Critical Essays Scott and Scotland


"O Scotia! my dear, my native soil! For whom my warmest wish to Heaven is sent."

Robert Burns: "A Cotter's Saturday Night"

Scotland today advertises itself to tourists as the land of Scott and Burns. Different as the two great romantic authors were in personality and literary achievement as well as in social position, both were thoroughly Scotch. Scott was well-to-do, Burns poor. Scott was a nobleman, Burns a peasant. To use his own words, Scott could do "the big bow-wow strain" of stirring narrative and historical romance.

Sir Walter Scott was a native of Edinburgh. A marker in Guthrie Street bears this inscription: "Near this spot stood the house in which Sir Walter Scott was born." On Princes' Street, one of the most beautiful avenues in the world, with buildings only on one side and the hills on the other side sloping up to Holyrood and Edinburgh castles, is an elaborate monument to Sir Walter and his dog. Edinburgh is the scene of The Heart of Midlothian (the old prison and Jeanie Deans's cottage are still standing); Guy Mannering, the tale of an astrologer's prophecy and a boy kidnapped by gypsies; Old Mortality, dealing with the rise of Presbyterianism in Scotland; Redgauntlet; and The Abbot. Yet Scott loved the Lowlands, too, for there was his home, Abbotsford, where he lived like a feudal lord until financial disaster overtook him.

The River Tweed winds through Melrose district, past Dryburgh and Melrose Abbeys and Abbotsford itself. Sir Walter's view of the Tweed, where on the crest of a hill he had trained his horses to stop and had trained them so thoroughly that they stopped with his funeral cortege, may be compared on this side of the Atlantic with Thomas Jefferson's view from Monticello. Jefferson, however, could see no river.

Approaching Abbotsford, the tourist may encounter a bagpipe player, gay in Scotch tartan, his instrument emitting strains thought to be those of "Hail to the Chief," from The Lady of the Lake. In the study where the lame but terrifically energetic novelist often worked three hours before breakfast in order to clear Abbotsford of debt, he would grind out chapters of Ivanhoe or The Talisman, hiding them in a drawer when visitors came in.

A little gallery around all four walls of the study is reached by a tiny staircase. Walls, gallery, and ground floor alike are lined with books, many of them Sir Walter's own. The next room is the main library, with 20,000 volumes collected by the author himself. Here are family portraits, including a famous painting of Scott and his dog and first editions of The Lady of the Lake, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. In a glass case are relics mentioned in the novels.

In other rooms are such treasures as the swords described in Rob Roy, the keys to the Heart of Midlothian, and the Lochleven key, thrown into the lake after the escape of Mary, Queen of Scots, and retrieved later. Pictures of Tom Purdie and Mucklemouth Meg are also there, as well as Scott's shoes, top hat, and plaid suit of black and white.

Amid the ruins of Dryburgh Abbey is the simple grave of the great novelist, as well as those of his wife and his faithful son-in-law, Lockhart. Kelso and Jedburgh are also associated with Scott, and so is Selkirk, where he was sheriff of the shire. Melrose Abbey, loveliest ruin in Scotland, is the scene of The Lay of the Last Minstrel.

If you would see fair Melrose aright
Go visit it by the pale moonlight,

wrote Scott. Not many miles away are the Lammermoor Hills, associated with the tragic fate of the Bride of Lammermoor, Lucy Ashton. Just north of Berwick-on-Tweed is "Norham's castled steep" of Marmion, and south of the river is Flodden Field.

Scott was the first British novelist to make a background studied from nature an essential element of his work. Although his tales may lead us to medieval France, like Quentin Durward, or central England, like Ivanhoe, or Jerusalem, like The Talisman, the majority of them are Scottish, projected against the background of the author's native land. The vogue for historical fiction which Scott started has spread on both sides of the ocean. Gone With the Wind, Drums Along the Mohawk, and Northwest Passage are samples of the literary descendants of Kenilworth, Quentin Durward, and Ivanhoe.

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