Calls for a revival of Scottish literary hero
The portrayal of Scotland in Sir Walter Scott’s writing became legendary. His historical romances took Europe by storm and influenced generations of artists. Is it now time for a revival?
Jane Austen was dismayed by Sir Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley. Already a successful poet, the Scotsman turned out to be an exceptional novelist too. ‘He has no business writing novels, especially good ones,’ she complained. ‘It is not fair... I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must.’
Her anger was in jest. Waverley was a literary sensation that sold out in its first day and propelled Scott to wealth and international fame. Edinburgh’s railway station is named after the novel, as are 22 towns in America. Scott then went on to write another 26 novels in just 18 years. He had invented the modern historical novel, using episodes from Scottish history, and his version of Scotland became part of the Romantic imagination.
His books inspired not just writers and composers across Europe, but created a popular craze for all things Scottish. Queen Victoria wholeheartedly embraced this passion when she built Balmoral Castle in the Highlands, her favourite residence.
Scott also helped to shape the way Scotland is viewed today, and how many Scots see themselves. After the failure of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745, Scots highlanders were seen as primitive and traitorous, but Waverley rewrote their image as loyal romantics living in a land of rugged beauty. And when Scott stage-managed King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, he persuaded the king to wear a tartan kilt, starting a fashion for tartan that continues today.
He influenced how England views itself too. He coined the phrase ’the Wars of the Roses’, and the idea of Robin Hood as a freedom fighter against oppression comes from his novel ‘Ivanhoe’. His work also made the Middle Ages so popular that its architecture was adopted as the ‘national style’ when the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt in 1835.
It is now 200 years since Waverley appeared and while Jane Austen is still widely read, Scott’s works have fallen out of fashion. At a conference in Aberdeen this week to discuss his legacy, academics are calling on us to rediscover his literary creations.
The great unread
Some argue that as well as recognising Scott’s influence on European culture, we should also rediscover his books. While we celebrate Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, Scott has just as much to offer. The 200th anniversary of Waverley is the perfect time to give his work a try.
You don’t need to read his books to appreciate Scott, others reply. His idea of Scotland has become so much part of mainstream culture that even people who have never heard of him feel his influence. Films like Mel Gibson’s Braveheart or Pixar’s Brave are as much a part of his legacy as his novels.
- Do we need to read Scott’s work to truly appreciate his legacy?
- ‘Walter Scott’s novels have been neglected because they are no longer relevant to modern life.’ Do you agree?
- In pairs, pick a well-known novel, a film or a work of art you both like and list the ways it has influenced culture. Share with the class.
- Sir Walter Scott is regarded as the first writer of historical novels. Choose a historical event or a time in history, and write a plan for a short story set in that period.
Some People Say...
“Life is too short to waste time reading old books.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why should I care about Sir Walter Scott?
- His works had a huge influence on European culture, and he was the first truly international writer, reaching audiences around the world and inspiring operas like Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’. Knowing his contribution to history helps to explain our culture today, and why Scotland is so closely associated with romantic heroes and rugged landscapes.
- Did Scott make a lot of money?
- Scott’s writing was very profitable; after the success of his first long poem, he received an advance of 1,000 guineas for his next one. He invested much of his money in a large estate in the Scottish Borders. Yet Scott also invested in a publishing firm that was hit heavily by a financial crash in 1820. He spent the rest of his life writing to pay off its enormous debts.
- The Jacobite rebellion tried to restore the exiled Stuart dynasty to the throne of Britain. Prince Charles Edward Stuart, son of the pretender, landed in Scotland and was supported by many of the highland clans. They captured Edinburgh and marched on London but turned back after reaching Derby. The Jacobites were finally defeated at the battle of Culloden. The highlanders were severely treated and the north of Scotland was effectively under military occupation for several decades after.
- ’the Wars of the Roses’
- The bloody wars for the English crown fought by the houses of York and Lancaster between 1455 and 1487.
- The palace is home to the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The old palace burnt down in an accidental fire in 1835. The new palace was given a gothic design by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin.
- The film centres around William Wallace, the 13th-century warrior who fought the English in the first war of Scottish independence. The film was partly inspired by Scott’s work, though Braveheart is regarded as historically highly inaccurate.