Sir Walter Scott’s impact on literature is undeniable. He created the modern historical novel, and his chosen subject matter of Highland “revival” awakened countless readers to a proud and formerly independent Scotland. Explaining his chosen literary timeframe of historical Scotland, Scott declared that he wrote from the awareness of his country’s “daily melting and dissolving into those of her sister and ally” and much of the global perception of Scotland of over the past couple hundred years comes from his writings.
Born in Edinburgh in 1771, Scott was the son of a solicitor who was a member of the private Scottish society, the Writers of the Signet, who were entitled to use the Scottish King’s seal (signet) when writing legal documents. Scott contracted polio when he was two, and was sent to live at his grandparents’ farm at Sandyknowe, 30 miles from Edinburgh. He was cared for by his grandparents and his Aunt Jenny, who taught him to read and spent time reading to him. His grandmother entertained him with stories of their ancestors and of the wars between the Scots and the English. Here he developed his interest of Scottish heritage and of Scottish ballads. In 1775, after the death of his grandfather (Robert Scott), he was strong enough to return to Edinburgh to start school.
In the fall of 1779, Scott began attending the Royal High School in Edinburgh. He was tutored in writing and mathematics by James Mitchell, not because he needed the extra help, but because those subjects were not taught at the school. Mitchell was a staunch Scottish patriot and made sure to also teach Scott about the Scottish Presbyterian movement and the Scottish Church. Scott was sent to stay with his Aunt Jenny (by then she was living in Kelso) during his last year of high school because he was concerned about the strength, or lack of it, in his legs as he grew heavier. He spent six months in Kelso in 1783, attending the Kelso Grammar School where he met his life-long friend, and future publishing business partner, James Ballantyne.
Scott returned to Edinburgh in the fall of 1783 and began studies at the University. In 1786 he was an apprentice in his father’s law office for a while before returning to University to study for the Bar. During the winter of 1786-87, Scott was at a literary salon where the fifteen-year-old met Robert Burns for the first and only time. Scott became a lawyer in 1792 and while he worked as an Advocate, he also worked with his friend James Ballantyne, translating German works in to English for Ballantyne to publish.
Scott met the woman who would become his wife in 1797, and proposed to Charlotte three weeks after meeting her. They were married Christmas Eve 1797 in Carlisle and returned to live in Edinburgh. They were happily married for thirty years when Charlotte died in May of 1826.
Scott had become publishing partner with James Ballantyne and his brother in 1809. Ballantyne & Co. published Scott’s first works of collected border ballads and narrative poems written between 1805 and 1815. Scott achieved fame as a poet with this collection, and in 1808 wrote the poem Marmion, about the battle between the English and Scottish at Flodden Field in 1513. The poem contains his most-often- quoted rhyme, which is still regularly used today:
Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!
Scott’s popularity as a poet was cemented in 1813 when he was given the opportunity to become Poet Laureate, which he declined (and Robert Southey accepted). Scott continued to write poetry until he began to write his historical novels, beginning with Waverly in 1815. He first published the novels anonymously and did not put his name on them until 1827.
In 1818, Scott led the search that found the Honors of Scotland. Scott was granted the title of baronet in 1820, and went further to help popularize Scottish life and history by founding the Celtic Society of Edinburgh (1820). He was heavily involved in arranging King George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822. It was the first visit to Scotland by a sitting Monarch in 171 years, and (now) Sir Walter Scott had him wear a tartan. Scott had tartans and kilts displayed throughout Edinburgh during the Royal visit, and asked that Scots attending the festivities come “all plaided and plumed in their tartan array”. This brought kilts and tartans into contemporary awareness as a fashion statement and the fabric (pun intended, sorry) of Scottish culture.
Sir Walter Scott was considered the greatest writer of his time and had tremendous influence in the world. His novels captured the imagination of the romantic history of Scotland. This was certainly a driving influence in the Southern United States of the time, where Scott’s novels were well received. They followed the success of James MacPherson’s Ossian epic poetry cycle from the 1760s and Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1810,) a perennial favorite of Southern youth. (President Andrew Jackson, who was not in any way a reader, recommended its hero, Sir William Wallace, to his nephew as a model on which to build his character.)
It was Scott’s tales of chivalry, of horse, honour, knights, and the glorification of women, that captured the imaginations of the Southern upper classes. Ivanhoe was so popular that medieval tournaments were organized across the South. The concept of the “Southern aristocrat” during the antebellum period was based upon the medieval knight. Mark Twain, not a fan of Scott’s writing, wrote The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to satirize this attitude.
A great part of the American South was settled by Scottish and Scots-Irish immigrants and the connection with Celtic roots was deeply rooted in antebellum Southern America. Many survivors of Culloden were transported to what were then the Colonies after the Jacobite Uprising in 1745. Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s grandmother was Scottish, and his mother told him legends from the land of her birth, and even teaching him a few words of Gaidhlig that Davis would later teach his own children. (There were those who tried to draw parallels between the Highland fight for independence and the American Civil War.) In 1869, Davis made very symbolic pilgrimage to Culloden Battlefield, the site of the final Jacobite defeat. Other names associated with the southern American frontier (John C. Calhoun (Colquhoun), Sam Houston, Jim Bowie, Davy Crocket) were also descended from Scottish bloodlines and were brought up on stories of Scottish and Highland life and heroism.
Back in Scotland, Sir Walter Scott, ‘The Wizard of the North’, had, along with song writers and collectors such as Robert Burns, brought Scotland back in to the forefront of literary and cultural awareness. By the time Scott died in 1832, the Highlands had become a tourist destination and the tartan had become the “national symbol”. The fashion for all things Scottish was maintained by Queen Victoria who helped the popularity of the tartan fashion and secured the identity of Scotland as a tourist resort.