Record

CodeNA9673
Dates1771-1832
Person NameScott; Sir; Walter (1771-1832); Author and poet
SurnameScott
ForenamesWalter
PreTitleSir
EpithetAuthor and poet
ActivityWalter Scott was born in Edinburgh in 1771, the son of a writer to the Signet. He was crippled by a childhood illness though generally a healthy man, and was brought up in a household that was strictly religious, but had a scholarly interest in history and legend, which encouraged his early collection of ballads. He was educated privately and at Edinburgh High School, and then at Edinburgh University where his studies were interrupted by another bout of ill health. He helped himself to recover by taking long rambles in romantic scenery, and when better, in 1786, he was apprenticed to his father and, choosing to become an advocate rather than a notary, he was called to the Bar in 1792. He was a keen and popular participant in the clubbing society of Edinburgh at that time, but also read and explored the countryside, formed warm and lasting friendships, and began to write, chiefly on social history. He also took an interest in painting and music, both of which would have suited his romantic tastes, but showed no talent at all at either. His legal duties took him to various parts of the country, in all of which he collected ballads and curiosities and, it was to transpire, characters for his later books. Back in Edinburgh his patriotism and love of action led him to instigate the formation of a volunteer cavalry in 1797: in the same year he married the daughter of a French refugee, and settled with her in Edinburgh. It was about this time that he turned to writing in earnest, publishing ballads to some public acclaim. His friend James Ballantyne, who ran a newspaper at Kelso, printed a quantity of his work in a collection with some other poetry in 1799. At the end of that year, with the help of friends, he acquired the post of sheriff-depute of Selkirkshire which allowed him lighter legal work, and he took advantage of the liberty to work on more ballads, particularly his collection ‘Border Minstrelsy’. However, it was the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’, first published in 1805, that brought him immediate acclaim. Though he wanted to rely on his legal work for a living, writing and his other interests took up more and more of his time, and he managed to obtain a post as a clerk at the quarter session in Edinburgh which left him still more time to devote to his work. He was a generous patron, not only to his brother Thomas, whose business failed in 1806, but also to many aspiring writers and others who needed his influence to obtain posts, and he invested heavily in Ballantyne’s publishing enterprise. He used it partly as a weapon against Constable after falling out with him in 1809 (the quarrel, lasting about a year, was partly political, as Scott was a staunch Tory) but also as a means of settling Ballantyne’s younger brother whose business had failed. The publishing company did not do well, partly because of Scott’s eagerness to publish unpopular books for friends or to employ anyone to whom he felt an obligation. However, his legal salary was improved and in 1811 he bought the estate on the Tweed which he named Abbotsford. Ballantyne’s business was for the most part bought out by Constable in 1813, with the help of the Duke of Buccleuch, and Ballantyne became instead Scott’s agent on a salary for managing the printing business. Scott’s own financial problems were alleviated by the unexpected success of ‘Waverley’, published in 1814, the first of a rapid series of novels written over the following decade when he had to a great extent given up the verse compositions that had brought him to prominence. In addition, he sold to Constable in 1818 the copyright of everything he had so far written, but did not receive full payment for this before Constable’s firm went bankrupt. His patriotism extended to close contact with royalty: he had often been a guest of the Prince Regent, was instrumental in rediscovering the Scottish regalia in 1819, was granted a baronetcy in 1820 and in 1822 took charge of the new King’s visit to Scotland. However, Constable’s apparent mismanagement of Scott and the publisher’s subsequent crash in 1826 left Scott in a very bad way financially because of his connexion with Ballantyne. Though many of those to whom he had been generous in the past offered to help him with what little they had, he declined their offers and chose to work his way out of his crisis, in order to pay his creditors and not to declare himself bankrupt. The effort this took clouded the rest of his life, though during this period he still produced effective work, including a Life of Napoleon and his ‘Tales of a Grandfather’. He still helped, when he could, friends who were in need, while trying to clear his own debts. However, illness set in in 1830 and despite it Scott worked on, not allowing himself time to recover. He was obliged to go abroad for his health in 1831, with a naval frigate put at his disposal for the purpose, and enjoyed the trip to begin with: soon, however, he was anxious to return home, and he died at Abbotsford in 1832.
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