Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Walter Scott and the Union




This month the Scots have their referendum to determine whether they stay within the United Kingdom. Most Scots who live locally that I have spoken to are opposed to the country going its own way although I understand that the vote will be close.
One man can claim to have invented “Scottishness”. He’s considered to be the first internationally known novelist. His statue in Edinburgh is the largest to a writer in the world and for most of the early 19th century his reputation stood unparalleled. He organised the visit to Scotland in 1822 of George IV, the first visit of a  monarch from south of the border that wasn’t at the head of an invading army, and was to blame for clothing  the fat, alcoholic King in swathes of tartan and plaid. This writer is also responsible for coining such well known phrases as “caught red handed”, “ wide berth”, “lock, stock and barrel” and “back of beyond” and yet is now completely unread, even with Tony Blair’s endorsement of “Ivanhoe” on radio 4 “ Desert Island Discs”. I am referring to Sir Walter Scott.
What we think of the romantic notion of Scotland, the Highlands, the landscape, the tartans and the tradition can largely be put down to some canny promotion by Scott nearly 200 years ago.
 He wrote “Rob Roy” (1817), Ivanhoe (1819) and Peveril of the Peak (1821).  In 1818 he was knighted. In 1826 circumstances began to turn against him, he became bankrupt when his publisher Archibald Constable and printers Ballantyne failed and on 15th May his wife died. His health began to fail as the pressure of work increased; he suffered a minor stroke. Scott was a man of honour and decided that he would write and any money earned from his writing would go into a trust fund which would be used to clear his debts. The period 1826 to 1828 was a period of ferocious writing including a biography of Napoleon which brought in £40,000 by December 1827. But his most lucrative plan was the production of cheap editions of all his novels with new introductions and copious notes, a project called “Magnum Opus”. He had written “Fair Maid of Perth” by the end of March 1828 and set off to London as soon it was completed to meet with his publisher and to discuss the production of “Magnum Opus”. On the way to London on April 5th he stayed the night in Leek.

April 5th- Breakfasted at Chorley, and slept at Leek. We were in the neighbourhood of some fine rock scenery, but the day was unfavourable; besides I did not come from Scotland to see rocks.


One is clear what Scott’s view of the forthcoming referendum on independence would be. He was a Tory of the most committed kind fiercely attached to maintaining the union with England. He foretold some of the arguments used by both sides of the referendum debate in “Rob Roy” with the dialogue between the clansman Fairservive and Nicol Jarvie on whether to have closer links with England. He was reactionary enough to oppose at the end of his life the Reform Bill which offered limited reform to parliament and concocted a plot to kidnap Princess Victoria should the measure be passed. His historical view prompted another writer and also visitor to Leek Mark Twain to attack “sham chivalry, of a brainless and long vanished society. He did measureless harm”