Walter Scott

There are too many biographies of Walter Scott already: if you want to read one I recommend The Life of Walter Scott: a critical biography by John Sutherland. The two chief contributions he makes to this study are in his comments on religion (which I have yet to fully explore), and the huge number of connections between him and other members of the congregation. He is both symptomatic of the society in which he lived, and hugely influential on it.

Walter Scott, WS, d.1799. Son of Robert Scott, tacksman of Sandy Knowe. Scott's father was scrupulous in religious affairs but careless in financial ones, neglecting to collect fees and never becoming rich enough to become a landowner as his father hoped he would. Walter was his third surviving son and never outgrew the sense of inferiority.
Anne Rutherford, daughter of Dr John Rutherford, Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh University, and Jean Swinton. She was a cultured Episcopalian. She was buried in St John's, whereas her husband was buried in Greyfriars.
39 Castle Street
He bought Ashiestiel in summer 1804, and Abbotsford in 1812.
Political views
Religious views
When he moved to Ashestiel he began the practice of reading family prayers, although his description suggests this was more part of the dream of becoming the self-sufficient landed gentleman than from particular piety:
We are seven miles from kirk and market. We rectify the last inconvenience by killing our own mutton and poultry; and as to the former, finding there was some chance of my family turning pagans, I have adopted the goodly practice of reading prayers every Sunday, to the great edification of my household (6)
In 1828 Scott published Religious Discourses by a Layman. While his wife rented a pew in Charlotte Chapel, Scott apparently attended St George's Episcopal Chapel from 1810 to 1825, where his old Tutor Alexander Cleeve was minister (7) He was ordained an elder in Duddingston Kirk in 1806 by his friend John Thomson: this enabled him to attend the General Assembly. (8)
Advocate 11 July 1792. Sheriff of Selkirk Dec 1799. Clerk of Session 18 Feb 1806. Author: during the period of this study he was chiefly known as a poet. In 1802 he published the first two volumes of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, followed by a second in May 1803. His first original poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, was published in 1805. It was, for the time, very innovative particularly in its use of sprung rhythm:
A stark moss-trooping Scott was he,
As e'er couch'd Border lance by knee:
Through Solway sands, through Tarras moss,
Blindfold, he knew the paths to cross;
By wily turns, by desperate bounds,
Had baffled Percy's best blood-hounds;
In Eske, or Liddel, fords were none,
But he would ride them, one by one;
Alike to him was time or tide,
December's snow, or July's pride;
Alike to him was tide or time,
Moonless midnight, or matin prime:
Steady of heart, and stout of hand,
As ever drove prey from Cumberland;
Five times outlawed had he been,
By England's King, and Scotland's Queen.
Scott faced damaging accusations of plagiarism from Coleridge, whom Scott knew had invented the metre for Christabel, although it wasn't published until 1816. It was followed by Marmion (1808), a celebration of Pittite Toryism. The Lady of the Lake (1810) was an ode to the Prince Regent. Rokeby (1813) was written in the gloom following the death of Williamina Belsches, personal financial worries, and in the country the war going badly and economic depression and unrest. Waverley (1814) was completed in the euphoria of victory over Napoleon, and, as Scott sailed around Scotland on the lighthouse boat with Adam Duff, rescued both Constable and Scott's fortunes, and he wrote Guy Mannering (February 1815), apparently 'in six weeks at Christmas', on the back of its success. The Antiquary (May 1816). In Tales of my Landlord (1816) Scott wrote not as 'the author of Waverley' but under the new personality Jedediah Cleishbotham. Rob Roy (1818), with a first edition of 10,000, was by the author of Waverley, but overwork the previous year had made Scott ill. Heart of Midlothian (July 1818) was by Jedediah Cleishbotham. When St John's Chapel was built, the identity of the author of Waverley was still secret, and remained so until 1827.
Chapel connection
1799, baptism. It is thanks to Scott's letters that we have an account of the destructive storm of January 1818 which delayed the completion of St John's chapel, which he evidently admired. He wrote to Charles Scott,
The storm was tremendous here, and the Devil has plainly proved himself to be the prince of the power of the air, for he has blown the beautiful Gothic pinnacles off the tower of Bishop Sandford's Episcopal chapel, which have fallen on the roof ad much damaged the building, and the wind has not stirred a stone of the ugly hulk of stone and lime which no one but the Devil or Edinburgh Baillies would have built on the North Bridge.
Whereas Scott contrasts St John's with the ugly buildings of North Bridge, he compares it to his own Abbotsford:
We have had dreadful weather here. All the gothic pinnacles on the new Episcopal Chapel are blown down, & have fallen on the roof & forced their way into the body of the building so that the horns of the Bishops mitre have got into the guts of the church. I am trembling for the next report from Abbotsford: my gothic balustrade must have had a shrewd shake on the tower. (5)
Married on
24 December 1797
Charlotte Charpentier
Charlotte Sophia (1799), Walter (Oct 1801), Anne (1803), Charles (1805). According to (8) the first three were all baptised by Sandford: (Walter and Anne were born during the gap in the register), and Charles was baptised by Frances Spence's second husband, John Thomson of Duddingston.
Related to
John and Alexander Keith, and Joan and Mary Keir, second and third cousins on his mother's side.
One gets the impression that 'Scott knew everybody' in the small, elite New Town of Edinburgh. To some extent this was because he did cultivate a wide circle of acquaintance; yet it is also partly evidence that 'everybody knew everybody', and Scott's acquaintances are merely better recorded than others' because his celebrity made people eager to claim it. Mary Anne Erskine was a close childhood friend, although they lost touch when he quarrelled with her husband Archbald Campbell over reform of the Scottish courts. Another friend from youth was William Forbes, despite being Forbes' unsuccesful rival for the hand of Williamina Belsches in 1797: after her death in 1810 she appeared as the heroine in many of his novels. His friendship his fellow Tory advocate David Hume was sometimes threatened by their acrimonious competition for legal appointments from the government. His friendship with the Tory Colin MacKenzie, on a different career path as Writer to the Signet, did not labour under this strain of rivalry; nor did his friendship with those on other social levels: William Carmichael, his loyal assistant and friend for many years, and Charles Scott, Duke of Buccleuch, his much loved patron who died too early to fulfil this role during the prime of Scott's literary success. Scott spent the summer of 1817 on the lighthouse yacht with fellow-sheriff Adam Duff. He was appointed guardian of Margaret MacLean Clephane when her father died in 1803, and witnessed her marriage in 1815. In 1822 Scott 'stage-managed' the visit of George IV to Edinburgh, when William Arbuthnot was Lord Provost; and in 1823 collaborated with his Whig opponents Henry Cockburn, Leonard Horner and Roger Aytoun to found the Edinburgh Academy, in relationships apparently characterised by respect and distrust in equal measure. In addition to these there are many other instances of Scott's name being associated with others, for example on committees, or as stewards at the Pitt Club dinner, etc.
      The impact of Scott's works could well be compared to that of J.K Rowling's in the 21st Century. They were phenomenal bestsellers, enjoyed in the circle of Charlotte Chapel as much as in the rest of the country, with the added frisson of pride that he was one of their own (I write this across the road from the Elephant House cafe, where we used to go for hot chocolate as schoolgirls, but which has now entered legend as 'the birthplace of Harry Potter') About the time he became one of the first pupils at the Edinburgh Academy, Roger Aytoun's son William Edmonstone much preferred to 'stretch himself on the hearthrug, face downwards, forhours, and shout and scream with delight over the humour of the characters' -- and imbibing his literary hero's Tory ideology. In 1827 a tiresome-sounding journey to Rothesay 'in the steam packet' had the consolation of furnishing Bishop Daniel Sandford with an anecdote on human ignorance:
In the cabin, to which I was driven by rain, I met a man who... asked me... whether I had ever read the books written by one Waverley. I said that I had read most of the works which went by the name of the Waverley novels, and he answered, "Ay, -- what a clever man that Waverley must be!" (4)
The Charlotte Chapel organist John Mather wrote a setting of the words 'Hail to the Chief' from The Lady of the Lake which was sung in Tory circles in the 1830s. Scott did, however, face at least one literary critic in this group: James Grahame, whose deep puritan piety was offended by the 'contempt and ridicule' to which he believed the author of Tales of my landlord had subjected Scottish Presbyterianism.


  1. Registers of Charlotte Chapel (NAS CH12/3)
  2. Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1818
  3. John Sutherland, The Life of Walter Scott: a critical biography (Blackwell, Oxford, 1995)
  4. John Sandford, Remains of the late Right Reverend Daniel Sandford (Waugh and Innes, Edinburgh, 1830) vol.1, p.219
  5. H.J.C. Grierson (ed), Letters of Sir Walter Scott Vol.5 (Constable and Co, London, 1933) p.60-61
  6. H.J.C. Grierson (ed), Letters of Sir Walter Scott Vol.1 (Constable and Co, London, 1932) p.224
  7. Gavin White, The Scottish Episcopal Church: a new history (Edinburgh: General Synod, 1998) p.34
  8. William Baird, John Thomson of Duddingston: Pastor and Painter (Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot, 1895) p.38

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