Today, 15th August, we’re celebrating the 250th birthday of Sir Walter Scott. Born in 1771 in College Wynd in Edinburgh, Walter Scott would go on to become one of the greatest writers of his generation. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine just how world renowned Walter Scott was as a writer and poet. His novels and poems were hugely popular in his time.
Part of that popularity is due to him pioneering a new and exciting genre of literature. He took real events and historical figures and mixed in his own fictional characters to the action. He made history and the narrative come alive, telling stories like no other author ever had before. As a result, he’s credited with being the inventor of the historical novel.
Born and bred in Edinburgh, Walter contracted polio as a young child and was sent to the Borders to recuperate with his grandparents. This was to have a huge influence in his life. He loved the stories and ballads of the Borders and would become an active collector of them. Although he followed in his father’s footsteps in the law, it was writing and history which were his great loves. However, he qualified as Advocate in 1792 and even during the height of his fame as a writer, he was still working as Principal Clerk of Session.
An Avid Collector
His stories reflect the rich seam of romantic, historic ballads, myths and legend that he collected. It wasn’t just stories from the past that he gathered enthusiastically. He was an inveterate collector of all historical artefacts. Many of these would end up in Abbotsford, the home he built in the Borders with the money made from his books. Nothing was too big, too small or too quirky. He even had a piece of oatcake taken from the pocket of a dead Highlander killed on Culloden Battlefield. If you visit Abbotsford you’ll see it is still on display today as one of his prized possessions.
However, over the centuries his literature has fallen out of favour and he appears old-fashioned. Most people have never read anything by Walter Scott, but you’d be surprised just how much his influence can still be felt in Edinburgh, Scotland and the world.
Here are some of the surprising connections with Scott in Edinburgh, some more obvious and some that are usually overlooked or little known.
1. The Scott Monument
We start with the most obvious connection with Walter Scott in Edinburgh. If you take a walk in the city centre it’s almost impossible to miss the Scott Monument. Such was the pride of locals in the success of this home-grown literary star that after his death in 1832, money was raised for a fitting tribute.
A competition to find the best design for a monument was launched and eventually won by George Meikle Kemp. He was untrained as an architect and so instead used a pseudonym, John Morvo to cover his true identity. The original Morvo had been the medieval master mason involved in the building of Melrose Abbey in the Borders.
At 200ft (60m) the Scott Monument is an iconic local landmark which still towers over Princes Street and East Princes Street Gardens. Completed in 1844 and inaugurated 2 years later, the structure certainly did Walter proud with the money raised by the good folk of Edinburgh. Although not everyone was a fan. Charles Dickens likened it to “the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground.” Perhaps this is where its nickname ‘The Gothic Rocket’ comes from.
On the monument you’ll see 64 sculptures of both famous historical figures and the fictional characters from his books.
Nearby is ‘Waverley’ Railway Station named after the first in his series of novels. It’s the only station in the world to be named after a novel.
2. Edinburgh Castle and the Honours of Scotland
Walter Scott was passionate about history and wanted to preserve Scotland’s heritage. He was also keen to promote a pride in Scotland’s own unique history and cultural identity, whilst at the same time being part of the union with England. Since 1707 the ancient Royal Scottish Regalia – the crown, sceptre and sword of state – had all been stored somewhere deep within Edinburgh Castle and long been forgotten. The Act of Union at that time had made them redundant and so they had been mothballed. But they weren’t forgotten by Walter Scott. In 1818 with permission from the Prince Regent, later to become George IV, Scott went to seek them out.
He found them in an oak chest locked within an old strong room within the castle. Inside the chest, the Honours of Scotland (Scotland’s Crown Jewels) were found wrapped in linen cloths. They remained, just as they’d been left 111 years earlier. Their discovery really caught the public imagination and they were later put on display in the castle, making it a popular tourist destination. Edinburgh Castle is still home to the Honours of Scotland to this day and you can see them on any visit to the castle.
3. Scotland and Tartan
One of the most surprising facts about Walter Scott is that he is credited with Scotland’s association with tartan. A view of Scotland that is now worldwide. We take it for granted that the two have always been linked hand-in-hand, but without Scott this wouldn’t have been the case.
In 1822 King George IV visited Edinburgh amidst much pomp and pageantry. He was the first monarch to visit Scotland in nearly two centuries. The last had been Charles II for his Scottish coronation in 1651. The mastermind and chief coordinator behind the schedule of celebrations for the visit was Walter Scott. He was involved in every detail of the staging and theatricality of all of the events.
When Walter Scott wrote ‘Waverley’ he made the history of the defeated Jacobite Highlanders of 60 years before a romantic, heroic one although doomed. With the fame and popularity of ‘Waverley’, perhaps it’s not surprising that Scott decided to project a Highland image from the past in the pageantry he choreographed. He called upon Highland societies, clan chieftains with their clansmen and everyone else involved in the celebrations to come bedecked in tartan. For Lowland Scots including Edinburgh society who had never worn tartan before, there was a sudden rush to find kilt makers. Scott even persuaded the King to order a kilt for the occasion!
Afterwards the entire visit by the King was judged a huge triumph. The result of it ended up having more impact on Scotland than anyone would have guessed. Highland Chiefs rediscovered a pride in their heritage. Lowlanders and Highlanders together found a new sense of national Scottish identity and culture, sharing tartan and kilts as an important joint symbol. And so it has remained to this day.
So the next time you’re walking along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and pass all the tartan gift shops, spare a thought for Walter Scott – the inventor of tartan tourism!
4. What’s That You Say? Surprising phrases invented by Scott
They might not be exactly connected with Edinburgh, but there are so many everyday phrases and words which we use today that were invented by Sir Walter Scott. Here are a few of my favourites and the books they were first mentioned in:
- Freelance – it feels like a very modern word, but actually comes from Scott’s book ‘Ivanhoe’ in 1819
- Tongue in cheek – mentioned in ‘The Fair Maid of Perth’ in 1829
- Cold shoulder – ‘The Antiquary’ 1816
- Caught red-handed – Although red-hand was a term in Scots law, the phrase was first written in ‘Ivanhoe’ in 1819
- The back of beyond – ‘The Antiquary’ 1816
- Savoir faire – ‘Guy Mannering’ 1815
- “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” – ‘Marmion’ 1808
5. Have you looked at a Scottish Banknote?
If you’ve ever looked at a Bank of Scotland banknote, you’ll see the familiar image of Sir Walter Scott. But why? It’s not because of his fame as a writer, but for another reason entirely. Because of a banking problem with smaller English banks, the UK government proposed to stop Scottish banks from issuing currency under £5. Walter Scott was against this as he felt Scots predominantly used smaller denomination banknotes.
In March 1826, under the assumed name of Malachi Malagrowther, Scott started an energetic attack on the UK government’s plans. He wrote 3 letters to the Edinburgh Weekly Journal and from there the popularity of his campaign spread throughout Scotland. The crusade was a success for the campaigners.
As a result the Bank of Scotland have had the image of Sir Walter Scott on all their banknotes ever since.
6. Look out for the ‘Heart of Midlothian‘
One of Walter Scott’s great gifts was taking stories and local historical events and weaving them into his novels. One of these has a close connection with Edinburgh Old Town and the place of the Old Tolbooth.
If you’re walking near St Giles Cathedral you’ll pass by a cobble heart-shape set into the setts nearby. It’s called the Heart of Midlothian and the name comes directly from Walter Scott. There is nothing romantic about the heart however, as it marks the site of the entrance to the Old Tolbooth. Over the centuries the Old Tolbooth had many functions, but its most infamous was as a prison which was eventually demolished in 1817.
In 1818 Scott wrote his book ‘Heart of Midlothian’ about the prison and he gives a dramatic account based on a true historical case. As local historical background to the main story, he also includes an account of ‘The Porteous Riots’ of 1736. This was a true event in Edinburgh, where a local smuggler named Andrew Wilson was convicted and hanged in the Grassmarket. Accompanying the prisoner to keep law and order were the Town Guard and their Captain John Porteous.
Breaking into the Tolbooth
Andrew Wilson was popular as he’d helped a fellow prisoner escape. Unfortunately there was trouble following the hanging and Porteous ordered the Town Guard to fire on the crowd. It’s disputed whether he ordered them to fire at the crowd or above their heads, but the result was the same. People were killed and several more injured in the ensuing chaos. Captain Porteous was immediately taken to the Tolbooth and then stood trial. He was found guilty and his sentence was death.
However, whilst awaiting execution Porteous petitioned Queen Caroline, wife of George II. The King was out of the country at the time and she was acting Regent. She granted a reprieve to Porteous while considering the matter. This stay of execution was greatly resented by the people of Edinburgh who decided to take the law into their own hands.
On the night of 7th September, a mob of armed men, many of them disguised, broke into the Old Tolbooth and dragged Porteous outside. They took him down to the Grassmarket, breaking into a shop on their way. There they took a rope and continued on their way. Once they’d reached their destination, they found a dyer’s pole and hanged Porteous from it.
Such was the support for the perpetrators of the crime, despite government rewards, the culprits were never found. The government punished the city by banning the Lord Provost from holding office again. A fine of £2,000 was also levied against the city which was paid to Captain Porteous’ widow.
The Old Tolbooth Door
When the building was demolished in 1817, Scott the compulsive collector, took the ancient wooden entrance door to his home of Abbotsford. There he placed it on an outside wall on the first floor.
This might seem an odd place for a doorway, but his servant Tom Purdie, advised him against putting the door to functional use. This was because it had ‘been grippit ower often by the hangman’.
There are more surprising stories and history in Edinburgh connected with Walter Scott. If you’d like to find out more, why not take a custom tour? There is also the Writer’s Museum in the Old Town to visit when it re-opens, a great place to find personal artefacts connected with Walter Scott.