SIR Walter Scott FRSA FRSE FSAScot was a man of letters. Some of those adduced in our bombshell opening sentence relate to art, antiquarianism and Embra. Scott was a

man of parts.

Best known as a writer, he is also accused of having been active in the legal profession, as an advocate, Clerk of Session, and Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire, valuable work that interests nobody.

Created a baronet in 1820, he organised the groundbreaking visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822.

He’s said to have “invented Scotland”, or at least its public image which, let’s face it, is a facade.

He first showed his coupon to the world on 15 August 1771, when he was born up a wynd in Edinburgh. He was one of nine children (six of whom died in infancy). Don’t let that give the impression the family was poor. Back then, posh and pauper lived cheek by jowl, at least in the centre of the smelly old city.

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Scott’s father was a lawyer claiming descent from Clan Scott, while his mother, a physician’s daughter, traced her lot to Clan Swinton. Childhood polio left him lame, which saw him sent to the Borders for a cure. Instead he found a vocation: Aunty Jenny taught him to read.

After schooling at Edinburgh’s Royal High and Kelso Grammar, he attended Edinburgh University at the age of 12 to study classics and, at 14, began a legal apprenticeship. At 15, he became Prime Minister and, at 16, walked on the surface of the Moon. Only joking but, given the pace of his life story so far, it wouldn’t be surprising.

As for literature, he first took a fancy to German poems, which he translated for publication. The Germans at that time were interested in folk culture (uh-oh) which sparked Scott’s interest in traditional Border ballads.

Before long, Scott himself became the most popular poet in the land, starting with his The Lay of the Last Minstrel, published in 1805. Ye’ll ken these famous lines from the last stanza: “Breathes there a man, with soul so dead/Who never to himself hath said/This is my own, my native land!”

Well, yes, there does: see letters page some weeks.

His Marmion, a racy (work with me on this) tale of lust, duels, folk walled up in nunneries, and the Battle of Flodden, also features the famous line: “O what a tangled web we weave/When first we practise to deceive.”

That was published in 1808, by which time he was a right Tory. That same year, he cancelled his subscription to the Edinburgh Review when it advocated peace with Napoleon.

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Waverley, the first of his 27 novels, was a great success and, despite writing anonymously (widespread practice at the time), everyone knew who he was, and succeeding works would be by “the author of Waverley” and so forth.

He was massively popular, the Dan Brown of his day. His novels dealt with historical themes, often set in Scotland – including Guy Mannering, Redgauntlet, Rob Roy – and sometimes in Englandshire, including Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, The Fortunes of Nigel, Peveril of the Peak.

Their themes were various, though one at least could be renamed Nigel’s Overdue Mortgage. For the avoidance of doubt, Heart of Midlothian isn’t about football, and the short story Wandering Willie’s Tale (recounted in Redgauntlet) doesn’t concern a sex pest.

A major theme is the romantic enchantment of the Jacobite cause, but Scott believed that time was over. He accepted Hanoverian rule. His stance on the national question is occasionally described as ambiguous (rather like Burns), but he was a supporter of the Union who sometimes sounded otherwise in his work.

However, it never does to confuse a writer and his characters who often, we should note, spoke with a strong Scots brogue, at least if they were lower class.

Scott played a major part in cementing Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom when, in 1822, he organised the pageantry for the visit of King George IV, a debauched lard-bucket, to Scotland. The event saw the ultimate rehabilitation of Highland society, after the previous century’s Jacobite recalcitrance.

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King Dod wore a kilt, which habiliment subsequently became popular (not so much the pink tights that he wore underneath). The Lowlands compromised with tartan trews, arguably the most hideous habiliment in the history of trousers.

If all this sounds like a never-ending success story, disaster struck Scott with the collapse in 1825 of the Ballantyne publishing business, in which he had the sole financial interest. He was ruined. He endeavoured to write himself out of his dire situation, but after a few years his health began to fail, and he died of a stroke at his Borders pile, Abbotsford, on 21 September 1832. With his books still selling, his estate was cleared of debt after his death.

Scott is not an easy read today. In 1887, a columnist on the New York Herald asked: “Who has not read the Pirate?” In 1996, a foreword to the novel answered with melancholy honesty: “Virtually everyone.” Sentences meander like the Tweed, and the language is lofty. Opening my copy of Ivanhoe at random, I find: “‘By my troth,’ said the knight, ‘thou has sung well and lustily, and in high praise of thine order.’”

“‘Whit?’ said the hermit.”

I made the second bit up. A bookmark tells me I reached page 90 out of 344 of The Pirate. My fault rather than Scott’s: I probably started reading a Dan Brown instead.

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On a more positive note, the Encyclopedia Britannica describes Scott appreciatively as “the master of a rich, ornate, seemingly effortless literary style that blended energy with decorum, lyric beauty with clarity of description”.

This is true, though it still might seem stodgy to us. Times and tastes change (though an underlying theme in Scott is that human passion is unchanging throughout history).

Sir Walter Scott changed the face of fiction. But, as well as a man of letters, we remember him as a man of selfless endeavour and prodigious civic commitment.