Sir Walter Scott

“The Wizard of the North”

Folklorists who feature on the podcast range significantly in their fame and the historical importance that’s attached to them.

For some information is scarce and perfunctory, and without intensive archival research it’s difficult to build up a reliable biography of them large enough to fill a few hundred words.

And then there’s Sir Walter Scott: a man about whom whole volumes could be written, and indeed have been. Hell, there’s an entire University research Centre dedicated to him.

This is a man of such note that in the centre of Edinburgh, capital of Scotland, there stands a prominent gothic monument to him, just a short distance away from Edinburgh’s central train station – which is named “Waverly” after one of his novels.

This is a man whom by the mid 19th century was “by several orders of magnitude, the author whose works had sold the largest number of copies in the English-speaking world.” Source: Dr Juliet Shields quoting William St. Clair.

“Oh! Walter Scott is my beau ideal of a Poet; I do so admire him both in Poetry and Prose!”

Queen Victoria, 1836

This is a man of whom it as at least a reasonable question to ask whether he “invented the entire modern idea of Scotland”.

It’s impossible to fully give justice to his life and works here so I’m going to give a swift overview of it, and then proceed to talk in more detail about the work of his that is most connected to his presence on the podcast – Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.

Podcast episodes referencing Scott’s work

Early Life

Scott’s family home in Edinburgh (Stephencdickson )

Scott was born in 1771 in Edinburgh. His father, also called Walter Scott, was a lawyer, and his mother Anne Rutherford was the daughter of a renowned physician.

He was the ninth child of the couple, with to modern eyes, an awful six of the previous children having died in infancy.

He contracted Polio as a young child and this left him lame, though he could later walk he would always have a limp.

Much of his childhood years consisted of spending years living with relatives in locales that were supposed to help him address his lameness – in the rural Scottish Borders and in the spa town of Bath, and he ceretainly recovered.

He was schooled variously in Edinburgh and Kelso, in the Borders and his reading of chivalric romances, ballads, poetry and history during this time helped set him on his future career path.

At the age of 12 he attended Edinburgh university studying classics (though this looks odd now students tended to start at 13, so he was an early starter, just not by as much as I first thought reading this!). There he became involved in a literary salon and became highly involved in the universities literature scene, which got him connections to not just student but top writers and poets of the day.

He would go on to train at the University as a lawyer and did some work in this area, however this was to be a small part of his life.

Scott was to marry Charlotte Charpentier in 1797, a few years before his real fame began, and they were to have five children, remaining married until Charlotte’s death in 1826.

For from these beginnings Walter Scott was to become one of the leading figures of the highly influential movement known as Romanticism, which was sweeping the European World at the end of the eighteenth century. 


It’s a legal requirement to illustrate any discussion of Romanticism with a picture of Caspar Friedrich’s Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer. I don’t make the rules

It’s worth just touching a little on the broader topic of Romanticism here.

It’s a slippery fish to pin down (ed: mixed metaphor much?) but at its core this artistic and cultural movement involved a fascination with, on the one hand the natural world, seeking the sublime awe in nature,  and on the other hand with the more secular elements of medieval European cultures. Modern people seeking inspiration in tales from a more magical and heroic past.

It produced a very significant cultural movement, which had a huge influence all across Europe.

The movement placed a strong emphasis on the virtue of (almost exclusively) male individualism, love for one’s nation and an appreciation of aesthetics.

It operated primarily in the fields of poetry, literature and art while also having a considerable impact on the writing of history and philosophy, theatre, music and touching a great many areas aside. Its influence is very much still alive and kicking in all sorts of places today. To take just one small example there’s no way that the entire genres of fantasy and horror would look the same, or perhaps even exist without romanticism.

While a pan-European movement in each place it developed it had a strong local focus and thus was very nationalistic, bolstering emerging senses of nationhood by demonstrating supposed long histories and cultures that were distinct from the Church, from the Classical and from the pan-national Empires that dominated Europe at the time.

They were rooted instead in the more modern idea of “nations” – people’s bound together by supposed linguistic and cultural similarities.

The source for such national cultures was often found in what we would now called oral folklore and tradition – songs and stories supposedly passed down by the ‘common people’, which were now elevated into high culture by the educated who ‘discovered’ them and represented them in painting, poetry and literature (and became even wealthier from them!).

This nationalist aspect very much held true in Scotland, and through his works Walter Scott would, along with Roberts Burns, be critical in building and cementing the 19th century conception of Scotland and Scottishness, both within the country itself and all around the world.

Romanticism in Scottish painting: View of Tantallon Castle and the Bass rock, Alexander Naysmith (1816)

Scott’s literary career

Scott started his career in the 1790s, strongly influenced by German poets and playwrights and he dabbled in writing various bits and pieces with a set of somewhat influential friends, particularly of note a translation/reinterpretation of Goethe’s “Erlkönig“.

However fame really with the publication of three epic poems: The Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805, Marmion in 1808 and The Lady of the Lake in 1810. The first two received rave reviews from critics and the public alike while Marmion was less well received.

Of the three the Lay is definitely my favourite if only because it has a more fantastical, supernatural bent to it with much of the action being propelled by the wizard Michael Scot (no relation), his magic book, and his Goblin servant Gilpin Horner.

“The old man raised his face, and smiled;
And lighten'd up his faded eye,
With all a poet's ecstasy!”

- The Lay of the last Minstrel 

The popularity of these poems was so great that it fuelled a tremendous boom in Scottish tourism.

It seems incredibly but it’s oft said that the poems single-handedly created the Scottish tourist industry through its depictions of the Scottish borders in general and Loch Katrine and Melrose Abbey in particular. People flocked to the destinations in the poems, including painters who then spread beautiful images of them even further, attracting yet more tourists.

Loch Katrine, popularised as a tourist destination by Scott Credit: Richard Webb

Scott was now wildly famed as a poet and was even offered the Poet Laureatship in 1813, though he turned it down. 

But the same time as writing his poems Scott had been writing prose pieces and in 1814 he released Waverley, one of the very first historical novels set during the Jacobite uprising of 1745, which was a runaway success.

Melrose Abbey – popularised as a tourist desination by Scott, who later oversaw its repair

Over the next 18 years he was a prolific and incredibly popular author going on to publish a further 26 historical novels which were very widely read indeed, being some of the most popular works in Europe for a century.

These novels focused chiefly on English and Scottish history over many different time periods, with considerable research put in to them. They describe both the political events and everyday life of the times to a intense level of detail but with a degree of accuracy which provokes much debate.

Collected together as a whole they tend to be known as “The Waverly Novels”, as Scott was often referred to in them as “The Author of Waverly”.

These novels continued to be extremely popular and indeed defined the genre of the historical novel, spawning countless imitations and his work more generally influencing a vast number of writers: from the Brontës to Dostoevsky.

The Waverley Novels, Photo Credit: Pete unseth

The Minstrelsy of the Scottish border

If you’re still reading the attentive amongst you will have noticed that I haven’t mentioned much that relates Walter Scott to folktales of the kind that would appear on the podcast.

And indeed this is because the key work that does so: “The Minstrelsy of the Scottish border” forms rather a modest footnote in his life, but is so central to him featuring on the podcast (what an honour!) that it’s worth going into some detail independently of how this collection of ballads came to be.

This was all before Scott really got going as either a poet or a novelist. He was mostly just a legal professional, writing a little and in his spare time operating in the role of what was called an antiquarian, or more straightforwardly a ballad collector.

This latter kind of work would definitely fall under the category of folklorist today, but that word wasn’t invented until more than a decade after Scott’s death.

While collecting compendiums of ballads was relatively new Scott was hardly the first – and he was much influenced both by German ballads which he’d translated and very much by Bishop Thomas Percy’s ‘Reliques of ancient poetry’ (1765). Scott had also written and had published some original ballads of his own.

There was a rich tradition of ballad singing right across Scotland and England, and indeed Europe as a whole. This was transmitted both orally and through the printed editions of the ballads which were widely popular – usually sold as fairly cheap chapbooks or broadsides – single sheets of folded paper, or a few pages attached together, rather than a proper bound volume. As well as the text of the ballads they might feature wood cut prints and musical notation, or at least suggestions of a well known tune that they could be sung to.

Example of a Broadside Ballad – “The Fairy Queene”

What was new in the work of Thomas Percy and others was bringing together a great deal of these together in one splendid expensive volume, where it could adorn upper class coffee tables or whatever was the equivalent then.

Taking the songs from the people and presenting them to, if not a wider, then a more “select” audience, and making considerable bank in the process.

Ossian Evoking ghosts on the Edge of the Lora, François Pascal Simon Gérard, 1801

It’s also worth adding into this mix that Scotland was very much on the map for early Romanticism after James Macpherson had published a translation of a “rediscovered” Gaelic epic in the 1760s and this had met with a rapturous reception across Europe.

This Ossian, featuring friend of the podcast Fionn MacCumhaill was later shown to be, by and large a fraud. Written by James Macpherson and not a rediscovered epic of years, but its success nevertheless positioned Scotland as a key and early player in Romanticism.

The importance of Ossian was absolutely huge, and as such that it was mentioned by comparison in the first reviews of Scott’s collection.

It was in this recent tradition that Scott would work. To this end he envisaged the creation of a work like Percy’s: that would gather together ballads from Scotland and particularly the Scottish borders where he had grown up.

He was familiar with many from his childhood, took some straight from the aforementioned chapbook prints but many others he actively “collected” with help from a number of others. Chief amongst these was John Leyden, an educated native of the borders with a keen interest in ballads.

This collecting was done by a process of writing down songs as they were sung having travelled to particularly renowned singers to ask them to sing their songs and possibly buy their manuscripts from them if they had any.

This would somehow happen in the form of what Scott colourfully named ‘raids’ to villages and districts where the ballads were sung.

Sometimes it was a fairly involved process, at least if we are to believe Scott when he says of Leyden that, “he walked 40 miles to get the last two verses of a ballad, and returned at midnight, singing it all the way with his loud, harsh voice” (Source on that one is Wikipedia).

In addition to this there were also earlier collections of particularly Scottish ballads that Scott also drew upon, for he wasn’t quite the first in this area, and indeed the renowned poet Robert Burns had written versions of some of the ballads Scott was to publish.

Scott also gained access to unpublished collections of manuscript ballads from a number of sources – in particular that of Anna Gordon, also known as Mrs Brown of Falkirk and described by Scott as “the ingenious lady”. She is of particular interest to me as she is a source of Thomas the Rhymer. Also of some importance is James Hogg, a shepherd, poet and novelist.

It should be noted that even though the book refers to the “Scottish Border” in its title, a great many of the ballads didn’t come from the border at all, and it is much more true to say that these are simply Scottish ballads.

Writing the ballads

When it came to actually writing the ballads up Scott didn’t feel the need to stick to his source material. Given there were multiple versions of most of the ballads anyway this approach did make some sense for ease of reading. He took a free and open approach to changing the ballads, using the best versions to create a composite and adding and subtracting where he felt improved it.

Though he strongly denied that he invented anything new that wasn’t explicitly stated as such there remains debate about whether he created whole stanzas or just tweaked words and phrases.

This seems to often be discussed as a bit of a blemish on this work, a judgement with which Scott himself came to agree with in later life when he wrote: ” I think I did wrong myself in endeavouring to make the best possible set of an ancient ballad out of several copies obtained from different quarters, and that, in many respects, if I improved the poetry, I spoiled the simplicity.”

But despite his own recantation of this approach I am not inclined to agree entirely with Scott’s own later assessment. If you consider that this was less a work of scholarship but one meant to generate interest in the ballads and make them enjoyable to readers, well I’ve got a lot of sympathy to the approach.

Ballads were not a rigid form in any case, changing from singer to singer, and indeed often from singing to singing. And while later folklore collectors placed great importance on faithfully recording exact lyrics there was no particular reason Scott should be bound by such rules. Though that’s possibly not a popular opinion!

The Hunting of Chevy Chase, Edwin Landseer. The artist met Scott and this was taken from one of his ballads.
Publication and Form

The first edition of Minstrelsy came out in 1802, split into two volumes featuring 29 ballads classified as “historical” and 24 classified as “romantic”, and there were a couple of ballads of Scott’s own invention. It also includes a lengthy edition to Thomas the Rhymer that Scott added himself (with no subterfuge as to its origin).

I have included Scott’s addition to the story in the version of Thomas the Rhymer that appears in the podcast.

A good deal of the work was also made up of a lengthy introduction focusing on details of the Scottish border history and culture – giving a very detailed introduction to the kings and battles which feature in the historical ballads.

Further editions of the Minstrelsy were to follow over the next ten years, each featuring more ballads – of which most of the new ones fell into the “Romantic” category. There was also a lot more modern ballads, written not just by Scott but by a number of other poets, including John Leyden.

“The twa corbies” – Arthur Rackham. A ballad from Minstrelsy

By the final publication the whole work was 96 ballads long (of which 20 were literary creations).

“Romantic” here is used in neither the modern love-focused usage or in the meaning in Romanticism (helpful I know) but rather Romantic ballads are distinguished from the supposedly realistic historical ballads by “relating to fictitious and marvellous adventures” as Scott puts it. These tend to be the ones that I, and I think most modern readers, personally find far more compelling, though this would likely not have aligned with Scott’s way of thinking.

For it’s among the Romantic ballads that we find tales of the Elves, murders most foul, lovers treacherous and true, and all that good everyday stuff that we love here in the 21st century. Though truth be told there’s also a lot of border history shoved into them as well

To pick but a smattering to illustrate the kind of romantic Ballads:

  • Thomas the Rhymer and Tamlin: Tales of Elves stealing people away that are featured on the podcast
  • The Twa Corbies – a short morbid ballad about crows on a battlefield
  • The Gay Goshawk – about a woman who fakes her own death to get the man she wants
  • Earl Richard – about a woman who kills her faithless lover, covers up the murder in a practical way but is snitched on by a parrot.

Relatable problems all.

Before drawing this to a close I want to emphasise again that Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders was a collaborative effort.

Not only with the many named individuals who collected for Scott or provided their works for this collection, but also with the many others who wrote and who sung these ballads, in some cases continuing to pass them on over hundreds of years until they arrived to be written down by manuscript collectors.

While in comparison with his later fame Minstrelsy was but a mere trifle by the end of Scott’s career it was an important stepping stone for him to fame and in giving him much material that was later to be reworked into his novels.

And it is, in its own right, an important work that had a significant influence on the field of ballad collecting which was to considerably increase size in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

But rather than ending on a high let’s leave this section with a little bit of  pleasingly cynical realism with this quote from Graham Hogg:  “What had started out as an antiquarian passion for old ballads had become a successful business venture. He had monetised texts which had previously been freely transmitted as part of an oral tradition.”

Scott’s later life

King George IV in a kilt, as organised by Scott, a flattering picture of the King, whose outfit and appearance was also mocked at the time

Somehow while writing his many novels he found the time to hold a number of senior positions in various societies during this time, such as vice president of the Society of antiquaries of Scotland and president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

He was made a Baronet in 1820, and in 1822 he organised a pageant for King George IV on the King’s visit to Scotland.

This visit was notable for a number of reasons, but Scott’s clothing the King in a Kilt and tartan is seen as a key event in popularising the Kilt in Scottish culture.

Somehow Scott also found time to hpld various legal positions. He wrote short stories, articles and poems aside from all of this.

Somewhat unexpectedly despite his dazzling level of Europe-wide super stardom Scott found himself almost ruined in 1825 following the collapse of a printing business he’d invested in.

He kept writing through this and the death of his wife Charlotte in 1826.

He died in 1832,and was buried in Dryburgh Abbey, in a Scotland considerably altered by his life. 

By the way dear reader I am aware that much of this piece may read like I am blowing smoke up the rump of this long dead author (a Tory and unionist to boot!), and it is certainly true that his novels suffered a precipitous decline in their popularity in the twentieth century, though his conception of Scotland less so.

I’m certainly not going to go as far as one recent biographer who makes the claim that Scott “invented England” (though it is interesting to note that he apparently coined the phrase “war of the roses”).

However it does seem that, whatever one thinks of him and his works (a confession – I have not read one of his novels.. and I did start one), I think it is fair to say that the magnitude of his influence is not proportionate to the level of recognition he has today, when compared with novelists who were his contemporaries.

Consider this quote on the man:

Almost anything we now consider culturally, even nationally, Scottish has its roots in what Scott did and wrote. From language to dress, from how others see us to how we see ourselves

Stuart Kelly

Though the exact extent to which this is true is of debated that it can even be sensibly suggested means there is no doubt a great deal of truth in it.

But as the popularity of his novels has waned for those who enjoy folk tales and old ballads Scott’s work in this area gained increasing prominence.

And so Minstrelsy of the Scottish borders is increasingly important in framing his legacy, and though this his work is still enjoyed through reinterpretations to this day, by storytelling and through folk song that draw on him as a source. Which is after all how I discovered him.

The Scott Monument, Edinburgh (Credit: Kleon3)

Episode pages featuring Scott

Selected Sources

Works by Scott

Sign up on Patreon for extra episodes and bonus content
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

Welcome to Tales of Britain and Ireland!

Welcome to Tales of Britain & Ireland: A podcast telling folktales, myths and legends from across Britain and Ireland. Hosted by Graeme Cooke.

Following the links below to find out more:

About the podcast
About the website

Where to begin?

All episodes
My favourite episodes

Other odds and sods:

Folklorist Biographies
Podcast recommendations
Failed memes for Elven Queen-abducted Teens

Social Share Buttons and Icons powered by Ultimatelysocial