THE 250th anniversary of the birth of Sir Walter Scott, on August 15, 1771, has been widely marked, but there was a hole at the heart of the celebrations.

The huge impression Scott made on the cultural landscape, here and across the world, has been applauded, and his imprint and legacy reaffirmed. No wonder. Streets, pubs and hotels throughout the country are named after him and his books; Edinburgh’s Waverley Station immortalises his ground-breaking first series of historical novels; and the cityscape of Edinburgh, although constantly in flux, has one fixed point around which everything else revolves: the soaring Scott Monument, built in his honour. Even J K Rowling could only dream of fame on the scale that Scott enjoyed.

His novels were the first-ever bestsellers, excitedly shared, borrowed and discussed within days of publication. Translated into countless languages, they inspired writers as diverse as Dumas, Balzac, Dickens and Tolstoy. Countless operas, plays, television series and films have been made of his novels, and in his lifetime his acclaim reached so far, he can probably be called the original global celebrity.

Yet, as plaudits have been pouring in for this generous, imaginative and decent man, who worked himself to death at the age of 61, one thing was missing from the hoopla: any great enthusiasm or passion for his novels.

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The books that made his name, and kickstarted the genre of historical fiction, are now little more than titles on the spines of library shelves. When did you last see someone on the train immersed in The Heart of Midlothian? Scott, who was once a critical as well as a popular success, is now better known for Abbotsford, the magnificent mock medieval house he built by the River Tweed. It has been one of our top tourist destinations since Queen Victoria’s reign, a reason to visit the Borders.

Yet the 25 or more novels that made his name – not to mention his epic poems and verse – have long since turned to dust. The giant formerly known as the Wizard of the North is now derided as the “Great Unread”. People are encouraged to try his books, with the warning they are chewier than over-barbecued steak. Abridgements are often recommended, as if readers are like infants, to be offered purée rather than solids, lest they choke.

If someone of Scott’s stature can be brought this low, it shows the fickleness of a literary reputation. “Age cannot wither her,” wrote Shakespeare, and that remains true of many authors, none more so than Jane Austen. She is arguably more popular today than when she was alive, although the liberties taken with her novels make that a dubious distinction.

HeraldScotland: Raeburn, Henry; Sir Walter Scott and His DogsRaeburn, Henry; Sir Walter Scott and His Dogs

A contemporary of Scott, who admired her greatly, Austen continues to inspire new generations of devotees. Scott’s slide into literary obscurity has nothing, then, to do with his vintage.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that the vast majority of well-loved authors are eventually destined for the skip. Even Jane Austen languished for a century, until a resurgence of interest in the 1960s. Changing fashion in part accounts for it, but so too does taste and political climate.

Margaret Oliphant was massively successful in the later 19th century, churning out domestic and historical plots to keep her financially afloat. Like Scott she had a ferocious work ethic, turning her into a mainstay of women’s fiction. Today, she’s virtually unheard of.

How many have fallen by the wayside. When I was at school, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was a sensation, setting the tills ringing like sleigh bells. So too Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, and the likes of Geoffrey Wheatley’s and Alistair MacLean’s thrillers, or Eric Linklater’s satirical adventures.

These days the best you can hope for is to find a tatty paperback by any of them in a second-hand bookseller’s. The same goes, I’m afraid, for some of our most celebrated present-day authors.

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The unanswerable question is, which on the current bestseller lists will endure? Had you told Scott’s contemporaries that his swashbuckling, thoughtful, erudite adventures would one day be considered antique, they would have laughed. So is it likely that J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series might still be read in centuries to come? She probably has a better chance of surviving than most, if only because parents tend to pass onto their youngsters the books that they have loved.

But what about authors of crime fiction, which is based on topical issues, or those turning to history, sci-fi, thrillers or fantasy? Their future is decidedly less assured. It is, however, to be hoped – but who can tell? – that writers whose style and outlook is unique and possibly timeless, such as Ali Smith or James Kelman, might enjoy a longer life.

Scott’s work fell out of favour for many reasons, not least because he digressed. He kept wandering off the plot, disappearing down the many tunnels of history and lineage he found too enthralling to ignore. As a result, his stories are stuffed with interesting but unnecessary diversions. They require patience and time, which is rather ironic, given that most were written at breakneck pace, to pay off Scott’s Matterhorn of debt. Novels poured so fast from his pen, he was a literary steam engine in an age of horse and carriage.

In our own era of high-speed gratification, when goldfish have greater powers of attention than many readers, they barely stand a chance. As the L’Oréal adverts say, he is worth it, but few of us will ever take the time to discover that for ourselves.

I take comfort from imagining that Scott was far too busy to worry what posterity would make of his work. Among the saddest aspects of his often poignant story is that, while his status as a national treasure is assured, his writing is not only unjustly neglected, but there’s no prospect of revival in sight.

This morning, a silver pistol specially made for him, which looks like something Rob Roy might have tucked in his belt, is being auctioned by Lyon and Turnbull. As bids come in, and the gavel bangs on the final offer, it could be seen as a metaphor for Scott’s literary reputation: Going, Going, Gone.

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