Walter Scott at 250: so much more than a great historical novelist

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Daniel Cook, University of Dundee

Wander through Edinburgh and you will find glimpses of Scotland’s most famous novelist, Walter Scott, everywhere: pubs named after characters or places in his books, his walking cane and slippers in The Writers’ Museum, and snippets of his work adorning the walkways of Waverley train station – named after his first and most famous novel. And just outside, towering over Princes Street Gardens, his statue stands beneath an elaborate monument affectionately dubbed the “Gothic Rocket”.

Built in 1840, eight years after his death at the age of 61, the Scott Monument captures the immense regard in which Scotland held this international bestselling writer and son of Edinburgh. Scott’s adventurous historical stories, set against a dramatic backdrop of brooding mountains, dark lochs and lush glens, brought a vision of Scotland to the world that captured the popular imagination. The gripping tale of the Scottish outlaw Rob Roy has never been out of print since it was published in 1817.

As his friendly rival Jane Austen once quipped, Scott had two careers in literature. He quickly became Europe’s most famous poet in 1805 with the immediate success of his first narrative poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, the tale of two lovers on opposite sides of a clad feud.

A 1810 book-length versification of King James V’s struggles with the powerful clan Douglas, The Lady of the Lake would have secured his legacy on its own. Selling 25,000 copies in eight months, it broke records for poetry sales and brought its setting, the picturesque Loch Katrine and the Trossachs, to the attention of a fledgling tourism industry.

Stunning winter view of Loch Katrine in the Trossachs from the summit of Ben A'an
Scott’s most famous poem Lady of the Lake is set around Loch Katrine in the Trossachs, and drew people to the area.

Big fat novels

Scott also wrote songs and collected ballads for posterity, but after the success of his poetry, he turned to novel writing in his 40s. For nearly 20 years he produced a series of fat novels, which spread his reputation around the globe further still. Although dabbling in the gothic and picaresque styles popular at the time, Scott favoured historical themes, not only set in Scotland but also England, France, Syria and elsewhere, as far back as the 11th century.

Nobody before Scott had devoted so much space to Scottish characters and interests, on such a massive scale – not even 18th-century novelist and poet Tobias Smollett. Scott traversed the Scotland of 14th-century Perthshire and the Highlands of 1745, and gave a voice to the lairds and rustics alike.

Picture of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh under a bright blue winter's sky.
Edinburgh’s Scott Monument.

These days, Scott’s writing has fallen out of fashion thanks in part to the sheer length of the novels. Arguably his best, The Heart of Midlothian still packs an emotional punch: Jeanie Deans walks from Edinburgh to London to obtain a royal pardon for her sister awaiting execution for the alleged murder of her baby. But, in keeping with the drawn-out journey, the story does suffer from slow pacing.

Waverley, Scott’s exploration of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, lends itself to political as much as literary analysis. And while it delivers stunning set pieces, some of them featuring Bonnie Prince Charlie himself, its first few chapters drag a little. But Scott rewards loyal readers with rich historical detail and sublime settings.

Master of the short story

Fortunately for the casual reader, Scott was more than a novelist. He was also a master of the short story, and wrote 17 or so shorter fictions, many of which have been all but ignored by scholars who prioritise the major novels. Five of his best short pieces can now be read for free online.

Scott contributed at least two stories to Blackwood’s Magazine, the leading literary periodical in Edinburgh: The Alarming Increase of Depravity Among Animals and Phantasmagoria. The first is a sort of true-crime animal fable in which animals are complicit in wrongdoing; the second, a bizarre Gothic pastiche in which the narrator (a sentient shadow) is far more interesting than the benign story it offers.

Another, Wandering Willie’s Tale, is delivered by a blind piper, revolving around the grisly death of a despotic laird and some missing money. A hellish underworld, a demonic monkey, a blatantly biased narrator: such things make the story wildly unpredictable – and far removed from the grand jousts and royal intrigues found in his historical novels.

The Tapestried Chamber is an ingenious ghost story in which the ghost barely features, but it still sends shivers down the spine, such is Scott’s gift for building atmosphere through dialogue. Where novels seek closure, typically with happy endings, short stories can leave plotlines unresolved. Novels comfort us, short stories can confront.

Although Scott is rarely thought of as a short story writer today, in 1827 he did produce a collection of short fiction, Chronicles of the Canongate, in which two standout pieces merit a wide audience: The Two Drovers and The Highland Widow. Here, Scott is perhaps at his most political, in the real sense: focused not on battles and courts but on everyday life.

The first follows a Highlander and a Yorkshireman on their journey south into an increasingly hostile environment. Initially their cultural differences are countered by a mutual love of music. But, tired of the casual xenophobia thrown at him, the Highlander kills his colleague. The suddenness of the act startles the reader, especially those used to the slower pacing of the novels.

The Highland Widow captures the conflicted mood of a young lad who, seeking better fortune, enlists in the Black Watch to the fury of his staunchly Gaelic mother. Drugging her son so he misses his appointment, she dooms him to military execution, and herself to a hermit-like existence. Although written in a sentimental style popular at the time, the story finds much to say about national tensions, military occupation, and cultural conflict in the lives of post-Union Scots.

For the modern reader Scott’s short stories are far bleaker than you might imagine, and they are all the more riveting for it. Gothic rocket indeed.The Conversation

Daniel Cook, Reader in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Literature, University of Dundee

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Two centuries before Marvel and Star Wars, Walter Scott’s Rob Roy was the first modern anti-hero

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Alasdair MacNeill, CC BY-SA

Daniel Cook, University of Dundee

Rival siblings, disappointed fathers, resentful sons, cowards, double-crossers, powerful women, colonial guilt, crumbling Highland estates and an elusive anti-hero: Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy has it all. It is a masterclass of serious pantomime.

Two hundred years ago, on New Year’s Eve 1817, Scott published his latest smash hit, a fictional account of a real-life cattle thief or a freedom fighter, depending on your point of view, during the Jacobite rebellions of 1715.

Rob Roy was a legend in his own lifetime and was soon turned into a flamboyant romantic figure in popular culture.
Classics Illustrated

The huge print run of 10,000 copies was depleted within two weeks and two more editions came out within a year. A legend was born – or rather, reborn – for the story of Robert “Rob Roy” MacGregor had already spread across Europe in his own lifetime.

Even the author of his first major biography, The Highland Rogue (1723), which appeared while MacGregor enjoyed easeful retirement after decades of outlawry, conceded in the introduction that he was rehashing old news about Scotland’s very own Robin Hood.

A tradition of anti-heroes

It is a tale that speaks to a renewed interest in the lives and misadventures of anti-heroes. Han Solo and Chewbacca from Star Wars, Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, and superheroes such as Iron Man and Ant Man are all unlikely warriors who end up fighting against the authorities.

Like Rob Roy, they are mostly thieves in some way, whereas more conventional heroes tend to adhere strictly to impossibly high moral standards that rankle against the practicalities of the modern world: Captain America, for example, is quite literally taken from the war-torn past to save an imperilled present.

The Jacobite Rob Roy agitates in the background to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne after the House of Hanover’s George I had succeeded Queen Anne. For the reader (or anyone watching the film versions) there is a vicarious thrill in championing the anti-hero, the reluctant rebel, the opportunist who overcomes an overwhelming threat.


The anonymously written biography The Highland Rogue begins:

It is not a romantic Tale that the Reader is here presented with, but a real History. Not the Adventures of a Robinson Crusoe, a Colonel Jack, or a Moll Flanders, but the Actions of the HIGHLAND ROGUE; a Man that has been too notorious to pass for a meer imaginary Person.

Invoking the names of fictional characters recently brought to life by the English novelist and spy Daniel Defoe, the unknown author of this London publication likens the real Rob Roy MacGregor to make-believe rogues, even in the act of presenting a so-called “real history”.

Wary of this sort of deadening material, Scott’s strategy in his own retelling was ingenious: his eponymous (anti)hero barely appears in the book. Rob Roy lurks in the shadows (like an 18th-century precursor to The Shadow, a popular comic-book vigilante from the 1930s) under different identities – Mr. Campbell, MacGregor, and Rob Roy – lending support when he can to the confused narrator of the story, the Englishman Frank Osbaldistone.

United Artists/YouTube.

The savage as folk hero

Arguably, the little-seen Rob Roy is sidelined by his own wife Helen, a fearless character in the mould of Princess Leia (“Base dog, and son of a dog,” she says to Rob Roy’s sidekick Dougal, “do you dispute my commands?”). The spirited teenager Diana Vernon who hunts astride a horse as skilfully as any man – and with whom Osbaldistone becomes infatuated – is a similarly powerful and compelling figure.

That said, Scott falls back on the typical depiction of the Highlander as sub-human – a savage – rather than superhuman. Described in The Highland Rogue as uncommonly large and covered all over with matted tufts of red hair, the popular image of MacGregor has more in common with the oafish Little John than with the debonair Robin of Loxley in the old tale of Robin Hood and the Merry Men.

Scott’s English narrator similarly describes in detail what he calls the rogue’s “unearthly” appearance – the “thick, short, red hair, especially around his knees, which resembled … the limbs of a red-coloured Highland bull”. Here Rob Roy sounds more like Chewbacca than Han Solo, though he has the courage of both, and vividly captures the public’s imagination.

Theatre and romance

Many of Scott’s novels and narrative poems have been transferred to the stage and screen – none more so than Rob Roy. Isaac Pocock’s melodramatic play Rob Roy MacGregor or Auld Lang Syne (1818), for one, quickly attained the status of a national pageant, and was even performed before George IV on his famous visit to Edinburgh in 1822.

Part of the appeal of Scott’s novel lies in its vivid theatricality – in addition to Rob Roy’s intriguing appearances, his wife delivers compelling speeches, the gardener Fairservice and the magistrate Jarvie provide comic relief as caricatures of the working classes and landed gentry respectively, and the villainous Sir Rashleigh is dispatched with a bloody death scene. Dark pantomime indeed.

Disney’s almost cartoonish version of Rob Roy, released in 1953.

Produced by Walt Disney, the 1953 film version devotes most of its screen time to the exploits of its lead actor, Richard Todd, a heroic rebel who escapes by leaping a waterfall and storms a fort with his gang. Such films have provided – and extended – the Hollywood ideal of the plucky underdog. More recently, Rob Roy (1995), starring Liam Neeson in the title role, has little to do with Scott’s novel, not least of all because it foregrounds the shadowy Jacobite as a handsome swashbuckler.

Scott’s character, meanwhile, better fits the current interest in the anti-hero – a dubious, charming half-human (or superhuman) that overcomes the enemy. Importantly, though, the supporting cast of characters (most notably the fearless wife Helen MacGregor, the determined youngster Diana Vernon, and Rob Roy’s loyal sidekick Dougal), also merit attention alongside the eponymous hero.

The ConversationOutside of Scotland, perhaps, Rob Roy and his circle of valiant misfits hasn’t received the wider cultural exposure enjoyed by the medieval outlaw Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. But, with Scott’s intervention, their stories – and personal failings – make them as compelling as any modern superhero.

Daniel Cook, Senior Lecturer in English, University of Dundee

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.