Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was a historical novelist, poet, playwright, and historian who, though born in Edinburgh, spent much time in the Borders, and immortalised those ancestral lands through his writing. Many of his works remain classics of both English and Scottish literature, and helped bring Scottish literature to international attention.
A direct descendant of the notorious Border reiver ‘Auld Wat’ of Harden, Scott survived a childhood bout of polio, and in 1773 was sent to live in the Borders at his paternal grandparents’ farm at Sandyknowe, adjacent to the ruin of Smailholm Tower, the earlier family home. Here he learned to read, and was first exposed to the speech patterns of the Border dialect, as well as to Borders history and lore, which would greatly influence his later work.
In adulthood, Scott divided his time between Edinburgh and the Borders. He wrote a great deal of poetry, including the romantic long-form historical poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel, set at Branxholme Castle (an ancient Scott clan seat), and including much about the reivers of the poem’s era. Furthermore, Scott, with the help of Denholm-born linguist and scholar Dr John Leyden, compiled the crucially-important Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (first volume published in Kelso, 1802): an archival collection which helped preserved some forty-eight traditional Border ballads (though Scott has been criticised for his rewriting of some of them). The writer also effectively established the ‘historical fiction’ genre, through his marriage of in-depth historical knowledge and romantic prose. His much beloved Waverley novels (though published anonymously, his identity only officially revealed following financial ruin, in 1826) included The Tale of Old Moriarty, a story based on the life of wandering Hawick man Robert Paterson, whom Scott had once met.
Although primarily remembered for his literature and his political engagement (he was a prominent member of Edinburgh’s Tory establishment), Scott was also an advocate, judge, and legal administrator by profession, and throughout his career combined his writing and editing work with his daily occupation as Clerk of Session and Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire. In 1802, he was made a baronet of Abbotsford, in the County of Roxburgh, a title which became extinct on the death of his son, in 1847.
Although by all accounts amiable to all classes, he was not locally popular among the ordinary Borderers, partly because he was a Sheriff, and also an anti-Chartist. During the 1831 election in Jedburgh, Scott’s carriage was apparently stoned by a group of around one thousand Hawick weavers. Still, Hawick was not exempt from Scott’s romantic pen, and he wrote of the town with a striking fondness, including in the lines: “Sweet Teviot! on thy silver tide / The glaring
bale-fires blaze no more; / No longer steel-clad warriors ride / Along the wild and willow’d shore.”
His health ailing, in 1831 Scott took a sailing voyage around the Mediterranean. On the way home, however, he suffered a final stroke, and died shortly after his return to Abbotsford. Scott was buried at Dryburgh Abbey, close to his first Borders home at Sandyknowe, and his house at Abbotsford was made a museum. The Gothic Scott Monument on Edinburgh’s Princes Street remembers the man who changed the face of Scottish literature. Alongside Abbotsford, his court-room on Selkirk square (on which stands a life-sized statue of Scott) is also a museum.