Biography of Sir Walter Scott, Scottish Novelist and Poet

Sir Walter Scott
Sir Walter Scott.

Manuel Velasco / Getty Images

Born in Edinburgh in 1771, Sir Walter Scott was one of the most prolific and revered authors of his time. With his writings, Scott stitched together the forgotten myths and legends of Scotland’s messy past, reexamining what his contemporaries saw as barbaric and transforming it into a succession of adventurous tales and fearless warriors. Through his works, Sir Walter Scott crafted a venerable and distinct national identity for the Scottish people.

Fast Facts: Sir Walter Scott

  • Known For: Scottish poet, novelist
  • Born: August 15, 1771 in Edinburgh 
  • Died: September 22, 1832 in the Scottish Borders
  • Parents: Walter Scott and Anne Rutherford
  • Spouse: Charlotte Charpentier 
  • Children: Sophia, Walter, Anne, Charles
  • Education: University of Edinburgh
  • Famous Quote: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” [“Marmion”, 1808]
  • Notable Published Works: Waverley, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy.

Though Scott admired the idea of the spirit of Scotland—an idea that colored most of his writing and earned him a handsome income—he was a staunch royalist and an anti-reformist in a time of revolution. By his death in 1832, the Reform Act had been passed, and Scott had lost many of his friends and neighbors over his political views.

Nevertheless, Sir Walter Scott is regarded as one of the most influential Scots in history.

Early Life and Inspiration 

Born the son of Walter Scott and Anne Rutherford in 1771, the young Scott survived infancy, though a bout of polio as a toddler left him slightly lame in his right leg. After contracting the disease, Scott was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in the Scottish Borders in hopes that the fresh air would be beneficial for his health. It was here that Scott first heard the folklore and poetry that would inspire his later published works.

The young Scott attended the prestigious Royal High School of Edinburgh and later continued his education at the University of Edinburgh before beginning his professional career as a lawyer.

On Christmas Eve in 1797, Scott married Charlotte Charpentier (Carpenter), only three months after they first met. The couple moved from Edinburgh to the Scottish Borders in 1799, when Scott was appointed Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire, and they welcomed their first child the same year. Scott and Charlotte would have five children together, though only four would survive to adulthood.

With the Scottish Borders serving as inspiration, Scott compiled the tales he heard as a child, and in 1802, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border was published, catapulting Scott to literary fame.

Sir Walter Scott
circa 1815: Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), novelist, poet, historian and biographer. Here, Sir Walter Scott, left, with his literary contemporaries at Abbotsford, his country house. Original Artwork: Engraving by J Sartain after a painting by Thomas Faed.  Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Literary Success

Between 1802 and 1804, Scott compiled and published three editions of the Minstrelsy, including original pieces like, "War Song of the Royal Edinburgh Light Dragoons," a ballad reminiscent of Scott’s time as a volunteer for the Light Dragoons.

By 1805, Scott had started publishing his own poetry, and by 1810, he had written and produced works like "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," "Marmion," and "The Lady of the Lake." The commercial success of these works earned Scott enough to build Abbottsford, his sweeping estate filled with historic artifacts, including the famed musket of Rob Roy, the Scottish folk hero.

From Abbottsford, Scott composed the 27 novels of the Waverley series, the story of an English soldier turned Jacobite who fought for the lost cause in the Highlands. He also penned an enormous collection of short stories and poetry, stitching together folklore with fact to create the historical fiction genre.

By the end of the 18th Century, Scotland was the most literate society in Europe, and Scott’s works consistently broke sales records.

Scottish National Identity 

As an avid royalist and a Tory, Walter Scott fiercely supported the union between Scotland and Britain, but he also emphasized the importance of separate national identities in order to maintain peace and stability. He wrote his works based in Scottish legend, vilifying heroes of the past while forging relationships with English nobility, most notably with King George IV.

After he successfully uncovered the missing "Honours of Scotland," George granted Scott a title and nobility, and the event instigated the first official royal visit to Edinburgh since 1650. Knowing he was a devoted reader of the Waverley series, the newly-appointed Sir Walter Scott paraded the king through the streets dressed in a kilt, tartan spilling out from every window while the sound of bagpipes echoed through the cobblestone streets.

Half a century before, these same symbols of Highland culture had been forbidden by another Hanoverian king, denoted as treasonous, but George was enchanted by the experience. Though pretentious, exaggerated, and laced with hypocrisy, the royal visit of George IV, meticulously planned and executed by Scott, reinvented the image of the disgraced Highlander as a legendary warrior, at least in the Lowlands.

Abbotsford, Scotland, 1893
Abbotsford, Scotland, 1893. The home of Sir Walter Scott, near Melrose. Artist: John L Stoddard. Print Collector / Getty Images

Financial Struggle and Death 

Though he saw significant commercial success during his lifetime, the crash of the London stock market in 1825 devastated Scott, leaving him with crippling debt. A year later Charlotte died, though it is not clear from what, leaving Scott widowed. His health began to fail shortly thereafter. In 1829, Scott suffered a stroke, and in 1832 he contracted typhus and died at home in Abbotsford.

Scott’s works continued to sell after his death, eventually relieving his estate of the burden of debt.

Legacy 

Sir Walter Scott is considered one of the most important Scots in history. However, his legacy is far from simple.

As the son of a wealthy lawyer, Scott was born into a world of privilege that he maintained for the duration of his life. This privilege allowed him to write about and profit from the stories of Scottish Highlanders, all the while the true Highlanders were being forcibly removed from their ancestral lands for economic gains, a period known as the Highland Clearances.

Critics claim Scott’s exaggerated storytelling blurred the lines between fact and fiction, consistently painting the picture of Scotland and its people as valiant yet ill-fated victims of the English and romanticizing violent and chaotic historical events.

However, even the critics admit that Sir Walter Scott stirred an unprecedented curiosity and pride in the Scottish past, all the while forging a distinct national identity and preserving a culture that was all but lost.

Sources

  • Corson, James Clarkson. A Bibliography of Sir Walter Scott: a Classified and Annotated List of Books and Articles Relating to His Life and Works, 1797-1940. 1968.
  • “Jacobites.” A History of Scotland, by Neil Oliver, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2009, pp. 288–322.
  • Lockhart, John Gibson. Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott. Edinburgh, R. Cadell, 1837.
  • Norgate, G. Le Grys. The Life of Sir Walter Scott. Haskell House Publishers, 1974.
  • The Exhibition. Abbotsford: The Home of Sir Walter Scott, Melrose, UK.