‘The Enchanter of the North’: A Profile of Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832)

Sir Walter Scott by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, c. 1824, National Portrait Gallery
Sir Walter Scott by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, c. 1824, National Portrait Gallery

Sir Walter Scott was a Scottish poet, novelist, editor, critic and antiquarian. The ‘Enchanter of the North’ (as he was often known in his own day) was born in the College Wynd, Edinburgh in August 1771, the ninth child of Anne Rutherford and Walter Scott, solicitor, a strict Calvinist with whom Scott would later clash over his own Episocpalianism.  By the end of his life, Scott was without doubt the most prominent, popular and influential novelist in the history of English letters; the year of his death, 1832, as the First Reform Act heralds the political concerns of the Victorian era, can be argued to mark the end of British Romanticism.

In 1773 Scott contracted polio (which lamed him for the rest of his life), and was sent to recuperate at his grandfather’s farm in the Borders.  It was here that he first encountered the Scottish oral tradition which would later inform almost everything he wrote.  He learned folk-tales, legends and ballads from labourers and servants, and stories of Highlanders and eye-witness accounts of the last Jacobite rebellion of 1745 from his relatives, a debt he later acknowledges in the postscript to Waverley (1814): ‘It was my accidental lot, though not born a Highlander … to reside, during my childhood and youth, among persons of the above description; and now, for the purpose of preserving some idea of the ancient manners of which I have witnessed the almost total extinction … Indeed, the most romantic parts of this narrative are precisely those which have a foundation in fact.’  The above also demonstrating the author’s use of popular literature and antiquarian sources in combination with vivid childhood recollections when constructing a supposedly ‘historical’ narrative.  The paradox of Scott’s historicism being that he invented much more Highland tradition than he actually recorded and preserved.  Scott attended the University of Edinburgh, reading law while also studying philosophy and German, which led to his first literary experiments: translations of Romantic German dramas and ballads.  He also spent a year in Kelso with his Aunt where he met and befriended the Ballantyne brothers, James and John in 1783.  After another period of ill-health interrupted his studies, Scott was apprenticed to his father’s legal firm in 1786 and was admitted to the Bar in 1792.  Legal business took Scott to the Highlands for the first time, and in 1790 he met and fell in love with Williamina Belsches, a woman of higher social rank who rejected him for a banker’s son (Scott’s early poem ‘The Violet’ is very much a lover’s complaint, and probably refers to this period).  Within a year Scott had married Margaret Charlotte Carpenter, leaving generations of critics to surmise that the rather mysterious Williamina was the model for many of his unattainable literary heroines.

Between 1792 and 1796 Scott practiced as an advocate in Edinburgh.  It was through his translations that he commenced his literary career, when his early work (an adaptation of ballads by G.A. Burger published anonymously in 1796) came to the attention of Matthew Lewis in 1798.  Scott’s feel for folklore and the supernatural impressed the Gothic writer, who invited Scott to contribute to his ‘hobgoblin repast,’ Tales of Wonder.  In 1802 Ballantyne published Scott’s The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, a collection of ballads, some traditional, some written by contemporary poets; an expanded, three-volume edition was published the following year and, in 1804, Scott produced a poetic version of the romance of Sir Tristrem, his work to date reflecting the influences of German Romanticism, the Gothic and his own antiquarianism in roughly equal measure.  His work attracted the attention of William Wordsworth, who visited Scott at his new family home at Ashiestiel.

It was the immediate success of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, based upon an ancient border legend, in 1805 that made Scott’s name as a Romantic poet.  Thus began a period of long poems, most important among them Marmion (1808), and The Lady of the Lake (1810), which were extremely successful commercially but were soon superseded by the work of Scott’s friend Byron, and by 1813 Scott’s success as a poet was undoubtedly on the wane (Ballantyne losing money by advancing Scott £3000 for the unsuccessful Rokeby).  There is evidence that Scott’s early epics survived in British schoolrooms throughout the century, but they are rarely considered today, which is unfortunate given their Gothic excesses and difference to Scott’s later prose fiction, where he attempted to assimilated the Gothic tradition into that of the historical novel, while becoming increasingly interested in the psychological effects of superstition, abandoning the supernatural for rationalism.  During this period, Scott was also an energetic editor and critic, writing prolifically on matters literary, historical and antiquarian.  In addition to numerous book reviews for the Edinburgh Review, Scott had edited Dryden, written several pseudo-historical books such as Original Memoirs Written during the Great Civil War (1806), The State Papers of Sir Ralph Sadler (1809), and The Secret History of James I (1811), contributed a notable essay on Chivalry to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and been a driving force in the establishment of the Quarterly Review, a Tory rival to the Whig Edinburgh Review.  Any remaining energy was directed towards his business arrangements with the Ballantyne brothers which, as is well known, would ultimately lead to financial ruin.  Having achieved the status of Sheriff-Deputy for the County of Selkirk in 1799 and Principle Clerk to the Court of Sessions in Edinburgh in 1805, Scott’s literary success allowed him to indulge an expensive ambition to live the life of the Scottish laird, and he purchased the farm of Clarty Hole in 1811, where he built a stately home, a physical manifestation of his Romantic imagination, which he called Abbotsford, the other primary factor in his eventual financial troubles.  In 1813 Scott was offered the Poet Laureateship, which he politely declined, recommending instead Robert Southey.  After the financial failure of Rokeby, the change in public taste was confirmed by the unenthusiastic responses to The Vision of Don Roderick (1811), and The Bride of Triermain (1813), and, with the exception of The Lord of the Isles (1815), Field at Waterloo (1815), and Harold the Dauntless (1817), Scott ceased to write long poems.  Instead, as his business interests became increasingly convoluted and unstable, Scott resurrected a prose piece, begun as early as 1805 and already twice abandoned, and wrote his first novel. Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since was published on July 7, 1814 by Archibald Constable and Co, its author remaining anonymous, priced one guinea; sales were so high that it went through four editions that year.

Waverley is set during the second Jacobite rebellion of 1745.  Edward Waverley, a young Englishmen of romantic sensibilities from an old Jacobite family, receives his commission and joins his regiment in Scotland.  Waverley is encouraged by his uncle to visit an old family friend, the Baron of Bradwardine, at his mansion in Tully-Veolan, Perthshire.  Bradwardine is also a Jacobite sympathizer, and Waverley is strongly attracted to his daughter, Rose.  Waverley becomes fascinated by stories of Highland bandits, which he interprets as romantic, and visits the Highlands at the invitation of Evan Dhu of the Clan Ivor; here he meets and befriends the clan Chieftain, Fergus Mac-Ivor, or Vich Ian Vohr ‘the Son of John the Great’ to give him his full Gaelic name and title, a clever politician, and his beautiful and fanatical Jacobite sister, Flora, with whom Waverley promptly falls madly in love.  Such fraternization with the enemy causes Waverley considerable trouble with his superior officers when he rejoins his regiment, and he is soon cashiered when an attempted mutiny in the ranks is erroneously attributed to him, with only the intervention of Rose Bradwardine saving him from prison.  Outraged and confused by this injustice, and encouraged by Flora and Mac-Ivor, Waverley joins the cause of Charles Edward Stuart.  By saving the life of the English Colonel, Talbot, during the Battle of Prestopans when the Jacobite forces are routed, Waverley secures a pardon for his treason, but his friends are not spared during the Highland clearances which follow the decisive victory of the English Hanovarians at Culloden, and Mac-Ivor and Evan Dhu are executed.  At the conclusion of the narrative, Flora rejects Waverley and enters a convent in France, and he finally marries Rose.

Waverley was originally published anonymously, the author later writing that, ‘My original motive for publishing the work anonymously, was the consciousness that it was an experiment on the public taste which might very probably fail.’  This affected anonymity didn’t fool most readers and reviewers, although they politely colluded by referring to the author as ‘The Enchanter of the North’ (an epithet later satirised by Thomas Love Peacock in Crotchet Castle, 1831), ‘The Northern Magician,’ and ‘The Scottish Prospero.’ Waverley, of course, did not fail, running to four editions in the first year of publication, its success turning Scott from a rather outmoded Romantic poet into what Hazlitt later described as ‘undoubtedly the most popular writer of the age.’  Nonetheless, Waverley was indeed an experiment in the novel, something the author is clear to signal by distancing himself from both the Gothic and the Chivalric romance in his opening chapters; as Ian Duncan has written, the publication of Waverley ‘was a decisive event in the institutional formation of the modern narrative.’  Although writing in a narrative tradition that can easily be traced back to Nashe and Deloney in the Sixteenth-century and refined by Defoe in the Eighteenth, Scott’s version of the historical narrative was decisive in its innovation and influence (the Victorian vogue for antiquity can be directly traced to Waverley).  In Waverley, and his subsequent novels, Scott offers a historical narrative which does not centre on the politically powerful, but instead examines the subjective, personal and social implications of living through seismic political events which one can neither control nor fully comprehend.  As Georg Lukács has famously argued, Scott’s work represents a post-Enlightenment and progressive historicism, which breaks with the conception of the unalterable nature of humanity, and exposes the contradictions endemic within the bourgeois ‘Whig’ interpretation of history, with the prosaic replacing poetic in terms of both ‘hero’ and moral.  Edward Waverley is therefore, in Lukácsian terms, ‘mediocre,’ his role in the great Jacobite adventure summarized in Volume II of the novel thus: ‘he contemplated the strangeness of his fortune, which seemed to delight in placing him at the disposal of others, without the power of directing his own motions.’  Waverley’s experiences are always portrayed subjectively.  In the manner of Tolstoy, for example, he, and we, miss the crucial battle of the rebellion, (Culloden, the last battle to be fought on British soil), his experiences and perceptions come from travelling to Edinburgh in its aftermath.  Such defamiliarization leads Lukács to argue that Scott’s work is ‘a renunciation of Romanticism,’ but it can equally be argued that Scott’s ‘trick’ is to actually fuse his new, humanist historicism with the codes of Romanticism, and to leave both apparently contradictory positions, like the ordered parks of Tully-Veolan with their wild borders, to co-exist.

Such a device may represent the author’s own self-consciousness, yet the romantic impulse is by no means dismissed, merely pragmatically mediated.  When Flora escorts Waverley into a secluded glen to recite some Gaelic poetry to him, she deliberately chooses a complementary setting notable for ‘the romantic wildness of the scene.’  When Waverley encounters his first Highlander, the wild and woolly Evan Dhu, he is surprised by his perfect English and when Evan, eager to impress, take a pot shot at an eagle with his pistol he misses.  Similarly, clan chieftain Mac-Ivor has spent much of his life in the French Court and, we are told, ‘at the moment he should unsheathe his claymore, it might be difficult to say whether it would be most with the view of making James Stuart a king, or Fergus Mac-Ivor an earl.’  This is not to say that Scott’s purpose is to deconstruct (even Waverley’s) naive Romanticism, (hence his disclaimer of Cervantes in Volume I), but to reconcile it with historical reality, much as Waverley does himself: ‘he felt himself entitled to say firmly, though perhaps with a sigh, that the romance of his life was ended, and that its real history had now commenced.’  Mac-Ivor, and especially Flora, cannot so easily adapt to expediency and therefore belong to a lost race which Scott has in part, through transcribing folk ballads and Highland traditions, set out to commemorate, but not necessarily condone.  They are the last of their line, ancestors, but not our ancestors; it is the children of the stable, if rather boring, Rose and Edward Waverley that shall inherit the earth, while probably still learning the same stories that so enchanted the author of Waverley in his youth in the Borders.

The phenomenal success of Waverley inspired Scott to produce further novels at an incredible rate: Guy Mannering appeared in 1815, followed by The Antiquary in 1816; 1816 also saw the first series of Tales of My Landlord, made up of the two novels The Black Dwarf and Old Mortality; Rob Roy (1817); The Heart of Midlothian (1818, the second series of Tales of My Landlord); The Bride of Lammermoor and The Legend of Montrose (1819, third series of Tales); Ivanhoe (1819, the first of Scott’s novels to be set in England); The Monastery and The Abbot (1820); Kenilworth and The Pirate (1821); The Fortunes of Nigel (1822); Peveril of the Peak, Quentin Durward and St Ronan’s Well (1823); Redguantlet (1824); Tales of the Crusaders, The Betrothed and The Talisman (1825).  Scott was also created baronet in 1820, and had acted as the master of ceremonies for George IV’s state visit to Scotland in 1822, where the previous national stereotypes were supplanted at a stroke by the kilted Highland piper, manifested from the pages of the Waverley Novels to the delight of the king.  Remarkably during this period Scott had also edited Swift, produced more historical studies, most notably The Border Antiquities of England and Scotland (1814-17), and continued to write as a literary critic, contributing Lives of the Novelists to Ballantyne’s Novelists’ Library (1821-24), while also expanding the building programme at Abbotsford, where he frequently entertained in appropriate baronial splendour, while continuing his legal work; not surprisingly his health suffered accordingly.

In the winter of 1825-6 Ballantyne and Co and Archibald Constable and Co had insufficient funds to meet a financial crisis, leaving Scott with a personal liability of £130,000.  Rejecting the option of bankruptcy, Scott resolved to pay his creditors by writing, announcing that ‘My own hand shall do it,’ and publishing Woodstock that year, and continuing at an even more accelerated pace thereafter: the first series of The Chronicles of Canongate, incorporating The Two Drovers, The Highland Widow and The Surgeon’s Daughter, appeared in 1827; a second series followed in 1828, St Valentine’s day, or, The Fair Maid of Perth; Anne of Geierstein (1829), and Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous were the fourth series of Tales of My Landlord in 1832.  Scott also produced the non-fiction works: Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (1827); Tales of a Grandfather (a children’s history of Scotland, 1828-30); and Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830), which David Punter has identified as being as much a manifesto of Gothic writing as it is an analysis of the contradictions underlying the witch-persecutions of the seventeenth-century.  In 1831 Scott suffered a stroke and his son-in-law and biographer, J.G. Lockhart, took him to Italy for the sake of his health, but they returned the following summer so that the ailing author could die at his beloved Abbotsford, which he did on September 21 1832.  His creditors were paid in full by the posthumous sale of his copyrights.

Scott’s contribution to literature cannot be over-stated.  In his writing we can trace the evolution of the English novel towards the recognizably modern and as the dominant art-form of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie; a process which Ian Duncan sees as begun by Scott and finalized by Dickens.  Scott’s approach to history was often misunderstood by his immediate successors, who tended to dwell on his antiquarianism, but his influence remains very apparent in the work of those who followed him in the early-Victorian period such as the Scottish novels of John Galt, James Hogg and, of course, Lockhart and the English historical romances of, among others, G.P.R. James, W.H. Ainsworth, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Catherine Gore.  Even Charles Dickens experimented with the form in Barnaby Rudge (1841), refining it further in A Tale of Two Cities (1859).  In France, the excitement and adventure of a Scott romance had an enormous effect on the work of Alexandre Dumas (in a similar way to his English counterparts Ainsworth and Lytton), while Scott’s more serious examination of the effects of ‘interesting times’ on ordinary humanity and his obsessive attention to detail can be quite clearly identified in La Comédie Humaine of Honoré de Balzac.  In America, James Fenimore Cooper was great admirer of Scott and a friendship between the two writers developed.  Cooper’s Leatherstocking series are very much the Waverley novels of the New World, chronicling the colonization of the wilderness from the late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries.  The Last of the Mohicans (1826), for example, follows Scott in depicting the end of an honourable and heroic culture which pre-dates, effects but does not belong to those that will inherit the country: the doomed Highlanders of Waverley easily translating into Native American warriors.  The Russian romantic literary critic and philosopher Vissarion Belinsky wrote of Scott in 1844 that: ‘To read his novel is like living the age he describes, becoming for a moment a contemporary of the characters he portrays, thinking for a moment their thoughts and feeling their emotions.’  Georg Lukács develops Belinsky’s thesis, identifying the refinement (and influence) of Scott’s technique in the work of Pushkin and Tolstoy who understood what the English, apparently, did not that: ‘What matters … in the historical novel is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in those events.’  Scott no more presented the Jacobite uprisings in extenso than Tolstoy did the Napoleonic Wars.  For all his historical detail, Scott’s true genius and influence reside in his ability to take an episode from history and to explore its significance on the personal development of a single human being.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era edited by Chris Murray (2003).


Works of Walter Scott

The Waverley Novels

Waverley (1814)

Guy Mannering (1815)

The Antiquary (1816)

Rob Roy (1817)

Ivanhoe (1819)

Kenilworth (1821)

The Pirate (1822)

The Fortunes of Nigel (1822)

Peveril of the Peak (1822)

Quentin Durward (1823)

St. Ronan’s Well (1824)

Redgauntlet (1824)

Tales of the Crusaders (The Betrothed and The Talisman) (1825)

Woodstock (1826)

Anne of Geierstein (1829)

Tales of My Landlord

The Black Dwarf and Old Mortality (1816)

The Heart of Midlothian (1818)

The Bride of Lammermoor and A Legend of Montrose (1819)

Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous (1832)

Tales from Benedictine Sources

The Monastery (1820)

The Abbot (1820)

Short story collections

Chronicles of the Canongate (1827)

Chronicles of the Canongate, 2nd series (1828)

The Keepsake Stories (1828)


Translations and Imitations from German Ballads (1796)

The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–1803)

The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805)

Ballads and Lyrical Pieces (1806)

Marmion (1808)

The Lady of the Lake (1810)

The Vision of Don Roderick (1811)

The Bridal of Triermain (1813)

Rokeby (1813)

The Field of Waterloo (1815)

The Lord of the Isles (1815)

Harold the Dauntless (1817)


Introductory Essay to The Border Antiquities of England and Scotland (1814–1817)

The Chase (translator) (1796)

Goetz of Berlichingen (translator) (1799)

Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk (1816)

Provincial Antiquities of Scotland (1819–1826)

Lives of the Novelists (1821–1824)

Essays on Chivalry, Romance, and Drama Supplement to the 1815–24 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica

Halidon Hill (1822)

The Journal of Sir Walter Scott (1825-1832)

The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther (1826)

The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (1827)

Religious Discourses (1828)

Tales of a Grandfather, 1st series (1828)

History of Scotland, 2 vols. (1829–1830)

Tales of a Grandfather, 2nd series (1829)

The Doom of Devorgoil (1830)

Essays on Ballad Poetry (1830)

Tales of a Grandfather, 3rd series (1830)

Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830)

Further Reading

Anderson, W.E.K. ed. The Journal of Sir Walter Scott. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Belinskii, Vissarion Grigorevich. Selected Philosophical Works. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956.

Buchan, John. Sir Walter Scott. London, 1932.

Cockshut, A.O.J. The Achievement of Walter Scott. London, 1969.

Davie, Donald. The Heyday of Sir Walter Scott. London, 1961.

Duncan, Ian. Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Ellis, S[tewart] M[arsh]. The Solitary Horseman, or The Life and Adventures of G.P.R. James. London: The Cayme Press, 1927.

Gordon, Robert C. Under which King? A Study of the Scottish Waverley Novels. Edinburgh, 1969.

Grierson, H.J.C. Sir Walter Scott. London, 1938.

—. Ed. The Letters of Sir Walter Scott 12 vols. London, 1932.

Hart, Francis R. Scott’s Novels: The Plotting of Historic Survival. Charlottesville: Virginia UP, 1966.

Hayden, John O, ed. Scott: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.

Hazlitt, William. The Spirit of the Age or Contemporary Portraits. 1825. London: Collins, 1969.

Hillhouse, James T. The Waverley Novels and their Critics. New York, 1936.

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, Terence, eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Johnson, Edgar. Sir Walter Scott The Great Unknown. London, 1970.

Lockhart, J[ohn] G[ibson]. Memoirs of the Life of Sit Walter Scott. Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1838.

Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. London: Merlin Press, 1974.

Oman, Carola. The Wizard of the North: The Life of Sir Walter Scott. London, 1973.

Parsons, Coleman 0. Witchcraft and Demonology in Scott’s Fiction. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1964.

Pearson, Hesketh. Walter Scott: His Life and Personality. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987.

Punter, David. The Literature of Terror, A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the present day. 2nd ed. 2 vols. London: Longman, 1996.

Rance, Nicholas. The Historical Novel and Popular Politics in Nineteenth Century

England. London: Vision, 1975.

Robertson, Fiona. Legitimate Histories: Scott, Gothic, and the Authorities of Fiction. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1994.

Sanders, Andrew. The Victorian Historical Novel, 1840-1880. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Welsh, Alexander. The Hero of the Waverley Novels. Princeton, 1963.

Williams, Ioan ed. Sir Walter Scott on Novelists and Fiction. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.

Previously unpublished
Copyright © SJ Carver 2001, 2013

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