Sir Walter Scott was born in 1771 in Edinburgh. When he was very young he caught polio, and in 1774 he was sent to the Borders to live with his aunt Jenny, to recover. His aunt told him many stories, introducing him to the dialect and rhythm of Borders language, and to traditional tales which would go on to inform his writing.
His love of traditional Scottish oral storytelling led him to gather ballads and stories, leading to the development of a body of literature which gave previously disregarded traditional stories a platform, and Scottish culture an international stage.
His most famous works are the Waverley series of novels, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Lady of the Lake, The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermoor.
Over his lifetime, Scott produced novels, plays, poems and nonfiction. At the height of his fame, he was celebrated wherever he went.
An English speaking Lowland Scot, Scott was a respectable face for previously suppressed elements of Scottish culture and storytelling. In 1822, Scott stage-managed the visit of King George IV to Scotland, creating tartans for Edinburgh citizens, and a unique tartan for the King to wear. It went some considerable way to healing divisions in Scotland, and was hailed as a huge success, both as a pageant and as a cultural landmark.
While Scotland undoubtedly benefited from Scott’s creations, Scott’s often fanciful interpretations of Scottish culture contributed greatly to the ‘Victorian chocolate box’ version of Scotland still experienced in Edinburgh by visitors today. For more on Sir Walter Scott’s influence on Scottish culture, read Scott-Land by Stuart Kelly.
Scott went bankrupt in 1826, and had to leave his house in North Castle Street in Edinburgh. From here he went to Abbotsford, promising that he would write his way out of debt. He didn’t quite manage it in his lifetime, but his debt was cleared shortly after he died.
His literary legacy has changed in fortune since their popular heyday. Romantic, sweeping adventures went out of style, and Scott began to wane in popularity.
Appreciation of his work has experienced a revival in recent years with the realisation that many expressions in common usage originate from Scott. For example, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we set out to deceive!”
The Scott project by the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust celebrates the heritage of Scott, covering Edinburgh’s Waverley Station in his words with a series of art installations, to remind the world of his rich legacy.