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WALTER SCOTT belonged to the Border family of the Scotts, of which the Duke of Buccleuch was the head. He was descended from Wat of Harden, celebrated in the sixteenth century for his plunderings in the borders. His great-grandfather, Walter Scott of Teviotdale, had acquired the name of 'Beardie' from his oath that he would not cut his beard till the Stuarts were restored. He kept his oath, and narrowly escaped being executed as a traitor for his efforts on their behalf.
Beardie's second son, Robert Scott, farmed a small estate at Sandyknowe, near Dryburgh, and lived the life of a country gentleman. Walter, the eldest son of this Robert Scott, and father of the poet, settled in Edinburgh as a writer to the Signet, or what in England is called a solicitor. He appears to have been the first of the family who ever adopted a town life, and we may trace the influence of the family traditions in Scott's love of military adventure, and of open air life, of which his poems give us so many illustrations.
Walter Scott, the poet, was born in Edinburgh on the 15th of August, 1771. Owing to an illness at the age of eighteen months, which left him permanently lame, he spent much of his childhood at Sandyknowe. Here he wandered freely among the ruins of the Castle of Smailholm :
“ That mountain tower “Which charmed my fancy's wakening hour—" stored his mind with border songs and legends, and almost entirely outgrew his early delicacy of health.
After some years of this life Scott returned to Edinburgh, where he attended the boys' High School. His leisure hours during these school days were largely occupied in devouring English literature-history, poetry, travels, romances-as chance threw them in his way. His favourite poet at this time was Spenser. In his autobiography he speaks of the delight he found in the society of the knights and ladies and dragons and giants of the Faerie Queene. A little later he became acquainted with Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient Poetry. “I do not believe,”
“that I ever read a book half so frequently, or with half the enthusiasm.” He afterwards learned Spanish, Italian and German in order to be able to read the Romance literature of those countries.
As a result of this promiscuous reading Scott's love for Poetry and Romance was strongly developed by the time he left school, and commenced to study law with a view to entering his father's profession. He qualified as an advocate, and practised for some time with moderate success. Meanwhile, in 1796, he published his first work, a translation of two German Romances, followed three years later by a translation of one of Goethe's tragedies. His first serious attempts at original composition belong to this period, and were due to the influence of Mr Lewis - Monk' Lewis as he was called, after his best known work The Monk. Of these early attempts at ballad poetry Glenfinlas is the most interesting, as the first indication of Scott's familiarity with that Highland district which The Lady of the Lake was destined to make so widely popular. While studying law in Edinburgh, Scott had spent much of his leisure in gathering ballads of the Scottish Border from the country people, among whom such ballads were handed down in the memory for generations. As a result of these rambles he published, in 1802, a collection of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border in two volumes; a third following in the next year. These volumes first showed Scott's wide learning and critical ability. He had included in the collection some original poems written in imitation of the old ballads, and in 1805 he published The Lay of the Last Minstrel, the first of his great poems, the success of which
was immediate. Meanwhile, in 1797, after a disappointment in love which he seems to have felt keenly, and to which he probably refers in the closing lines of Canto vi. of The Lady of the Lake, Scott married a Miss Carpenter or Charpentier, the daughter of a French refugee, whom he met when on a visit to England in the summer of that year. In 1804 he accepted the office of Sheriff of Selkirk, and left the cottage on the Esk, where he had spent the first years of his married life, as he was obliged to live in the county of which he was sheriff. He moved to Ashestiel, a house on the bank of the Tweed, seven miles from Selkirk, where he spent the next eight years.
The success of the Lay decided Scott to make literature the chief occupation of his life. In the following year he applied for and obtained the Clerkship of the Court of Session at Edinburgh, a step which practically implied the abandonment of any desire for further advancement in the legal profession, and from this time to the end of his life Scott was at once the most successful and the hardest-worked literary man of the time.
In 1808 Marmion was published, and proved at least as popular as the Lay had been. The following year (1809) was crowded with literary work of various kinds, and in the autumn Scott began The Lady of the Lake. The locality which he chose for his new poem was one with which he was already familiar. From his fifteenth year he appears to have paid frequent visits to a Highland client of his father, Alexander Stuart of Invernahyle, in Perthshire, from whom he derived much of the knowledge of Highland customs which appears in The Lady of the Lake and in Waverley. But his first expedition into the actual district of Loch Katrine was undertaken for the purpose of enforcing the execution of a writ on some tenants of Invernahyle's brother-inlaw. “An escort of a sergeant and six men was obtained from a Highland regiment lying in Stirling, and the author, then a writer's apprentice (or attorney's clerk) was invested with the superintendence of the expedition....And thus it happened, oddly enough, that the author first entered the romantic scenery of Loch Katrine riding in all the dignity of da with a front and rear guard, and loaded arms." Scott several times revisited the
district, and in the summer of 1809 spent some time in careful observation of the scenery. It was during this visit that he rode at full gallop from Loch Vennachar to Stirling to test the accuracy of the time he proposed to allot to Fitz-James in Canto v.
In the Introduction to the edition of the poem published in 1830 Scott says : “The ancient manners, the habits and customs of the aboriginal race by whom the Highlands of Scotland were inbabited, had always appeared to me peculiarly adapted for poetry. The change in their manners, too, had taken place almost within my own time, or at least I had learned many particulars concerning the ancient state of the Highlands from the old men of the last generation. I had also read a great deal, and seen much, and heard more of that romantic country where I was in the habit of spending some time every autumn; and the scenery of Loch Katrine was connected with the recollection of many a dear friend and merry expedition of former days. The poem, the action of which lay among scenes so beautiful and so deeply imprinted on my recollections, was a labour of love, and it was no less so to recall the manners and incidents introduced. The frequent custom of James IV., and particularly of James V., to walk through their kingdom in disguise, afforded me the hint of an incident which never fails to be interesting if managed with the slightest address or dexterity.”
He goes on to tell how a lady, to whom he was nearly related, tried unsuccessfully to dissuade him from jeopardising his reputation by publishing another poem. He replied in the words of Montrose,
“He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
To win or lose it all.”