Sir Walter Scott & the Reinvention of Scotland

Along with Robert Burns, Walter Scott stands as one of Scotland’s pre-eminent writers. Like Burns, it is difficult to separate the myth from the man and to gain any real perspective on his work Also like Burns is his prominence on the Scottish tourist trail – from his eye-arresting landmark monument on Edinburgh’s Princes Street (the famous ‘Gothic rocket’) to his pastoral home at Abbotsford in the Borders, interest in Scott himself often transcends and obscures his writing. Even Edinburgh’s Waverley train station was named after one of his books.

Why is this? A lot of it has to do with Scott’s reinvention of Scotland.

During Scott’s time Scotland was a country very much ill at ease with itself and had been living through a period of great upheaval and change. The Union of the Parliaments in 1707 had divided the country in half – those in favour of Union, those against. Many were worried that Scotland would lose its distinct national identity altogether; others saw that as a reasonable price to pay for political and financial stability. There were a number of real advantages to Scotland’s union with England, but these were offset by some serious drawbacks. These arguments still go on today. In Scott’s time, however, the wind of change had cast a lot of cultural debris, and it was difficult for people to see a way ahead. Scotland was changing, old ways were dying out, new ways were arriving in an inexorable flood and being resisted.

Scott knew a thing or two about the nation’s history. He even created some if it himself. He loved his country deeply, but as a lawyer and a Tory he believed that the Union was the best option for Scotland (particularly for those with money). Separation would turn the clock back 100 years. While he was studying for his Bar exams, he took walking tours in the Border country. This was his ancestral home where he had grown up with tales and songs from relatives and neighbours for whom the Battle of Culloden was still within living memory. Scott began to note these ballads down as he travelled through the Borders, adapting and amending their rhymes and rhythms, tweaking existing verses, adding his own. The ballads were published as The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders in 1802 and became an immediate and surprisingly popular success which encouraged Scott in his own original writings.

Inspired by his work in the Borders, a few years later he published The Lay of the Last Minstrel, his first major poetic work. It too was an instant success in Scotland and in England, selling many thousands of copies. After this he continued to publish long narrative poems, such as Marmion and The Lady of the Lake, each one more successful than the last. His poems made him a household name in Britain and secured his reputation as a great writer in many countries in Europe, and in the USA. Scott rode a wave of fame and adulation unheard of until the arrival of Lord Byron, whose poetry proved to be even better and more successful than Scott’s.

At this time, with sales of his latest long poem, Rokeby (1812), down substantially on his previous works, Scott realised that Byron had stolen his crown and he didn’t attempt to win it back – at least not through poetry. He turned to novels.

His first was Waverley. Published in 1815, it had been several years in the making and had been inspired by Scott’s travels in the Highlands and by the stories he heard there from people who had witnessed and could remember the revolution in 1745, when the followers of the Stuart family tried to reassert their claim on the monarchy. The revolution had failed but a great deal of resentment and pro-Jacobite feeling remained in Scotland, particularly in the north. The Highland Clearances were also in operation at this time, bringing about the extermination of an ancient way of life in order to clear a path for a more modern culture. The 1745 rebellion provided the historical and scenic backdrop for Waverley and the theme of cultural conflict would run through the majority of his novels thereafter.

The kind of reception that greeted Waverley on publication would make every modern writer jealous. The first edition sold out within days, the critics loved it, and it set Scott on course to becoming one of the wealthiest writers in the country. He had created the first literary bestseller.

He wrote many more novels, each time exploring a different aspect of Scottish history, much of it very recent and within living memory. In a way you could say that Scott gave Scotland back to the people. For too long the fate of the nation had been in the hands of politicians and nobles and landowners and businessmen. The Scots as a nation felt the country was slipping out of their grasp. What Scott did was to give the people a history they could feel and become emotionally involved in. It was history – but with plenty of emphasis on ‘story’.

And Scott was never one to let facts get in the way of a good story, despite thorough research. Indeed the few negative reviews that Waverley received were critical of its inaccuracies. There are parallels here in the way that Hollywood treats factual subject matter, notably with the epic William Wallace bio-pic Braveheart (1996), which was roundly boo-ed by historians and academics for getting all manner of things wrong – from dates to costume, from who said what to whom, and who was alive and who wasn’t born yet. Yet it was the biggest movie of the year. It was loved by audiences the world over who flocked to it in their millions, and in Scotland it caused a resurgence in nationalist feeling and gave the Scottish National Party a healthy boost up the opinion polls. The comparison may be crude, but Scott’s fiction had much the same impact. In fact, it would be true to say that movies like Braveheart are direct descendants of Scott’s novels.

Scott’s achievement was to personalise massive events. If you think of a historical event that you see on television or in the paper – like a war, or an earthquake, or a famine – it is impossible to comprehend the enormity of it. We think of it abstractly, see it as a collection of horrible images, a line of terrified faces; we find it difficult to put ourselves in the places of the people caught up in it. We are, inevitably, at a distance – in time, in place, in emotion. But when we hear the stories of these people, when we listen to what they went through then we begin to relate in a more human way to this event.

This is what Scott did with Scottish history. He introduced psychology, made it personal. Before Scott, there were history books and there were novels. The history books were written with a view to the bigger picture: the great leaders, the battles, the crucial events. In novels, historical events are like a scenic backdrop in a theatre against which various romances are played out – we see what’s going on behind the characters, but they aren’t really involved in it. Scott brought the two forms together, something no-one had done before. He threw his characters into that history, and often his fictional characters would meet ‘real’ historical characters. The landscape – physical and political – was a real one in his books, not just a backdrop. He shows the real impact of history on the lives of ordinary – and extraordinary – individuals. We see and share their suffering, their joy, their loves, their deaths. And we gain an insight into the forces that shaped their lives and the world around them.

But he was a novelist, not a historian; he was writing entertainment, not reporting history. Of course he got some of the historical stuff wrong – his characters must take precedence. But, like all great fiction writers, he included enough of the truth to make his novels seem the more convincing.

The popularity of his books in Scotland made the Scots proud once again of their nation and the culture they thought was about to be swallowed by their more powerful neighbour. Scott not only gave the Scottish people a history and characters they could believe and invest their emotions in, he also gave it to the world. The romance – and the myth – of the Highlands was born.

Scott’s influence has been downplayed a lot in the past, but recently critics have increasingly been acknowledging the place Walter Scott has in the history of the development of the novel. His work was written at the beginning of the 19th century, the golden age of the novel. He was read widely, not only at home in Britain, but across the Atlantic and throughout Europe. From Dickens to Dumas, Hawthorne to Hugo, Tolstoy to Trollope, Scott’s craft informed and shaped the craft of future novelists who would plunder history for their fiction. He created the blueprint for literary fiction that these writers and others would refine and take to a level of sophistication that looking back makes Scott seem like a mere apprentice. But it was his example they followed.

The theme of division within Scotland is strong in Scott’s fiction and it is one he took up in nearly all of his novels. He didn’t have to look hard to find division, for it existed in every level of society. Even Edinburgh, the city in which he lived, had been split in two: the Old Town (Auld Reekie of the slums and stinking open sewers) and the New Town (with its clean Classical town houses and elegant thoroughfares). It is a necessity in drama of any kind to have conflict – whether Cops against Robbers, Cowboys against Indians, the individual against the state. But Scott wrote about the internal conflicts going on in Scotland. He put Jacobites (who looked to a glorious independent Scotland of the past) against Hanoverians (who looked forward to a united Britain); he pitted lowlander against highlander, outlaw against Establishment.

This theme of division continues to be one of the dominant themes in Scottish literature generally, except later we find that the theme has become more internalised. Not only is the individual up against the ‘system’ (often in the form of vast unnameable State institutions), he is also turned against himself – from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde to Alasdair Gray’s Lanark to James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late.

Scott lived through extraordinary times. His achievement was not only to reflect the changes going on around him, but to define them. Much of the Scotland we recognise in tourist adverts and Hollywood movies, many of our most familiar symbols and myths can be traced right back to the remarkable and original fiction of Walter Scott.