It isn’t hyperbole to say there are few British literary figures with a reputation to match that of the man born to well-to-do parents in a third-floor apartment in Edinburgh’s College Wynd on August 15 1771.

Scratch that. There are few literary figures anywhere, so rich is the legacy of Sir Walter Scott, the poet, author, advocate, judge, myth-maker, opinion former and (because there’s still a handful of tags to apply) polymath whose work has done so much to shape modern Scotland.

He has certainly shaped the city of his birth. Step out of Waverley Station, named for the sprawling series of novels which includes Rob Roy, and it’s only a few paces to the huge Scott Monument, raised by the city to commemorate the superstar author a few years after his death in 1832. Nicknamed the Gothic Rocket, it towers over Princes Street and its brooding sandstone bulk is peppered with statues showing celebrated characters from his works.

Among them are Jeanie and Effie Deans from The Heart Of Midlothian which, if you know your football, is also the name of one of the capital’s two Scottish Premiership teams. Head due west, to Gorgie, to watch them play, or detour instead to wooded Corstorphine Hill. It’s topped by another tower commemorating Scott, this one built on the centenary of his birth in 1871.

HeraldScotland: AbbotsfordAbbotsford

Because his novels travelled so widely and his stories and characters seeded themselves so deeply in the minds and imaginations of people far beyond Scotland’s shores, he did much to shape how others saw Scotland too. When the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin was forced into exile in 1824, he wrote to friends in Moscow and St Petersburg asking for certain items to make his isolation more bearable: pickles, a corkscrew, Limburg cheese and the novels of guess who. You can imagine him sitting on his mother’s estate near the Estonian border, looking out over the Russian landscape but seeing in his mind’s eye the mountains and glens of Scotland.

That influence stretched far to the west as well. Scott was much loved in America and in 1872, the year after the centenary, a statue of him was erected in Central Park in New York. In the Cold War which dominated much of the century which followed, it isn’t too fanciful to identify a liking for Scott as the one thing most Russians and Americans could agree on. Rival diplomats, spy-masters or generals facing each other over a conference table or a tray of canapes could bond over a shared love of Rob Roy – and perhaps appreciate the irony of Karl Marx having been a huge Scott fan.

If you have a talent for maths, you’ll have worked out by now that August 15 2021 marks the 250th anniversary of Scott’s birth. And you won’t be surprised to learn that it is to celebrated – if not with the sort of pageantry Scott himself was fond, then with reverence and respect for a reputation that is, in every sense, massive.

Sir Walter Scott: Celebrating 250 Years kicked off its rolling programme of events in March with a spectacular lightshow centred on Smailholm Tower in the Borders, in whose shadow Scott lived for a time as boy. Timed to coincide with World Storytelling Day, it also featured the premiere of a short film and the whole event was streamed live for a worldwide audience.

Next weekend, meanwhile, the inaugural Scott Fest takes place at Abbotsford, the baronial pile Scott commissioned near Melrose and which was completed in 1824. Intended as an annual event celebrating Scott’s life and work, its theme in this first year is Ivanhoe, the 1819 novel set in 12th century England in the wake of the failed Third Crusade and credited with reviving interest in medieval history. You know that scene in every Robin Hood movie where Robin splits the Sheriff of Nottingham’s arrow in two with one of his own? It’s an invention of Scott’s and first featured in Ivanhoe.

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Other events planned for 2021 include Inspiring Sir Walter Scott, a free exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) in Edinburgh which focuses on Scott’s reputation as a collector – he was a member of the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland, whose collection is now held by the NMS – and an exhibition at the University of Aberdeen celebrating his work as a folklorist and song collector. Inspired by that work, the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson collected spirituals and ‘shouts’ while serving in a black regiment during the American Civil War. His is one of the earliest collections of African-American oral culture.

October’s Scottish International Storytelling Festival in Edinburgh, meanwhile, focuses on Scott’s fiction with a series of (fingers crossed) live events. The following month, Abbotsford will host the Borders Book Festival. Expect a strong Scott theme there too. Finally, in a tribute which would have amused a man who first amassed and then lost a fortune, the Royal Mint has issued a commemorative £2 coin. It bears Scott’s image and the simple description: “Novelist, Historian, Poet”. Inscribed around the edge is the phrase “The will to do, the soul to dare”, a line from his famous 1810 poem The Lady Of The Lake.

Ahead of all that, BBC Scotland has produced a documentary fronted by Damian Barr, presenter of The Big Scottish Book Club. Titled In Search Of Sir Walter Scott, it airs on Tuesday and sees Barr dig into Scott’s legacy as he journeys from Edinburgh to Abbotsford via Smailholm Tower and Loch Katrine, which inspired The Lady Of The Lake and drew thousands of Victorian tourists to its shores as a result.

“I think Sir Walter Scott – the novelist, the poet, the man – has shaped how the world sees Scottishness and how we see ourselves,” says Barr. “He always shaped how we see and speak about history, from coining the term ‘the War of the Roses’ to popularising characters like Rob Roy and Robin Hood. There’s so much that’s familiar. We re-use and retell his stories all the time. It’s almost a moot point whether we read him or not in terms of his influence because he is all around us.

That may be but there’s no denying that Scott’s literary reach has faded, while his right-leaning political views, his avowed Unionism and his promotion of a vision of Scotland which would later slip into the tartan-choked kailyard-ism of the late Victorian era have made him a difficult author to warm to for some. His critical reputation has waxed and waned in the way critical reputation do, and today it’s the work of Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Lewis Grassic Gibbon that you’re more likely to find on school bookshelves, alongside works by such modern Scottish ‘greats’ as Alasdair Gray, Ali Smith and (whisper it) Irvine Welsh. The length of a typical Scott tome doesn’t help either.


He still has his boosters, though, and they will cite him as everything from the father of Scottish tourism to an early and influential champion for the health-giving properties of physical activity, nature and the open air. Others will note the way he championed the work of women and gave female characters significant roles in his novels. It’s a point picked up by Damian Barr.

“Often, and unusually for a male writer of the time, he put women centre stage, supporting the work of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, who sent him an early copy of Frankenstein and he gave it a rave review,” he says. “He certainly wasn’t working class but he raised up the working class voice of the time – like Jeanie and Effie in The Heart Of Midlothian.”

One author who does still read Scott is Diana Gabaldon, creator of the eight (so far) novels adapted into the television show Outlander. A time travel love story, it flits between the 1940s and the period of the second Jacobite rebellion. Interviewed for a documentary accompanying the launch of the 250th anniversary celebrations, Gabaldon is effusive in her praise.

“He had a good hand with human beings,” she says. “He understood people. He was obviously someone who enjoyed watching people, listening to them talk, picking up the idiosyncrasies of their speech and their habits.”

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Unsurprisingly given its early 18th century Jacobean backdrop, Rob Roy is a particular favourite of hers. “It’s a quest and a romance and so forth, but there’s this very strong thread of politics running through it. Sir Walter is very good at politics. He gave you the broad outlines but he focusses it on the personal. This is how the political situation affected these people – we’re not going to lecture about the rights and wrongs of what was happening, this is what happened to these people because of the setting in which we found them.”

One thing you can’t criticise Scott for is his work ethic. He was jaw-droppingly prolific and for his industry alone he deserves credit. AN Wilson, one of a great many biographers, writes winningly that “booksellers deal in Scott by the yard”, so prodigious was his output.

The feat is even more impressive given that Scott didn’t start writing seriously until he was 30 and produced most of his work in a 15 year period. By the time of his death he had published 27 novels, a nine volume life of Napoleon, a four volume collection of ballads and a three volume children’s history of Scotland. He had also written as much poetry as Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited editions of work by John Dryden and Jonathan Swift, and churned out countless essays and reviews. His correspondence covers 12 volumes and his journal runs to around 700 pages.

But while Wilson praises the quantity he doesn’t underplay the quality. For him, Scott was “the greatest single popular imaginative inspiration of the 19th century … a genius of extraordinary range, depth and intelligence”, and a writer whose ability to create memorable characters is comparable to that of Shakespeare. It’s no surprise, then, that European literary greats such as Lord Byron, John Ruskin, Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac all joined Pushkin as paid-up members of the Walter Scott fan club. Or that Scott’s novels were adapted for the opera stage or that scenes from them inspired hundreds of paintings.

Scott packed a lot more into his 61 years than just writing, another reason to admire him. He also travelled, socialised and studied, and had he never picked up a pen at all his own life story would have made a great book in its own right. He read Law at Edinburgh University and was called to the Bar in 1792, successfully defending a (probably guilty) Borders sheep rustler in his first criminal case. He later became a Principal Clerk to the Court of Session and Sheriff-Deputy for the County of Selkirk. He met Robert Burns in 1786, William Wordsworth in 1804, Lord Byron in 1812 and the Russian Tsar in 1815 during a visit to the battlefield at Waterloo.

There’s more. He once talked to a man who had fought a duel with Rob Roy McGregor and been involved in the 1715 and 1745 rebellions. He founded both a military regiment – the Royal Edinburgh Volunteer Light Dragoons – and an influential rival to the Edinburgh Review titled the Quarterly Review. In the same year that he was schmoozing with Russian royalty and visiting the scene of Napoleon’s defeat he used the Quarterly’s pages to praise a novel about a match-making young woman by the name of Miss Woodhouse – Jane Austen’s Emma, of course. A year later he inherited a fortune from his brother to add to the money he was making from his writing, but within a decade he was financially ruined after the collapse of a printing business in which he was the main partner. He tried to write his way out of debt, but it was too much on top of his already failing health.

Nearly two centuries on, it is perhaps because Scott’s physical legacy is still so tangible in our built environment that his writing has receded in the public consciousness. He’s all around us so where’s the need? And perhaps it’s the lack of physical legacy which has foregrounded the work, ideas and personalities of other members of the Scottish literary pantheon, such as Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. Who knows. But Scott’s work does continue to percolate in other ways. Tour the world’s art festivals and opera houses and it won’t be long before you encounter a production of Donizetti’s Lucia de Lammermoor, based on Scott’s 1819 novel The Bride Of Lammermoor, or Rossini’s La Donna Del Lago, based on The Lady Of The Lake. Visit Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and there, alongside works by Rembrandt, Brueghel and Vermeer, you’ll find James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement In Yellow And Gray, an imagined portrait of Effie Deans. The work of those he influenced is still very palpable and very close.

“Getting into his stories for a modern audience can be difficult because of the archaic language but if you stick with it, the stories are intelligent and intriguing and they are universal,” says Damian Barr. “There is definitely something there in his work, something that is worth keeping in the cultural consciousness and looking at again.”

And if there is a time to return to the works themselves, it has to be now. Sure, it may take a year to plough through the Waverley novels from start to finish, but what things worth doing don’t require time and dedication. If he knew anything at all, Sir Walter Scott knew that.