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Learning to Love Sir Walter – Scottish Review of Books
by James Robertson

Learning to Love Sir Walter

October 28, 2009 | by James Robertson

I CANNOT BE THE FIRST President of the Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club to use the opportunity of the annual dinner to call for a revival of interest in Sir Walter Scott and his fiction. Any such call inevitably begs the question, why should anyone, in Scotland or further afield, be interested in Scott or need to know about him in the year 2006? And why should anyone, other than academics, want to read his novels when, as everybody knows, they are boring, long-winded, old-fashioned, stuck in the past and hopelessly romantic in their depiction of Scotland?

In terms of literary debate this is not virgin territory. In 1926, having dispensed with the Burns Cult at the end of his series of essays on Scottish writers Contemporary Scottish Studies, C.M. Grieve (then gaining notoriety as the poet ‘Hugh MacDiarmid’) asked, “Is it desirable that there should be a return, especially on the part of the Scottish people, to Scott? Efforts are being made in certain quarters to revive interest in his work, and, in particular, the Waverley Novels.” But these efforts, Grieve said, were being made by writers whose political and literary loyalties, though they themselves were Scots, lay with the English tradition: they took it for granted that Scotland and England had identical cultural interests, and the movement to reinstate Scott “must therefore be regarded as one designed to conserve and reinforce certain elements in English culture”. Grieve went on to complain that Scott’s apologists were not “advancing any new view of Scott – any special applicability to the present and the future of elements in Scott hitherto overlooked or misprized”. And he approvingly quoted the critic Georg Brandes, who said that Scott was the kind of author whom “every adult has read, and no grown-up person can read”.

Grieve/MacDiarmid, characteristically, was both right and wrong, and I believe that the charge that Scott has no “special applicability to the present and future” no longer holds true, if it ever did. But first it is necessary to ask why Scott is not celebrated as he once was, both in his own lifetime and for many decades after his death. Where, apart from at the Sir Walter Scott Club, are the Scott Suppers, complete with a soup marched in by a piper to cries of “Let us all to our dinner, for the cock-a-leekie is cooling!”, a marathon rendition of the sixth canto of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and ministers and toun coon-cillors donning strange outfits in order to recite the best-loved lines of Mause Head-rigg, Dandie Dinmont or Bailie Nicol Jarvie? No such traditions exist, and yet, if there is one figure in our literature in whose name one might have expected them to become set in stone, it is Sir Walter Scott. All the sites of potential Scott worship – Abbotsford, the Scott Monument, Scott’s View, Loch Katrine and the Trossachs, the Heart of Midlothian – were established, and all the railway stations, pubs, inns and paddle-steamers that bear the names of his novels and characters christened, long ago, most in the century before last: surely it would be only natural for annual events and celebrations to take place in these locations and elsewhere, to mark the achievements of the man of whom Thomas Carlyle wrote, “no Scotchman of his time was more entirely Scotch than Walter Scott”. But these sites seem to me to have retreated, melted almost, into the landscape: even the Scott Monument has, with the passage of time, become semi-invisible to the crowds on Princes Street; it is less startling an edifice now, complete, than it is when seen, half-built, in those early photographs of Hill and Adamson. The past, as viewed in those images, is more exciting, more futuristic even, than the future.

Where Scott has continued to be recognised into our own age is in the naming of streets. In Glenrothes, for example, one of the post-war New Towns, you will find Abbots-ford Court, Ivanhoe Drive, Kenilworth Drive, Lammermoor Court, Mannering Court, Ravenswood Drive and St Ronans Court; but I suspect the planners’ designations have long since lost their significance to most of the inhabitants. Scott, then, may be built into the fabric of modern Scotland, but he is not much noticed. The recognition factor for Scott is as nothing compared with that for Robert Burns, in whose name thousands gather together in worship, and school pupils learn and recite songs and poems, every January. Furthermore, if and when Scott is commemorated, it is seldom done with the fondness, the almost intimate sense of possession, which attaches to Burns. Scott does-n’t have the affection of his people. Already the gears of the Burns machine are shifting in preparation for the 250th anniversary of his birth in 2009. As things stand, one cannot imagine anything like the same attention being paid to Scott in 2021.

Yet turn the clock back and a very different picture presents itself. When, at a dinner for the Theatrical Fund on 23rd February 1827, Scott at last publicly acknowledged what had been an open secret for years – that he was the “Author of Waverley” – he did so in response to a speech honouring him by Lord Meadowbank, a judge the same age as Scott. “The clouds have been dispelled,” said Lord Meadowbank, “and the Great Unknown – the minstrel of our native land – the mighty magician who has rolled back the current of time, and conjured up before our living senses the men and the manners of days which have long passed away, stands revealed to the eyes and the hearts of his affectionate and admiring countrymen…We owe to him, as a people, a large and heavy debt of gratitude. He it is who has opened to foreigners the grand and characteristic beauties of our country; – it is to him that we owe that our gallant ancestors and illustrious patriots – who fought and bled in order to obtain and secure that independence and that liberty we now enjoy – have obtained a fame no longer confined to the boundaries of a remote and comparatively obscure country – it is He who has called down upon their struggles for glory and freedom the admiration of foreign lands; – he it is who has conferred a new reputation on our national character, and bestowed on Scotland an imperishable name, were it only by her having given birth to himself.”

This is the kind of adulation, mixed with real warmth, one might expect a newly independent country to expend on a leader responsible for overthrowing the oppression of a colonial power. And perhaps this analogy is not too wide of the mark, for many of Scott’s contemporaries felt that what he had given them, in the political context of their day, was the key to their survival as Scots. He had helped to secure their sense of national identity just at that moment when it might have been subsumed within the British Empire. It was that sense of a “heavy debt of gratitude” that fuelled the continuing adoration of Scott, including the raising of the monument on Princes Street, for the rest of the 19th century.

Of course Scott was admired not just in Scotland, but in England and throughout Europe and the rest of the world. How was it, then, that in the 20th century his astonishing popularity vanished, and his heroic stature shrank almost to nothing save in the eyes of a small and ageing minority?

First, Scott was, and was seen to be, part of the establishment. Burns was not. In 19th-century imperial Britain – and in a Europe of emerging nations and aspirant nations – Scott was of the zeitgeist. As the 20th century progressed, he seemed to become less relevant, and more out of step with the times, more associated with privilege, wealth and discredited romantic nationalism than was good for his reputation. Then, too, his sometimes reactionary Toryism told against him. Burns, on the other hand, fitted the aspirations of democracy, fraternity and equality which, however naively or cynically, the times espoused. Scott’s friend James Hogg wrote of him shortly after his death: “The only blemish or perhaps I should say foible that I could ever say I discerned in my illustrious friend’s character was a too high devotion for titled rank. This in him was mixed with an enthusiasm which I cannot describe amounting in some cases almost to adoration if not servility.” Add to this his determination to set himself up as the Laird of Abbotsford, his knighthood, and his stage-management of George IV’s visit to Edin-burgh in 1822, and it is not hard to see why Sir Walter, in the aftermath of the First World War, began to appear almost a parody of one of his own fictional characters.

Then, specific to Scotland, there was the issue of the Union: Scott’s poems and novels articulated for his fellow-Scots ways of remaining demonstrably Scottish within the Union while still contributing as builders and overseers of the Empire, but with the end of empire and as more and more Scots became dissatisfied with the political configuration of the United Kingdom, so Scott’s accommodation with the Union seemed to be outdated.

In literary terms, too, Scott fell from grace in the 20th century. He was attacked on two fronts. On the one hand English critics accused him of being a poor artist, and, following in the footsteps of Henry James, dismissed his novels as being entertainments, not to be taken seriously as literature. From being, in James’s view “a born storyteller”, he was demoted to writer of adventure stories for adolescents. E.M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel of 1927, wrote: “He is seen to have a trivial mind and a heavy style. He cannot construct. He has neither artistic detachment nor passion.” And F.R. Leavis, in his The Great Tradition of 1948, added: “Scott was primarily a kind of inspired folklorist … not having the creative writer’s interest in literature, he made no serious attempt to work out his own form and break away from the bad tradition of the eighteenth century-romance…” Writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Robert Louis Stevenson had been, in different ways, “spoiled” by the influence of Scott. Alongside such criticism, Mark Twain’s claim that Scott was responsible for the American Civil War doesn’t look unreasonable.

Some of this condemnation came from those who were anxious to protect their own interests in deciding what constituted great English literature. And Scottish literature, coming from where it did – a culture habitually either dismissed or glamorised by its southern neighbour but seldom taken seriously – with its complications of Scots and Gaelic languages and its different preoccupations, could only be seen as a subdivision, a minor footnote to the Great Tradition.

The other literary assault on Scott, which shaded into a political assault, came from within Scotland, from intellectuals seeking to raise what they saw as neglected native values from a mire of parochialism and sentimentality. They saw Scott as the wellspring of a tartan-clad romanticism that toadied to the British establishment and was incompatible with the aspirations of a modern, progressive Scotland. MacDiarmid’s was the loudest of these voices, decrying, in his autobiography Lucky Poet, Scott’s novels as “the great source of the paralysing ideology of defeatism in Scotland, the spread of which is responsible at once for the acceptance of the Union and the low standard of nineteenth-century Scots literature…” Squeezed between the English intellectuals’ superior disdain and the Scottish intellectuals’ nationalist and republican resentment, is it any wonder that Scott fell out of favour?

The MacDiarmid-led campaign to revive all aspects of Scottish cultural and intellectual life was vitally necessary, and though Scott and Burns were repeatedly fired on by MacDiarmid, he was aiming at much wider targets. In fact MacDiarmid was so successful that we can look again at Scott in a new and less paranoid Scottish context. Nevertheless, for much of the 20th century, he was repeatedly represented as a political and cultural problem for Scotland, and this encouraged a general view that he had had his day. The common response to him, even now, is indifference at best, and at worst an echo of the Jedburgh election mob’s suggestion, “Burke Sir Walter”.

Caroline McCracken-Flesher of the University of Wyoming, in her recent study Possible Scotlands: Walter Scott and the Story of Tomorrow, asks the question, how can Scott, dead for a hundred and seventy years, continue to constitute a problem undermining modern Scotland; or, conversely, how can he continue, after so long, to energise Scotland? The way we respond to these questions seems to lie in how we perceive Scott’s accomplishment: did he falsify reality for Scotland, trapping its people in a dream from which they could not wake, or did he provide a template that enabled Scotland to survive as an imagined entity into a future about which the only certainty was that it would be different? You can read Redgauntlet’s impassioned exclamation, “Then, gentlemen, the cause is lost for ever!” either way. The problem Scott was perceived to constitute – by intellectuals such as MacDiarmid – was that he consigned Scotland always to the past, to a romantic history that was, to all intents and purposes, over. The opposing view is that, in actuality, his writings are all about possible Scotlands: that his fiction is fluid, contains multiple narratives and is open to a wide range of interpretations, and that it does not close off the future.

Professor McCracken-Flesher’s opinion is that Scott, at the start of the 21st century, “constitutes not a curse, but an opportunity”. She may well be right. We are in a new Scot-land – politically, economically, culturally different from how it was in the 20th century – but we are also, of course, in the same Scot-land. We live in an age of doubt: even when political, scientific, economic and religious certainties are thrust at us constantly, from every direction and from all over the world, the undergrowth through which we make our way is full of doubts, anxieties and lack of sure knowledge, and this is the landscape of the Waverley Novels, with their irresolute heroes moving in unfamiliar territory as they experience dramatic events, with their many layers of time and multiple authorial personae, and with the sense of perpetual, ongoing change and the impossibility of there being an ‘end’ to history.

In the preamble to The Heart of Midlothian, Scott has Hardie, one of two lawyers forced by a coach accident to spend a night at the Wallace Inn in Gandercleugh, remark that if the Tolbooth of Edinburgh could speak, it would tell a tale far more varied and remarkable than any work of fiction – for fiction, he says, has become formulaic, and never throws up any surprises as real life does: “The end of uncertainty…is the death of interest; and hence it happens that no one now reads novels.” (In fact, as the other lawyer, Jack Halkit, reveals, Hardie reads novels all the time.)

Scott is being hugely ironical in writing this as preface to a novel which not only combines historical incident with invention, but overflows with human interest. His works explore this interplay time and again; he is endlessly fascinated by the effect of the progress of time on our perception of the events through which we live. As a famous passage at the end of Waverley describes it, “There is no European nation, which, within the course of half a century, or little more, has undergone so complete a change as this o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi’ stanes when they werena gude bairns – But naebody’s nails can reach the length o’ Lun-non.” How relevant is that in today’s Scot-land? Or there is the sound advice, that should be the watchword of the Green Party or of Friends of the Earth, given by the Laird of Dumbiedikes to his son: “Jock, when ye hae naething else to do, ye may aye be sticking in a tree; it will be growing, Jock, when ye’re sleeping.” The Laird of Abbotsford stuck in a few trees in his time. Or there is Maggie Mucklebackit rebuking the Antiquary for haggling over the price of a cock-paidle: “It’s no fish ye’re buying – it’s men’s lives.” Or Nicol Jarvie’s opinion of honour: “Honour is a homicide and a bloodspiller, that gangs about making frays in the street; but Credit is a decent honest man, that sits at hame, and makes the pat play.” And then there is Jeanie Deans, and her bold advice to the Duke of kingdom of Scotland… But the change, though steadily and rapidly progressive, has nevertheless been gradual; and, like those who drift down the stream of a deep and smooth river, we are not aware of the progress we have made until we find our eye on the now distant point from which we have been drifted.” In Scotland, as elsewhere in the world, there is no single narrative of the shift from past to future: indeed, our history tells us – and Scott in his fiction shows us – that there never was one single, ‘true’ way of telling Scotland’s story. The future of Scotland will be a place of change and difference, but it will still be Scotland, and one of the reasons for its self-perpetuation, and why Lord Mead-owbank so confidently voiced the appreciation of his fellow-Scots at that dinner in 1827, is the achievement of Sir Walter Scott. He gave Scotland then an understanding of its pasts, but he did not curtail its futures.

And meanwhile his words, or the words he put in the mouths of his characters, flow towards and around us like a constant commentary on who we are. One of the recurring themes of his fiction is the meeting of different cultures, and how that meeting may simultaneously be hostile and yet provide the opportunity to build bridges: in Rob Roy, in Ivanhoe, in The Talisman, this theme occurs again and again. How relevant it is today. Or there is the skill with which Scott can summarise a whole attitude of mind, for example in Mrs Howden’s wonderful outburst in The Heart of Midlothian: “I dinna ken muckle about the law…but I ken, when we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men Argyle if he should be speaking to “ony ane that is of greater degree than yourself”: “Dinna be chappit back or cast down wi’ the first rough answer.” It seems to me, in all these passages, that Scott, far from trapping us in a dream world, renews our faith in the possibilities of reality. It is also perhaps no accident that the most memorable moments of the novels are those involving his Scots-speaking characters : these men and women speak in a language that seems absolutely rooted in real life, both then and now.

So, if Scott is an opportunity, and specifically an opportunity for Scotland, how should we exploit him? If he is ripe for being revived, how best to do it?

First, history is in vogue. We know now that the past is no less fixed than the future, that it alters with every visit we pay it. Nor is it alien to us; and if we understand that, we can see that the future is not alien either; it is simply different. Scott, more than any other writer I know, understood that and expressed it. That is one reason for encouraging his fiction to be read: to illuminate the path from past through present to future.

And if we start with his fiction, then we have a refreshed, refreshing version of it in the form of the new Edinburgh edition. These texts, recapturing the original spirit of what Scott actually wrote, in time may filter into the wider public domain and find, perhaps, a new readership. But this will not happen without a little assistance. So what is needed is a feature film, or perhaps even better a TV series on the model of the outstanding recent adaptation of Bleak House, of one or other of his novels. My choice would be The Heart of Midlothian, which combines politics (a commentary on the recently altered – that is, post-1707 – political arrangements between London and Edinburgh – what fun a clever production could have with that!), social unrest, murder, madness, the law, battles between faith and mercy, truth and justice, religious stricture and secular freedom…and contains not only a fabulous array of minor characters but, at its centre, a strong, young, female role in Jeanie Deans. I’ve lost count of the number of Jane Austen adaptations there have been in recent years, on television and cinema screen. The Heart of Midlothian is crying out for similar treatment, and if it were done well another half dozen books (and for my money they would be the Scottish novels) could be queuing up behind it in the wings.

There are other opportunities. Edinburgh is the first UNESCO-designated City of Literature – a project still apparently struggling to define its role. But Edinburgh is also the city of Scott, and an hour’s drive away, on the route of the projected revived Waverley Line, lies Abbotsford, a place also in need of a new role. What that role might be remains to be seen, but surely the connection between the City of Literature and the home of the man who was the most successful writer of his age must be made.

On the other hand, there is the perceived connection between Scott and the Edinburgh establishment, which needs to be loosened, if not severed completely. And here I speak as one who usually looks in from the outside on events such as this – or doesn’t look in at all. So long as Scott’s image is associated in the public mind with exclusive clubs and black tie dinners, he will appear aloof and distant to most people – and most people will continue not read him. This may be the result of misguided prejudice or inverted snobbery, but it is a barrier to Scott becoming popular again, and those of us who want to share him with the wider world need to think about how to dismantle that barrier.

Let Scott also be recognised, whatever Georg Brandes may have thought, as a grown-up writer. We know how much damage was done when he was reclassified as literature for adolescents, and teenage boys were forced to read Woodstock and Kenil-worth. That state of affairs was an insult to Scott and an insult to those young readers. The best of his fiction is complex, insightful and intensely rewarding. He should be read by people, whatever age they are, with grown-up minds.

And finally, if interest in Scott is to be revived, there is the extraordinary narrative of his own life. His personality, like his fiction, is indelibly stamped with the strengths and failings, the resilience and courage, the doubts and fears, the ambitions and frustrations, the conviviality and the loneliness of the human condition. Nowhere is this more apparent than in that last true masterpiece of his, the Journal. Like his best novels, this is a portrait of great events as they affect individual human beings. But in this case the individual is Scott himself, plunged from the pedestal of immense fame, wealth and success into profound crisis. It is a self-portrait of genius at its most vulnerable, and it shows us that Scott, whether he constitutes a curse or an opportunity to his native land today, was, as he worked himself to death to pay off his debts in the last six years of his life, a human being. Today, we surely need examples of great humanity, and that is to be found in Scott’s own story. And it is in the mirror of his Journal that “the Author of Waverley” is finally revealed as that unique but very human being, Walter Scott.

This article is based on an address to the Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club, which, as President of the Club for 2006, James Robertson made at its annual dinner earlier this year.

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