Edinburgh. He endured a bout of polio in 1773 and, though he survived, was left lame from the ordeal. That year he was sent to his paternal grandfather’s farm at Sandyknowe in the Scottish Borders where his Aunt Jenny taught him reading and speech, using the local legends and folklore as reading and writing material. Many of these tales fascinated Scott, and he would later draw on them for creative inspiration. He spent two years with his grandparents and returned to Edinburgh in 1775, though soon after he and his aunt Jenny went to Bath for spa treatment, living at 6 South Parade for the duration of their stay. They returned to Edinburgh but by the winter of 1776 Scott had returned to Sandyknowe, where it seemed he lived more healthily, being at a distance from the city. In the summer of 1777 he went with his aunt to Prestonpans, hoping for more success with the water cure.

Scott began formal education in 1778, beginning privately in Edinburgh in preparation for school. The family had moved to a newly built house on George Square, and Scott joined them here before starting at the Royal High School of Edinburgh in 1779. His time in Sandyknowe and taking the water cure had enabled him to walk so he spent a lot of time exploring the city by foot, while reading chivalric romances, histories, travel books and poetry. A tutor named James Mitchell was employed to give him private tuition in writing and arithmetic, and Scott learned the history of the Church of Scotland. After he finished school he and his aunt Jenny went to Kelso for six months where he attended the local grammar school and met James and John Ballantyne, with whom he would later become a business partner and who printed his books.

Now twelve, Scott took up studies in classics at the University of Edinburgh in November 1783. Most of his fellow students were at least a year older than him, but Scott was already displaying a fierce intelligence which enabled him to keep up with his peers. He began an apprenticeship to become a Writer to the Signet in his father’s office after he finished his studies at the University. While there, he had befriended Adam Ferguson, whose father was Professor Adam Ferguson and who hosted regular literary salons. It was at one such salon that Scott met the poet Thomas Blacklock, from whom he would borrow books, discovering, amongst various great literary works, James Macpherson’s Ossian cycle of poems. When Scott was fifteen he met Robert Burns at one such salon. Burns had remarked upon a print of the poem “The Justice of the Peace” and enquired after its author; nobody but Scott know it to be by John Langhorne, and Burns promptly thanked Scott for the information. It was now decided that Scott would become a lawyer and so he returned to the University to study law, taking classes in Moral Philosophy and Universal History from 1789-90. Having completed his studies he became a lawyer and was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1792. He had an unsuccessful romance with Wlliamina Belsches of Fettercairn, who eventually chose to marry Scott’s friend Sir William Forbes, 6th Baronet.

Scott was fascinated by the oral tradition of the Scottish borders, with its poetry, folklore and legend, and he collected stories throughout his youth and as a young man, almost obsessively. Indeed, in order to ensure that he remembered the stories he heard correctly he developed a system of carvings on twigs which allowed him to subtly record the details of the story without offending the story-tellers, many of whom would have disapproved, believing such stories the preserve of the oral tradition. By the age of twenty five he was writing professionally, alongside his career as a lawyer. His first published work was one of rhyming translations of poems by the German poet Gottfried August Bürger, which was published in 1796. It was his next publication, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, which confirmed his interest in Scottish literary history, being a collection of ballads from the areas around Sandyknowe, many of which he has first heard as a boy during his visits to his grandparents’ farm.

Owing to the polio infection which had afflicted him as a child he suffered from a significant limp which made walking difficult. Although he stubbornly walked as often as he could, he found on horseback he had far greater freedom and could travel further and faster. Given that his limp ruled out any military activity, he enlisted in the 1st Lothian and Border yeomanry as a volunteer, being a talented horseman. It was while he and some old college friends were visiting the Lake District that he met Charlotte Genevieve Charpentier, the daughter of Jean Charpentier of Lyon, France, and ward of Lord Downshire in Cumberland. Scott and Charpentier courted for only three weeks before Scott proposed marriage. She accepted, and they were married in Carlisle Cathedral on Christmas Eve of 1797. They rented a house in George Street in Edinburgh before moving to South Castle Street. Of their five children, four lived past Scott’s death.

Scott spent the summer of 1798, and every summer thereafter until 1804, in a cottage at Lasswade in Midlothian, where he and his wife hosted regular guests, often literary figures. It was here that his literary career really began. In 1799, two years after his marriage, Scott was appointed Sheriff-Depute of the Country of Selkirk. This was based in the Royal Burgh of Selkirk’s courthouse and, with his work as Sheriff Depute, his continuing work as a lawyer and the proceeds from his burgeoning writing career combined with his share of his father's estate, along with his wife's income, they enjoyed a comfortable life. Scott was reminded by the Lord Lieutenant of the county that sheriffs must reside for at least four months of the year in their area of jurisdiction, and so at first Scott had to stay at local inns to satisfy these nominal residency requirements. Their third son was born in 1801 and Scott and his wife built a house at 39 North Castle Street, moving there because they needed more space during the eight months of the year in which he was not required at Selkirk. They lived here until 1826.

By 1804 Scott decided to end his lease of Lasswade cottage and moved instead to Ashiestiel house, a “decent farmhouse… overhanging the Tweed and situated in a wild, pastoral country”, some six miles from Selkirk. He was at Ashiestiel until 1812 and considered these eight years amongst the happiest in his life. Having settled in in 1804, he wrote

We are seven miles from kirk and market. We rectify the last inconvenience by killing our own mutton and poultry; and as to the former, finding there was some chance of my family turning pagans, I have adopted the goodly practice of reading prayers every Sunday, to the great edification of my household.

Scott spent at least six months of the year here which indicates his love for the place, as this was a significantly greater period of time than he was required to reside in Selkirk. Scott employed a local man, Thomas Purdie, to keep the house over winter and superintend the sheep farm. Purdie would become a lifelong friend and faithful assistant of Scott until death in 1832. It was in the writing room at Ashiestiel that Scott composed the Lay of the Last Minstrel, the Lady of the Lake and approximately a third of Waverley. Though critics are divided over where exactly on the estate Scott wrote Marmion, it is certain that he wrote it while at Ashiestiel. The critic Theo Lang believes the majority of it to have been penned from the Shira’s Knowe overlooking the Peel and the Glenkinnon burns. In the 1830s the celebrated romantic painter J.M.W. Turner painted a romanticised version of Ashiestiel in illustration of Marmion.

Scott’s friend, James Ballantyne, had founded a printing press in 1796 in Kelso in the Scottish Borders, and it was Ballantyne who published much of Scott’s early work, including the Lay of the Last Minstrel which firmly established Scott’ position in the Scottish literary tradition, and that of English literature as a whole. Enjoying this success and the reputation it afforded him, Scott published many more works over the following years with Ballantyne. He continued his German language translations and parts of this work were set to music by the German romantic composer Franz Schubert, including the song Ellens dritter Gesang, better known as Ave Maria. In Marmion, Scott produces such beauty that passages became proverbial, such as Canto VI. Stanza 17:

Yet Clare's sharp questions must I shun

Must separate Constance from the nun

Oh! what a tangled web we weave

When first we practice to deceive!

A Palmer too! No wonder why

I felt rebuked beneath his eye.

Buoyed by the success of their collaboration, Scott was able to convince the Ballantynes to relocate their press to Edinburgh and he became a partner in their business. Being a political conservative and advocate of the Union with England, Scott was instrumental in the founding of the Tory Quarter Review, a journal for which he made various contributions under anonymity. Scott was also ordained in the Presbyterian Church of Duddington, sitting in the General Assembly as the burgh of Selkirk’s representative elder.

His lease on Ashiestiel expired in 1811 and, rather than renewing, Scott bought Cartley Hole Farm, near Melrose and a few miles downstream on the Tweed. Scott built a cottage there in 1812 which he named Abbotsford and, over the next few years, continued to expand the estate until the cottage became the grand Abbotsford House which still stands today. Alongside a series of extensions on the house he bought up much of the surrounding land, ultimately possessing approximately 1,000 acres. In total the building costs are estimated at £25,000, which in 2012 would be approximately £1.7mil. Scott came to refer to it as “the Dalilah of his imagination”, his “Conundrum Castle” and his “flibbertigibbet of a house”, to suit “none but an antiquary”. At no point had Scott designed any great plans for a house of the scale it became; his initial intention was merely to expand the existing farmhouse in order to create sufficient space for his family of six, although the first purchases he made were more land from his neighbours. He was planting trees in the grounds before he even owned the land. As his income increased, so did his imagination for the house, and so he enlisted the various services of several of his architect friends over the course of several years as he expanded.

In 1813 Scott had been offered the position of Poet Laureate, though he turned the offer down and the position was taken instead by Robert Southey. Until now he had predominately written poetry in the celebrated classical epic style, considered by the romantics to be the greatest medium of literary expression. However, Scott became interested in the novel form despite its comparative unpopularity for a supposed aesthetic inferiority. Owing to this lack of popularity, he published his first novel, Waverley, anonymously, in 1814. Dealing with the Jacobite rising of 1745 the novel follows English protagonist Edward Waverley’s dealings with the conflicted and changing morals following surrounding the Union with England and its effects on the politics of marriage. Its success encouraged several more novels in the next fives years, all of which were published under “Author of Waverley” or similar anonymities, both as a means of piggybacking the success of Waverley and because Scott feared his traditional father would disapprove of such a trivial pursuit as novel writing. Scott came to be known as the “Wizard of the North” for his writing, and among literary circles it was an open secret that he was the author of these novels. In 1815 the Prince Regent, George, dined with him as he wished to meet the “Author of Waverley”. It was only in 1827 that Scott formally announced himself to be the author of Waverley.

As Scott’s fame grew and he became recognised as an authority on Scottish history, tradition and legend, the Price Regent, having met Scott and been impressed by his character, formally gave permission for Scott to search for the Crown Jewels which had been lost during the years of the Protectorate under Cromwell. They had last been formally used at the crowning of Charles II, in 1649. Scott and several soldiers located them in Edinburgh castle in 1818, resulting in the granting of a Baronet by the grateful Prince Regent. Again impressed by Scott’s capability, George would later commission Scott to manage the official visit of the now-King George IV to Scotland, and with only three weeks to plan and execute Scott succeeded in designing an extensive and spectacular festival, intended both to please the King and go some way to bringing the increasingly disparate Scottish society together. An example of this pageant can be found in the novel Kenilworth, in which Elizabeth I is welcomed to Kenilworth castle with a similar pageant.

By 1825 a banking crisis was crippling the entirety of the United Kingdom, and the Ballantyne printing company was one of the business drastically affected. Of the three partners, Scott was solely financially interested; the business’s debts of £130,000 (approx. £10mil in 2012) resulted in a very public ruination for Scott. His pride kept him from accepting financial aid (even from his admirer, King George) or declaring himself bankrupt and so he placed his home and income in a trust owned by his creditors, resolving to continue writing until he could pay his debts. Compounding these unfortunate circumstances was the death of his wife in 1826. However, galvanised by his resolution to clear himself of debt, he maintained his enormous literary output until 1831 by which point his health had begun to fail. Nonetheless he departed on a grand tour of Europe and was pleased to find that, despite the public nature of his financial ruin, he was warmly welcomed across Europe. Having returned to Abbotsford, he died there in September, although the reason for his death is not established. Though at his death he was still in debt, the continuing sales of his work ensured that all debt was discharged shortly after he died. He was survived by four children and one of the longest-standing and strongest reputations in the English language literary canon.