Sir Walter Scott: A Writer with Global Appeal

ScottWhen novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott died at his home, Abbotsford House near Melrose, in late September 1832, the press in Scotland was full of praise for, as the Caledonian Mercury put it, ‘this illustrious writer’ and ‘great luminary of letters’. Though not normally described as Scotland’s national bard – this being a title usually reserved for Robert Burns – Scott was immensely popular. Best known for his novels, including Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Lady of the Lake, Waverley and The Heart of Midlothian, Scott’s popularity, as the Mercury’s obituary went on to stress, rested on him having ‘boldly struck into a new path … evoking all that was most grand, gorgeous, and romantic in the past history or traditions of a land singularly rich in recollections of heroic daring or chivalrous adventure’. While this very focus of Scott’s work was criticised as presenting an overtly romantic image of Scotland by some, it was not a criticism often heard among the Scots abroad, for whom Scott was an important figurehead.

Diaspora Scots who chose to celebrate Scott usually did so for the purpose of maintaining a connection with the old homeland. When Shanghai’s St Andrew’s Society and its guests gathered at the Shanghai Club to celebrate St Andrew’s Day in 1879 for example, it was not the customary ball that was held, but a ‘Waverley Ball’, organised ‘in honour of the Patron Saint and the Poet Novelist of Scotland.’ As had already been reported in a local paper in the summer of 1879, guests were meant to be dressed as characters from Scott’s Waverley: ‘We hear with pleasure that the members of St. Andrew’s Society have decided to give a fancy dress ball, about the 30th November next. It can most appropriately be styled a “Waverley Ball,” as the dresses are to be copies of those of the characters in the Waverley-Novels. It is desired that the tout ensemble shall be as complete as possible, hence the notification so long in advance.’ While the press levied some criticism after the event, noting that ‘there was a tendency to substitute the payment of dollars at a store for the intelligent effort to represent a particular character; and secondly, there was too much reliance placed on picture books issued in the time of Sir Walter Scott’, the ball was a great success. WaverleyThis was the case not least because of the great decorations. In the ballroom ‘evergreens and flowers were entwined round the doors, windows, pictures, mirrors and pillars, while in a prominent position on the south wall was the venerated, veritable, and much revered portrait of St. Andrew’. Dinner was provided, including potted pheasant, venison, haggis and a selection of patisseries. Books were available at the entrance for guests to sign, providing details as to the Waverley characters used. This remarkable event displaying Scottishness in Asia came to its end only in the wee hours of the morning.

Further afield in New Zealand there were also a number of celebrations, many organised by the country’s Burns clubs. In Dunedin in the South Island – set up as Free Church settlement, and therefore, with a strong Scottish influence – Scott was celebrated regularly. In 1874, the Revd Mr Henderson delivered ‘an able lecture on “The Life and Writings of Sir Walter Scott,” in the hall of the First Church’, while a good 25 years later, according to the local press, the Dunedin Burns Club came together for a meeting to honour the ‘anniversary of the birth of Sir Walter Scott’. An address was given by the rector of Otago Girls’ High School, and a Mr John Church of Oamaru (a town a little north of Dunedin), ‘who had resided near Abbotsford’, offered ‘some reminiscences.’ Further north, in Auckland, a local Scottish society arranged a ‘grand Scots concert’ in 1919.

But Scott also served as a major pull factor for tourists from abroad visiting Scotland. As A.J. Durie documents in Scotland for the Holidays, the visitor book kept at Abbotsford House shows that the number of visitors from the United States increased from 28 in 1833 to 2362 in 1913; with an additional 375 Canadians visiting in the same year, at least 2737 North American visitors passed through. Some of these tourists were roots-tourists. For them Sir Walter Scott’s novels often created a ‘Scotland of the mind’. As one traveller from New Zealand noted in the late nineteenth century:

Upon reaching the pretty rustic pier at the head of Loch Katrine we find the trim little steamer in waiting, and amid passengers from every corner of the globe we take our seat, and find ourselves actually grinning with satisfaction to think that we are really upon Loch Katrine, in another instant see Ellen’s Isle, so often seen in vision. Can you tell me, oh dear reader, how much you and I owe to that beloved old Sir Walter? What would these lochs be without him?

To learn more about Scott, check out his biography and the Walter Scott Digital Archive.

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