Border country's role in shaping a literary giant
What is it that encourages us to read, especially fiction?
Well, in my case, it was certainly not my parents.
Late in my school career, I discovered a life-long love of novels.
Encouraged by this, my mother gave only one piece of advice: “Don’t read Thomas Hardy – he’s just too depressing; don’t read Walter Scott, he’s too wordy and long-winded.”
A few days later, I was off to the library. I took out The Mayor of Casterbridge and Guy Mannering. So was kindled a love of Hardy and Scott, which has never abated.
In many ways the Border country around us here moulded so much of Sir Walter Scott’s life and imagination.
For almost 30 years we owned a former shepherd’s cottage in Branxton. Only 100 yards up the road was Marmion’s Well. It had been commissioned by Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford, in the late 19th century. At that time the Waterfords were the lairds of nearby Etal Manor and Ford Castle.
Scott had set his epic poem Marmion in exactly this place, focusing on the original well.
Feeding a tributary of Pallin’s Burn, the well disports a couplet from Scott’s poem:
“Drink weary pilgrim, drink and pray
For the kind soul of Sybil Grey
Who built this cross and well.”
Elsewhere in the poem occurs another oft-quoted couplet:
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive.”
Marmion was Scott’s second major work and it takes us back into the history of the Borders, which had kindled Scott’s imagination.
Telling a tale with a tragic ending, it is based on the Battle of Flodden. It recalls an earlier lyric poem and folk tune, The Flowers of the Forest, a ballad whose words and modal tune capture the deep mourning which followed the death of the Scottish King, much of the Scottish aristocracy and the pride of Scottish youth in that fateful land battle of 1513.
Just 15 miles or so due west of Flodden, just outside Kelso, stands Smailholm Tower, now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.
Built in the 15th century by the Pringles, it was taken over by the Scotts of Harden perhaps 100 years later.
The young Walter Scott spent much of his childhood here with his paternal grandfather. Here, Scott would become steeped in the history and culture of the Borders. Here was the inspiration for his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Here, too, would his romantic imagination be fired.
Scott was born in Edinburgh ‘old town’, the son of a Writer to the Signet, that is, a practising lawyer, a solicitor. The youthful Walter was educated in the Royal High School in Edinburgh and then at Edinburgh University. He, too, became a lawyer and, indeed, earned his money as the Clerk of the Session and Sheriff Depute at Selkirk.
In the market place in Selkirk is a statue of Scott, old former Sheriff, as there is in the square behind Kelso Old Kirk, and in so many other towns in the borders.
Scott became something of a ‘national treasure’ as we see from the magnificent Scott Monument in Edinburgh’s Princes Street, and the statue atop the column in Glasgow’s George Square.
He wrote with great energy and industry, and the collapse and bankruptcy of the business of his friend and publisher James Ballantyne caused him to write still more furiously to work himself out of debt.
Throughout the Borders, Scott still casts a strong romantic shadow.
Abbotsford, the grand baronial house he built for himself on the Tweed, near Melrose, remains a repository of so much that defined him as an author.
He brought Turner, the artist, up to the Borders so literature and visual art bloomed alongside each other.
Just outside Coldingham, north of Berwick, way out on the craggy cliffs, stand the grim ruins of Fast Castle. Fast Castle became the property of the Homes of The Hirsel for a time. These ruins inspired Scott’s description of Wolf’s Crag, the home of the Master of Ravenswood in his novel The Bride of Lammermoor, which later inspired Donizetti’s dramatic operatic tragedy, Lucia di Lammermoor.
Each time one reaches back into the poetry and novels of Walter Scott, one engages with his powerfully romantic writing.
Ivanhoe, Guy Mannering, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, Kenilworth, and indeed all the Waverly novels, capture Scott’s romantic view of history, coloured by Jacobite associations.
His wife’s French forebears and her home in Cumberland added to the richness of Scott’s quarry for his literary imagination.
But the beginnings of this lie here in the borderlands between England and Scotland.
In the Borders, there are manifold places where we encounter Scott. These places can kindle our imagination too – here on our doorstep which, 200 ago, was indeed the threshold for young Walter’s romantic imagination.