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PART OF THE Summer Reading ISSUE

‘If you were writing a novel set in a Scotland in which Scott never existed, what kind of place would it be?’

Next month sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of Walter Scott. David Robinson considers Scott’s influence on the nation while reading Stuart Kelly’s fascinating study of the writer and his legacy.

 

Scott-land: The Man Who Invented The Nation
By Stuart Kelly
Published by Polygon

 

Imagine there was a third Jacobite rebellion in, say, 1753 and that someone wrote a novel about it. If you know your Scottish literary history, you’ll know that Sir Walter Scott did just that in Redgauntlet, and if you’ve read Stuart Kelly’s Scott-land you will know that such a genre is called uchronie. But let’s go one step further. Let’s imagine that Scott himself never existed. How would Scotland be different?

Implicitly or not, that question is going to be asked a lot this summer, especially around 15 August, the 250th anniversary of Scott’s birth. There are too many events to mention here – check out walterscott250.com – but even a cursory scamper round the internet shows what a deep mark he made on his country: the Gazeteer for Scotland alone mentions 54 attractions connected to him (including one, the Walter Scott Way, from Moffat to Cockburnspath, which I didn’t know about but wouldn’t mind at least partially sampling).

But back to uchronie, or if you prefer, althist, AH, or speculative fiction about the past. If you were writing a novel set in a Scotland in which Scott never existed, what kind of place would it be? And – the crunch question – to what extent would it be different from England?

Consider the background. Claims about the historical depth of Scottish literary culture had already been shattered in the Ossian controversy. Scotland was in the throes of an Industrial Revolution which was shifting its population and further breaking links with the past. And just because the country was centuries-old didn’t mean that it would necessarily endure: Europe is littered with states which existed in the 18th century but which didn’t by the end of the 19th. So did Scott – the writer we hardly read any more, the man behind so much of what we like to mock (tartanry, Balmorality etc) actually save Scotland?

Stuart Kelly is much too good a literary historian to make such wild claims. Instead, in Scott-land, he begins with a rather different question: if you are travelling by train from London to Edinburgh, at what point do you realise that you have left England behind? His answer: right at the very end. If you buy something after you alight at Waverley, look at the notes you receive in your change. They’ll be different, a fact which is down to a successful campaign Scott led in 1826 against the abolition of Scottish bank notes. The accent of the person behind the counter giving you those notes might be different too, and Scott is important here as well: not only did his novels use the vernacular at a time when many of his contemporaries were embarrassed by it, but he sought out and wrote down its ballads and old texts, spreading understanding of the Scots language far beyond those who spoke it. Finally, whether on or near the station concourse, there is bound to be at least a hint of tartan, and here too Scott played a key role, not in ‘inventing’ the kilt but in giving the royal seal of approval to the dress code of the relatively recent Jacobite enemies of the British state.

And then, of course, look around you. You’re in Waverley Station, where the Waverley Line begins. And up the Waverley Steps you might see the Old Waverley Hotel or walk over the Waverley Bridge to have a drink in the Waverley Bar, pausing briefly to look back at the Scott Monument before you do. ‘It might be difficult to know exactly when or where you start being in Scotland,’ writes Kelly, ‘but it is overwhelmingly obvious when you are in Scott-land.’

In Scotland itself, however, Scott remains a hard sell, and in Kelly’s new introduction, he concedes that nothing has changed in this regard since publication of the hardback in 2010. True, Abbotsford has been restored, with a £2 million visitor centre opened in 2012 that has doubled the number of visitors to Scott’s ‘Castle Conundrum’; true too, the Walter Scott Prize set up by the Duke of Buccleuch continues to underline his importance as the founding father of the historical novel. But ‘the Great Unknown’ (as Scott was referred to before admitting that he really was ‘the Author of Waverley’) remains the Great Unread, and it is hard to see that changing. Indeed, as Kelly admits, this may well be impossible, given that Scott’s emphasis on the battlefield as the one place where character is most profoundly tested was rendered out of date by the indiscriminate slaughter of modern war. Scott may have changed Scotland more profoundly than anyone else, but because he is barely read these days, you could be forgiven for forgetting the fact.

As a result, Kelly approaches his subject in a thoroughly modern manner. I’ve just finished reading Craig Brown’s Beatles book One Two Three Four, deserving winner of last year’s Baillie Gifford Prize, yet Scott-land reminds me of it in many ways. Instead of the Fab Four, here is the Fab One, and because the great Walter was every bit as world-famous as John, Paul, George and Ringo, the basics of his story need not be told in the usual, straightforward, biographical way. Instead, 60 shortish chapters give us brief encounters with Scott-linked literary analysis, polemic, travelogue, biography, autobiography (Kelly grew up just a few miles from Abbotsford), history, and explorations of Scottish identity. The result is a portrait of Scott which is both kaleidoscopic, thought-provoking, coherent and quirky. I don’t think, for example, that you’ll find many other books that spend a page working out whether Scott is more like Batman or Superman.

I should, at this stage, point out that I have known and worked with Kelly for the best part of two decades and that in even longer than that I doubt whether I have ever met anyone as ferociously widely read. In Scott-land, he happily explores the recondite thickets of 19th-century Scott satires, parodies and foreign imitators, where I wouldn’t even dream of following him, although I have to admit that occasionally this allows him both to highlight Scott’s wild imagination and remind us of his popularity. I particularly like the story of the German Scott hoax novel Walladmor, which was set in contemporary Wales and translated by De Quincey.  When Scott published The Betrothed (also set in Wales) its preface imagined a meeting at Edinburgh’s Waterloo Tavern of a joint stock company set up to produce the Waverley Novels, at which the company’s chairman warns that already a steam engine has been invented that can churn out passages of commonplace texts, and the results can be seen in Walladmor. Such literary piracy is, Kelly says, relatively unusual, although then, like the bibliophile he is, goes on to point out similar examples: the Chinese Harry Potter and the Porcelain Doll series of the 1990s and the Irish fake Shakespeare plays Vortigern and Rowena of the 1790s. No, me neither…

So why should we still read Scott? Ultimately, for Kelly, the answer is that he is as complicated as we are ourselves, an enigma who doesn’t fit into any pigeonhole but is all the more worthy of studying because of it: ‘He was the Unionist who preserved the idea of a Nation, the self-made Laird who left no line; the literary celebrity who craved anonymity; the disillusioned Romantic; the successful failure and failed success.’ We should read him, he adds, for his dizzying, witty, literary leg-pulling prefaces as well as for the raw honesty of his Journals which, he admits, ‘make the novels seem even more two-dimensional.’

Finally, we should read him because as well as kick-starting Scottish tourism and giving England some of its myths (remember Robin of Locksley firing an arrow that split another, or Raleigh placing his coat over a puddle so Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t get her feet wet? All Scott’s inventions), he brought the songs and stories of ordinary Scots onto a wider stage. As he wrote in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border: ‘I wanted to contribute somewhat to the story of my native country; the peculiar features of whose manners and character are daily melting and dissolving into those of her sister and Ally.’ Which, I believe, for anyone writing a uchronic novel about Scotland without Scott, is precisely where they should start. Just how anglicised would that country be?

 

Scott-land, by Stuart Kelly, is published in paperback this month by Polygon, priced £12.99.

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