Regarded as one of Scotland’s most popular writers, Sir Walter Scott produced an exemplary body of work, notably his famous Waverley novels.
Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh on the 15th of August 1771. He was born in a house on College Wynd where the Old College building of Edinburgh University now stands. He was the 9th child of Walter Scott, writer to the Signet, and Anne Rutherford. At the age of two he contracted polio which rendered him lame for the rest of his life, often walking with a limp. To attempt to cure his illness, he was sent to live with his grandfather, Robert Scott, at Sandyknowe, near Smailholm, in the Scottish Borders. It was his time spent at Smailholm where he developed his love of the Borders. In 1778 he returned to Edinburgh. By now the Scott family were living in grander accommodation at 25 George Square.
Scott began his education in October 1779 at the High School of Edinburgh. His education was interrupted by a period of ill health and he was again sent to Sandyknowe. One year later he returned to the city and to his studies. In 1786, he was apprenticed to his father’s law firm; however he soon decided he wanted to become a lawyer and returned to Edinburgh University where he qualified as an advocate in 1792. He practiced as an Advocate in Edinburgh where he dealt with more provincial matters, his first Edinburgh case not presented until 1795.
When Scott met Burns
The only known meeting between Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns took place during the winter of 1786/87. At a house on Sciennes House Place they both attended the literary salon of Scott’s university friend Adam Ferguson. This meeting had a lasting impression on the young Walter Scott.
Scott married French-born Charlotte Carpenter in Carlisle on the 24th of December 1797. Following the wedding, they moved into rented accommodation at 50 George Square, Edinburgh. Their first child, Sophia, was born in 1799 prompting Scott to seek more stable means of employment. He successfully petitioned Henry Dundas, controller of Crown patronage in Scotland, for the position of Sheriff-depute of Selkirkshire. Between 1801 and 1806, Charlotte gave birth to three more children; Walter, Anne and Charles. The growing in size of the family meant Scott had to find more sizable accommodation and so built 39 Castle Street in Edinburgh’s New Town. It was this house that was to become Scott’s winter residence. Scott was to also have properties in Lasswade on the banks of the River Esk and also Ashestiel near Selkirk but he eventually found a prized home in Cartley Hole Farm near Melrose, which he was to rename Abbotsford.
Scott the Writer
Since childhood, Scott had maintained a strong interest in the literary world. He wrote his own poetry as well as collecting celebrated works by Shakespeare and Fielding. At university he formed the Poetry Society and was an avid member of the Literary Society. His position as the Sheriff-depute allowed him considerable time to work on his poems and novels and also gave him ample time to collect various ballads pertaining to the Borders. Regarded as his first major piece of work, ‘The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ was published in 1800 though it wasn’t until the release of ‘The Lady of the Last Minstrel’ in 1805 that he was to find popular acclaim. Scott’s status as a writer was rising and demand grew for his works. ‘Marmion’ was published in 1807 selling 28,000 copies over three years. It was followed three years later by ‘The Lady of the Lake’ which broke all previous sales records and proved his popularity in Britain as well as the United States of America.
The Waverley Novels
In 1814, Walter Scott published his first novel Waverley. This was to become a series of novels, each depicting periods of Scotland’s history. Scott’s romantic view of Scottish history gave rise to the boom in tourism throughout the Victorian period as his books became popular with new audiences. The ‘Waverley’ novels, as they became known, spanned 28 books including well known titles such as ‘The Heart of Midlothian’, ‘Ivanhoe’ and ‘Rob Roy’. The last volume was published in 1831 shortly before his death. Scott published most of his works alongside his childhood friend James Ballantyne, whom he met at Sandyknowe. Scott became a silent partner in Ballatyne’s publishing company, successfully encouraging him to move his works from Kelso to Edinburgh. It was a business relationship that saw Ballantyne become his publisher and editor.
Due in part to Scott’s passion for his home at Abbotsford, which he frequently extended and renovated, he built up sizeable levels of debt. He would have lost Abbotsford had he not signed over ownership to his son. To raise vital funds he sought advancement in royalties for books not yet published. This was a risky strategy that paid off as his popularity as a writer continued into the late 1820s.
Visit of George IV
In 1822 King George IV made the first visit to Edinburgh by any monarch since the mid-17th century. As a baronet, awarded for the discovery of the ‘Honours of Scotland’ in 1818, Sir Walter Scott was instrumental in organising the royal visit, promoting the best of what Scotland had to offer. It was during this visit that the wearing of the kilt once again became popular.
In May 1826, Scott’s wife, Charlotte, died. He channelled his energies into his writing to pay off debts amounting to £140,000. This was to the detriment of his health. In the final years of his life he suffered a stroke and haemorrhaging as the strain of his personal life and his finances took hold. Sir Walter Scott died on the 21st of September 1832 and was buried next to his wife at Dryburgh Abbey. His debts were eventually paid off following posthumous sales of his novels and collections of poetry.
Sir Walter Scott remembered
In the years following his death, a subscription was raised for the building of a national monument to honour Scott as one of Scotland’s greatest writers. Designed by George Meikle Kemp, the Scott Monument was opened in August 1844.
“And come he slow, or come he fast, It is but death who comes at last.” Sir Walter Scott, ‘Marmion’ (1808)
Image © Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Historic Environment Scotland, The City of Edinburgh Council, Special Collections-Glasgow University Library | Licensor Scran