Classic Author Focus: Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott was a Scottish novelist, playwright, translator, historian, and poet but also an advocate, judge, and legal administrator. He is primarily known for being the inventor of historical fiction and one of its greatest practitioners.

When only a few years old, Scott survived a bout of polio that left him lame for life. To recover from his illness, he went to live with his grandparents in the Scottish Borders. This is an area famous for its history of contention between England and Scotland but also of raids between neighbors and other forms of outlawry. Young Walter was fascinated by his Aunt Jenny’s stories of legends and tales of the area.

He returned to Edinburgh after a couple years and eventually was educated and apprenticed to his father as a solicitor, but his work was desultory, because he was more interested in social activities and readings in several foreign languages. His first publication, in 1796, was a translation of two German Romantic ballads into English. After another translation of Goethe, he published a collection of border ballads entitled Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, published 1802-3. This work made his name known to the public, and a few years later he published a full-length narrative poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Although he followed up these works with some collections of the complete works of a couple of poets and wrote some more narrative poetry, his first novel came out in 1814. It was Waverley. Depicting the Jacobite rebellion and the manners and loyalties of Highland society, it was immediately recognized as something original and powerful.

Scott went on to write 27 novels, 26 of which were historical. Although he became very rich, he was notoriously generous. His association with a British agent and a Scottish publisher resulted in the loss of his fortune and a staggering amount of debt when his agent in England went bankrupt and he took responsibility for his publisher’s debts. He spent the rest of his life trying to get back out of debt, and it is believed the resulting compulsive work shortened his life. He died still in debt, but he was so successful in writing his way out of debt that his estate was able to pay it off shortly after his death.

Dates: 1771-1832

Most popular works: The Lay of the Last Minstrel, The Lady of the Lake, Marmion, Ivanhoe, Waverley, The Bride of Lammermoor, Guy Mannering, and many others

Other works: Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Rokeby, The Lord of the Isles, MacDuff’s Cross, and other plays, novels, poems, and works of nonfiction

11 thoughts on “Classic Author Focus: Sir Walter Scott

  1. I think The Talisman is a good one to start with especially if the Scottish dialect is unfamiliar to you. Actually, it’s not so much the dialect but the older words that aren’t generally used anymore. I’d compare it to reading something like Shakespeare now – we don’t use a lot of those words now.

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    1. Hmm, that’s a good question. Almost everyone starts with Ivanhoe, I think, or at least they used to because it was assigned in school. I like some of the Scottish Waverly novels, but some of them are written in difficult Scots dialect. I guess I recommend trying Guy Mannering, which is pretty accessible, or maybe Waverly itself.

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      1. Surprising! Mind you, Scott loved long descriptive prose and Ivanhoe is full of it. I like the story once it gets going, though I think Kenilworth is better. One of his best works for me is The Heart of Midlothian, but always have a dictionary of Scots words by your chair.

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