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Have you ever ventured into the Octagon, which used to be the Queen Mary library, for meetings or lectures and has your eye started wandering around the room? In doing so your gaze may have rested on several busts clinging to the edge of life on the balcony, looking down on us. This week the focus is on Sir Walter Scott. A series by Special Collections Information Assistant Anne Marie McHarg.

Bust of Scott in Octagon

Bust of Scott by Francis Verheyden commissioned by the People's Palace c. 1888.

Sir Walter Scott was born in College Wynd in the Old Town of Edinburgh on 15th August 1771. He was a historical novelist, and poet, as well as having a career as an advocate, Sheriff Depute, and Clerk of Session.

Early years

He was the ninth child of his parents but six of their children died in infancy. The son of a lawyer with a long family tradition in law, Scott had ill health that plagued him throughout his life. He suffered from polio in 1773 which effected his ability to walk. During this year he was sent to stay with his grandparent’s farm at Sandyknowne in the Scottish borders. 

While staying here his Aunt Jenny taught him to read and write and his formative education began. His aunt also instilled in him the love of books and literature. He also learned from her the different speech patterns and many tales and legends that later came alive in his books.

The family were looking for cures for him and after returning to his parents’ home for a while he was on the move, this time to the spa town of Bath to take the waters with his Aunt Jenny. After another attempt at a water cure at Prestonpans in Scotland he returned to Edinburgh and was home schooled. In 1779 he began his formal education at the Royal High School in Edinburgh. By this time had gained some strength in his legs and was able to walk, but with a limp.

At 15 he started an apprenticeship in his father’s office to become a Writer of Signet. This is a private society of Scottish Solicitors dating back to 1594 as part of the College of Justices and belonging to the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet.  During his time at school he became friends with Adam Ferguson, whose father Professor Adam Ferguson hosted literary evenings. Scott met the blind poet Thomas Blacklock who introduced him to the Ossian Cycle of poems by James Macpherson.  At one of these meeting during the winter of 1786-87 Scott met the great Scottish poet Robert Burns. During the evening Burns eye fell upon a print illustrating the poem The Country Justice, and he asks who wrote it. Only Scott was able to give the answer as John Langhorne and was thanked by Burns. Scott later described this event in his memoirs.

A decision was made for Scott to read Law and he returned to university (he previously attended for a spell prior to his apprenticeship). During his second spell at university he played a prominent part in student activities, co-founding the Literary Society in 1789 and was elected to the Speculative Society (a Scottish Enlightenment society dedicated to public speaking and literary composition) becoming the librarian and secretary treasurer the following year.


In 1797 he married the daughter of a wealthy Frenchman Charlotte Carpenter, and with his wife’s money as well as his own, he was able to have the security that helped him greatly in his career as a writer. In 1799 Scott went to live near Ashestiel on the River Tweed, and over the years continued buying land near Melrose. Here he built the family home into an estate called Abbotsford.

Book spines of Sir Walter Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion

Scott spent time exploring the border country on foot, to follow up his reading about it when he was a child. His knowledge and interest grew, as he studied old manuscripts about the border history and read the latest Romantic poetry from Europe, Italian and German writers.  It was at Ashestiel in 1805 that Scott wrote his first poem, The Lay of the last Minstrel. This poem is about the wild yet chivalrous life of the border folk in the 16 century that made him famous. Not long after this, he wrote Marmion with a description of the Battle of Flodden, and The Lady of the Lake in 1810 which was set to music by Franz Schubert.

Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion in the rare books collection [Ref. PR5309 SCO & PR5311 SCO]

During 1805-1812 Scott continued writing poetry. He wrote long narrative poems, mainly of chivalric or historical action, a collection of ballads that generated greater interest in folk poetry, and some shorter poems. About this time the poet Lord Byron wrote his famous poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, but Scott’s work far outshone Byron and was most popular at the time.

His own work by now included not only his poems but an increasing amount of miscellaneous and editorial writing: in 1808 his 18 volume edition of Sir John Dryden appeared, followed by an edition of Captain Carlton’s Memoirs.

Scott turned his hand to writing novels. His first was Waverley which he began in 1805 but left it unfinished for some time. In the autumn 1813 he accidently came across the unfinished manuscript of Waverley and completed it. It was published anonymously in July in 1814.

The Bride of Lammermoor is a historical novel was published in 1819 which tells of a tragic love affair between young Lucy Ashton and her family's enemy Edgar Ravenswood. Scott indicated the plot was based on an actual incident. The Bride of Lammermoor and A Legend of Montrose were published together anonymously as the third of Scott's Tales of My Landlord series. The story is the basis for Donizetti's 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor.

Tales of my Landlord is a series of novels by Sir Walter Scott that form a subset of the so called Waverley Novels. There are four in the series and because Scott did not publicly acknowledge authorship until 1827, the series takes its name from Waverley, the first novel of the series released in 1814. The later books bore the words "by the author of Waverley" on their title pages. The Tales of my Landlord sub-series was not advertised as "by the author of Waverley" and thus is not always included as part of the Waverley Novels series. The series was very well received and this encouraged him to write more novels, such as Guy Mannering and the children’s favourite Ivanhoe.

During this time he carried on with his official legal work, looked after his estate at Abbottsford and started a publishing firm. This proved to be a complete disaster for him. By 1826 it dawned on Scott that he was responsible for all the debts which were mounting up to the tune of £100,000. Through hard work he managed to recuperate the money within the two years and made £40,000 towards them but not enough.

His Death

Towards the end of 1826 Scott decided to set sail board HMS Barham to Malta and onto Naples in the hope that this voyage would improve his health after his stroke. He left on 29 October 1831.  His health worsened and he died a year later on 21st September 1832 at Abbotsford.

He was buried alongside his wife Charlotte at Dryburgh Abbey in the border town of Melrose. After his death his debts were gradually paid off by the success of his novels beginning to sell at home and abroad. This meant the family was able to reclaim the family estate.

Post script…

Do you remember the film Ground Hog Day starring Bill Murray? He plays Phil, who is living the same day over and over again. In one scene, Phil’s co-worker Rita, played by Andie McDowell, recites a few lines of poetry. Here are the lines she recites:

The wretch, concentred all in self,

Living, shall forfeit fair renown,

And, doubly dying, shall go down

To the vile dust from whence he sprung,

Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.

From “Breathes There the Man,” an excerpt from The Lay of the Last Minstrel.

Scott is saying that no matter how famous or wealthy, narcissists are among the worst of humankind, and they will be remembered as such.

Every Friday our Special Collections librarian Anne-Marie will be introducing you to each of the writers featured in the Octagon in this blog series.



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