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Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott looms large in any roll call of Scottish writers yet few people now, outside the academic arena, would claim to have read his work in its entirety. Yet, the man and his books gripped Europe in the 19th century and made him one of the best-known and influential writers of the age. (He also retains the distinction of being the only writer in Britain to have had a railway station named after one of his works: Edinburgh’s Waverley station.)

He was born in Edinburgh in 1771 in the Old Town, where he lived for much of his early years. He suffered from bouts of ill health in his youth and was often sent to relatives in the Borders, an area for which he retained an enormous affection, finally settling there when he became successful. In 1786-87 when Scott was fifteen, he met Robert Burns at a literary salon in Edinburgh. The poet made a distinct impression on Scott as he recalls: ‘I think his countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits. I would have taken the poet, had I not known what he was, for a very sagacious country farmer of the old Scotch school; that is, none of your modern agriculturalists who keep laborers for their drudgery, but the douce guidman who held his own plough. There was a strong expression of sense and shrewdness in all his lineaments: the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a cast which glowed (I say literally glowed). I never saw such another eye in a human being, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time. His conversation expressed perfect self-confidence, but without the least intrusive forwardness; and when he differed in opinion, he did not hesitate to express it firmly, yet at the same time with modesty.’

After studying law at Edinburgh University, Scott qualified as a lawyer, and became an Advocate in 1792. During his time as an Advocate he spent time in the Scottish Borders where he renewed his interest in the area and in the Border Ballads. His main literary debut came in the form of the collection, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, first published in 1802 and which included a contribution from James Hogg, the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’. Scott also studied German at the time in order to read Goethe and Schiller, among others, and translated several works into English. He had begun his literary career in verse and song but soon moved on to prose. In the late 18th century, the novel was not seen as a serious literary form, (not compared to poetry in any case) so Scott’s first foray into novel writing was made anonymously with the publication of Waverley in 1814. The work was literally an overnight success, selling out very rapidly in the days following publication. Thereafter, Scott’s output was prodigious. Waverley was followed by eight Scottish-based novels, including the bestselling Rob Roy, a novel about the legendary Jacobite rebel.

In 1797 Scott had married Charlotte Carpenter in Carlisle and settled in Edinburgh where the first two of his children are born. In 1799, he became Sheriff Depute of Selkirkshire and made a decision to move his family from Edinburgh to the Borders. In 1818 he accepted a baronetcy and commenced the building of a new house, which he called Abbotsford a few years later. It would be a much-admired example of Scots Baronial architecture but was one that would prove very costly. In 1824 the family moved in and enjoyed the many comforts of the house, as did many distinguished visitors.

1826 was to prove one of the worst years in Scott’s life, however. In May, Scott’s wife died and later that year Scott’s publishers and printer, Archibald Constable and James Ballantyne, upon whom Scott had drawn loans and advances to finance Abbotsford, suffered severe financial difficulties and Scott found himself in debt to the tune of £121,000. He would have been forced to sell the house had he not placed it in the name of his son, thus taking it out of reach of his creditors. Scott was thus able to remain in the house until his death in 1832. (The house, which is open to the public, is a major attraction these days.)

The fall out from the financial troubles ruined the relationship between Scott and his publishers and cast a shadow over his later years. His immense literary output did not dim however as he continued to write to pay off his debts. He is buried in Dryburgh Abbey.

There are many editions of his work, both academic editions and cheaper Classic editions. Edinburgh University Press publishes the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels.

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