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Sir Walter Scott, Scotland's Border Writer

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd
From wandering on a foreign strand!
Sir Walter Scott
The Lay of the Last Minstrel

One of the best known authors of his time—the early 19th century—Sir Walter Scott is credited with rebuilding the Scottish people’s pride in their native land through his poems and novels which romanticized the people in a historical context. He is also regarded as helping to restore the Scottish crown jewels, the “Honours of Scotland” to the country by instigating a search for them under the auspices of George IV. Locked away and forgotten after Scotland and England united in 1707, the treasures—crown, sceptre, and sword—were found in October 1817, in Edinburgh Castle, where they are now proudly displayed.

Lady Stairs Writers Museum Edinburgh by Barbara Ballard Sir Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh’s Old Town on August 15, 1771, at 8 Chambers St, now marked with a plaque. Edinburgh has honoured him with a massive, Gothic style, spired monument on Princes Street. The Writers' Museum or Lady Stair’s House—it takes its name from the Countess of Stair who owned it in the early 18th century—contains a collection relating to his life and work.

Although Edinburgh was his family home, he spent much of his time as a young child at his grandfather’s farm at Sandyknowe in the Borders. This was the beginning of his fascination with the area.

"then rise those crags that maintain'd tower which charmed my fancy's waking hour”

Thus Scott describes Smailholm Tower, beside the family farm, in Marmion. Smailholm, sitting high on a rocky outcrop northwest of Kelso, is an example of a rectangular pele tower, a fortified home built as a refuge from attack during the years of lawless border fighting. The tower holds an exhibition of costume figures and tapestries that illustrate Scott’s connections with the area.

Scott studied law at Edinburgh University, and in 1799 was made Sheriff-depute of Selkirkshire. During the next seven years, while performing his duties, he explored Liddesdale—south of Hawick on the border—which further fired his imagination by putting him in touch with ordinary people who knew the old ballads of the Borders. He began his writing by editing a book of the ballads, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, then by publishing his own Border ballads. In this once wild land of robbers and raiders, death and destruction were commonplace. Today, it is a land of unspoilt hills, market towns and ruined abbeys.

National celebrity status came to Scott in the Lay of the Last Minstrel, his first narrative poem, written in 1805, where he writes of Melrose Abbey:

“. . . .If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight;”

Melrose Abbey by Barbara Ballard Melrose Abbey was one of several abbeys that were powerful presences in the borderlands before the dissolution of the monasteries. The abbey was burnt down by Richard II in 1385 and again in 1545 by order of Henry VIII. The existing sandstone ruins—only the restored commendator’s house is complete—are a rebuilding from that time. Decorative gargoyles adorning the abbey include a pig playing bagpipes.

By 1808, the Abbey was in a sad state, and Scott appealed to the owner, the Duke of Buccleuch, a kinsman, to carry out repairs. His appeal was successful, and Scott, himself, directed the builder in undertaking the necessary work. Robert the Bruce (1306-1329) requested that his heart—his body is buried at Dunfermline Abbey—be buried at Melrose Abbey after it was carried on a Crusade. During Historic Scotland’s excavation of the Chapter House in 1996, a casket containing a mummified heart was uncovered at the Abbey.

On his holidays Scott toured the Highlands, Northumberland and the Borders. His romantic narrative poem, Marmion, is, in part, a tale of Flodden Field, the battlefield where the English defeated James IV of Scotland. Today, Flodden Field, at the northeast extension of the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland, lies slumbering but still exudes an aura of sadness. 10,000 Scotsmen lost their lives here on September 9th, 1513. Nearby, Etal Castle’s exhibition details the horrors of this battle.

Loch Katrine by Barbara Ballard Scott’s poem, The Lady of the Lake, written in 1810, popularized Loch Katrine, in the heart of the Trossachs. The scenic beauty of wooded mountains and sparkling water assured its continuing attraction. The Loch derives its name from the Gaelic 'Cateran' meaning a Highland robber, which is quite appropriate considering that the infamous Rob Roy MacGregor was born at the head of the Loch. Scott’s book, Rob Roy, written in 1818, artfully intertwines his real life with fiction. A small island in the lake, Eilean Molach (called Ellen’s Isle by Scott) was used by Rob Roy to imprison one of his enemies. Today’s visitors can cruise the lake on the SS Sir Walter Scott, launched in 1899.

Scott’s books, written after the poems, are both romantic and mythic in style. Waverley, written in 1814, was his first novel in a series. The hero, Edward Waverley, is a young English officer who visits the Highlands of Scotland just before the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and falls in love with the Jacobite daughter of a Highland chieftain. Considered the first historical novel of distinction in English literature, Waverley was received with great enthusiasm. Scott's vivid description of Scottish society and scenery caused Waverley to be received with great enthusiasm. Edinburgh is the scene of the novel regarded as Scott’s best, Heart of Midlothian. It refers to the 1736 Porteous Riot, an attack on the old Tolbooth prison.

Abbotsford Sir Walter Scotts house by Barbara Ballard In 1811, having achieved a modest fortune through his writings, Scott purchased a small farmhouse on a large acreage on the banks of the Tweed River near Melrose. There he proceeded to build, in stages, a fantasy gothic mansion that he named Abbotsford House. The study contains his massive writing desk and chair. 9000 volumes collected by Scott line the library walls. Displayed in the home are historic relics that he was fond of collecting, including the condemned criminal’s door from Edinburgh’s tolbooth. Rob Roy’s purse and gun and a supposed lock of Prince Charlie’s hair are part of the fascinating memorabilia. The armoury contains a collection of pistols, knives and guns. Portraits of his parents and one of Scott by Raeburn adorn the walls of the drawing room.

Dryburgh Abbey by Barbara Ballard In 1832, Scott died in the dining room at Abbotsford. He was buried in the north chapel of the ruined, red stone Dryburgh Abbey—built 1150—in a sheltered and secluded valley by the River Tweed. He drove his carriage on the abbey road almost daily, stopping at Bemersyde Hill—now called Scott’s View—where the majestic triple-peaked Eildon Hills stand out against the sky. The hilltop once harboured a Celtic fort, and, later, a Roman fort sheltered at the base. It is said that Scott’s horses stopped at the view when pulling the hearse carrying his coffin to the abbey.

Eildon Hills Sir Walter Scott view by Barbara Ballard In The Lay of the Last Minstrel Scott emotes on his homeland:

“. . . .Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,
Land of the mountain and the flood,
Land of my sires! what mortal hand
Can e'er untie the filial band
That knits me to thy rugged strand!”

Thomas Carlyle said, 'No Scotsman of his time was more entirely Scottish than Walter Scott.' His legacy lies not just in his writings, but in the country he gave back to his people.

Note: This article first appeared in Heritage/Realm Magazine

Visitor Information

Melrose Abbey
In Melrose, off the A7, A68
Tel. 01896 822562
Historic Scotland

Dryburgh Abbey
5 miles southeast Melrose on B6404
Tel. 01835 822381
Historic Scotland

Abbotsford House
3 miles west of Melrose off the B6360
Tel. 01896 752043

Edinburgh Castle
Tel. 0131 225 9846
Historic Scotland

Smailholm Tower
6 miles northwest of Kelso
Tel. 01573 460365
Historic Scotland

Flodden Field and border warfare exhibition
At Etal Castle, Etal, Northumberland
10 miles southwest of Berwick
Tel. 01890 820332
English Heritage

Loch Katrine
Located on the southern edge of the Highlands via the A821 from Aberfoyle for Trossachs Pier or the B829 for Stronachlachar.
Visitor Centre at Trossach Pier
For SS Sir Walter Scott timetable, phone 01877 376316 and ask for steam enquiries.

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