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Sir Walter Scott

Perth and Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott was born in the College Wynd, in Edinburgh, on August 15, 1771. His ancestry was mixed:
he was descended from the noble family of Buccleuch, the Border families of Scott and Murray, and the Celtic clans of Campbell and MacDougal. By profession his father was a lawyer, and in 1786 he entered his father’s legal office as an apprentice.

In the first year of his apprenticeship he rode a pony through Perth on his way to visit Stewart of Invernahyle, whose family had fought with the Jacobites in the 1715 and 1745 rebellions.

Doubtless recalling this journey, in the first chapter of the “Fair Maid of Perth,” Scott tells of the view of Perth and the valley of the Tay that bursts on the traveller “from a spot called the Wicks of Baiglie.”

Peter Baxter, Perth historian, recalls in his book, “Sir Walter Scott in Perth,” the dispute that arose in Perth after the publication of the “Fair Maid of Perth,” as to whether Perth could indeed be seen from the Wicks of Baiglie, near Dron. Apparently the matter was raised in the columns of the “Perthshire Courier” of those days, when the solution was put forward that “trusting to a memory of a visit paid many years previously, Scott had made a lapse as to geographical perspectives.

From the Cloven Crags (Craig Clowan), some four miles nearer Perth, the scene indicated by Scott does indeed burst upon the traveller. However, P. R. Drummond, in “Perthshire in Bygone Days,” says: “It is difficult to assert that Scott was wrong in saying he saw Perth from the Wicks of Baiglie merely because it cannot be seen from the old Edinburgh Road, which comes down the hollow of the valley. “Besides, the road which Scott came down in 1786 is called the ‘Wallace Road,’ and is considerably west of the old Edinburgh Road, the latter, in all likelihood, not being made then. If any man will take the trouble to travel down the Wallace Road, and immediately before debouching in Strathearn, diverge 200 yards to the left, as Scott did, he will see Perth before him! . . .“ We shall leave the argument at that.

In 1792 Scott qualified as an advocate, and in the next year he made a second journey through Perth, riding on a “powney”, a powerful animal, as it had need to be, for Scott was a big man. On this journey he passed through Doune, along the Teith, and thence through Dunblane to Perth, and on to Blairgowrie, a journey, we are told, that led to the novel, “Waverley.” He stayed briefly in Perth, but there is no record of where. It may have been the Salutation, which dates from 1699, or the Royal George, opened in 1766. On the other hand, an inn in the Watergate, behind the Windsor Restaurant, was afterwards known as the “Sir Walter Scott Tavern.”
At any rate, wherever may have been his place of lodging, from there Scott absorbed the impressions of the Fair City that are recorded so vividly in the “Fair Maid of Perth.”

A third journey to Perth followed in 1796. On this occasion Scott left Edinburgh with two ponies, and rode through Stirling and the Trossachs, by Callander, Crieff, and Comrie to Perth, and then on to Montrose and Aberdeen. Baxter quotes a letter from Miss Cranstoun: “To WaIter Scott, Esq., Post Office, Montrose: I bless the god for conducting your poor dear soul safely to Perth; When I consider the wilds, the forests, the lakes, the rocks, the spirits of the Trossachs . . . it amazeth me how you escaped.

The next year Scott married Charlotte Margaret Carpenter in St. Mary’s Church, Carlisle, and of this union there were four children, Sophie, Walter, Anne, and Charles.

In 1812 “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border” appeared, followed by “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” in 1805 and “The Lady of the Lake” and “Marmion” in 1808.
In 1812 Scott began building Abbotsford, and his first novel, “Waverley,” appeared in 1814, succeeded by “Guy Mannering,” “Old Mortality,” “Rob Roy,” “The Heart of Midlothian,” “Ivanhoe,” and others, so that the lawyer began to give way to the writer as Scott diligently applied himself to his writing.

In 1826, Constable and Co., publishers of Scott’s books, became insolvent, making the printing firm of Messrs. Ballantyne, of which Scott was a partner, liable for a sum in the region of £100,000. Scott regarded this as a debt of honour, and gallantly set about writing his way to solvency. In this same year his wife died.

“The Fair Maid of Perth” appeared in 1828. John Buchan’s comment on the book was: “Scott. . . repeoples the streets of Perth with folk who are anything but stage creations. He describes medieval Perth as he would have described 18th century Peebles.”

One cannot help fancying a special interest in “The Fair Maid of Perth” on the part of John Buchan, for, after all, was he himself not born in the Fair City, as the memorial plate in York Place testifies. A highlight of the book was the description of the terrible Battle of the Clans on the North Inch, from which this is a brief extract:

“For an instant or two the front lines, hewing at each other with their long swords, seemed engaged in a succession of single combats; but the second and third ranks soon came up on either side, pressed through the intervals, and rendered the scene a tumultous chaos, over which the huge swords rose and sunk, some still glittering, others streaming with blood, appearing, from the wild rapidity with which they were swayed, rather to be put in motion by some complicated machinery than to be wielded by human hands.

“Some of the combatants, too much crowded together to use those long weapons, had already betaken themselves to their poinards, and endeavoured to get within sword sweep of those opposed to them.

“In the meantime, blood flowed fast, and the groans of those who fell began to mingle with the cries of those who fought.

“The conflict swayed, indeed at different intervals, forwards or backwards. The wild notes of the pipers were still heard above the tumult, and stimulated to further exertions the fury of the combatants.”

“The Fair Maid of Perth” could be said to be the second last worthwhile novel that Scott wrote, the last being “Anne of Geierstein.”

On a golden autumn day, in 1832, at his beloved Abbotsford, Scott died, at the comparatively early age of 61, worn out by his struggle against adversity and ill-health. He had virtually completed by his hard work the task of clearing the debt that shadowed his last years!
In Perth a subscription list was opened to provide a memorial to Scott, a moving spirit being the Earl of Kinnoull, who chaired the meeting of the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society that first considered the matter. Scott was an honorary member of the society.

As a result, a life-size statue of Scott was erected at the foot of the High Street, the sculptor being Cochrane of Perth. John Young, a Perth architect of the day, says: “It showed a correct likeness, grace and ease of posture.” Later this statue was removed to its present position in the South Inch, facing King Street.
With the residue of the memorial money subscribed, Sir John Steel, R.S.M., was commissioned to fashion a handsome white marble bust depicting Scott in “middle years.” This bust has a panel on it showing Hal 0’ the Wynd supporting the Fair Maid of Perth, and written above: “Harry Smith, Armourer, 1396.” This bust today is located in the library of Perth Museum.

In addition to the statue and the bust, a street in the Fair City was named “Scott Street.”So Perth, the city that had so richly fired Scott’s imagination, remembered the great writer who had done so much by his writing to publicise it.

Of the Scott-Perth relationship, Thomas Hannan says: “Next to Border towns, surely Perth has most of the spirit of Scott in it, from the magnificent tale of “The Fair Maid of Perth.”

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