Saying that Sir Walter Scott left a few marks on modern-day Scotland is as much an understatement as saying that the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig left a few dirt-stains on the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Through his historical romances like Waverley – novels that were massively popular in their day – Scott conjured up images of Scotland that included rugged mountains, heathery moors and misty lochs, and tribes of plaid-wrapped clansmen who rallied with their claymores to the skirl of bagpipes. Those images endured and they’re still what many tourists arriving in Scotland expect to find. And that the real Scotland was long ago supplanted by Scott-land, the fabrication created by Sir Walter’s pen, is something that pisses a lot of Scottish people off.
Today it seems fitting that on Edinburgh’s Princes Street the author’s statue broods at the bottom of the Scott Monument – the tapering, four-legged sandstone structure built in his memory in the 1840s, which cynics have likened to a gothic re-imagining of Thunderbird 3 – while yards away at the corner of Waverley, yes Waverley Bridge, Japanese tourists pose for photos with busking bagpipers. Meanwhile, up on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, other tourists throng the countless tacky souvenir shops and hand over, in exchange for pieces of tartan kitsch, Scottish banknotes with Scott’s face on them.
This wasn’t merely a consequence of Scott’s books. He also masterminded the royal visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, for which he turned the Scottish capital into a veritable pageant of tartanry. This was much to the bemusement of the inhabitants of Edinburgh, and of the Scottish Lowlands generally, for whom plaid, claymores, bagpipes and the rest were associated only with the despised and impoverished Highlanders in the north, who in the 18th century had traitorously joined the Jacobite rebellions against the British throne.
However, George IV, who was the first British monarch to visit Scotland in two centuries, embraced Sir Walter’s tartan razzmatazz and showed his approval by donning a kilt and sporran himself when he received dignitaries at Holyrood Palace. By this time, a lifetime of drunkenness and gluttony had taken its toll on George’s physique, and according to my copy of The A-Z of Hellraisers (an entertaining encyclopaedia of debauchery written by Robert Sellers), “his waistline had expanded to 50 inches and his stomach hung down like a sack of melons.” So the obese monarch in his kilt, with flesh-coloured tights worn underneath to hide his swollen thighs, must’ve been a sight for sore eyes indeed. Nonetheless, the huge success of George’s visit, stage-managed by Scott, sealed the fate of Scotland’s identity. Thereafter, that identity was tartan.
With this debate about how Scott’s portrayal of Scotland became confused with the real thing, which almost makes him out to be an early-19th-century marketing guru who packaged the country, gave it brand recognition and sold it to the world, it’s often forgotten that he was first and foremost a writer. However, Scott-the-writer (as opposed to Scott-the-marketing-man) is something that’s gradually receded from public consciousness over the years, with fewer and fewer people reading his books. This is a pity but hardly a surprise. Very recently I read his novel The Black Dwarf and I could understand how many people would struggle with it – I enjoyed some of it, mostly in its first half, but casual readers nowadays would be defeated by the multitude of arcane references made to Scottish history, geography and folklore, as well as by the Scottish dialect that Scott robustly and unapologetically employs for many of the characters. It may well be that we’ve all dumbed down and Scott’s prose is just too much for our modern brains to handle, but there you have it. I can’t see the old boy enjoying a literary revival any time soon.
Meanwhile, in the country that he turned into a giant tourist attraction, Scott has become a tourist attraction himself. Abbotsford House, the imposing if architecturally unruly mansion house and estate that he gradually built up from 1812 onwards, in the process cramming it with historical memorabilia, has long been a magnet for visitors in the Scottish Borders and recently the place was reopened following a five-year refurbishment. Present at the reopening, on July 3rd, was the Queen. Being there was the least she could have done for Scott’s memory, considering the effort he put into popularising her fat Germanic forefather in Scotland nearly 200 years ago.
I hadn’t been to Scott’s old home for 20 years, so a couple of weeks ago I made my way to the new-look Abbotsford (which is always described as being next to postcard-pretty Melrose, although in reality it’s closer to the more rough-and-tumble town of Galashiels). The estate now has at its entrance a visitor’s centre containing a shop and exhibition area – the centre is flat-roofed and, mercifully, doesn’t protrude into the views from the estate’s majestic gardens – while the interior of the mansion itself seems to have undergone a major clear-out and re-organisation.
From the memories of my visit in 1992, Abbotsford then was a rather dark and cluttered place, but now it feels much more spacious, brighter and generally more attractive, whilst still having plenty of artefacts, fittings and adornments to admire. On entry you get a headset with a cord and a microphone-like attachment that you point at little terminals located at strategic points through the rooms. Each terminal triggers a commentary in the headset, given by actor impersonating the hospitable and personable Scott himself, telling you the history of the part of the house you’re standing in. The last time I was there all the information was written down on copious panels attached to the exhibits – I read the texts and quickly forgot them. Since my recent visit, much of the information I got from the headset commentaries has actually stayed with me. Generally, then, I think this Feng shui-style decluttering of the house – Abbotsford stripped – has been a success.
Outside, the gardens are as lovely as ever and I’m glad to report that the stature of Sir Walter’s beloved hound, Maida, still reposes near the entrance door. (Another statue of Maida snuggles beside him underneath Thunderbird 3, sorry, the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.)
For the record, I like Sir Walter Scott. I rate some of his books quite highly, although I think Redgauntlet and The Bride of Lammermuir are better than his more famous and acclaimed works Waverley and The Heart of Midlothian. And I don’t hold the tartan-isation of Scotland against him too much. It brings visitors and generates money and, anyway, I’ve travelled enough to know that there are plenty of countries that are grateful to have a colourful and well-known national caricature they can peddle to the rest of the world, bolster their tourist industries and fill their pockets with. To be honest, too, there are a lot worse caricatures to be lumbered with than the mountain-dwelling, tartan-swathed noble-savage one that Scotland has. Kilts are way cooler than lederhosen.
That said, I think those tartan-tat shops on Edinburgh Royal Mile are a disgrace and truly demean the neighbourhood, which is after all a United Nations World Heritage Site. Mind you, if Scott was alive today, he’d probably be so incensed that he’d be on the Royal Mile lobbing Molotov cocktails at them.
Finally, I like how Scott, following the ruination he suffered with the collapse of the Ballantyne Press in the mid-1820s, refused to declare himself bankrupt and turned down offers of financial aid. Instead, he just sat down at his desk, took his pen and started writing his way out of insolvency.