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Sir Walter Scott

Role of Sir Walter Scott in the romantic novel and re-introducing Scotland to the monarchy
So here we are at Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott near Melrose in the Scottish Borders. And it’s a great privilege to be here this afternoon. So we’re here today in this glorious Borders setting to think a little bit about Jacobitism in terms of the legacy, or what we might call its afterlife. So what happens, really, to Jacobitism as we move into the 19th century? And I’m here with Kirsty from Abbotsford to try and unravel some of these threads around Sir Walter Scott and his Jacobitism. So Kirsty, so it seems to me that there are perhaps three ways that we might think about Scott and Jacobite, and the kind of Jacobite legacy.
And one of them - which I don’t think a lot of people know about - is to do with Scott’s family. So can you tell us a little bit about that? Absolutely. I think it’s a common myth that Scott is a straightforward unionist and Hanoverian supporter. His family history is a lot more complicated than that. He idolised his great grandfather, who was affectionately known as Beardie, so-called because he made a pledge that he wouldn’t cut his hair or his beard until a Stuart was returned to the throne. So he was a Jacobite supporter in the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. Fought for Claverhouse then. And remained a Jacobite supporter throughout his life.
What happens after that with his son Robert Scott is Robert Scott becomes a wig, decides to basically step aside from the Jacobite ideal, I think for pragmatic reasons. And the story goes that he did this at, on or around the time of the ‘45, and that Scott’s father and brother were going to go and fight for the prince, and then were drawn back by the family. So for Scott, it’s not a straightforward story. He’s very much torn between heart and head, I think. And that plays right through his life. I really agree with you.
This idea of him as a unionist nationalist, which is the term that’s used - which is actually not that helpful, I don’t think - it doesn’t tend to recognise his Jacobite roots. And of course, you have the wonderful portrait of Beardie here in the house which shows him with this great hipster beard, pre-hipster. And so there’s that aspect to Scott. And then there’s also, of course - in terms of Scott’s own cultural biography - there’s the visit of George IV, which we can’t really avoid mentioning. And so if we just recap briefly, so Scott is often called the pageant master, or it’s said he stage-managed the royal visit.
And I think, in some ways, these are terms that are quite misleading. And that actually, we really need to investigate that much, much more. What’s your sense of his involvement with the royal visit? I think Scott’s involvement with the royals, and particularly with the prince regent - who, obviously, George IV was the prince regent before becoming king - is an interesting story. They had a relationship as men since 1815. And at that time, obviously, Scott is asking permission to rediscover the Honours of Scotland, the crown jewels. And whether you think that’s really a rediscovery or just a, “ah, there they are,” is open to debate. It was a very romantic unveiling at the time.
I think Scott was - he was a stage master, absolutely. So I think he played a key role. He was certainly aided by a very capable team, but a key role nonetheless. Because of course, Scott writes these hints. So he gives these kind of instructions. And my impression of Scott is that he is a micro-manager. Certainly in the work I’ve done on his relationship with artists, he writes, “I want to be at their elbow when they work.” He would drive me mad as a colleague. But certainly, so he writes these hints. And one of the things that we know that he does is to do with getting the Highland chiefs down to Edinburgh, isn’t it?
And so he orchestrates this idea of the plaided panorama. And really, what he’s trying to do - it seems to me - is that all those Jacobite wounds that have never been formally salved, are then salved during the royal visit. Would you agree with that? I think so. I think so. Bringing the Highland chiefs, bringing the former Jacobites - some of them probably still have Jacobite sentiments - into Edinburgh mimics what happened very briefly during the ‘45 rising. And anybody with a decent grasp of history would have recognised that. But you’re right. He’s making it more palatable. He’s sanitising it. It’s a safe environment to celebrate that history, the king’s visit. So he’s re-appropriating, I think. And you’re quite right.
Scott is very preoccupied with reconciliation, if you read his novels. But what’s remarkable about the royal visit is how it’s to do with those wounds of Jacobitism becoming recast in this spectacle of loyalty to George IV. At one point, there’s all this rhetoric around this. And it says, he is the chief and we are the clan. The whole of Scotland becomes like a clan with George IV as the chief. And this is so ironic, if you think, just not that long ago before, there was virtual civil war.
Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) was a prodigious Scottish author, with works in verse and prose, who drew inspiration from the Jacobite campaigns for a number of his publications.
In August 1822, King George IV was the first reigning British monarch to visit Scotland in nearly two centuries.
Scott’s organisation of the visit included a tartan pageantry, and the presence of Highland chiefs had a lasting influence, elevating the tartan kilt to become part of Scotland’s national identity.
In the first of a series of short films, Viccy Coltman is in conversation with Kirsty Archer-Thompson, Curator at Scott’s home, Abbotsford House in the Scottish Borders, exploring Scott’s role in this royal visit and his interest in Jacobitism.
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