Singers and Musical Personalities ~ Sir Walter Scott 1st Baronet, FRSE 1771 – 1832

1. Scott


2. Moncrieff

Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832

1.    Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), 1822 by Sir Henry Raeburn(1756-1823). oil on canvas, 762x635 mm.  Original in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. [Image in the public domain.]

2.     Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), Clerk of Session.  Sketch by Robert Scott Moncrieff.  Original in National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.  [Image in the public domain.]


In 1786, when Scott entered his father's office as an apprentice, it had not yet been decided whether he would eventually follow his father's career or instead aim for the Bar.

Though Scott disliked the tedious clerical tasks that he was set, his ambition made him a diligent and quick-witted apprentice. Through his father's many Highland clients, he made his first acquaintance with the culture and traditions that were to figure so prominently in works such as The Lady of the Lake, Waverley, and Rob Roy. A case involving one client, the Jacobite veteran, Alexander Stewart of Invernahyle, who claimed to have fought a duel with Rob Roy, permitted Scott to visit the Highland region for the first time.

With his father's support, Scott soon resolved to aim for the Bar.  After attending lectures in Moral Philosophy and Universal History, he enrolled in a Scots Law class at Edinburgh University in 1790-91.  After a further year studying Roman Law, Scott successfully passed his examinations and was called as an Advocate in July, 1792. On his father's advice, he had dedicated his thesis to Lord Braxfield, their neighbour in George Square and Lord Justice-Clerk of the Supreme Criminal Court.  Braxfield enjoyed a fearsome reputation as a scourge of Jacobins and was the model for Robert Louis Stevenson's Weir of Hermiston.

Scott's experiences as a fledgling Advocate are echoed in those of Alan Fairford in his 1824 novel Redgauntlet which provides a vivid picture of Parliament House in the late eighteenth century.  During the early years of his practice Scott worked exclusively on provincial circuits. His first Edinburgh case was not heard until July 1795. His earnings grew modestly during this period, but worryingly for Scott, more than half his work came from his father's connections.  Following his marriage in 1797, there was a growing need for a more stable source of income. This became all the more pressing after the birth of his first child, Sophia, in 1799.

While collecting ballads for what would eventually become Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, he had received some help from an amateur antiquarian, Andrew Plummer, Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire. Plummer's health was rapidly failing, and with his support and that of Duke of Buccleuch, Scott went to London to petition Henry Dundas, controller of Crown patronage in Scotland, to be named as Plummer's successor. He was appointed on December, 1799, and remained in the post until his death.

Scott's role was essentially that of a county judge. The post presented several advantages. It brought an annual income of £300, required only a seasonal presence in Selkirkshire, permitted him to reside in Edinburgh for most of the year, and did not prevent him from continuing to practice as an Advocate.

From now on, he would spend the winter and summer in Edinburgh and from mid-July to mid-November perform his duties at Selkirk. The appointment also provided ample opportunity for ballad-collecting in nearby Ettrickdale.

Scott was becoming increasingly pessimistic about his career prospects as an Advocate. He saw only a distant possibility of being appointed to the judiciary. One of the Principal Clerks of the Court of Session, George Home of Wedderburn, was having increasing difficulty in performing his work due to encroaching deafness. His post held out many attractions for Scott. It brought £800 a year, it would not force him to resign his Selkirk sheriffdom, and would consume only between four and six hours a day during the six months that the Court was in session.

Scott offered to assume Home's labours and to allow him the entire salary for his lifetime. His appointment was secured on March, 1806. As Clerk of Session, his duties involved reducing to written form decisions orally pronounced from the Bench, authenticating registered deeds by signatures, and looking up law papers and authorities. Each element of Scott's work required considerable erudition.

For the rest of his life, Scott combined extensive writing and editing commitments with his daily work as Clerk of Session and Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire.

[Text based on biographical information in The Walter Scott Digital Archive, University of Edinburgh and other published sources.]

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3. Scott


4. Sandy Knowe


Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832

3.    Portrait of Sir Walter Scott and his dogs 1820s by Henry Raeburn (1756–1823), Oil on canvas.   Private collection.   [This version of the image in the public domain.]

4.    Sandy Knowe, or Smailholm, engraved by W. Miller after J.M.W. Turner, 1839 [This version of the image in the public domain.]


By 1806 the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and the recently published The Lay of the Last Minstrel had brought Scott his first taste of success as a writer. Literary earnings, though, were notoriously precarious, and Scott was becoming increasingly pessimistic about his career prospects as an Advocate.

Scott's first attempts at literary composition had been made during his years at the Royal High School of Edinburgh with the encouragement of the Rector, Alexander Adam. His school years saw Scott discover many lasting literary influences: Shakespeare, Spenser, Ariosto and the great eighteenth-century novel tradition of Richardson, Fielding and Smollett.

After leaving school, the wages that Scott earned as apprentice in his father's office gave him the means to expand his literary education. He attended performances at the theatre in Old Playhouse Close and was able to borrow more extensively from James Sibbald's circulating library. He took Italian classes in order to appreciate Ariosto and Tasso in the original, going on to read Dante and Boccaccio. He worked on his French too, perusing the great French historical chroniclers and the novels of La Calprenède, Scudery, and Lesage. He even mastered sufficient Spanish to read Lazarillo de Tormes, Cervantes, and Ginés Pérez de Hita's Guerras civiles de Granada, generally regarded as the first Spanish historical novel. Pérez de Hita, who interspersed his narrative with Moorish border ballads, inspired Scott's first attempt at a long narrative poem The Conquest of Grenada.

Over two decades later, however, the Guerras civiles de Granada would provide the creative spark for Scott's poem The Vision of Don Roderick (1811). It was also during his apprenticeship that Scott made his first acquaintances in the literary world.

A friend from his University days, Adam Ferguson, was the son of the great Enlightenment thinker Professor Adam Ferguson. Ferguson's home at Sciennes Hill House was a meeting place for Edinburgh's literati. Here Scott met the blind poet Thomas Blacklock who permitted him to borrow at leisure from his library and introduced him to the James Macpherson's Poems of Ossian

During Scott's second spell at University (1789-92) he formed a Poetry Society and joined the Literary Society where he gave papers sparked by his new-found interest in Old Norse and Icelandic literature and mythology, a passion which would later be channeled into such works as Harold the Dauntless (1817) and The Pirate (1821).

During the first years of Scott's practice as an Advocate, he was employed primarily on the Jedburgh circuit and at other Border courts.   This provided ample opportunity to indulge the love of ballads originally kindled during his childhood stay at Sandyknowe. Beginning in 1792, Scott made annual ballad-collecting trips to Liddesdale and its environs,  sources for his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.

Together with his ballad-collecting, Scott made the discovery in the early 1790s of the pre-Romantic Sturm und Drang school of German poets and dramatists. Like many of his European contemporaries, Scott was excited by their rejection of neo-classical conventions, stress on subjectivity and emotional intensity, love of nature, and depiction of man in conflict with contemporary society. He began studying German in order to read the movement's leading writers, Goethe, Schiller, Klopstock, and Bürger.

Scott was particularly impressed by the supernatural balladry of Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794) and tried to capture something of his wild, highly-charged imagery in his own English versions. A privately circulated translation of Bürger's 'Lenore' ('William and Helen') created a stir in Edinburgh's literary circles. Encouraged, Scott went on to render 'Der Wilde Jäger' into English as 'The Chase'. Published together with 'William and Helen' by Manners and Miller in 1796, this was to be Scott's first publication.

In summer or autumn 1799, an impatient Scott had twelve copies of a mini-anthology, An Apology for Tales of Terror, privately printed in Kelso by his old school-friend James Ballantyne. Along with poems by Lewis, Robert Southey, and John Aikin, this included Scott's revised versions of 'William and Helen' and 'The Chase', together with 'The Erl-King', a ballad he had translated from Goethe. Shortly afterwards, a private printing of 'The Eve of St. John' appeared. These two slim pamphlets mark the beginnings of Scott's collaboration with the Ballantyne Press which would go on to print all of Scott's major works.  Now, Scott was deeply engaged in compiling his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, the work that would mark his true entry into the literary world

[Text based on biographical information in The Walter Scott Digital Archive, University of Edinburgh and other published sources.]

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5.   College Wynd


6. Balantyne Print Works

7.   Peveril

Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832

5.  College Wynd, Edinburgh ca1870 . Sir Walter Scott was born here in 1771 and Oliver Goldsmith lived here as a student around 1750.  The College Wynd dates back to at least the 16th century when it was known as the Wynd of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Field. This view is looking up from the Cowgate 1871.  [Image reproduced on the History of Leith website.  This version in the public domain.]

6.  Drawing of James Ballantyne & Co's Printing Office at Paul's Work by an unknown artist ca. 1810.  Paul's Work was situated between the Canongate and Leith Wynd.  [Image reproduced on the Edinburgh University Walter Scott website.  This version in the public domain.]

7.  Peveril of the Peak - Julian Peveril and Alice Bridgenorth, surprised by Major Ralph Bridgenorth, ca. 1826 by Richard Parkes Bonington. pencil and watercolour heightened with touches of bodycolor 114 x 95mm signed b.r.  [This version of the image in the public domain.]

Scott had been an enthusiastic novel-reader since his school years and had acquired not only an exhaustive knowledge of the English novel tradition but extensive familiarity with the classics of French, German, and Spanish fiction . According to his own account in the 'General Preface' to the 'Magnum Opus' edition of the Waverley Novels (1829), Scott's first experiments with prose fiction date from the turn of the nineteenth century. Two fragments survive (published as appendices to the 'General Preface'). Thomas the Rhymer was destined to be a 'tale of chivalry' in the style of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, 'with plenty of Border characters, and supernatural incident'. The Lord of Ennerdale too was strongly influenced by prevailing Gothic models such as Walpole, Anne Radcliffe, and 'Monk' Lewis. Neither work was carried beyond its first chapter.

Scott did not, though, abandon the ambition to write prose fiction. According to the General Preface (1829) to the 'Magnum Opus' edition of the Waverley Novels, he began work 'about the year 1805' on a novel entitled 'Waverley, or 'tis Fifty Years Since', inspired by tales heard from Jacobite veterans and by his own travels in the Highlands Scott was intrigued by the fictional potential of the clash between the ancient, patriarchal customs of the  Highlanders and the march of progress in the increasingly industrialized age of the Enlightenment.

The enthusiastic public and critical response to the description of Highland landscape and manners in Scott poem The Lady of the Lake (1810) persuaded him that a prose narrative of more recent history, with a Highland setting, might have a better chance of success.  The pressing financial difficulties of John Ballantyne's publishing business, in which Scott was silent half-partner, encouraged completion of the novel, and Waverley was published in July, 1814a few weeks before Scott's forty-third birthday.

The novel was published anonymously and, in order to preserve Scott's incognito, the manuscript had been copied out in John Ballantyne's hand before going to print. Scott's novels would continue to be published anonymously or under pseudonyms until 1827 when Scott admitted to his authorship at a public dinner. Only those closest to Scott were let into the secret of his authorship, though thousands more came to suspect it.

Waverley was an astonishing success, the first edition selling out within two days of publication, marking the birth of the historical novel in English.   Over the next five years, Scott wrote a further eight novels set in seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Scotland. It is substantially upon these works that Scott's critical reputation now rests. Guy Mannering (1815) and The Antiquary (1816),  complete, with Waverley, an ideal trilogy illustrating three periods of Scottish history from the 1740s to the 1800s.

For his next publication Scott made a further attempt to mystify the public, adopting the nom de plume of Jedediah Cleishbotham, schoolmaster at the fictional  village of Gandercleuch. Cleishbotham purported to be editing the narratives of one Peter Pattieson which in turn were supposed to be based on stories told by the landlord of the local inn.   Rob Roy, a tale of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, was a further critical and commercial triumph, the original print run of 10,000, a huge figure for the time, being bought up in two weeks. It remains to this day among Scott's most widely read and translated novels.

A Third Series of Tales of My Landlord appeared in 1819. Written when Scott was critically ill, The Bride of Lammermoor was a return to the world of the Border ballads. One of the few Scott novels to have a tragic conclusion, its tale of foredoomed love immediately caught the public imagination. It inspired many artists and gave rise to numerous stage and musical adaptations, most famously Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

Scott's next novel marked his first fictional excursion outside the bounds of Scotland. Ivanhoe (1820), set in twelfth-century England, was published under a new pseudonym Laurence Templeton. The novel rapidly became an international phenomenon, launching Scott's continental vogue and providing the blueprint for the historical novel across Europe. In Britain, it played a major role in sparking the nineteenth-century fascination for all things medieval.

Scott maintained his phenomenal rate of production with The Fortunes of Nigel in May 1822 and Peveril of the Peak in January 1823. With these works he returned to the seventeenth century. The former is set shortly after the Union of the Crowns and traces the efforts of a Scottish nobleman to protect his inheritance at the court of King James VI and I. The latter deals with the so-called Popish Plot of 1678.

Two further novels appeared in 1823. Quentin Durward, set in fifteenth-century France, was Scott's first fictional venture onto the continent of Europe.  Despite being his most critically acclaimed work since Ivanhoe, sales were slow. Quentin Durward (illustrated, above right) caused a similar sensation in France to Waverley in Scotland and Ivanhoe in England. The vogue for the novel subsequently spread across Europe, eventually awakening renewed interest in Britain.    The reviewers were scarcely more enthusiastic about 1824's Redgauntlet.   Now regarded as amongst the finest of the Waverley novels, its mixture of epistolary and narrative sequences was widely seen as a throwback to the conventions of the eighteenth-century novel. Set during a fictional late eighteenth-century Jacobite Rebellion in the Border region, it is among Scott's most autobiographical works, containing echoes of his apprenticeship to the Law and an affectionate caricature of his father. It was one of Scott's personal favourites amongst his novels.

For other writers and musicians, Scott's literary achievements provided a rich seam of source material for works in the theatre.

[Text based on biographical information in The Walter Scott Digital Archive, University of Edinburgh and other published sources.]

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8.  Rob Roy


9.  Duel

Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832

8.   Diana Vernon and Frank Osbaldistone in the Library: The Glove Scene, engraved by Robert Charles Bell after Robert Herdman (1868) From: Six Engravings in Illustration of 'Rob Roy': For the Members of the Royal Association for Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland. [Image in the public domain.]

9.  Illustration to Rob Roy engraved by Charles Heath after a design by J.M. Wright.  From: The Waverley Keepsake, and Abbotsford Album, or Beauties of Sir Walter Scott. London : R. A. Charlton, 1837 (facing p. 199). The plate depicts Rob Roy interrupting a duel between Francis Osbaldistone and Rashleigh (Rob Roy, ch. 25).

[Image in the public domain.]

The winter of 1825-26 saw the economic recession which led to the ruin of his publishers and to Scott's own insolvency.  A further blow came in May 1826 with the death of Scott's wife Charlotte.

Begun before the crisis, Scott's next novel Woodstock set during the English Civil War, was hurriedly completed to answer pressing financial necessities. There were renewed rumblings among the critics that Scott was writing for profit alone but the novel sold well both north and south of the border.

As Scott fought to pay off his debts during the last six years of his life, his fictional production dropped off. His creative energy was primarily expended on the biography of Napoleon (1827-8) and the lucrative Tales of a Grandfather (1828 -31) and History of Scotland (1829). He nonetheless published four further volumes of fiction. Chronicles of the Canongate (1827) was credited to a new nom de plume, Mr. Chrystal Croftangry, and contained two short-stories: 'The Highland Widow', and 'The Two Drovers', and a novella, 'The Surgeon's Daughter'. Despite lukewarm reviews, Scott considered the two short stories among his finest work, an opinion shared by many recent critics.

The Second Series of Chronicles of the Canongate was composed entirely of the novel The Fair Maid of Perth (1828). Set in late fourteenth-century Scotland, it was Scott's last major commercial and critical success as a writer of fiction.

Scott returned to the fifteenth-century dynastic quarrels of Quentin Durward for his next novel Anne of Geierstein (1829). To his surprise, it was relatively well received by both public and critics, though some of the latter shared his own opinion that the factual elements of the plot were more interesting than the purely fictional. Finally, in December 1831, ten months before Scott's death, his last two novels Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous were published together as a Fourth Series of Tales of My Landlord

Perhaps, though, Scott's greatest literary commitment in the last years of his life was in revising his fiction for the 'Magnum Opus' edition of the Waverley Novels published from 1829 onwards.

For other writers and musicians, Scott's literary achievements provided a rich seam of source material for works in the theatre.

[Text based on biographical information in The Walter Scott Digital Archive, University of Edinburgh and other published sources.]

Scott Anecdotes

Top  ~  Scott in the Theatre  ~  Mackay retires  ~  Sir Walter Scott to Daniel Terry, 1813 ~  Sir Walter Scott to Daniel Terry, 1816


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