I share my birthday with Sir Walter Scott. Having recently passed the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Scott’s birth, it’s been fascinating to see one of my favourite writers under the microscope in the media, particularly as we try to reassess his cultural and literary significance for modern Scotland.
In the BBC documentary In Search of Scott, the author Damian Barr attempted to pinpoint an explanation for why Sir Walter has fallen off the map. With a sense of growing exasperation, he concluded that he had never met any writer who cited Scott as an inspiration. That’s a fair sign of the times; Scott has never seemed more distant, but even if we can’t trace a direct influence from the man himself, it’s hard to think of a single nineteenth century writer who was not somehow influenced by Scott’s work. The man was a giant, and while it’s easy to make modern comparisons to big names in today’s literary scene, I’m not convinced that any of them really capture the scale of Scott’s celebrity. So if nobody wants to claim a connection Sir Walter Scott these days, I’ll happily step forward to fill the gap. He’s been a massive presence in my life for twenty years.
I will never get over the experience of reading Waverley. That book laid the foundations for my understanding of Scotland, not only from the enormity and breadth of that narrative but also in the creative potential of narrative itself. Scott was born within living memory of Culloden and the shadow of rebellion. By repatterning the all-too-fresh sense of discord and conflict in Scotland, he was able to work a tale which espoused a national myth; a story which offered the possibility of reconciliation between warring factions. Embracing the inherent diversity of Scotland across boundaries of religion, politics, language and geography, Scott was able to think about what a healed nation might look like. It’s not too much to say that Scott’s writing made Scotland, and it’s crucial to understand that as he undertook this task, he showed his working.
Scottish history never figured when I was at school, but the fag-ends I found as a child seemed to suggest that Culloden had been a battle between Scotland and England. Instead of this, Waverley describes a disaster which could easily be seen as a civil war between north and south; highland and lowland. Of course my heart went out to the shattered clans, but I was a lowlander from a place that despises the memory of Jacobitism. Scott freed me from my frustrated sense that Galloway is merely a dilution of the “real Scotland” you find in the north. Many of us in the south are irritated by that idea, but Scott allowed me to feel like I was entitled to be Scottish too. It’s ironic that his work is often despised for creating an overly simplified Scotland full of tartan and terriers – my take is that he espouses unity by reflecting complexity.
Since Waverley, I’ve consumed more than fifteen of Scott’s novels. Some are excellent, but others were pretty heavy-going. It’s certainly true that his prose calls for a serious investment of time and concentration. The words do not slip easily from the page, and his introductory set-pieces can feel madly cumbersome and verbose. If you’d like to try reading Waverley, be aware that nothing whatsoever happens for the first one hundred pages. That’s all bound to the style of the day, but it’s also worth saying that when the plot kicks in, you’ll be glad of the investment.
Almost a decade ago, I found a complete set of the Waverley novels in a junk shop on Byres road. It was published shortly before Scott’s death in 1832, and I brought the whole lot home for £10. It seemed extraordinary that I should be allowed to own books which properly deserved shelf-space in a museum, but the reality is that Scott’s work is far out of fashion. Even during a visit to Scott’s former home at Abbotsford last week, I searched long and hard through the gift shop before I found a slim rack of his novels tucked in a back corner. These were partly concealed by “modern retellings” of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy; shinily designed hardback books with unabashed assurances that the stuffiness had been stripped from them. It seemed to confirm my feeling that while Abbotsford is an international tourist destination, it hasn’t quite decided what to do about the collapse of Scott’s literary legacy.
Scott’s castle at Abbotsford is a strange, confected folly, and experts say that you can’t understand the man without visiting the home he built for himself. I agree with that, but refuting any sense of co-dependency, Abbotsford’s current incarnation is oddly light on Scott. The house floats slightly outside the context of its creator, presented as the home of a lovely, rather eccentric old man who spent a lot of time doing unspecified things in his office. The new visitor centre might almost have the slogan “Welcome to Abbotsford – don’t worry, we won’t make you read the books”. I think that’s a missed opportunity; what better location than Scott’s own home to place his literary legacy front and centre?
It’s also interesting to learn that Scott’s use of language has become an obstacle for modern audiences. Many of his Scottish novels are full of Scots dialogue, and people find that hard to stomach. Writing about Scott in the 1940s, the critic VS Pritchett glibly remarked that “at some time in the last thirty years feeling against dialect especially the Scottish dialect has hardened into dislike. It is troublesome to the eye, it is a language which nags and clatters; one would as soon read phonetics”. I dislike Pritchett and I enjoy the fact that he failed to foresee that the prim intellectualism of his own language had a shelf-life of its own, but while Scott’s Scots is difficult, it’s no worse than some of Dickens’ awful cockney patois. You get used to it. I recognise parts of Scott’s language from my own life, but of course I can see how it would stand as an abatis to readers from elsewhere in the world.
And it was doubly interesting to see the Scots poet Len Pennie stumble over reading a two hundred year old piece of Scott’s dialogue in the BBC’s In Search of Scott. If anyone should be able to handle a mouthful of Scots, it’s Pennie, but she seemed embarrassed by the trickiness and afterwards excused it by saying “that’s not my Scots”. Scots was and is a language, but many modern expressions of the leid are closely intertwined with the reclamation of national or class pride; some are so fluid and irregular that it’s more accurate to think of them as an unstandardized patchwork of dialects. I think that’s natural, but if we concede that “my Scots” might not be “your Scots”, we come back to that exciting sense of intranational diversity.
Scott’s nation-building work required him to gather and blend a wide variety of people and ideas and correlate them into one vibrant, outward-facing Scotland. The man was a unionist and a Tory, but he took lairds, calvinists, drunks and pirates from Wigtown to Orkney and showed them off to the world with a flair that would leave modern Scottish nationalists gasping with envy. Time has changed the meaning of the word Tory, but Scott would find it hard to reconcile the modern idea that “Tories Out” has become an acceptable political mission statement in this country. Scottish identity has become so heavily bound up with left wing politics that that “Scottish Tory” is almost considered to be an oxymoron. I have no great love for Tories, but “Tories Out” worries me. It’s the thin end of a political purge which goes further than denying power to the opposition; it attempts to usurp its very existence.
It’s no surprise that many modern Scottish nationalists regard the old Tory Sir Walter as a mild embarrassment, and some will find it convenient that he has been sidelined. His creative and political existence has even been made to feel like an aberrance, much as some Scottish historians have attempted to unpick Scotland’s complicity in empire and slavery. But you could say that controversies which arise from Scott’s life and work are more interesting and useful today than they’ve ever been; his legacy generates an entire world of conversations, but we aren’t having them. I think that’s a real concern at a time when nationalism has begun to reduce and narrow many of the ideas that Scott embraced.
It’s sadly ironic that a writer who often expressed such a giddy, credulous lust for life has been allowed to go down in history as a dust-coloured dullard. As a gift to myself on the night before our shared birthday, I stayed up late to read Alan Massie’s novel “The Ragged Lion”, a fictionalised biography of Scott’s life. It’s less than Scott himself, but it’s a clear, accessible expression of an astonishing, complex and dearly lovable human being. Two hundred and fifty years after he was born, discover Scott at full stretch on the subject of ghosts, faeries and ancient battles. Go to Abbotsford and be baffled by it. Reckon with the man on the nature of being Scottish, even if he makes your blood boil. Just please don’t say that he’s not for you.