“Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.”


So opined Jane Austen in 1814. “It is not fair,” continued the author of the recently, and anonymously, published Pride and Prejudice. “He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must.”

Austen’s fears were entirely justified. Scott, already a highly celebrated poet who had been offered, but declined, the position of Poet Laureate, published his first work of fiction, Waverley, or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, to immediate and unprecedented success. Austen was indeed impressed, and she was far from alone. The first edition of the historical novel about the 1745 Jacobite uprising led by Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, sold out in less than a month. A second edition followed suit within weeks. It brought both the author and publisher profits previously unseen in the publishing world.

Waverley launched Scott’s popular career as a novelist. From 1814, he wrote, on average, more than a novel a year, reaching 27 in total, which were published in immensely high print runs by contemporary standards. By the middle of the 19th century, his books had registered sales of more than two million, more than twice as many as all other Romantic-period authors put together. Critics regarded Scott, the most famous living novelist of the age, as the equal of Homer.

The influence of this son of an Edinburgh lawyer reached far beyond his death in 1832, inspiring countless paintings, adaptations, illustrations and stories. The librettos of more than 90 operas are based on Scott’s novels and poems; more plays have been adapted from his works than any other writer; and, after the Duke of Wellington, he was the most frequently painted personality in the early 19th century.

Building a nation

Yet this is more than the story of one man’s prodigious talent catapulting him into the literary firmament. It is also the tale of how that talent transformed a nation’s image across the globe. For such was Scott’s cultural impact that, once his novels and poems had become essential reading in locales as distant and diverse as Sydney and Scarborough, Auckland and Arizona, the world would never look on his native Scotland in the same light again.

At the heart of this fascination with Scott’s Scotland was readers’ romanticisation of the Highlands, which conjured a nostalgia-fuelled vision of dramatic landscapes and mysterious characters far removed from most of their own experiences of life. Soon this idealised vision borne from Scott’s vivid depictions had enveloped all of Scotland, and the nation almost came to be a synonym for the Highlands and a past now lost.

His novels were works of historical period, as much as of class and region

By the mid-19th century, Scotland had become the destination of choice for enthusiasts across the globe determined to experience the places Scott described in his works. Tourism boomed as visitors descended on such locales as Loch Katrine and the Trossachs, the setting for his epic 1810 poem The Lady of the Lake. Scott’s publisher Robert Cadell later wrote in his memoirs regarding the poem’s publication: “The whole country rang with praises of the poet – crowds set off to view the scenery of Loch Katrine, till then comparatively unknown; and as the book came out just before the season for excursions, every house and inn in that neighbourhood was crammed with a constant succession of visitors.”

This phenomenon only intensified as more readers were swept away by Scott’s works, and the line between history and historical novel blurred. He wrote, at speed, across several genres – as a poet, critic, editor and novelist – yet his historical novels won the most lasting acclaim. This was, after all, a literary genre that he is often credited with inventing, and while novels set in the past had pre-existed him, Scott was the first to achieve both critical and commercial success on this scale.

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Unlike his predecessors, Scott sought to present past societies and characters realistically. He once expressed how he aimed to include “nothing inconsistent with the manners of the age” in his works, while at the same time intending for them to remain novels, not works of history, and so avoid “the repulsive dryness of mere antiquity”. Scott let his characters speak for themselves as part of their historical and cultural context in a variety of regional and social dialects, most notably, of course, those of regions in Scotland. His novels were works of historical period, as much as of class and region.

Class representation

The issue of class, and Scott’s innovative treatment of it, were key to his popularity. As part of his representations of past societies, he included characters from the whole social spectrum, from kings and queens to peasants and Gypsies. Each were given significant parts in the plot, with full emotional and intellectual scope. In The Heart of Mid-Lothian, which is set in the 1730s, the protagonist is Jeanie Deans, a Scottish peasant. When her sister Effie is condemned to die for the supposed murder of her illegitimate child, Jeanie travels to London by herself and on foot to seek a pardon from Caroline of Ansbach, wife of George II.

Jeanie is endowed with qualities not often found in working-class characters before Scott. Contemporary readers praised her “heroic generosity, and most invincible resolution”, and her union of “good sense with strong affections, firm principles and perfect disinterestedness”. Others were surprised at the reaction Jeanie elicited in them. One such reader was the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, who wrote: “Making Jeanie Deans interesting without personal beauty or youth was an instance of powers unexampled.”

Those “powers unexampled” are exemplified in the pathos and persuasiveness of Jeanie’s speech to Queen Caroline, delivered in broad Scotch: “Save an honest house from dishonour, and an unhappy girl, not 18 years of age, from an early and dreadful death! Alas! It is not when we sleep soft and wake merrily ourselves that we think on other people’s sufferings. Our hearts are waxed light within us then, and we are for righting our ain wrangs and fighting our ain battles. But when the hour of trouble comes… Oh, my Leddy, then it isna what we hae dune for oursells, but what we hae dune for others, that we think on maist pleasantly.”

“This is eloquence,” is the queen’s response. In fact, Caroline is so impressed by Jeanie’s speech that she secures Effie’s release.

While the queen and peasant find common ground, Scott’s novels are just as often arenas of mistrust and discord. In fact, competing cultures is a constant theme in his works, often the clash between the old and the new; past and progress; or Highland and Lowland Scotland. On the one hand, he advocates progress and sees it as inevitable, but on the other, his works are imbued with a nostalgia for a past that is lost. His writings focus on the consequences of progress, on the friction that occurs when parts of society move at different speeds to others.

For Scott, the residents of the Scottish Highlands were still at the feudal stage, whereas the Lowlanders and English had moved on to the age of commercialism

Scott’s depiction of cultures at different stages of development follows the ideas of human society espoused by Scottish Enlightenment philosophers Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, where social groups move through distinct stages, from “savage” and “rude” through “feudal” to a “modern” and “commercial” society. The tensions that this progression creates are the driving force behind Waverley, set against the backdrop of a Jacobite rebellion that divided England and Scotland, but also divided Scots among themselves. Lowlanders generally supported the government of George II, while their Highland compatriots were, for the most part, loyal to the Stuart claimant, Bonnie Prince Charlie.

For Scott, the residents of the Scottish Highlands were still at the feudal stage, whereas the Lowlanders and English had moved on to the age of commercialism. He was at pains, however, not to declare one system inherently better than the other, highlighting the heroism, the clan spirit and the primitive vigour of the Highlanders, in comparison to the more disciplined and conventional behaviour of the Hanoverians, English and Lowlanders.

Clash of cultures

In the opening stages of the 1745 rising, it was the clan spirit that prevailed, the “primitive” Highland clans defeating the modern army of “civilised” Britain. The respectable citizens of Edinburgh had their houses occupied by Highlanders whose “manners” appeared savage and whose Gaelic tongue they found utterly incomprehensible.

The Highlanders’ early successes were, however, short-lived. Their rising was to end in bloody defeat at battle of Culloden in April 1746. Having put the Jacobite army to the sword, the Hanoverian government resolved that there would be no further rebellions. To that end, it disarmed the Highlands, destroyed the system of clanship, removed the power of clan chiefs, and forbade the wearing of distinctive tartans. In short, it forced the Highlanders into a new way of life and it is in the pages of Waverley that Scott shows what was lost in the process.

Painting of the battle of Culloden. In Waverley, Scott lamented the obliteration of Highland culture in the wake of this crushing defeat for the Jacobite uprising
Troops clash at Culloden. In Waverley, Scott lamented the obliteration of Highland culture in the wake of this crushing defeat for the Jacobite uprising (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The tragedy that ensues out of this clash of cultures is embodied in the trial of two of Waverley’s most charismatic characters: clan chief Fergus MacIvor and his faithful servant Evan Dhu Maccombich. Fergus stands accused of high treason for taking the side of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the rising. Just as Fergus is ready to die for his prince, Evan is ready to die for his chief, even when offered a pardon. When the judge has passed the death sentence and asked each prisoner if they have anything to say in their defence, Fergus declares that he would do the same again, in the knowledge that this means death by hanging and disembowelling the next day.

Yet it is in the exchange between the judge and Evan that the fundamental misunderstandings between the two cultures become most stark. Evan proposes to return home and bring back six members of his clan, including himself, in exchange for Fergus’s life, but is greeted with snorts of derision by a court incapable of believing that he would even consider honouring his promise. Evan’s response to the court is a mixture of contempt and defiance: “If they laugh because they think I would not keep my word and come back to redeem him, I can tell them they ken neither the heart of a Hielandman, nor the honour of a gentleman,” he declared.

In Scott’s reading of events, the court has got Evan completely wrong and, in doing so, has betrayed an uncomfortable truth: loyalty as a value has been lost in a society that is at a different stage of development and is now based not on honour, but rules. As Waverley makes abundantly clear, class, politics and history are never far from the surface in Scott’s writings – and that is part of the reason for his extraordinary popularity.

Shaping Scotland

There is another powerful ingredient in Scott’s success: Scotland. From the courage of the Scottish peasant Jeanie Deans to the tragedy of the Jacobite uprising, Scott’s literary output was shaped indelibly by the nation of his birth. Likewise, surely no other artist has done more to shape views and interpretations of Scotland over the past two centuries than Scott himself.

That this process was already under way during the author’s lifetime is demonstrated by the role that Scott played in organising George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822 – the first time a British monarch had travelled north of the border in nearly 200 years.

For the occasion, the author asked Scots to descend on Edinburgh dressed in tartan. The king himself even got in on the act, wearing full Highland dress – albeit a kilt that was too short (ending well above the knees) and which revealed his pink tights. More than seven decades after the British government had banned the wearing of tartans, Scott’s orchestration of this royal visit played a key role in their rehabilitation as symbols of Scottish culture.

An early 20th-century poster promoting Loch Katrine and the Trossachs, the setting of Scott’s 1810 poem The Lady of the Lake
An early 20th-century poster promoting Loch Katrine and the Trossachs, the setting of Scott’s 1810 poem The Lady of the Lake (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

There were other actors behind the Highlands’ rise as a popular tourist destination: the shift from classicism towards an appreciation of a less tamed and orderly landscape; Queen Victoria’s purchase of Balmoral; the expansion of the railways bringing these once distant locations within reach. But all who benefited from the rise of the Scottish tourist industry – everyone from the owners of inns through to coach, railway and steamer operators – surely owed a debt of thanks to Walter Scott.

Scott’s brilliant poems and novels transformed perceptions of Scotland in the 19th century – and they have, to an extent, continued to do so ever since, with a little help from the films, dramas, operas, street names, railway stations, statues, dances and memorabilia that they have generated.

Scott has often been blamed for fostering a view of the nation that is romantic, tartan and kitsch, but no author can be blamed for how their work has been appropriated. Yes, his books depicted the conflict between old and new and lamented what is lost in the development of cultures. But they also acknowledged the inevitability of progress, and the paramount importance of developing with it.

Walter Scotts's works: three of his greatest masterpieces

These are the three novels that did most to catapult the author, and his nation, into the literary firmament

Waverley: the debut novel

Waverley (1814) focuses on the 1745 Jacobite uprising in favour of the Stuart claimant, Bonnie Prince Charlie, against the existing Hanoverian monarchy.

The novel highlights the heroism and clan spirit of the Highlanders, in comparison to the more disciplined and conventional behaviour of Hanoverians, Lowlanders and English. It also shows the inevitability of progress from a primitive to a more advanced society, but rather than favouring one over the other, Scott creates sympathy for both. He highlights what society has gained by progress but also what it has lost in destroying Highland culture

Rob Roy: the bestseller

It’s hard to overstate Rob Roy’s popularity. Against an average print run of 750 copies for contemporary novels, this 1817 work was published in a run of 10,000, which sold out within a fortnight. Entire ship loads of the novel made their way from Edinburgh to London.

Like Waverley, Rob Roy is a story of clashing cultures, this time against the backdrop of the first Jacobite rebellion of 1715, when Jacobite pretender James Francis Edward Stuart was trying to regain the throne of his deposed father, James II & VII. The protagonist, Frank, a young man without firm allegiances, finds his path as he encounters Jacobites, Hanoverians and, of course, the courageous Highlander Rob Roy.

The Heart of Mid-Lothian: his greatest novel?

The Heart of Mid-Lothian’s main character is an unlikely one by contemporary standards of fiction: a plain peasant girl, without the privileges of class, gender or beauty. The novel, published in 1818, is set against the 1736 Porteous riots in Edinburgh, again highlighting the conflicts between cultures, and the consequences of Scotland being ruled by a government in far-away “Lunnon”.

The main plot line is that of Jeanie Deans: her sister is imprisoned and awaits the death penalty for the suspected murder of her illegitimate newborn. To save her, Jeanie travels to London, on foot, to obtain a pardon for her sister from Queen Caroline.

Annika Bautz is a professor of 19th-century literature at the University of Plymouth. LISTEN: For more on Walter Scott’s life and legacy, listen to the BBC Radio 4 documentary The Man Who Made Scotland


This content first appeared in the September 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine