"The Wizard of the North"
What comes to mind when you think of Scotland? If you picture towering mountains, beautiful scenery and great heroes like William Wallace and Rob Roy, much of that romanticised picture can be attributed to the Scottish novelist, Sir Walter Scott.
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If you have been to Scotland you have probably heard of Sir Walter Scott, who is commemorated by an enormous monument on Princes Street in Edinburgh. You will certainly have seen pictures of him since he is portrayed on every Scottish banknote. Perhaps you have seen the film or the TV series, Ivanhoe, which is based on one of his novels, but you probably have not read any of those novels yourself. Scott was extremely popular in the nineteenth century, both at home and in Europe, and was praised by many of his contemporaries. However, his style of writing, with detailed descriptions at the expense action, does not appeal to modern readers.
Scott gained the nickname “The Wizard of the North” for the popularity of his novels set against a background of historical events in Scottish history. The nickname could perhaps also reflect what he achieved with respect to Scotland. For despite being a Conservative and supporter of the Union with England, he created an romantic image of Scotland which is reflected in how people see Scotland today – majestic scenery and an independent people. Scott has been criticized for creating a false image of Scotland, but it cannot be denied that his novels were a strong influence on the early tourist industry. His readers wanted to see for themselves the kind of places he wrote about and Scotland still reaps the benefits today.
In 1822, he organized a very successful visit to Scotland by King George IV. It was a national spectacle which was intended to confirm the idea that the king was king of all Britain and it succeeded in its purpose. Scott even managed to have the monarch wear the kilt and have his picture painted wearing it. Considering that it was only 40 years earlier that the ban on wearing the kilt at all had been lifted, this was quite an achievement.
Scott was born in 1771 in Edinburgh, the son of a solicitor. He contracted polio as a child and to recover from the effects of this, he was sent to live at his grandparents’ farm in the Scottish Borders. Here his interest in the tales and legends of the area was first awakened and he continued to collect ballads and traditional tales from the Borders throughout his life. A collection of these was published in 1802, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. He attended the Royal High School in Edinburgh and later the University of Edinburgh, where he first studied classics and then the law. He was called to the bar in 1792.
Scott married Charlotte Genevieve Charpentier in 1797 and the couple had five children. In 1799, he was appointed Sheriff of the County of Selkirkshire in the Borders (Sheriff courts were the local courts in Scotland). When Scott started writing professionally; his first published works were ballads translated from German, in 1796. In the following fifteen years, he published several poems. Of those, the romantic, historical, narrative poems, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel”, “The Lady of the Lake” and “Marmion” were very popular. From the latter poem come the famous lines:
Oh! What a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!
Scott went into partnership with his friend and publisher James Ballantyne in 1809 and they established a printing business in Edinburgh, but the Borders was the area he loved. There he built his romantic, “fairy castle”, , the cost of which, combined with the failure of his printing business, almost ruined him.
Scott established the historical novel as an acceptable form of fiction. Up until this time the novel was often considered scandalous, so when Scott decided to try his hand at prose writing, he published his first novel, Waverly, in 1814, anonymously. The novels, Guy Mannering, The Antiquary and Rob Roy, which were published in the next three years, are all historical novels set in Scotland. These were also published anonymously. Scott continued this deception, but it was widely rumoured that he was the author and he gained the nickname “The Wizard of the North”. In Scott's novels, many of his characters speak in the vernacular, and like Burns' poems this helped to preserve the Scots language, but it makes Scott more difficult for the modern reader. However, despite the decline in the popularity of his works in the 20th century, he is regarded as an important influence in Scottish and world literature.
Which elements in Scott and his literature are typical of the Romantic period?
Here are some excerpts from and links to Scott's narrative poems. Search the Internet and find out:
- where and approx. when the poem is set
- a short summary of the plot
- if the place mentioned in the excerpt is a typical tourist attraction
If thou would’st view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight;
(from "The Lay of the Last Minstrel")
One burnished sheet of living gold,
Loch Katrine lay beneath him rolled;
(from "The Lady of the Lake")
Day set on Norham’s castled steep,
And Tweed’s fair river, broad and deep,
- Choose one of Scott's novels () and give a brief account of:
- the setting
- the plot
- the main characters
- Is there a film or TV series based on the novel?
- The quotation below comes from Scott’s novel, Heart of Midlothian, and is reproduced on the wall of the Scottish Parliament. Try and express it in your own words.
"When we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o' our ain, we could aye peeble them wi' stanes when they werena gude bairns - But naebody's nails can reach the length o' Lunnon."
The Honours of Scotland (crown, sword and sceptre) were hidden and locked away in a chest in Edinburgh Castle after the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 and later “discovered” by Scott in 1818. Their hiding place was known, but no one had opened the chest since 1707. Scott probably used the recovery of the Honours as a PR event to promote Scottish identity.
Imagine you are a TV reporter at the opening of the chest in a dark and dusty room in the depths of Edinburgh Castle in February 1818. Give a live news report of the event.