- 15 August 1771 – Sir Walter Scott birth
Life Sketch from The Other Eminent Men of Wilford WoodruffCopyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. Poet, Novelist 1771-1836 Only one other man of the day shared Scott’s enormous popularity—Lord Byron. Their bust or pictures were in almost every cultivated home. Their most famous lines were repeated at evening gatherings as a sign of culture. When compared to Burns and Byron, Scott called them “the most poetical geniuses if my time, and half a century before me. We have, however, many men of high poetical talent, but none, I think of that ever-gushing and perennial fountain of natural water.” In 1820 King George IV made Scott a baron, the first person to receive a title because of literature. And his fame was not limited to the British Isles. He was beloved in America as well. America’s first author, Washington Irving, sought the presence of the great man of literature and was treated with utmost courtesy and kindness. Scott was a prolific writer, so prolific as to be almost incomprehensible. He could write forty or more hand written pages a day. He wrote two, and sometimes three, novels a year, as well as many reviews and other sundry writings. Some of his novels were printed with as many as fifty thousand copies. He produced twenty-seven novels in seventeen years. Scott’s writing was aided by his keen observation of men and manners. He also had an exceptional gift of memory, which he often said worked only on things that interested him. He was able to reproduce what he heard, read, or saw with vividness and oftentimes freshness. He also had a vivid imagination, which played with the things he learned to produce themes of his historical romances. So great were the wanderings and twisting of his imagination that he said he had no more idea than the man in the moon of what would come next out of his brain. While he often called mortals the “children of imagination,” he also felt great reverence for humankind, calling them “the emblem[s] of deity.” In spite of the abundance of his works, writing was not his profession. Following his father’s wishes, he became a lawyer. During his years of writing he was also sheriff of the county and at the same time a judge of the court. He served in a volunteer regiment, and he was devoted to his wife and four children. Scott was known and respected for his honesty, absolute integrity, and his benevolence. He was not, however, without his weaknesses, his greatest being his desire to obtain more land than he needed. At times he referred to this desire as his “mistress,” a mistress who, as all mistresses do, got him in trouble. His love of nature and all that she possessed sometimes overcame his better judgement, and he foolishly spent a great deal of money buying land he could not afford. Politically, Scott was a staunch Tory supporting the royalty and all of her nobility. He was deeply attached to the past and felt it an integral part of the British heritage. Consequently, as a youth, he was adamantly against the Americans and their revolution. As he matured however, he felt Britain should exert every effort to promote goodwill between America and the mother country. When the war between them had ended, he advocated getting along and building a strong relationship with their former enemy. Scott’s life reflected the saying: “Act well your part, there all the honor lies.” He knew well that the greatest happiness is not in being praised, but in doing right and acting in goodness of character. This he endeavored to do all his life. Sir Walter Scott and his literature are a product of his early life with his family. Not only his immediate family but also his grandparents, cousins and particularly and old maiden aunt were very important and influential.
Early LifeWalter Scott was born 15 August 1771, in old Edinburgh and was of Scottish lowlander heritage. He was one of twelve children, but only five survived early childhood. He was the second child to be named after his father, the first one having died. His name was also the name of his great-grandfather and his great-great-grandfather. Every Scot has a pedigree and Scott was proud of his. His father was a lawyer of the greatest integrity. He was religious to the extreme, except for a liberality towards the theater. His mother was a descendant of the famous Swintons, the great warriors in the medieval days. One of his ancestors had been a border chief. Although Walter was a robust healthy child, he nearly died from exposure to tuberculosis. His first nurse had consumption but concealed it until she feared for her life. She went to see the noted physician, Dr. Black, who immediately informed the family. The nurse was promptly dismissed. Shortly hereafter, one night when Scott was eighteen months old, he was chased about the room in an effort to put him to bed. Finally, the little renegade was caught and put to bed. By morning he was running with fever. The family, however, were not overly concerned because they felt this was due to teething. It lasted for three days, and on the fourth day, when he was given a bath, it was discovered that he had lost the power in his right leg. At the time they could establish the cause, but scholars now felt that he had polio. Scott’s maternal grandfather, Dr. Rutherford, was summoned. After an examination, he recommended he be sent to his paternal grandfather’s farm at Sandy Knowe for fresh air and sunshine. At Sandy Knowe his relatives went to great lengths to restore his health. Scott recalled some of the remedies and cures that were tried on him, especially that of being wrapped in the skin of a freshly slain lamb: “In this tartar-like habiliment I well remember lying on the floor while my grandfather, a vernerable old man with white hair, used every excitement to make me try to crawl. I also distinctly remember … a relation of ours, and I still recollect him in his old-fashioned military habit … kneeling on the ground before me, and dragging his watch along the carpet for me to follow it. The benevolent old soldier and the infant wrapped in sheep skin would have afforded an odd sight to interested spectators. The cure that had the greatest effect was to be carried among the flocks over the fields by the young ewe-milkers. They carried him through the beautiful scenery and among the crags, and he grew to love the sheep. His quick memory served him well, and he soon came to know every sheep and lamb by their head-mark. Old Sandy Ormistoun, the chief superintendent, would give the young invalid a ride upon his shoulders to the tower above the little loch, where Scott spent the day. He was content to lie hour after hour on the heather-scented hill, under the floating clouds. One day Sandy left him among the knolls to lie and learn, when a thunderstorm came up. His Aunt Jenny, suddenly remembering his situation, ran to collect her little charge. She found him lying on his back, clapping his hands at the lightening, and crying out, “Bonny, bonny!” at every flash. Even though his relatives worked diligently to restore his health, he did little but crawl the first years of his life. In the old farmhouse where he stayed there was never a still moment. Milk buckets clanged and swarms of cousins came and went. In the evening his grandfather sat on one side of the fire and his grandmother with her spinning wheel on the other. Little Scott lay on a rug at their feet, listening to the Bible stories and good books that his aunt read them. He particularly remembered the reading of Josephus. His grandmother told him thrilling tales of his ancestors and of earlier days. Scott loved to hear of his great-grandfather, “Beardie.” Like Sampson, “Beardie,” determined not to shave until the Stewarts returned to the throne. “Beardie” died with a full beard. These and other stories enthralled young Scott. When he was four years old, his aunt took him to Bath, hoping to find a more effective remedy. A year later he was no better, he had, however, learned to compensate for his stiffness and could walk and run. During this time his mind was not idle. His uncle took him to the theater and his aunt taught him rudiments. Finally, when he was seven years old, he was returned to his family. Fitting in the middle of four other siblings required some getting used to after the attention he received at the farm. But being at home offered him new opportunities to learn. Many of Scott’s most tender memories were of moments with his mother, sleeping in her room and listening to her stories. She, too, had an excellent from memory the ancestry of everyone she knew or had ever heard of. She also had a proverb for every occasion. She lived to be eighty and to see her cripple son become world famous.
Meeting Robert BurnsWhen Scott was about twelve we attended a social gathering where a number of literary figures were present. Robert Burns, the famous Scottish poet, stood admiring a painting under which was written a couplet of poetry. He asked who was the author and no one seemed to know. Then young Scott very shyly gave not only the authors name, but also quoted the rest of the poem. Burns placed his hand on the young boy’s and looking him in the eye said: “Son, you will be a great man in Scotland some day.” Years later, Scott recalled Burns encouraging words as the turning point in his life. These kind words of encouragement touched the young lad in such a way as to help him on the road to greatness.
Education and MarriageScott attended School until his fifteenth year. He was an ordinary student, but one teacher said of him that while others could read the Latin authors, Scott could better understand their heart. In his fifteenth year he became critically ill with a broken blood vessel and had to stay in bed most of the year. This year became, in Scott’s opinion, one of the best years of his educational experience. Because of his illness he could do nothing but read, and read he did, storing up in his mind large amounts of material from which he was later able to draw from for his own writings. Once, when Scott reached manhood, he became a lawyer and married Charlotte Carpenter, a French refugee. They had a happy marriage, and she promoted his works even before the editors saw them. They had four children.
Two MissionsScott seemed to have two missions—his first, to paint Scotland with such vividness and beauty as to almost create a new country, and to paint all that was good of the Scottish character, its strife, and its courage; his second, to give life to its heritage and people. In Scott’s day both Scotland and England were entering the nineteenth century with its quick and often turbulent changes. Scott’s historical novels allowed the people to enter into the nineteenth century with a compassionate sense of their past. In giving the people this heritage Scott did his greatest work. In 1826, terrible financial reverses hit the printing houses in London and Edinburgh. Scott were greatly involved in these houses and stood at the edge of bankruptcy. Rather than give in, he chose to work off his indebtedness through his writings. “I will be their vassal for life,” he said, “and dig in the mine of my imagination to find diamonds and to make good my engagements, not to enrich myself.” The debt was large—$700,000. He worked unceasingly at reducing it, thus hastening his death in 1836. At his death, when his life insurance and royalties were applied to the debt, it was paid in full. The following poem, written by Scott, reveals his belief in an afterlife and speaks of man’s longing for his native home. The poem warned that the ability to return to that home lies within each person’s own unselfish action.
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
this is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand?
If such there breathe, go, mark him well!
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim,—
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentrated all in self,
Living shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the veil dust from whence he sprung,
unwept, unhonored, and unsung.
(“The Lay of the Last Minstrel”)Scott shed mortality happily, after giving Scotland a heritage and dignity from which she has never departed. Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy.1