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Sir Walter Scott: Looks Good in a Kilt

The typical modern image of Scotland--outside of the country, at least--was in no small part due to the work of Walter Scott, novelist and poet, who rose to an outstanding literary and cultural status in Victorian Britain. It was Scott, for example, who in preparation for the visit to Edinburgh of the then-King George IV created the tartans of the clans. Until that time true kilts were huge bolts of cloth--a little more Braveheart and a little less 'skirt-like,' a phrase I use with the utmost hesitation. The crown had suppressed wearing the tartan for years as well, and many of the original patterns were lost; Scott and company reinvented them. Families, old ones, actually came down from the highlands to see Scott-and have what the world takes for ancient heritage assigned to them. His work shaped the perception of that nation for generations. And he could almost certainly drink me under the table.

The Early Years

Scott was born in Edinburgh on August 15, 1771 to parents Walter and Anne, living quite happily on or about Chambers Street. The pater familias was a Writer to the Signet; Mom was the daughter of a professor of medicine.

When he was 18 months old, polio took from him the use of his right leg, and he was sent to the Borders to live on his grandfather's farm.

The Years Just After Those

Scott divided his time between homes until he went to Edinburgh University in 1783, graduating with a degree in law before going to work for his dad's legal practice (so THAT'S what a Writer to the Signet does!).

He didn't make advocate until 1792, but continued practicing until his retirement nearly forty years later.

In 1797, he went and got himelf hitched to Charlotte Carpenter, shacking up first at 108 George Street. When the springs were exhausted there they went to 10 South Castle St., and finally to 39 Castle St. proper, where they stayed for twenty-eight years.

Writing Poems for Fun and Profit

Though it wasn't yet easy, a person could scratch out some decent money with a pen, which Scott set to paper in 1799. With the help of chaps like John Leyden, Richard Heber, James Hogg, and William Laidlaw, he completed a collection of ballads entitled 'The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border', which I cannot recommend, having never heard of it to read it before this moment.

Scotland, however, did hear of it, and read so many copies of that Scott was able to finance an Edinburgh printing works under the auspices of James Ballantyne.

This gave him the benefit of additional money and time, both of which he used to publish The Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805. It's not what its title suggests. But it was vastly sucessful, nonetheless, and Scott went on to produce Marmion three years later. Marmion is the work that gave us:

Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When we practice to deceive!

As well as the fourth canto, which includes Hymn to the Virgin, and begins thus:

Ave Maria! maiden mild
Listen to a maiden's prayer!

It was translated into German, set to music by Schubert, and became the song now widely known as--well, Ave Maria.

A Place in the Country

By 1811, city life had lost some of its lustre, and Scott began to build himself a castle in the gothic style near Galashiels. He called it Abbotsford, and it wasn't cheap. In order to finance it, Scott had no choice. He needed the money. He had to resort to fiction.

Scott's financial difficulties--Ballantyne's was in trouble by this point--were largely remedied by Waverly in 1814. Scholarly types will tell you that it defined a new genre in writing, and led to a new string of successful ventures on Scott's part. They will also tell you that, if given half a chance, Scott would have loved to tell you that much himself.

What's In a Name?

Nothing, if you're referring to Scott's novels. He published them anonymously, possibly as a guard against the failure of Waverly at first, but he kept on with the gambit throughout his successes as well. The author of his novels earned among other titles 'the Wizard of the North.'

As secrets go, it wasn't long before everyone knew; however, he didn't finally take credit until 1827, when he announced his 'secret identity' during a public dinner.

Finally, I Can Relax

The novels thrust Scott onto the European literary mainstage. He scored the title of baronet in 1818, and founded a school for boys, the Edinburgh Academy.

Whoops. Spoke to Soon.

A life of scholarly leisure and prodigious whisky drinking didn't quite come to fruition for poor Sir Walter. Ballantyne's, of which he was still the primary shareholder and partner, finally went under in 1826. Charlotte died four months later. With the debts piling up on the mahogany desk in his lavishly furnished castle, Scott uttered the following resolution:

'My right hand shall work it all off.'

Again, not what it sounds like. His prodigious efforts as a writer did not lapse until his retirement from the Courts in 1830.

All Right. Whose Icy Grip is that on My Shoulder?

By 1830, Sir Walter's health was in as bad a condition as his bankbook. The disease he had been fighting his whole life finally meant to catch up with him.

He took a cruise of the Mediterranean the following year for the improvement of his health, but to no avail.

He returned to Scotland in the summer of 1832, and died in his home.

Give Me The Works

As I say, the man was prodigious. Some of his key novels are:

Important Poems include:

All among many, many others.


Thanks to Roninspoon for some notes on the tartan!

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