Walter Scott and Perth

Walter Scott Statue South Inch Perth


2014 is the bicentenary of Waverley, the first in the series of books internationally known as ‘The Waverley Novels’. Their author, Walter Scott, had before this become famous world-wide as a poet, outstanding amongst his many poems being The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808), The Lady of the Lake (1810), and The Lord of the Isles (1815). Scott turned to fiction after realising that the poetry of Lord Byron had become more popular. The immense success of Waverley was followed over the next eighteen years by 27 novels, the series establishing Scott as the world’s best-selling novelist, and the pioneer of the historical novel. His work is recognised internationally as inspiration for most of the world’s greatest novelists, from Tolstoy, Balzac, and Turgenev in Europe to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Fenimore Cooper in America.

Many of the novels, like Waverley, focused on Scottish history, especially the periods of the religious and Covenanting wars in the seventeenth century, and the Jacobite rebellions of the eighteenth. Scott was particularly fascinated by times of discord and civil war in Scotland, as The Fair Maid of Perth also reveals in its strife between King Robert III and his unruly nobles. Although its setting is the fourteenth century, all of Scott’s favourite themes of internal national strife are here, symbolised finally in the ferocious battle to the death on Perth’s North Inch of the two hostile Highland clans, Clan Quhele and Clan Chattan.

The outstanding Scottish novels, written between 1814 and 1832, include Waverley, Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Old Mortality, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, The Bride of Lammermoor, Redgauntlet and The Fair Maid of Perth. But Scott did not restrict himself to Scottish history; in addition to the 17 volumes of Scottish fiction, there are nine novels which range widely over Europe, from Ivanhoe and Kenilworth set in England, Quentin Durward in France, The Talisman with the Crusaders in The Holy Land, Anne of Geierstein in Switzerland, and Count Robert of Paris in Constantinople – as well as a novella, The Surgeon’s Daughter, set in India.

Scott’s influence on world writers was colossal; but his influence extended far beyond this, as his ideas concerning nationhood and the preservation of national identity and culture inspired so many of Europe’s emerging nations in the nineteenth century. Indeed, Mark Twain was to claim, ironically but with a germ of truth, that Scott was responsible for the American Civil War, which, in its opposition of the northern and southern states echoed so many of Scott’s novels of civil war.

Furthermore, Scott’s stories had enormous attraction for Italian and German composers of operas. More than 80 operas have been made from the Waverley novels, eleven of Ivanhoe, eleven of Kenilworth, five of Guy Mannering, four of Rob Roy, four of The Heart of Midlothian, and seven of The Bride of Lammermoor, the most famous being Donizetti’s Lucia de Lammermoor. The long poems were also adapted for opera – The Lord of the Isles inspired two Italian operas, Rossini’s La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake), appeared as early as 1819.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Scott was born in 1771 in The Old Town of Edinburgh, the son of a lawyer. Illness as a child, caused him to be sent to his grandfather’s farm, in the Borders, beginning Scott’s deep love of Border history and culture, which led to his becoming one of the greatest collectors of Scotland’s ballads and folk tradition. After attending The High School in Edinburgh he went on to study law at the university there, and in 1786 he was indentured in his father’s legal practice; this led to his first of many encounters with the Highlands, as Scott was sent on business to the Perthshire Highlands, developing a sympathy and passion for Highland history and culture which appeared first in The Lady of the Lake and then in 1814 in Waverley – and thereafter many novels and stories, contrasting Highland and Lowland culture (outstandingly in the Fair Maid of Perth). This however, lay in the future. Scott became advocate in 1792, and Sheriff Depute of Selkirkshire in 1799, though living with his wife of 1797, first in Lasswade, then Ashestiel, by the Tweed. By now he was making a name for himself as a translator of German Romantic poetry, and as a collector of Border ballads – his great three volume The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border appeared to great acclaim in 1802-3. He was also deeply influenced by and very much a part of Scotland’s great revival of philosophy and learning, the Scottish Enlightenment, led by David Hume and Adam Smith.

Becoming Clerk to the Court of Session, in 1806 Scott divided his time between his duties in the Borders and Edinburgh, and by 1812 was wealthy enough to buy what was to become his pride and perhaps his downfall, his ‘conundrum castle’, Abbotsford. He spent lavishly here, rebuilding, planting, proud of having become a Border laird.

By 1818 Scott’s career was at its height; he was made a baronet in 1818, four years later had a major part on organising the Royal Visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. Scott saw this visit as almost a second coronation, and as the first time a reigning British monarch had come to Scotland for over a century and a half, as a symbolic reconciliation after the Jacobite rebellions, and a reconciliation of the mutually distrustful Lowlands and Highlands.

In 1826 Scott seemed to have the world at his feet, with an unrivalled reputation as poet, novelist (with 21 novels so far, the latest great success being The Talisman, his epic novel of the struggle between the Crusader King Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, the noble Muslim leader), together with his scholarly work as historian and editor of famous writers like Dryden and Swift. Amidst all this he found time to honour his legal commitments, and to develop Abbotsford, by 1826 an imposing Border chateau by the Tweed, very different from the original ‘Clartyhole’ he had bought in 1812. (The land upon which Abbotsford was built was originally Cartly Hole Farm, which Scott playfully called Clartyhole Farm after clarty a term used in Scotland for something dirty.)

All this was to be dramatically changed when the firm of the leading publisher of his day, Edinburgh’s Archibald Constable, collapsed in the same year. Scott was, through his financial interest in the firm of Ballantyne, dragged into the collapse, and ruined. That said, his creditors accepted his determination to work off the debt by the labours of his pen – which, astonishingly, by the time of his death, he had done. Abbotsford was to remain in the hands of his descendants until very recently, when the new Abbotsford Trust took over the care and running of the house and estate with the addition of a splendid new Visitor Centre, a fitting addition to the celebrations of the bicentenary of the publication of Waverley.

Scott and Perth

The city of Perth and the towns and villages that make up its district have links with Scott as a visitor and as a novelist who drew upon their history and form. Known local associations with Scott include Invermay near Forteviot (to visit his first love Williamina Belsches of Fettercairn), Blairadam, Cleish, and of course, the Fair City of Perth. Scott’s local connections include his links with Lord Gray of Kinfauns and Grant of Kilgraston; and his close friendship with the publisher Robert Morison. who assisted Scott with the description of medieval Perth that forms the backdrop to The Fair Maid of Perth.

It is widely believed that Scott made three principal visits to Perth – in 1786, 1793, and 1796 – no conclusive evidence exists, however, to confirm these dates despite their general acceptance. The first of these, his boyhood visit on horseback to visit Stewart of Invernahyle, provided him with the vision of Perth, the River Tay, and the valley of the Tay (recollected by Scott to have been from the Wicks of Baiglie on the Ochil Hills past Dron Hill) that he used in The Fair Maid of Perth. Known since the publication of The Fair Maid of Perth as ‘Scott’s View’. Scott’s and later generations have mused over whether the passage of time dulled the writer’s memory and caused him to describe the incorrect location of his first site of Perth. J. W. Jack in his 1933 study, Scott’s view from the Wicks of Baiglie: The roads and the viewpoint, concluded that Scott’s View is exactly as described in The Fair Maid of Perth, other commentators argue the contrary. The matter is considered in greater depth in the Walter Scott County Trail.

Following the publication of The Fair Maid of Perth visitors flocked to Perth to see for themselves the setting of the popular novel.

Learn more about Walter Scott’s Fair City: