Skip to main page content (AccessKey S)
Sir Walter Scott lived from 15 August 1771 to 21 September 1832. He can be thought of as the first international literary superstar. As a poet and as a historical novelist, he was popular throughout the world in his day and, to an extent, his books remain read today. He also did much to create the image that many have today of Scotland, and was among the first to popularise parts of it: the Trossachs in particular. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh in 1771, just as the New Town was being developed. His father Walter Scott was a solicitor and his mother Anne was the daughter of professor of medicine. While a child, Scott contracted polio. He was sent to recuperate with his grandparents in the Scottish Borders for a number of years, where he started to acquired his broad knowledge of Scottish folklore, ballad and legend.
Scott completed his education at Edinburgh High School and Edinburgh University, and went on to practice law. In 1792 he was called to the bar. His interest in writing began with two works translated from German, published in 1796. He was also a member of the Yeomanry (the military reserve of the day). Scott met Charlotte Carpenter at a spa in Gilsland in Cumbria in 1797, and married her later that year in Carlisle Cathedral. They went on to have five children.
In 1799 Scott was appointed Sheriff Deputy in Selkirk. In 1802-03 Scott's first really important work, Minstrelsy Of The Scottish Border appeared. As a poet Scott rose to fame with the publication of The Lay Of The Last Minstrel (1805) about an old legend from the Borders. It was followed by Marmion (1808), a historical romance in tetrameter. The Lady In The Lake appeared in 1810 and Rokeby in 1813. The last of Scott's major poems, Lord Of The Isles, was published in 1815.
In 1806 Scott became clerk to the Court of Session in Edinburgh. At around the same time he started a printing and publishing business with his friend James Ballantyne.
He assumed full financial responsibility for Ballantyne's in 1813 and turned his hand to producing a series of historical novels. These were published anonymously to protect his reputation as a serious poet. First to appear was Waverley in 1814, set against the background of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. When this proved successful he produced a series of Scottish novels in quick succession, culminating with Rob Roy, published in 1817, which sold its original print run of 10,000 in two weeks.
Ivanhoe, published in 1819, was set in the England of Richard I, and its success started a second series of novels, again produced in rapid order.
Scott's anonymity became more transparent as these novels followed one another, and as early as 1815 he was invited to dine with the Prince Regent, George, who wanted to meet the author of Waverley. In 1819 Scott was responsible for unearthing the Honours of Scotland: the crown, sceptre, and sword of state of Scotland. These had been locked away deep in he bowels of Edinburgh Castle, and forgotten since The Act of Union in 1707. In 1820 he was created a Baronet, becoming Sir Walter Scott. And in 1822 Scott organised the visit by King George IV to Scotland: the first visit of a reigning monarch to Scotland since 1650.
The visit Scott arranged was a vast pantomime of invented pageantry. Kilt and tartan, effectively outlawed since the aftermath of the 1745 rebellion and as a result only used by the army, were suddenly the romantic "heritage" that all Scots were led to believe they should aspire to. There were two results, and both resonate right down the years to today.
The first was to start to bridge the gulf of ignorance and prejudice of highlanders by lowlanders. Lowlanders might not have emerged any more accurately informed: but they started to think of the highlands as a romantic place rather than simply as the land full of savages they had believed it to be for centuries. The second result was to fix in the mind of everyone on earth the myth that today's tartans and kilts are the product of centuries of tradition: the epitome of everything that is Scottish.
Scott's company Ballantyne's collapsed in 1825, leaving him with considerable debts. He set to with renewed determination to write his way out of his problems and placed his home, Abbotsford, and his income into a trust belonging to his creditors. Scott died at Abbotsford in 1832 and was buried in the ruins of Dryburgh Abbey. He hadn't cleared his debts by the time of his death, but his posthumous earnings ensured that his creditors were all eventually paid in full.