Sir Walter Scott   ~  Incidents and Events in a Professional Life

Scott in the Theatre

There were at least five adaptations of Sir Walter Scott's novel, Rob Roy. in the 1800's. The playwrights were generally unknown because theatres often employed hack playwrights, there being little or no copyright protection. In 1833 a Copyright Act was passed, giving some protection to writers, though it needed a second bill in 1842 to enforce this.

The first staging of Rob Roy was at the Pantheon, Edinburgh, in 1818, three more versions at the Caledonian Theatre, Edinburgh, and further productions in London. Between 1810 and 1900 there were some 970 distinct productions of Rob Roy, accounting for one-fifth of Scott's work on stage, excluding Rob Roy Macgrgor or Auld Lang Syne (1818), another version with songs and lyrics by Scott. This version was by Isaac Pocock with music by J. Davy. The second most popular Scott Work is Guy Mannering, with 860 productions; eighteen are listed in Edinburgh during the period Wyndham was managing the Theatre Royal.

[The adjacent plate depicts Diana Vernon in the Library at Osbaldistone Hall explaining to Frank Osbaldistone the presence of a man's glove which he believes belongs to a favoured rival in love (Rob Roy, ch. 17).)


Rob Roy
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.]

Mackay retires in the role of Billie Nicol Jarvie.

,  ,   ,   ,  two hundred and eighty five times; and during the thirty-seven years that have elapsed since that period, it will have been played in the Edinburgh Theatre at least double that number of times; although Mr. Murray, the manager, when Mr Mackay retired from public life on April 25th, 1848, and bade farewell to the footlights, which he did, of course, in his favourite part of the Baillie, announced that the play would then be 'performed for the last time in Edinburgh!'   This announcement was, of course, speedily contradicted. It was a piece of Mr Murray's sentimentalism. On the occasion of his leaver taking,

Mr Mackay, alluded in feeling terms to all the kindnesses shown to him by Sir Walter Scott: 'Had he never written, I never should have been noticed as an actor; it is to the pen of the mighty dead I owe my theatrical reputation.' So said Mr. Mackay. As showing the popularity of the Wavelet dramas, it may be stated that during the Winter season 1822-23 they were performed upon no less than eighty-three occasions in the Edinburgh Theatre.

[Text based on an article in Chamber's Edinburgh Journal reproduced in the New York Times, December 06, 1874]


Charles Mackay. In the Character of Bailie Nicol Jarvie in Rob Roy at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh. Etching with aquatint on watermarked paper by J. Keith, 255 x 163mm. Published. July 1819 by A. Keith, Aberdeen.. [Image in the public domain.]

Letter from Sir Walter Scott to Daniel Terry (September, 1813).

“I have lacked your assistance, my dear sir, for twenty whimsicalities this autumn. Abbotsford, as you will readily conceive, has considerably changed its face since the auspices of Mother Retford were exchanged for ours.

We have got up a good garden wall, complete stables in the haugh, according to Stark’s plan, and the old farm-yard being enclosed with a wall, with some little picturesque additions in front, has much relieved the stupendous height of the Doctor’s barn. The new plantations have thriven amazingly well, the acorns are coming up fast, and Tom Purdie is the happiest and most consequential person in the world.

My present work is building up the well with some debris from the Abbey. O for your assistance, for I am afraid we shall make but a botched job of it, especially as our materials are of a very miscellaneous complexion. The worst of all is, that while my trees grow and my fountain fills, my purse, in an inverse ratio, sinks to zero. This last circumstance will, I fear, make me a very poor guest at the literary entertainment your researches hold out for me.

I should, however, like much to have the Treatise on Dreams, by the author of the New Jerusalem, which, as John Cuthbertson the smith said of the minister’s sermon, must be neat work. The Loyal Poems by N. T. are probably by poor Nahum Tate, who associated with Brady in versifying the Psalms, and more honourably with Dryden in the second part of Absalom and Achitophel. I never saw them, however, but would give a guinea or thirty shillings for the collection.

Our friend John Ballantyne has, I learn, made a sudden sally to London, and doubtless you will crush a quart with him or a pottle pot; he will satisfy your bookseller for ‘The Dreamer,’ or any other little purchase you may recommend for me. You have pleased Miss Baillie very much both in public and in society, and though not fastidious, she is not, I think, particularly lavish of applause either way. A most valuable person is she, and as warm hearted as she is brilliant.

Mrs Scott and all our little folks are well. I am relieved o the labour of hearing Walter’s lesson by a gallant son of the church, who with one leg of wood, and another of oak, walks to and fro from Melrose every day for that purpose. Pray stick to the dramatic work,* and never suppose either that you can be intrusive, or that I can be uninterested in whatever concerns you.

W. S.

[From Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart., 7 vols (Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1837]

Portrait of Daniel Terry (1789 - 1829) by Henry William Pickersgil     [Image in the public domain.]

Letter from Sir Walter Scott to Daniel Terry (January, 1816).

Edinburgh, 23d January, 1818.

My Dear Terry,

You have by this time the continuation of the drama, down to the commencement of the third act, as I have your letter on the subject of the first. You will understand that I only mean them as sketches; for the first and second acts are too short, and both want much to combine them with the third. I can easily add music to Miss Devorgoil’s part. As to Braham, he is a beast of an actor, though an angel of a singer, and truly I do not see what he could personify.

Let me know, however, your thoughts and wishes, and all shall be moulded to the best of my power to meet them; the point is to make it take if we can; the rest is all leather and prunella. A great many things must occur to you technically better, in the way of alteration and improvement, and you know well that, though too indolent to amend things on my own conviction, I am always ready to make them meet my friends’ wishes if possible. We shall both wish it better than I can make it, but there is no reason why we should not do for it all that we can. I advise you to take some sapient friend into your counsels, and let me know the result, returning the MS. at the same time.

I am now anxious to complete Abbotsford. I think I told you I mean to do nothing whatever to the present house, but to take it away altogether at some future time, so that I finish the upper story without any communication with Mrs Bedford’s ci-devant mansion, and shall place the opening in the lower story, wherever it will be most suitable for the new house, without regard to defacing the temporary drawingroom. I am quite feverish about the armoury. I have two pretty complete suits of armour, one Indian one, and a cuirassier’s, with boots, casque, &c.; many helmets, corslets, and steel caps, swords and poniards without end, and about a dozen of guns, ancient and modern. I have besides two or three battle-axes and maces, pikes and targets, a Highlander’s accoutrement complete, a great variety of branches of horns, pikes, bows and arrows, and the clubs and creases of Indian tribes. Mr Bullock promised to give some hint about the fashion of disposing all these matters; and now our spring is approaching, and I want but my plans to get on.

I have reason to be proud of the finishing of my castle, for even of the tower for which I trembled, not a stone has been shaken by the late terrific gale, which blew a roof clear off in the neighbourhood. It was lying in the road like a saddle, as Tom Purdie expressed it. Neither has a slate been lifted, though about two yards of slating were stripped from the stables in the haugh, which you know were comparatively less exposed.

“I am glad to hear of Mrs Terry’s improved health and good prospects. As for young Master Mumble-crust, I have no doubt he will be a credit to us all.

Yours ever truly,
W. Scott.

[From Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart., 7 vols (Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1837]

Entrance Hall, Abbotsford House, home of Sir Walter Scott.  Photograph: ©Abbotsford Trust Limited

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