Have you seen those highly stylized reels on Instagram that have pictures of Edinburgh in them? If you have, then you have most likely seen a picture of the very large, very impressive memorial to Sir Walter Scott. It’s very impressive and lovely in the reels although, having seen it in person some years ago, it’s often marred with the leavings of pigeons.
Why is such a major and ornate monument built for Sir Walter Scott? Well, if Geoffrey of Monmouth is the reason we have King Arthur as we know him today, then Sir Walter Scott is the reason we have Jamie Fraser and Sassenach.
His best-known works are a song and a novel with Robin Hood and Richard the Lionhearted.
Think you’ve never heard of Sir Walter Scott? You might have heard his Ave Maria. The words are the basis for Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria and you can still find big-name singers, like Tarja, who perform it. Celine Dion’s performance actually mixes the traditional Latin prayer with Scott’s words in English.
It’s also called “Ellen’s Third Song” in some cases, if you’re interested in searching YouTube.
If you’re looking for it’s original context, it’s in Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake. The singer, Ellen, is begging the Virgin Mary for help in getting out of marrying a man she does not love. The same man, by the way, happens to be the villain of the piece.
Scott’s novel with both Robin Hood and Richard the Lionhearted is none other than Ivanhoe which deals with, month other things, the cultural clash between Anglo-Saxon and Norman and the economic clash between noble and peasant. Take away the 19th-century language and you have a surprisingly modern story with topics and themes which still intrigue us today.
And issues which are still with us.
Ave Maria! maiden mild, Listen to a maiden's prayer; Thou canst hear though from the wild, Thou canst save amid despair. Safe may we sleep beneath thy care, Though banished, outcast, and reviled - Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer; Mother, hear a suppliant child! Ave Maria!Sir Walter Scott
His first novel was published anonymously and it changed literature forever afterward.
High society originally considered novels silly and fitter for women to read than for anyone else. When Waverly was published in 1814, it changed world literature forever. It was the first time historical events had been used to demonstrate present-day concerns and cultural discussions in addition to being the first historical novel. That would make it Outlander‘s great-great-great grandfather. Only with more words and less spice.
By the time Scott died in 1832, the novel had replaced the epic poem as the chief literary triumph and his works remained popular right through the Victorian Era.
Like Horace Walpole before him, Walter Scott published his novel anonymously. He only revealed himself as the author later on when it became a runaway bestseller and new editions were required.
The difference between Walpole and Scott, however, is that Scott drew attention to many of the cultural conflicts of his own day through the lens of his nation’s history. This was a completely new way of writing a novel, and it’s partly why future novelists like George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and William Thackery were able to write novels of social commentary.
He continued Burns’ legacy and was partially responsible for the tartan regaining popularity.
Robert Burns, like Water Scott, did not live in very happy times for Scotland. The Battle of Culloden, the last conflict of the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, Outlander fans will recognize and they might even recognize the Act of Proscription which followed in 1746.
Many of Burns’ poems deal with the troubles that followed, particularly from the view of the common man. In an age when many of the traditional marks of Gaelic culture were being eradicated, his poems at least recalled happier, if more distant, times.
Scott’s Waverly and all the novels which followed dealt with the same issues of cultural clashes, equality between people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and the injustice which comes from corrupt leadership.
Ironically, Scotts novels were published while the Highland Clearances were still going on. They were still going on even as King George VI made the first royal visit to Scotland since the Act of Union. Scott himself played a large part in planning the entire visit, even bringing back tartans and kilts which started to regain their popularit.
The Highland Clearances forced many Scots living in the Highlands and elsewhere off land they’d lived on for centuries under the clan system. It’s still a very bitter point of contention, and it’s why so many Americans (and Australians and New Zealanders) are of Scots descent.
While his novels are harder to read for modern readers, there are other ways of enjoying his works and honoring his legacy.
Walter Scott lived in a more verbose age, and there is a lot of detailed description of the scenery. This makes for very interesting reading if you have the attention span or interest for it, but it can be more difficult for modern readers. Let’s face it, the 18th and 19th centuries did not have Netflix or HBO series to bingewatch so they had to binge-read.
And given the length of time it took to edit and print novels back then, you might as well get as much bang for your buck as possible.
The good news for you is that Scott wrote lots of novels. His best-known by far, outside of Waverly is Ivanhoe. If you find one novel you don’t particularly care for, try another one. Also, make sure you check out my tips for reading 18th and 19th-century literature if you’re determined to make it through one of his novels!
Ultimately, visiting Scotland itself, and especially Abbotsford, his long-time home is the best way of interacting with his works and honoring his legacy. Not to mention you get to be in close proximity to all that single-malt!
Also, check back here over the next two weeks. I’ll be covering Waverly and Ivanhoe in separate posts.
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