The Last Minstrel: Sir Walter Scott and the Highland Revival

But I hae dreamed a dreary dream,

Beyond the Isle of Skye;

I saw a dead man win a fight,

And I think that man was I.

In 1805, Walter Scott gave a correspondent this portrait of himself: You would expect to see a person who had dedicated himself much to literary pursuits, and you would find me a rattleskulled half-lawyer, half-sportsman, in whose head a regiment of horse has been exercising since he was five years old; half-educated—half crazy, as his friends sometimes tell him; half-everything.

He did not mention that he had been crippled with polio as a boy, which left him with a permanent limp and a vicarious taste for action and adventure (hence the cavalry-regiment fantasies). Or that he was raised an Episcopalian in a country that, despite the tidal waves of change in the eighteenth century, was still overwhelmingly loyal to its Presbyterian heritage. He also did not add what the correspondent probably knew anyway: that he was Britain’s most celebrated living poet. Within a decade he would be the best-known novelist in the world.

Sir Walter Scott (he became a baronet in 1820) single-handedly changed the course of literature. He gave it, for better or worse, the place it still occupies as part of modern life. By the same token, he gave Scotland a new identity, one to tide it over into the industrial age. His reward for these services has been to be consistently underrated and downplayed, both as a writer and as an intellectual. Virginia Woolf once said, not entirely disrespectfully, “he was the last minstrel and the first salesman for the Edinburgh municipal gas company.” Edwin Muir called his novels “a mere repetition of the moral clichés of the time.”

Both judgments do him a disservice. Sir Walter Scott knew better than his critics what he was really doing. He also saw more clearly than most of his contemporaries that the Scotland of even recent memory was passing into oblivion, and that the loss was not just a matter of regret. It was a cultural tragedy, both for the Scots and for the modern world. Scott salvaged what he could from the incoming tide of progress, without vainly trying to hold the waters back. He offered modernity its self-conscious antidote: a world of heroic imagination, to balance the world of sober, and sometimes dismal, fact.


The Scotts came from a Border family that had emigrated to Edinburgh in the early eighteenth century. Walter Scott, Sr., was a hardworking, if not particularly distinguished, writer to the Signet. It was assumed that his son, despite his early bout with polio, would do the same. The younger Scott did nothing to suggest he had other plans. He was in fact a rather unpromising student in Luke Fraser’s class at Edinburgh’s High School, certainly compared to the brilliant lights who came just before and after him, Francis Jeffrey and Henry Brougham. He tried writing some poetry, but the result did not prompt him or anyone else to suggest he give up studying law when he got to the university in 1784.

There Scott took classes with Dugald Stewart on moral philosophy and with David Hume, the philosopher’s nephew, on Scottish law. He absorbed the assumptions and methods of the Scottish school; he became friends with Adam Ferguson’s son, and was suitably awed by the august presence of Principal William Robertson. He even became friends with the future editors of the Edinburgh Review. But Scott also found himself drawn to what was happening outside the university.

After class he haunted Edinburgh’s famed lending library, which Allan Ramsay had founded sixty years before. There he saw, and later met, the current darling of Edinburgh literary circles, Robert Burns. He had read English novelists such as Fielding and Samuel Richardson, and their Scottish counterparts Tobias Smollett and Henry Mackenzie. But the authors who impressed him most were Ramsay, John Home, and Robert Fergusson, who were trying to save what they could of Scotland’s history and folkways, including its Gaelic and Scots heritage, before it washed away in the flood of cultural change.

Two celebrated figures illustrated the rewards and pitfalls this involved. Raised as a farmhand, virtually self-taught, Robert Burns arrived in Edinburgh in 1787 with a reputation as a boy genius. His literary mentors had encouraged him to write verse in the standard high-brow classical vein, which Burns could do perfectly well. But he sensed that his true talent lay in turning the everyday speech, songs, and stories of the people he had grown up with into poetry, and communicating to readers the latent power, eloquence, and nobility of the ordinary man and woman. It made Burns Scotland’s most beloved poet, even today. But it disappointed his mentors, sank his career, and eventually drove him out of Edinburgh. His failure also drove him to drink, cutting short his life at thirty-seven.

The tragic case of Robert Burns served as one kind of warning; James Macpherson and Ossian were another.

In 1759, John Home, the celebrated dramatist and Moderate cleric, was vacationing at Moffat in southern Scotland when he received a visitor. This was James Macpherson, a would-be clergyman from Ruthven, who knew Home had a deep interest in ancient Scottish history and culture. Both men were also admirers of James Thomson, the founder of the British school of nature poetry, who had also translated old Scottish songs and ballads into English verse. Now Macpherson excitedly told Home that during one of his rambles across the Highlands, he had discovered a manuscript with several examples of ancient Gaelic poetry. Home wanted to see them. Macpherson asked if he could read Gaelic. Home said no, but suggested that Macpherson do a translation of one of the poems and bring it by for examination.

A day or two later Macpherson returned with an excerpt of a poem by the legendary ancient bard Ossian, called “The Death of Oscar.” Home was astounded. Like most of his Edinburgh literati friends, Home had found most Gaelic literary remains to be pretty crude and pitiful, for all their historical interest. But this was eloquent, sweeping, breathtaking. It was a tale of epic heroes and romantic maidens, of battlefield valor and lost love, of spirits on the wind and haunting mountain scenery. It contained passages of genuine literary power: “Dermid and Oscar were gone. They reaped the battle together. Their friendship was as strong as their steel; and death walked between them and the field.”

Clearly, Macpherson had discovered not just another Gaelic songster, but the Scottish equivalent of Homer. Back in Edinburgh, Home showed the poem to Hugh Blair, the dean of Scottish letters and doyen of good taste. Blair was equally impressed, and insisted that Macpherson show him the rest. Within the year, with Blair’s help, Macpherson had published a collection of translations of Ossian, titled Fragments of Ancient Poetry. Blair praised the works fulsomely as “poetry of the heart.” Although they were written in a barbarous age, and for a savage people, Blair exclaimed, they showed “a heart penetrated with noble sentiment, and with sublime and tender passions, a heart that glows, and kindles the fancy, a heart that is full, and pours itself out.” Of one passage where Ossian’s hero, Fingal, is wounded, and, as the poem says, “he rolled into himself, and rose upon the wind,” Blair exclaimed, “I know no passage more sublime in the writings of any uninspired author”—meaning outside the Bible.

The book was an overnight sensation. In one fell swoop, Ossian had shattered Enlightenment literary orthodoxy, which assumed a primitive people could not produce great art. On the contrary, as Hugh Blair said, it was evident that “as their feelings are strong, so their language, of itself, assumes a poetical turn.” Here was revealed, through the poetic art, “the history of human imagination and passion.” Macpherson had opened up a whole new field for research, that of Gaelic prosody, and became a national celebrity. He also hinted to his mentors that there was more to come.

Things might have turned out better if Macpherson had stopped with that first volume. But he insisted on finding and “translating” more and longer selections, finishing up with Temora: An Ancient Epic Poem in eight books, which he published in 1763. By then critics were wondering aloud if he was not in fact making the whole thing up as he went along. The battle over Ossian’s authenticity grew to an incessant clamor; thirty years later the young Walter Scott was still writing an essay for Dugald Stewart on it. On one side stood Macpherson, Blair, and those who insisted that the poems were genuine and the Gaelic equivalent of the Iliad or Odyssey, true masterpieces of primitive genius. But the very fact that the poems were so carefully crafted made critics such as Horace Walpole, David Hume, and Dr. Johnson suspicious. Others, such as Thomas Gray and Edward Gibbon, wavered back and forth.

Walpole found the poems dull—“it tires me to death to read how many ways a warrior is like the moon, or the sun, or a rock, or a lion”— and pronounced them a “fraud.” Hume’s objections were sociological: “it is indeed strange,” he wrote to Gibbon, “that any men of sense could have imagined it possible that above twenty thousand verses, along with numberless historical facts, could have been preserved by oral tradition, during fifty generations, by the rudest perhaps of all the European nations, the most necessitous, the most turbulent, and the most unsettled”—namely, the Highland Scots.

Dr. Johnson, sensibly enough, wanted to know where the originals were, and why Macpherson always promised to produce them, but never did. When he and Boswell did their tour of the Hebrides in 1773, they brought along their copies of Ossian to compare with what the local natives could remember of the Gaelic tales. Sometimes the verses checked out; often they did not. Johnson pronounced them clever forgeries, and Macpherson furiously responded, even threatening to beat the older man up.

There matters stood until 1805, when the Highland Society of Edinburgh undertook a full investigation of Macpherson’s papers after his death. Their research showed that the critics had been correct. Macpherson had used some genuine Gaelic fragments in his text, but the bulk, including the poem’s elaborate subplots, were his own invention. From that point on, “Ossian” became synonymous with literary hoax.

But, having lost the battle, Macpherson also won the war. In the end, as Hume observed, people believe what they want to believe—and they wanted to believe in Ossian. The image of an aging, bearded bard crouched on a mountaintop composing tales of vanished heroes, gods, and maidens stirred the eighteenth-century imagination. The Ossian poems were translated into every major European language, including Russian and Hungarian. They launched European romanticism in its earliest phase. They seemed to confirm Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea that people in primitive cultures are nobler, purer, and more creative than their counterparts in more “advanced” cultures—an idea that survives in the multiculturalist passions of our own day.

The best of Macpherson’s efforts, Fingal, would inspire poets as diverse as Lord Byron, Robert Burns (who said Ossian was “one of the glorious models after which I endeavor to form my conduct”), William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Tennyson, and Goethe. The German philosopher J. G. Herder and the French poet Chateaubriand took the Ossian poems as models of what a great national literature should look like. Fingal was Napoleon’s favorite reading; he even commissioned the painter Jean-Auguste Ingres to decorate his palace at Malmaison with scenes from the poems. Macpherson himself was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1796, not far from the tomb of his most famous opponent, Samuel Johnson.

Macpherson had also triggered a vogue for all things old and medieval, both on the Continent and in Britain. People became fascinated by long-forgotten chivalric poetry and epics, which correct taste had once denounced as barbaric and “Gothick,” and by Celtic folk culture. The hunt was on for other ancient poems, songs, and ballads, and one of the hunters was Walter Scott. He knew Macpherson’s work was largely a “tissue of forgeries,” but he also knew that a rich oral tradition really did survive in rural Scotland, much of it very old. He had encountered some of it firsthand at his father’s house, when elderly Highland clients visited, some of whom had fought at Culloden, and could recite stories about the battle and other great deeds of warriors and chiefs.

In 1792, as he was waiting to enter the Bar, Scott made a walking tour of the Border country: Rosebank, Upper Tyneside, and the Cheviot and Eildon Hills, with Ettrick Forest behind them. This was his ancestral home, a vista of rolling hills, forests, and ruined abbeys, a beautiful but violent land that had known centuries of battles and “rieving wars” between Lowlanders and English, and among Lowland clans such as the Douglasses, the Maxwells, and the Homes. With the help of a friend, Scott heard and wrote down a number of the ancient “riding ballads,” which celebrated the exploits of the daring raiders and brigands who had haunted the hills a century or more ago, and which were still known to their descendants. The next year he toured Perthshire and the eastern Highlands, returning several times over the next decade to the Border country to collect more ballads. In 1799 he was made deputy sheriff27 of Selkirkshire, which allowed him to expand his search. Finally he decided to approach an Edinburgh publisher, John Ballantyne, with an idea: “I have been for years collecting old Border Ballads, and I think I could, with little trouble, put together such a collection from them as might make a neat little volume, to sell for four or five shillings.”

The “neat little volume” appeared in February of 1802. Scott was immediately swamped with praise. He had managed to do honestly what Macpherson had done dishonestly: collect surviving specimens of an oral tradition—in Border dialect, not Gaelic—sift through the variants, and set it all down on paper. What it revealed was a literary heritage even more impressive than Ossian’s, since it was genuine—a lusty celebration of long-lost battles and fighting men:

Now Liddesdale has ridden a raid,

But I wat they had better hae staid at home;

For Michael o’Winfield he is dead,

And Jock o’ the Side is prisoner ta’en.

The ballads offered a sense of dramatic pathos:

For Mangerton House Lady Downie has gane,

Her coats she has kilted up to her knee;

And down the water w’speed she rins,

While tears in spaits fa fast frae her ee.

There was sardonic and stoic humor, as in Johnny Armstrong’s farewell before his execution for murder, or “Armstrong’s Good Night”:

This night is my departing night;

For here nae longer must I stay;

There’s neither friend nor foe o’ mine,

But wishes me away.

What I have done thro’ lack of wit,

I never, never can recall,

I hope ye’re a my friends as yet,

Goodnight and joy be with you all!

And passages of haunting beauty:

Adieu, the lily and the rose,

The primrose fair to see;

Adieu, my lady, and only joy!

For I may not stay with thee.

Scott had opened up a new world, in which ordinary men and women spoke with an eloquence preserved over generations. It was a voice that even men of letters had to acknowledge was genuine poetry: a Scots voice he recorded accent for accent, word for word, both in his poems and later in his novels. Scottish Border Minstrelsy sold out in England as well as Scotland, with translations into German (the brothers Grimm, fellow collectors of oral tradition, held it in high regard), Swedish, and Danish. An American edition made him famous across the Atlantic, and inspired collectors of American folk culture such as Washington Irving.

Scott published a second volume in 1803, and then a third—but this time of his own work, in acknowledged imitation of the archaic style of Scottish tradition. The Lay of the Last Minstrel did Ossian one better: it created a modern, poetic, anticlassical idiom based on medieval forms, as Macpherson had tried to do, but with a stronger sense of historical context:

Moor, moor the barge, ye gallant crew!

And gentle ladye, deign to stay!

Rest thee in Castle Ravensheuch,

Nor tempt the stormy firth today.

The blackened wave is edged with white;

To inch and rock the sea-mews fly;

The fishers have heard the Water-Sprite,

Whose screams forebode that wreck is nigh.

Although they were fiction, everything about the poems rang true: the language; the setting, thanks to Scott’s painstaking research in old history and law books; and the love stories, which, although set in medieval garb, appealed to modern men and women.

The Lay of the Last Minstrel launched Scott’s writing career and filled a temporary void in literary taste. Burns was dead. The Lake Poets were still largely unknown; Byron’s first published work was a year away. So Scott became Britain’s reigning poet and a Scottish national hero. He avoided alienating the official literary establishment as Burns had done; he was also honest about what he was trying to do, which Macpherson had not been. By combining Ossian and the Romantic school’s taste for drama, strong emotions, and breathtaking scenery, and the Scottish school’s hardheaded sense of historical truth, Scott had struck on a formula for literary success.

He created for his readers a magical realm of the imagination. Here was a vanished time and place, of romantic heroes in chain mail, of blushing heroines, ruthless villains, and mysterious sages, along with genuine historical events and battles, all described accurately to the last detail—and all set in a real Scottish landscape, from the Lowlands and Borders (in Marmion) to the Highlands (in Lady of the Lake and Lord of the Isles). Through the success of his works, Scott single-handedly created a new industry, that of Highland tourism. Each summer, post coaches, inns, and ferry points were filled with men and women on their way to visit Loch Katrine, the setting for Lady of the Lake, or tramp the Trossachs, or find some new glen or vista that reminded them of their favorite passage from Rokeby or The Bridal of Triermain.

Lady of the Lake sold twenty thousand copies, plus two thousand copies of the deluxe edition. When his epic poem, Marmion, was finished, publisher Archibald Constable offered him one thousand guineas for it, sight unseen. Constable was also publisher of the Edinburgh Review, to which Scott submitted articles. Scott and editor Francis Jeffrey had been friends since High School, despite their political differences. For while Jeffrey was a dedicated Whig, even a radical one, Britain’s best-selling author was a Tory and a fierce enemy of reform and revolution.

What drew educated Scotsmen such as Scott to the conservative Tory camp rather than to the liberal Whigs? Not all were benighted reactionaries or Dundas place-seekers, despite what Whigs claimed. Under William Pitt, the Tories had supported a cause dear to the hearts of many Scottish Presbyterians, antislavery—that was the issue, for instance, that drew Thomas Macaulay’s father to their ranks. Tories were also the party of patriots. The Whigs in Parliament had opposed war against France, and had even gone on strike to undermine it. But the Tories had been forthright “hawks” from the start, promising no peace with a regime built on terror, regicide, and conquest. Their Great Britain was now the last bulwark of Europe’s freedom.

The wars against the French Revolution and then Napoleon struck a strong nerve in Scotland. The old, middle-class Scottish commitment to the British Union had discovered a new outlet. Its visible expression was Edinburgh’s National Monument dedicated to Scotland’s war dead, which William Playfair got under way on Calton Hill after a public subscription raised 24,000 pounds for it. In the end it proved too ambitious, even for Playfair. But its twelve unadorned Doric columns standing stark against the Edinburgh sky make it seem a more fitting monument today than if it had been finished—and fitting also as the culmination of Edinburgh’s neoclassical age.

Gripped by patriotic fever, everyone joined the militia. Parliament had finally relented and permitted volunteer militia regiments to be raised in Scotland. Adam Ferguson’s dream of forty years earlier was finally realized, and Edinburgh’s middle-class intellectuals signed up with enthusiasm. “We were all soldiers,” Henry Cockburn remembered of the uncertain days in 1803, when Napoleon threatened Britain with invasion, and Whigs and Tories joined forces to defend the island. Cockburn himself ended up commanding a company of infantry. Henry Brougham joined the artillery and served the same cannon as William Playfair. Francis Horner enlisted in the so-called Gentleman Regiment as a private, and could be seen prowling the Edinburgh streets with his musket. Walter Scott, with his boyhood fantasies about “a regiment of horse,” gravitated to the cavalry.

Despite his physical handicap, he proved a keen and skillful officer, and became quartermaster of his regiment. Cockburn recalled, “It was with him an absolute passion. . . . He drilled, and drank, and made songs, with a hearty conscientious earnestness which inspired or shamed everybody within the attraction.” Scott took his mounted saber practice with deadly seriousness, galloping at the target and swinging his sword with a shout of, “Cut them down, the villains, cut them down!” as if he were really doing battle with a French cuirassier.

Patriotism fired his view of Scottish politics, as well. As with many middle-class Scots, the outbreaks of popular unrest in the 1790s, in both Scotland and England, terrified him. He saw their blue-collar instigators as traitors, and grimly supported the government’s harsh repression as the Black Watch patrolled Ayrshire and the approaches to Kilmarnock. Scott hated revolution as much as he loved his country, and for the same reason. For all his genuine sympathy with ordinary people, violence and attacks on the principle of property left Walter Scott cold. And so he, like the rest of urban Scotland, did nothing to stop the ugly episode that would scar the nation for the next fifty years: the Highland Clearances.


The Clearances are the saddest chapter in Scottish history. So many misconceptions surround the terrible “clearing,” or eviction of tens of thousands of Highland residents from their ancestral lands by their landlords, that it is worth taking time to get the story straight.

The most outrageous misconception is the charge that somehow the English were really to blame. In fact, the principal instigators of these mass evictions were the Highland chieftains themselves, and their Scottish farm managers or “factors.” In fact, some of the aristocrats who were most sentimentally attached to the traditions of Highland culture, such as the Chisholms of Strathglass and Alistair MacDonnell of Glengarry, were the most remorseless evictors. In their minds, they had little choice. Faced by an increasingly competitive agricultural market, and the need to liquidate enormous debts (Glengarry’s alone amounted to more than eighty thousand pounds, with yearly rents of less than six thousand pounds), chieftains looked for ways to make the land pay. This meant rewarding farmers who could afford higher rents, for example, or specialists in cost-effective agriculture, such as sheep and cattle farming.

Adam Smith’s division of labor had finally arrived in the Highlands. When it did, it swept aside everything in its path. It spelled the end of the traditional Highland village community, the baile, with its complex and unspoken web of rights, powers, and obligations sheltering in the glen. When the chief began to think in terms of profit and “improvement,” rather than rewarding generations of loyalty and service, the old way of life, fragile even in the best of times, was doomed.

Nor were the Clearances the result of the defeat at Culloden. Almost fifty years lapsed before the first forced clearings of villages and farms got under way, to open the land up for grazing. Landlords were responding to economic rather than political pressures. However, what the Forty-five did do was sever the formal bond of service between landlord and tenant. Duncan Forbes had hoped this would free the tenant’s hands to acquire and work the land for himself. It did just the opposite, in that it freed the hands of the chieftain to treat his people as temporary tenants, who could remain on his land if they could afford it—but would have to go if they could not.

The same thing had happened in the Lowlands in the early eighteenth century. There, however, the land was more fertile, the opportunities for alternate employment more numerous, and the culture not as self-limiting. This was the other key: the Highland chiefs abandoned the old ways, because it profited them to belong to the modern world. Their followers did not, because they could not. So they ended up paying the price of progress.

The price, in human terms, was terrible. On the Isle of Skye, more than forty thousand people received writs of removal; in some places, one family was left where there had been a hundred. On the lands of the Countess of Sutherland and her husband, Lord Stafford, old men in the 1880s could still remember the names of forty-eight cleared villages in the parish of Assynt alone. When people refused to leave, the more ruthless factors burned them out. “Our family was very reluctant to leave,” Betsy McKay, who had lived in Skail in the valley of Strathnaver, remembered years later, “and stayed for some time, but the burning party came round and set fire to our house at both ends, reducing to ashes whatever remained within the walls.” Another eyewitness, Donald McLean, remembered pulling one old lady out of her house at Strathnaver after it had been fired. The woman was paralyzed with fear, “uttering piercing moans of distress and agony, in articulations from which could be only understood, ‘Oh, Dhia, Dhia, teine, teine —Oh, God, God, fire, fire.’ ” Between 1807 and 1821, between six thousand and ten thousand people were forcibly herded off the Sutherland lands, to make way for sheep farms. “For some days after the people were turned out one could scarcely hear a word with the lowing of the cattle and the screams of the children marching off in all directions.”

The Sutherlands, like most landlords, did not actually want to drive their tenants away. They intended to settle them along the coast in crofting villages, hoping that tenants displaced by sheep could make a living fishing or gathering kelp—and continue to pay their rents. At one point, more than 25,000 people worked in the Hebrides cutting, gathering, and drying seaweed to sell to fertilizer manufacturers. But the crofts were too small (on Skye they averaged less than one-half acre) to allow most families to feed themselves. No one wanted to confront the real problem, which was that there were more human beings in the Western Highlands than the land could support, clearances or no clearances. Communities became dangerously dependent on the potato to support them, since an acre of potatoes could feed four times as many mouths as an acre of wheat or oats. The hills of Wester Ross and Sutherland were soon thick with row upon row of potato plants. It was a disaster waiting to happen—and in 1846, it did. If the Clearances had not already forced thousands to emigrate to America, the Scottish potato blight might have been as catastrophic as the Great Famine in Ireland.

The Clearances also affected different parts of the Highlands in different ways. In the south and east, in Argyll, Perthshire, and east of Inverness, it probably raised the standard of living for those who remained, as a mixed economy based on sheep, cattle, wheat, barley (with a portion for whisky distilling), fishing, and linen weaving took root. In the West, and on islands such as Skye and Mull, where the land was poor to begin with, the alternatives were bleak. Many had to choose between emigration and starvation. In the first three years of the nineteenth century, more than ten thousand people left for Nova Scotia and Canada; by the 1820s it was twenty thousand a year, most from the Western Highlands, Ross-shire, and Sutherland. In 1831 the population of Kildonan parish was one-fifth of what it had been in 1801.

Nor is it true, as some charge, that the Scottish upper classes uniformly approved of what was happening. Some pretended it was all part of the continuing advance of “civilization” over uncomprehending ignorant savages. But others spoke out. While most Scottish journals and periodicals, including the Edinburgh Review, ignored the Clearances, Robert Bisset Scott’s Military Register became an unexpected voice against “improving” landlords and chieftains. Edited for and by former British army officers, the Register knew that many Highland soldiers, after risking their lives for the empire in Spain and India, had come back to find their homes gone and their families dispersed. The Military Register published full accounts of the atrocities in Sutherland and even helped to get an indictment against the man responsible (he was later acquitted).

Another soldier, David Stewart of Garth, was also landlord and chieftain of more than eight miles of territory between the rivers Lyon and Trummel. His father, although an ardent supporter of Union, had been a chieftain in the old style:

Hospitality’s prince,

To guests and relatives kind,

Good chieftain of tenants,

Who frowns not when rent is behind.

The son and heir made a career for himself in the 82nd Highlanders, serving in nearly every campaign of the Napoleonic Wars. When his commanding officer asked him to put together a chronicle of the origin of the Army’s Highland regiments, David Stewart used it as a vehicle to write a detailed history of the people and communities he had grown up with and loved. His Sketches of the Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders in Scotland appeared in March 1822. It was the first sympathetic nonfictional account of that part of Scotland that most people, including many Scots, had ever read. It surveyed the customs and traditions of the Highland clans, and gave a map of their territories. It also bitterly attacked the impact of the Clearances: “It can never be for the well-being of any state to deteriorate the character of or to extirpate a brave, loyal, and moral people, its best supporters in war, and the most orderly, contented and economical in peace.”

David Stewart, like most opponents of clearance, may have not have realized that no one could stop it. It was rooted in an economic reality, and social forces, beyond anyone’s control. But he did grasp the costs involved, both in human and cultural terms. The end result, he warned, would be “to root out the language of the country, together with a great proportion of the people who speak it.” This, ironically, at the very time when the rest of the country was celebrating and honoring that heritage, thanks to his friend Sir Walter Scott.

Walter Scott did not ignore the Clearances, nor did he support them. He saw the necessity of them, but also wrote, “In too many instances the Highlands have been drained, not of their superfluity of population, but the whole mass of the inhabitants, dispossessed by an unrelenting avarice. . . .” But he also felt that there was nothing that he, even as Scotland’s leading spokesman, could do to prevent the day coming when “the pibroch may sound through the deserted region, but the summons will remain unanswered.”

Scott also had other priorities he had to balance. And although his name was and is synonymous with the Highlands, Scott himself was interested in preserving all aspects of Scotland’s history and culture, including that of his own beloved Borders. What was happening in Sutherland and the Western Isles was, in his mind, only one instance of how the onslaught of the new Scotland was sweeping aside the legacy of its past. He was determined to fight the battles he could win, and with the weapons he had at hand.

A break with his friends at the Edinburgh Review gave him unexpected room to maneuver. In 1808 he published Marmion, his third epic set in medieval Scotland. More than 2,000 copies sold in less than two months. Four years later, sales had surpassed 28,000—unheard of for a narrative poem. But Francis Jeffrey’s forbearance had run out. He panned Marmion in the Review: “To write a modern romance of chivalry, seems as much a phantasy as to build a modern abbey or an English pagoda.” Although they remained friends, Scott stopped writing for Jeffrey. Then, when Henry Brougham published an incendiary political piece that seemed to support the idea of violent revolution, Scott broke off relations altogther. He dropped Constable as his publisher and joined forces with other Scottish Tories in creating a conservative alternative to the Edinburgh Review, the Quarterly Review.

Scott now found himself at the head of an ideological coterie, a group of conservative writers and poets who turned the Quarterly Review and then Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, founded in 1817, into witty, intelligent counterweights to Jeffrey, Horner, and Brougham. They wanted to “dust the jackets of the Whigs,” as the Quarterly’s first editor, William Gifford, put it, and so they did. Gifford, Scott, John Croker, and John Lockhart, who later edited the Quarterly and was Scott’s son-in-law and biographer, became major alternative voices in the British literary scene. They were joined by a leader in the English Romantic movement, Robert Southey, and Blackwood’s John Wilson and James Hogg, a former shepherd and self-taught poet whom Scott had met while collecting ballads in Ettrick. Unlike their Edinburgh Review rivals, most were not interested in politics in the conventional sense. They wanted to offer to their audience a new way of seeing the world, which was actually an old way: through the lens of custom and a reverence for the past, including the vanishing folkways of rural Scotland.

They mocked the buoyant liberalism of Brougham and Dugald Stewart and its “scientific” pretensions, just as they mocked its belief in political progress. Instead, as part of their new way of seeing, they looked back with a renewed respect at the ancient Highland loyalty to the house of Stuart and Prince Charles. More than half a century had passed since the bloodshed and sordid horrors of Culloden. The story began to take on a warm, attractive glow as a Highland romantic epic of heroism and villainy, of intrigue and bravery, complete with comely maidens such as Flora MacDonald and handsome heroes such as Bonnie Prince Charlie himself.

The result was a burgeoning neo-Jacobitism, the original romantic Lost Cause. The ongoing interest in folk culture and oral tradition helped to feed and sustain it, especially after the publication of James Hogg’s Collection of Jacobite Songs. It swept up Robert Burns, who declared himself a Jacobite, although he came from traditionally pro-Hanoverian Ayrshire. He even wrote “Charlie He’s My Darling” and “The White Cockade” as battle songs for the long-dead cause. Another poet, Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne, did the same with “Will Ye No’ Come back Again,” which became so popularly identified with the Forty-five that people conveniently forgot it was composed more than half a century later.

These reactionary neo-Jacobites were hankering after a vanished world of strong men and women ( Flora MacDonald became a posthumous Scottish national heroine), of emotional loyalties rather than economic calculation, of heroic self-sacrifice rather than rational self-interest. The events of 1745 were turned into a parable, as they still are to some people, of the doomed struggle of traditional values against a soulless modernity. Scott himself was not immune to this nostalgic appeal. “I am a bit of a Cavalier,” he wrote in 1800, “not to say a Jacobite.” But he was too much the student of history, and of Dugald Stewart, to accept the rosy myth of Bonnie Prince Charlie without reservations. The Jacobites mattered more to him as an important chapter in Scotland’s history than as a weapon for scoring political hits in the present.

Modernity’s smug contempt for the past infuriated him. It was what he most disliked about Presbyterianism, after John Knox and his followers had blithely destroyed ancient churches and monasteries, and blotted out ageless popular customs and reverence for the monarchy. The Edinburgh Review crowd did not seem to him all that different. Scott had launched himself on a one-man campaign to reverse that legacy of hostility, or at least indifference, toward Scotland’s past. His narrative poems had been one aspect of this. He also built a house at Abbotsford in his beloved Border country, as a kind of museum of Scottish history, preserving and displaying relics such as the Earl of Montrose’s sword, Rob Roy’s long-barreled gun, and suits of armor and antique crossbows—each object conjuring up for his visitors a vanished time and place, and the people who had inhabited it. He even chose the spot because it stood near the site of a medieval clan battle.

Then, one day in the autumn of 1813, while rummaging through the drawers in an old cupboard, Scott came across a relic of his own past. It was the half-finished manuscript of a novel he had started years before, based on the Forty-five and the stories he had heard about it as a boy. As he thumbed through it, it occurred to him that this might be another way to inspire a broad audience to appreciate Scottish history: through prose fiction. He had already decided it was time to move on from poetry: Lord Byron had published Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage the previous year, and proved that he could execute narrative historical poems even better than Scott could. So Scott brought the pages downstairs to his study. He sent a portion to his publisher, John Ballantyne, and by the time he was back in Edinburgh in January 1814, he had finished the whole first section, with a provisional title: Waverley: ’Tis Fifty Years Since.

Those who have never read it may be surprised to learn that the novel’s main character, Waverley, is not a Scot at all but an Englishman, an officer in the British army who is garrisoned in Scotland on the eve of Prince Charles’s landing. Waverley meets a Highland chief, Fergus MacIvor, and his sister Flora, and, inspired by their courage and passion for the prince’s cause, becomes a Jacobite himself. It is a story of divided loyalties and clashing cultures, of a man torn between his love for a noble but doomed cause, symbolized by the beautiful Flora, and his own sense of duty. Readers, including his publisher, were blown away by it. When it appeared in July 1814, it outsold all of Scott’s previous works—and created a whole new literary genre, the historical novel.

Even the Edinburgh Review was captivated. It wrote of the “surprise that is excited by discovering, that in our country, and almost in our own age, manners and characteristics existed, and were conspicuous, which we had been accustomed to consider as belonging to remote antiquity or extravagant romance.” Of course, the people who were, even that summer, being expelled from their homes in Sutherland and Ross might have told the reviewer that. But no one in 1814 was listening to them. Scott, almost by accident, had become their voice, however indirectly and imperfectly. Through the Highland shepherds, crofters, and fishermen he put into his novels (which, all critics agree, are Scott’s best literary characters), the voice of rural Scotland reached a wider audience than anyone could have imagined.

Scott followed Waverley with Guy Mannering, then Old Mortality and Rob Roy. The books poured off his desk at an astonishing rate. They were the capstone of those years that Lord Byron, not without some jealousy, called “the reign of Scott.” The novels made him the best-paid author in Britain; by now he was earning close to ten thousand pounds a year in royalties and advances. They also created a mass market for novels and novelists on which every one of his English successors could capitalize: Jane Austen (whom Scott admired and championed), Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and all the other great names of nineteenth-century literature on the Continent as well: Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, and Tolstoy. The historical novel became a distinct art form, a way of making the past come alive through an intriguing blend of imaginative fantasy and meticulous fidelity to historical truth—a form that has proved more successful with modern readers than history itself. Tolstoy could never have conceived a work such as War and Peace without Scott’s example, or Hugo a work such as Les Miserables; other historical fiction writers, from Balzac and Alexandre Dumas to Bulwer-Lytton (The Last Days of Pompeii), Lew Wallace (Ben-Hur), and Jules Verne, owed Scott a similar debt—not to mention the best of all his Scottish successors, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Scott had not only invented the modern historical novel, but one of its enduring themes: the idea of cultural conflict. He revealed to his readers that the development of “civilization” or modernity does not leave clean or neat breaks; one stage does not effortlessly pass on to the next. They overlap and clash, and individuals get caught in the gap. Waverley and the heroes in Ivanhoe and Redgauntlet find themselves culturally at odds with their world, and even with their own identities. His novels, whether they are set in the Highlands, in medieval England, or in Palestine, reveal history as a series of “culture wars”: Frank versus Saracen (in The Talisman), Jew versus Christian (in Ivanhoe ), Norman versus Saxon, Scotsman versus Englishman, Lowlander versus Highlander, Presbyterian versus Episcopalian.

And which side is superior, and which deserves to lose, is never fully resolved. Scott detested the old-style Scottish Calvinism—but in a novel such as Old Mortality, he treated it sympathetically and left no trace of his own feelings. Virginia Woolf remarked of Scott’s novels, “part of their astonishing freshness, their perennial vitality, is that you may read them over and over again, and never know for certain what Scott himself was or what Scott himself thought.” Scott the novelist introduced a key ingredient of the modern consciousness, a sense of historical detachment—something that Macaulay (who was a great admirer of Scott) and other historians of the early Victorian age still lacked.

Part of that detachment arose from an insight Scott shared with David Hume and the rest of the Scottish Enlightenment: that the modern world generates opposing tensions, which cannot be resolved without destroying the whole. Scott was aware of such divisions in himself—between the romantic poet and the historical scholar, between the lover of nature and the student of science, between the sentimental Jacobite and the hardheaded lawyer, between the staunch Tory and the admirer of progress (he was the first person in Edinburgh to install gas lighting in his house). And he was aware of the same split in Scottish culture. “The Scottish mind was made up of poetry and strong common sense,” he wrote to a friend, “and the very strength of the latter gave perpetuity and luxuriance to the former.” The credit for defining the artist as a person who can hold two inconsistent ideas at once goes to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The credit for realizing that that is precisely what all modern men can do—indeed, must be able to do— belongs to Sir Walter Scott.


The Waverley novels thrust Scott onto the public stage (although they were published pseudonymously, everyone knew who wrote them). He became friends with the mighty and great in London and at Whitehall. Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, he traveled to Paris to meet his hero, the Duke of Wellington, as well as the Russian Tsar. He also became friends with the Prince of Wales, soon to be George IV. The prince had already offered him the post of Poet Laureate, which Scott declined—the idea of having to compose a poem every year to celebrate the king’s birthday, or for other state occasions, was too much even for this staunch Tory. But in 1815 they finally met in London.

The Prince of Wales was fat, lazy, lecherous, vain, and inconsiderate. He was a drunkard who practically lived on cherry brandy. He had abandoned his wife and betrayed his old political allies, the Whigs. But he was also a cultured and intelligent man, who had read Ossian and knew Waverley almost by heart. The prince’s admiration for his work, and his undeniable charm, won Scott over. In turn, Scott began to impress on the man who would soon be king the idea that his mission should be to restore to Britain its rich historical legacy, including the legacy of Scotland. He could be the new Bonnie Prince Charlie, Scott explained, a romantic monarch for a modern empire.

One place to start was to recover the lost regalia of the Scottish monarchy: the Sword, Sceptre, and Crown. They had been stored away in Edinburgh Castle after 1707 and then forgotten. The Prince gave Scott permission to enter the castle to conduct the search. After a long and dramatic hunt through the dark cellars, corridors, and storerooms of the old fortress, which drew enormous public interest and crowds, they were finally found in a dilapidated chest. To Scott, they were the sacred symbols of Scottish nationhood. When one of his assistants jocularly offered to place the crown on the head of a nearby young lady, Scott shouted, “By God, no!” and snatched it away. The recovery of the Scottish regalia earned Scott his baronetcy, and prepared the way for the next step in restoring Scotland’s vanished glory.

It is not true, as is sometimes claimed, that the King’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822 was Scott’s idea. The Prince of Wales, now George IV, had been planning a tour of his British dominions for years, and following his state visit to Ireland, Scotland was the next stop. When he announced his plans to Edinburgh’s Lord Provost, the Provost turned to Scott, now Sir Walter Scott, for help. Scott, in turn, called on David Stewart of Garth, the sharp-tongued soldier and critic of the Sutherland clearances, for ideas on how to stage the ceremonies to accompany the royal visit. In the end, it was Stewart as much as Scott who devised the pageantry for “the king’s jaunt” that August, pageantry that changed irrevocably the relationship between England and Scotland, and capped the Highland cultural revival—even as that culture was vanishing forever.

The King made his view of the visit clear when he said, “I dislike seeing anything in Scotland that is not purely national and characteristic.” For an enthusiastic reader of Waverley and Rob Roy, that meant Highland attire and display, with kilts, bonnets, tartans, bagpipes, and Gaelic battle songs, so those were what Walter Scott and David Stewart decided to provide. Of course, the King had never seen actual Highland dress, except on soldiers in the Black Watch or other Scottish regiments. They wore the shorter version of the kilt, the philabeg or féileadh-beag, which strapped around the waist with a yard or so of plaid attached at the shoulder, instead of the breacan an féileadh, the full twelve yards of plaid baggily belted in the middle, which had been the traditional dress of Highland males for centuries. On the other hand, the philabeg used less material, was easier to wear, and was less redolent of rural poverty and sleeping out of doors on an empty stomach. So the King’s visit made it the new “authentic” Highland kilt. It has remained so down to today— just as the visit turned Scottish history into Highland history, with Lowlanders and Borderers largely forgotten.

If the King had no idea what real Highlanders looked like, neither did most Edinburghers. The ceremonies Stewart and Scott devised were to be as much a lesson in Scottish history for Scots as for George IV, and as much a salute to their country as to the King. It was the first state visit by a reigning monarch since 1650, and the first since the Union. This was Scotland’s chance to shine in the eyes of its King and the rest of the world, a chance to establish its place in the British Empire. For that reason, its organizers decided, too much would probably not be enough.

That July, Scott’s house at Castle Street was a workshop of activity. Every day from seven in the morning until past midnight, a steady stream of messengers, visitors, porters, and officials came and went, while Scott drew up designs, protocols, invitations, lists of guests, and orders of predecent during ritual ceremonies. Everything was to be as it had been before 1707, with a parade of state and regal splendor down High Street such as Edinburgh might have seen in the days of James IV.

Some things had to be changed, however. There was no longer a Scottish Parliament, so no “riding of the Parliament” was possible. Other ways of celebrating Scotland’s political traditions had to be worked out. Scott and Garth turned the Royal Company of Archers, for example, into a sort of King’s bodyguard of Scottish peers and aristocrats. Likewise, the Highland dress everyone would wear for the ceremonies had to be suitably martial, including targes, broadswords, and dirks, with a sgian dhu, or short dagger, inserted at the top of the stocking. This would remind onlookers of Scottish courage and valor, whether on Dunrossie Moor at Culloden or, more recently, on the battlefields of Spain, India, and Waterloo.

Yet, ironically, despite all the insistence on things Highlandish, very few Highlanders were actually going to be there. Walter Scott had sent a formal invitation to MacLeod of MacLeod and other great chieftains, summoning them and their followers to a modern-day version of the gathering of the clans to greet their “chief of chiefs.” But only five showed up. Campbell of Breadalbane brought fifty men wearing tartans—not their own tartans, but one the Earl had designed in Edinburgh and sent to them. The MacGregors of Griogaraich were there, as bodyguards to the Regalia. Their chief, Sir Ewan MacGregor, was looking forward to finally erasing the family’s long history of royal disgrace. The flamboyant Alistair MacDonnell of Glengarry also showed up. He had been the inspiration for Waverley’s Fergus McIvor and looked the part, with his pipers, henchmen, and foresters in attendance—and proceeded to make an obnoxious nuisance of himself through the whole visit, to the disgust of both Scott and Stewart.

The Drummonds of Strathearn sent a contingent, as did, more surprisingly, the Duchess of Sutherland. She had been stung by the criticisms of her clearance policy in David Stewart’s recent book, and was determined to show the proper Highland spirit. Everyone agreed they were the scruffiest of the lot: “[S]o inferior, indeed, was their appearance,” according to Donald MacLeod, “that those who had the management refused to allow them to walk in the procession. . . . They were huddled in an old, empty house, sleeping on straw and fed with the coarsest fare while the other clans were living in comparative luxury.”

So the vast majority of participants in this “plaided panorama” (as Scott’s son-in-law called it) ended up being members of Edinburgh’s Celtic Society and the Strathfillan Society: gentry and middle-class citizens, most with Highland names or roots, but almost all with no experience of clan life. In that sense, they were like most people who wear kilts today. Indeed, the authorities preferred it that way. When Walter Scott tried to send for some men from the Earl of Atholl, Henry Dundas, a man who was still mindful of the recent violence around Glasgow and earlier troubles in the Highlands, said no. “I think we have fully as many of the Gael, real or imagined, as is prudent or necessary.”

On the eve of the King’s visit, the Edinburgh Observer ran this editorial:

We are all Jacobites now, thorough-bred Jacobites, in acknowledging George IV. . . . Our king is the heir of the Chevalier, in whose service the Scotch suffered so much, shone so much, and we will find many a Flora MacDonald amongst the “Sisters of the Silver Cross,” and many a faithful Highlander attending his Throne. . . .

The city was in a frenzy. It had filled up with visitors from across Scotland, who watched General Stewart and the Celtic Society’s tartaned contingents drilling on the meadow between Queen Street and Heriot Row. Lords, lairds, archers, soldiers, and militiamen gathered in the streets, with pipes blaring and flags and banners waving in the summer sun—and at night, in the soft glow of Edinburgh’s new gas streetlighting.

On Wednesday, August 14, the royal yacht was spotted in the Firth of Forth. The cannon on Castle Hill signaled the news, as the crowd gathered to join the march down from Edinburgh to Leith to greet the King. Scott rowed out to meet his monarch on board. “Sir Walter Scott!” the King exclaimed, “The man in Scotland I most want to see! Let him come up!” With a grin, George IV toasted his loyal servant with a tumbler of genuine Highland whisky. Scott put the glass in his pocket as a souvenir (later, in his excitement, he sat on it and crushed it).

The next day the visit proper began. By one estimate, 300,000 people, or more than one-seventh of Scotland’s population, greeted the King as he came ashore with cheers and more cannon salutes, and as the cavalcade made its way up Leith Walk to Edinburgh’s High Street. Walter Scott led the way in an open carriage to rapturous applause; then came the trumpeters, yeoman cavalry, grenadiers, dragoons, soldiers from various Highland regiments and the Scots Greys, heralds, grooms, archers: then the Knight Marischal, the Barons of Exchequer, and the Lords of Justiciary and Sessions in their scarlet robes, the White Rod, Lord Lyon Depute, the Lord High Constable—and then the King.

Fat, scarlet-faced, breathing heavily and barely able to walk, this latter-day Bonnie Prince Charlie slowly made his way up High Street to the Toll Gate, where the Lord Provost presented him with the keys to the city, and then took him across to St. Andrews Square and crowd-lined Princes Street. Turning around, the King was astonished to see more thousands of people standing in rows on Castle Hill, a living mountain of humanity watching and waving. When he waved back, the city resounded with a tremendous cheer.

On Saturday came the King’s reception under the gleaming chandeliers at Holyrood House. David Stewart of Garth came to the King’s chamber to examine the “authentic” Highland costume he would wear for the evening. It was the full treatment: pleated tartan kilt with the pattern of the house of Stuart, trews or plaid tights, sporran bag in front, and feathered bonnet. Stewart looked at George IV’s bloated red face, his enormous belly hanging over his kilt, and tights stretched skin-tight around his bulging, flabby thighs. Discretion dictated his next words. “Ye make a varry pretty figure,” he told his monarch, and sent him out to greet his rapturous guests.

It was a strange moment. This peculiar form of Scottish clothing, which had only recently been dismissed as barbaric frummery, and had even been outlawed, was now proper dress for royalty. The overweight heir of the house of Hanover, the great-nephew of the Duke of Cumberland who had fought and slaughtered kilted clansmen for control of the destiny of Scotland and Great Britain, was now wearing the same tartan pattern as the mortal enemies of his ancestral house. Later that week, at the banquet sponsored by the Edinburgh Town Council which lasted six and a half hours, tartan kilts again turned up in profusion, on people who only twenty years earlier would not have been caught dead in them.

This shift of cultural mood was all due to Sir Walter Scott. He was not the first to rescue Highland culture from the rubbish-heap of history. But he was the first to make it high-minded and respectable, with an appealing romantic panache, which has made it an indelible part of the historical imagination ever since. It was part of his larger plan for the royal visit: a reconciliation of ancient enemies, Hanover with Stuart, England with Scotland, and the past with the present.

Most historians and writers poke fun at the royal visit, and for good reason. It is tempting to yield to outrage at its falsification of Scottish history, and its hypocrisy in claiming to exalt Highland culture even while that culture and its people were being eradicated, thanks to the Clearances. Even people at the time recognized the royal visit’s exaggerated ridiculousness. Scott’s son-in-law John Lockhart dubbed it “a collective hallucination.” It was also a largely Tory celebration. The Whigs at the Edinburgh Review had their attention firmly fixed on parliamentary reform. Henry Cockburn does not even mention it in his autobiography.

The visit’s air of phoniness was compounded by its aftermath, when wool manufacturers such as Wilson’s of Bannockburn began taking orders for the newly popularized kilt. People wondered which of the innumerable patterns or “setts” of tartan to buy. It was Wilson who began the practice of naming particular setts after specific Highland clans. There may have been some validity to this: families living in a clan area did tend to weave tartans that looked alike, and that distinguished them from their neighbors. But the real mark of clan identification was the badge worn on the hat or on the arm, such as a sprig of juniper (the badge of the MacLeods) or white heather (the MacIntyres). Clansmen generally wore whatever plaid patterns they liked, and the louder the better.

The army started the practice of using the tartan as identification, as part of the uniform of Highland regiments. The Black Watch was first in 1739, with its somber blue, green, and black plaid. Others followed suit. Clan members then began using their clan’s regimental tartan, although with no sense of exclusiveness. In fact, when the Highland Society of London began in 1815 to collect patches of existing tartans and approached various chieftains to find out which belonged to which clan, it was amazed to learn that most had no idea.

All this “confusion” came to an end twenty years after the Royal Visit, when two Bohemian brothers, claiming to be the illegitimate grandsons of Prince Charlie himself, appeared on the scene with their own tartan pattern book, portentously titled Vestiarum Scoticum. James and Charles Sobieski Stuart, as they called themselves, had selected seventy-five different setts, each linked to a specific clan, from a sixteenth-century manuscript they claimed had once belonged to Mary Queen of Scots’s father confessor—although they could never quite produce the manuscript when others asked to see it. It was MacPherson and Ossian all over again, with a very similar result. Tartans became all the rage in England as well as Scotland. Queen Victoria insisted on them for her Highland retreat at Balmoral Castle. Clan chieftains, and even Lowland aristocrats, suddenly decided they had better line up a “true” clan pattern or get lost in the rush.

So one could say the great Highland revival began with one fraud and ended with another. But this would be unfair to its genuine adherents, including Scott. After all, his moment of glory after the royal visit was brief. His publisher and partner, John Ballantyne, went bankrupt in 1825. Rather than go bankrupt with him, Scott promised to pay his creditors everything he owed them. In exchange for keeping his position as sheriff and clerk of court in Edinburgh, and living at Abbotsford rent-free, he agreed to spend every penny of his royalties from all future books to pay off the debt, which amounted to more than 100,000 pounds.

“I will be their vassal for life,” he wrote in his journal, “and dig in the mine of my imagination to find diamonds.” All thought of retiring as the distinguished laird of Abbotsford was now impossible. The work broke his health; he suffered a stroke in 1830, but continued writing. “He that sleeps too long in the morning,” he said, “let him borrow the pillow of a debtor.” He had paid off more than half before he died in 1832, the same year Parliament passed the measure he hated and feared, the Reform Bill.

When he heard the news of Scott’s death, his Whig neighbor Henry Cockburn wrote in his journal, “Scotland never owed so much to one man.” And in fact, Sir Walter Scott had done something remarkable. He had managed to generate another Scotland parallel to the one about to be thrust into the new century. A Scotland of the imagination, a place where honor, courage, and integrity could still survive, and even thrive, within the individual. Scott had created a new national identity, based on the myth of the strong and noble Highlander. It was available not only for Scots but for the rest of Britain, which could take comfort and pride in the notion that north of the Tweed the old, premodern virtues were still being kept alive. Later, of course, people of Scottish descent outside Britain would help themselves to it, as well—as anyone knows who has attended a St. Andrew’s Society dinner in New York or Melbourne and watched the profusion of kilts and sgian dhus.

This new Scottish identity complemented, but did not compete with, the one that modernity was forging. For one thing, Scott had made it essentially democratic, since it was open to anyone with a spark of imagination, and imagination, Adam Smith had shown, was the basis of modern society itself. For another, unlike Ossian’s mythic past, which “breathed old age and decay,” it was essentially hopeful about the future, even if the old ways were fading away. The lesson Scott taught the modern world was that the past does not have to die or vanish: it can live on, in a nation’s memory, and help to nourish its posterity.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!