Sir Walter Scott - Andrew Lang - E-Book

Sir Walter Scott E-Book

Andrew Lang

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The visitor to Abbotsford, looking up at the ceiling of the hall, beholds, in the painted shields, the heraldic record of the “heredity” of Sir Walter Scott. In his time the doctrine of heredity had not won its way into the realm of popular science, but no man was more interested in pedigree than the Laird. His ancestors were part of himself, though he was not descended from a “Duke of Buccleuch of the fourteenth century,” as the Dictionary of National Biography declares, with English innocence. Three of the shields are occupied by white cloudlets on a blue ground; the arms of certain of the Rutherford ancestors, cadets of Hunthill, could not be traced. For the rest, if we are among those who believe that genius comes from the Celtic race alone, we learn with glee that the poet was not without his share of Celtic blood. He descended, on the female side, from the Macdougals of Makerston, and the Macdougals are perhaps the oldest family in Scotland, are certainly among the four or five oldest families. But they stood for the English cause against Bruce, a sorrow, no doubt, to their famous descendant.

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The visitor to Abbotsford, looking up at the ceiling of the hall, beholds, in the painted shields, the heraldic record of the “heredity” of Sir Walter Scott. In his time the doctrine of heredity had not won its way into the realm of popular science, but no man was more interested in pedigree than the Laird. His ancestors were part of himself, though he was not descended from a “Duke of Buccleuch of the fourteenth century,” as the Dictionary of National Biography declares, with English innocence. Three of the shields are occupied by white cloudlets on a blue ground; the arms of certain of the Rutherford ancestors, cadets of Hunthill, could not be traced. For the rest, if we are among those who believe that genius comes from the Celtic race alone, we learn with glee that the poet was not without his share of Celtic blood. He descended, on the female side, from the Macdougals of Makerston, and the Macdougals are perhaps the oldest family in Scotland, are certainly among the four or five oldest families. But they stood for the English cause against Bruce, a sorrow, no doubt, to their famous descendant. The wife, again, of Scott’s great grandfather, “Beardie” the Jacobite, was a Miss Campbell of Silvercraigs, counting cousins with the Campbells, (who are at least as much Douglases as Campbells) of Blythswood. Finally, the name of Scott, I presume, was originally borne by some infinitely remote forefather, who was called “The Scot” because he was Irish by birth though his family was settled, first in Lanarkshire, later among the Cymri and English of Ettrickdale and Teviotdale. So much for the Celtic side of Sir Walter.


On the other hand, the Rutherfords—his mother was a Rutherford—are probably sprung from the Anglo-Norman noblesse who came into Scotland with David I, and obtained the lands whence they derive their name. They are an older family, on the Border, than the Scotts, who are not on record in Rankilburn before 1296. One of them (from whose loins also comes the present genealogist) frequently signs (or at all events seals) the charters of David I about 1140. The Swintons, famous in our early wars, and the Haliburtons, cadets of Dirleton, have a similar origin, so that in Scott met the blood of Highlands and Lowlands, Celtic, Teutonic, and Norman. “There are few in Scotland,” says Lockhart, “under the titled nobility, who could trace their blood to so many stocks of historical distinction.” All Scottish men have a share in Sir Walter. The people of Scotland, “gentle” or “simple,” have ever set store on such ancestral connexions, and they certainly were a source of great pleasure to Scott.

His mind was, in the first place, historical; rooted in and turning towards the past, as the only explanation of the present. Before he could read with ease, say at the age of four or five, he pored over Scott of Satchells’ rhyming True History of several Honourable Families of the Right Honourable Name of Scot. “I mind spelling these lines,” he said, when Constable gave him a copy of the book, in 1818. Indeed, he was always “spelling” the legends and history of his race, while he was making it famous by his pen, since accident forbade him to make it glorious by his sword. One legend of the Scotts of Harden, the most celebrated of all, is, I think, a Märchen, or popular tale, the story of Muckle Mou’d Meg and her forced marriage with young Harden. Suppose the unlikely case that William Scott, younger, of Harden, did undertake a long expedition to seize the cattle of Murray of Elibank, on the upper Tweed. I deem this most improbable, in the reign of James VI, when he was seated on the English throne. But suppose it occurred, who can believe that Elibank would dare to threaten young Harden with hanging on the Elibank doom tree? Even if Scots law would have borne him out, Elibank dared not face the feud of the strongest name on the Border. Thus it is not to be credited that young Harden chose “Muckle Mou’d Meg,” Elibank’s daughter, as an alternative to the gallows. Moreover, the legend, I am informed, recurs in a province of Germany. If so, the tale may be much older than the Harden-Elibank marriage. The contract of that marriage is extant, and is not executed “on the parchment of a drum,” as Lockhart romantically avers. Scott, better than most men, must have known how more than doubtsome is the old legend.

He let no family tradition drop: rather, he gave a sword and a cocked hat, in his own phrase, to each story. The ballad of Kinmont Willie, the tale of the most daring and bloodless of romantic exploits, certainly owes much to him, and he “brought out with a wet finger” (in Randolph’s phrase) all the dim exploits and fading legends of Tweed, Ettrick, Ail, Yarrow, and Teviot; streams, Dr. John Brown says, “fabulosi as ever was Hydaspes.”


The son of a Writer to the Signet, Scott was grandson of a speculative Border yeoman, who laid out the entire sum necessary for stocking his farm on one mare, and sold her at a double advantage. Possibly Scott may have inherited the sanguine disposition of this adventurer. He was born to make all the world familiar with the life and history of an ancient kingdom, that, as a kingdom, had ceased to be, and with adventures rapidly winning their way to oblivion.

Just when Scotland, seventy years after she was “no longer Scotland” (according to Lockhart of Carnwath), merged into England, Nature sent Burns to make Scottish peasant life immortal, and Scott to give immortality to chivalrous Scottish romance. There are traces of love of history and traces of intellectual ability in Scott’s nearest kin. His lawyer father, born in 1729, was naturally more devoted to “analysing abstruse feudal doctrines,” and to studying “Knox’s and Spottiswoode’s folios” of the history of Kirk and State, than to the ordinary business of his calling. Scott’s maternal uncle, Dr. Rutherford, “was one of the best chemists in Europe”—we have Sir Walter’s word for it. Scott’s mother was not only fond of the best literature, but had a memory for points of history and genealogy almost as good as his own. “She connected a long period of time with the present generation.” Scott wrote when she died (1819), “for she remembered, and had often spoken with a person who perfectly recollected the battle of Dunbar....” She knew all about the etiquette of the covenanting conventicles under the Restoration, when the lairds’ wives, little to the comfort of their lords, sat on their saddles on the ground, listening to preachers like Walsh or Cameron.


Fortunate indeed was Scott in his mother, who did not spoil him, though he must have been her favourite child. His eldest brother who attained maturity not only fought under the glorious Rodney, but “had a strong talent for literature,” and composed admirable verses. His brother Thomas was credited by Sir Walter with considerable genius, and was put forward by popular rumour as the author of the Waverley novels. His only surviving sister, Anne (died 1801), “lived in an ideal world, which she had framed to herself by the force of imagination.” Scott himself was well aware of his own tendency “to live in fantasy,” in the kingdom of dreams, and in the end he discovered that in the kingdom of dreams he had actually been living, as regards his own affairs, despite his strong practical sense, and “the thread of the attorney” in his nature. His genius, in short, was the flower and consummation of qualities existing in his family; while it was associated, though we may presume not casually, with such maladies as are current amongst families in general. There would be genius abundantly, if genius were merely a “sport” of disease.

At Abbotsford, in Sir Walter’s desk, are six bright locks of the hair of six brothers and sisters of his, who were born and died between 1759 and 1766, an Anne, a Jean, and a Walter, two Roberts, and a John. These early deaths were suspected to be due to the air of the old house in College Wynd, built on the site of Kirk o’ Field, where Darnley was murdered, perhaps on the site of the churchyard. But it was not till after the birth of the second Walter (August 15, 1771) that his father flitted to the pleasant wide George’s Square, beside the Meadows, and thereafter no children of the house died in childhood.

His own life-long malady was perhaps of an osseous nature. An American specialist has advanced the theory that “the peak”, the singularly tall and narrow head of Scott (“better be Peveril of the Peak than Peter of the Paunch,” he said to “Lord Peter”), was due to the early closure of the sutures of the skull. The brain had to force a way upwards, not laterally! However that may be, at the age of eighteen months, after gambolling one night like a fey child, little Walter was seized with a teething fever, and, on the fourth day, was found to have lost the use of his right leg. The malady, never cured entirely, but always the cause of lameness, probably deprived Wellington of a gallant officer, for Scott was by nature a man of action. But Wellington had lieutenants enough, and the accident made possible the career of a poet.

“ The making of him” began at once, for the child was removed to the grandpaternal farm of Sandy Knowe, beneath the crags whence the Keep of Smailholme (in The Eve of St. John) looks over “Tweed’s fair flood, and all down Teviotdale,” over the wide plain and blue hills that had seen so many battles and border frays. Here he was “first conscious of existence”—or first remembered his consciousness—swathed in the skin of a newly slain sheep, and crawling along the floor after a watch dangled by his kinsman, Sir George Macdougal of Makerstoun.

And ever, by the winter hearth,Old tales I heard of woe or mirth,Of lovers’ slights, of ladies’ charms,Of witches’ spells, of warriors’ arms,—Of patriot battles won of oldBy Wallace Wight and Bruce the Bold,—Of later fields of feud and fight,When, pouring from their Highland height,The Scottish clans, in headlong sway,Had swept the scarlet ranks away.


Sandyknowe was indeed “fit nurse for a poetic child,” “a sweet tempered bairn, a darling with all about the house.” A miniature of three years later shows us the tall forehead, the frank and eager air, the force and charm of the child, certainly “a comely creature,” who, left alone among the hills, “clapped his hands at the lightning, and cried ‘bonny, bonny’ at every flash.” He was “as eager to hear of the defeat of Washington, as if I had had some deep and personal cause of antipathy to him”; while he was already under the charm of the King over the Water, Charles, lingering out his life at Florence, not answering the petition that he would raise the standard among the faithful in America. “I remember detesting the name of Cumberland with more than infant hatred,” for he had heard, from an eye-witness, the story of the execution of the Highland prisoners at Carlisle (1746). He learned by heart his first ballad, a modern figment, Hardiknute; he shouted it through the house, and disturbed an old divine who had seen Pope, and the wits of Queen Anne’s time. It was not easy to keep young Walter “at the bit,” but his aunt soon taught him “to read brawly.” He himself says that he “acquired the rudiments of reading” at Bath, whither he was carried between the ages of four and six.

Just afterwards, at Prestonpans, he made the acquaintance of a veteran bearing the deathless name of Dalgetty, and of a Mr. Constable, in part the original of Monkbarns, in The Antiquary, “the first person who told me about Falstaff and Hotspur.” Returned to Edinburgh, he read Homer (in Pope’s version), and the Border Ballads, with his mother, who had “a strong turn to study poetry and works of devotion”—no poetry on Sundays, a day “which in the end did none of us any good.”

We see “the making of him.” Before he was six Sir Walter was “made”; he was a bold rider, a lover of nature and of the past, he was a Jacobite, and the friend of epic and ballad. In short, as Mrs. Cockburn (a Rutherford of the beautiful old house of Fairnalie-on-Tweed) remarked before he was six, “he has the most extraordinary genius of a boy I ever saw.... He reads like a Garrick.” No doubt his mother saw and kept these things in her heart, but we do not hear that others of the family recognized a genius in a boy who was a bookworm at home, and idle at school.

He once, at this period, said a priggish thing, which Lockhart knew, but has omitted. Some one, finding him at his book asked (as people do), “Walter, why don’t you play with the other boys in the Square?”

“ Oh, you can’t think how ignorant these boys are!”


One deeply sympathizes, but later he found nobody from whom he could not learn something, were it but about “bend leather.”

Such were, in the old French phrase of chivalry, Les Enfances Gualtier. Now the technical Age of Innocence was past, and, in October 1778, having seen seven summers, he went to the old Edinburgh High School, to Mr. Frazer’s class. The age of entry was not, perhaps, unnaturally early.[1]

“ Duxships,” and gold medals, and the making of Greek Iambics were not for Walter Scott. He was, he tells us, younger than the other boys in the second class, and had made less progress than they in Latin. “This was a real disadvantage,” as there was leeway to make up. He sat near the bottom of the huge string of boys, perhaps eighty, and, as he truly says, the boys used to fall into sets, “clubs and coteries,” according to the benches which they occupied. There they used to sit, and play at ingenious games—e.g. (in my time) a match between the Caesars and the Apostles—conducted on the principle of a raffle; or a regatta of paper boats blown across the floor. The tawse (a leather strap) descended on their palms, but learning never came near them, and they moved up from class to class by seniority, not by merit.

Scott was not always on the lowest benches, but flew to the top by answering questions in “general information” (which nobody has), and fell, by a rapid dégringolade, when topics were afoot about which every industrious boy knew everything. He was the meteor of the form, the translator of Horace or Virgil into rhyme, “the historian of the class” (as Dr. Adam, the headmaster said), and he was “a bonny fechter.” Owing to his lameness, he and his opponent used to fight sitting on opposite benches—his victories were won, as he said, in banco. He dared “the three kittle steps” on the narrow ledge of rock outside the wall of Edinburgh Castle; helped to man the Cowgate in snowball riots, and took part in the “stone bickers” against the street boys, which he describes in the anecdote of Green Breeks. His private tutor had “a very strong turn to anaticism,” and in argument with him Scott adopted the side of Claverhouse and the Crown against Argyll and the Covenanters. “I took up my politics at that period as King Charles II did his religion” (King Charles is here much misunderstood), “from an idea that the Cavalier creed was the more gentlemanlike of the two.”


In these controversies were the germs of Old Mortality. “The beastly Covenanters,” wrote Scott to Southey in 1807, “hardly had any claim to be called men, unless what was founded on their walking upon their hind feet. You can hardly conceive the perfidy, cruelty, and stupidity of these people, according to the accounts they have themselves preserved.” But, when he came to write history, Scott adopted another view, and, out of sheer love of fairness, was unfair to the Cavaliers. By “a nice derangement of” dates, he introduced the worst cruelties of the Cavaliers before they occurred, and did not mention at all the cause of the severities—the Cameronian declaration of war by murder.

His old tutor could have done no better for “the good old cause,” but modern popular historians do as much. Under the Headmaster, Dr. Adam, “learned, useful, simple,” Scott rose to the highest form, though, like St. Augustine, and for no better reason, he refused to learn Greek. He certainly “never was a first-rate Latinist”—his quotations from Roman poets prove that fact, no less than a false quantity in his only brace of Latin elegiacs, for the tomb of his deerhound, Maida.[2]

Scott regretted his ignorance of Greek, “a loss never to be repaired, considering what that language is, and who they were who employed it in their compositions.” The most Homeric of later poets knew nothing of Homer, which was to himself, certainly, an irreparable loss, for Pope and Cowper could not impart to him a shadow of what Homer would have been to him in the Greek. But great as is the delight which he missed, it is not probable that a knowledge of Greek literature would have moved Scott to imitate its order, its beauty, and its deep and poignant vein of reflection on human destiny.


People blame Scott because he has not the depth of Shakespeare or of Wordsworth, because Homer, a poet of war, of the sea, of the open air, is far more prone than Scott was to melancholy reflection on the mystery of human fortunes. But Scott was silent, not because he did not reflect, but because he knew the futility of human reflection. Humana perpessi sumus is a phrase which escapes him in his age, when he looks back on a lost and unforgotten love, on a broken life, on what might have been, and what had been. “We are men, and have endured what men are born to bear”—that is his brief philosophy. Why add words about it all? The silence of Scott better proves the depth of his thought, and the splendour of his courage, than the finest “reflections” that poets have uttered in immortal words. It is not because his thought is shallow that he never shows us the things which lie in the deep places of his mind. “Men and houses have stood long enough, if they stand till they fall with honour,” says his Baron Bradwardine. “Ilios must perish, the city of Priam of the ashen spear,” says Homer—and what more is there to say, for a man who does not wear his heart on his sleeve? Knowledge of Greek poetry would not have induced Scott to write a line in the sense of the melancholy of Greek epic poetry; a noble melancholy, but he will utter none of its inspirations. On the side of precision, exquisite proportion, rich delicacy of language, “loading every reef with gold,” as Keats advised Shelley to do, Scott would have learned nothing from Greece.

His genius was of another bent—

Flow forth, flow unconstrained, my Tale!

he says, knowing himself to be an improviser, not a minutely studious artist. He knew his own path, and he followed it, holding his own art at a lowly price. No critic is more severe on him for his laxities, for his very “unpremeditated art” than he is himself. But, such as that art may be, it was what he was born to accomplish, and, had he read as much Greek as Tennyson, he would still have written as he rode

Without stop or stay down the rocky way,

and through the wan water of the river in spate. He was obedient to his nature, and all the Greek Muses singing out of Olympus could not have altered his nature, or changed the riding lilt of Dick o’ the Cow for more classical measures and a more chastened style.

For these reasons, as he was not, like Keats, a Greek born out of due time, but a minstrel of the Mosstroopers, we need not regret that he was ignorant of the greatest of all literatures. Of Latin, he had enough to serve his ends. He seldom cites Virgil: he appears to have preferred Lucan. He could read, at sight, such Latin as he wanted to read, which was mainly medieval. His knowledge of Italian, German, Spanish, and French was of the same handy homemade character. He picked up the tongues in the course of reading books in the tongues, books of chivalry and romance. His French, when he spoke in that language was, as one of the Court of the exiled Charles X in Holyrood said, “the French of the good Sire de Joinville.”


From childhood, and all through his schoolboy days, and afterwards, he was a narrator. A lady who knew him in early boyhood says that he had a myth for every occasion. “Even when he wanted ink to his pen he would get up some ludicrous story about sending his doggie to the mill again.” We are reminded of the two Stevensons, telling each other stories about the continents and isles in the milk and porridge which they were eating. “He used also to interest us ...” says a lady, “by telling us the visions, as he called them, which he had when lying alone ... when kept from going to church on a Sunday by ill-health ... misty and sublime sketches of the regions above which he had visited in his trance.” The lady thought that he had a tendency to “superstition,” but he was only giving examples of the uprisings from the “subliminal” regions which are open to genius. It was with invented stories that he amused his friends, Irving and James Ballantyne, whom he met at a school of which he was a casual pupil at Kelso. He once kept a fellow-traveller awake all night, by his narrative of the foul murder of Archbishop Sharp, told as they drove across Magus Moor, the scene of that “godly fact.”

The men and women whom he met in boyhood, oddities, “characters,” people his novels. Chance scraps of humour remained in the most retentive of memories, reappeared in his romances, and made it impossible for his old friends to doubt his authorship. His long country walks were directed to places of historical interest, in which he found that scarce any one else was interested, before he peopled them with the figures of his dreams.

In his thirteenth year Scott matriculated at the town’s college of Edinburgh. At this time he was once in the same room with Burns, whom he enlightened as to the authorship of lines by Langhorne, written under a weak engraving of Bunbury’s, a soldier dead in the snow beside his wife and dog. It is curious that the author’s name, in fact, is printed under the verses. Scott remarked of Burns’ eyes, that “he never saw their like in a human head.” “His countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits.” The late Dr. Boyd of St. Andrews (A.K.H.B.) once asked a sister of Burns which of the portraits of her brother was the best likeness? “They a’ mak’ him ower like a gentleman,” she replied, and no doubt she meant that they missed the massiveness of his countenance. Scott thought Burns too humble in his attitude towards young Ferguson, in whom he recognized his master; not wholly an error, and a generous error at worst. Scott also thought himself “unworthy to tie Burns’ shoes,” so noble was the generosity of either poet.