A Brief Encounter with Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott by H Raeburn

Sir Walter Scott by H Raeburn

To quote the Encyclopaedia Britannica:-

“Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet, (born August 15, 1771, Edinburgh, Scotland – died September 21, 1832, Abbotsford, Roxburgh, Scotland), Scottish novelist, poet, historian, and biographer who is often considered both the inventor and the greatest practitioner of the historical novel.”

So why do I know so little about Scott?

I confess I have only read one of his books (Ivanhoe).

Roger Moore who played Scott's Ivanhoe

Allan warren, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

I suspect that was because I’d had a girlish crush on Roger Moore, who played the Eponymous hero in a long-ago TV series.

Scott’s Scottish tales use a lot of old Scots dialect, which can be baffling (nay, impenetrable) to many readers.

But that’s changed and now I know more about Scott

A couple of weeks back, I came pretty close to the man himself. Well, to his tomb. And his books.

We were returning from holiday and stopped off at Dryburgh Abbey Hotel to break our long journey home. An impressive house, but more of that anon.

Dryburgh Abbey was literally on our doorstep

Dryburgh archSo, before we left the next day,  we took a walk around the ruins.

They are impressive. Soaring arches and beautiful carvings. Sadly, part of the ruins were closed for safety work but we still had a pretty good impression of the size and splendour of the original buildings.

Is it any wonder Scott wanted to be buried here?


A successful historical novelist? Absolutely!

Let’s face it. Sir Walter Scott enjoyed a level of success as a historical novelist that the rest of us can only dream of. He began his career as a barrister, writing poetry in his spare time but later turned to novel writing. “Byron beat me,” he declared, as his reason for the change of direction.

His historical adventure stories revived an interest in Scottish culture. He was also instrumental in recovering the Honours of Scotland, a crown, sword and sceptre that had been hidden away in Edinburgh Castle for more than a century. This resulted in his being put in charge of arrangements for George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822. There’s a great piece on the Georgian Era Blog about the visit if you want to read more.

I am sure none of this was detrimental to his book sales!

His enormous popularity made him a wealthy man. He already owned a small “mountain farm beside the Tweed” as he called it. Some locals referred to it as “Clarty Hole”. I think that means dirty, or filthy, in Scots language!

Abbotsford House © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Scott lost no time in renaming it Abbotsford, after the nearby river crossing that had once been used by the monks of Melrose Abbey. With his new found wealth, between 1817 and 1825, he rebuilt Abbotsford into a mansion.

Then disaster struck…

In 1825, Scott’s publishing house collapsed and he was left with enormous debts. His wife died the same year, adding to his woes.

Scott worked furiously and paid off his debts, but it took a great toll on his health. He died in 1832 and was buried in Dryburgh Abbey.

Dryburgh Abbey tomb of Sir Walter Scott

Dryburgh Abbey tomb of Sir Walter Scott

Why Dryburgh Abbey?

Scott is descended from two Borders families. One of them, the Haliburtons of Newmains, took over the north transept of the abbey church as their burial ground. In 1700 the abbey lands belonged to Thomas Haliburton, Scott’s great-grandfather. But for an extravagant grand-uncle who became bankrupt and had to part with the property, it would have descended to Sir Walter by inheritance.

“We have nothing left of Dryburgh,” he said, “but the right of stretching our bones there.”

And finally to the house…

Dryburgh Abbey House was built in 1845 to replace a much older building. There has been a house here or hereabouts since the 11th century.

11th Earl of Buchan

In the 18th century it was owned by Robert Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan. He was a close friend and an admirer of Scott. Not surprising, perhaps, when they shared such an interest in history. The earl founded the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, although he soon fell out with them and quit. Even Scott admitted he was, er, rather strange…

In later years the earl became increasingly eccentric, a trait which tended to obscure his talents, as Sir Walter Scott noted.

After the earl’s death in 1829, when he was put into the family burial ground at Dryburgh, his head was laid the wrong way. Which, said Sir Walter Scott, was little matter, as it had never been quite right in his lifetime.

The earl spent much of his time at Dryburgh improving the grounds, which include part of the Abbey grounds. He also erected the nearby statue of William Wallace.

William Wallace

Scott joined the earl in the burial ground at Dryburgh just three years later. Today the burial place holds the tombs of Sir Walter Scott, his wife Charlotte and his son, Walter.  It also has the remains of his son-in-law and biographer, John Gibson, and nearby is the grave of Earl Marshal Haig, buried here in 1928.

Dryburgh Abbey

Moving on

In 1929 the Dryburgh Abbey House was purchased by the splendidly named  Scottish Motor Traction Company which opened it as a Tourist Hotel in 1932. The house has changed hands several times since then but in 2007 it passed to the Wallace family, who now own and manage it.

Waverley novels. Dryburgh edition

Today it is impossible to miss its links with Sir Walter Scott. At least if you are a writer.

Images and paintings abound, and the hotel is very proud of its full set of The Waverley Novels, one of the special Dryburgh editions that were published between 1892 and 1894.

It was such a pleasure to unlock the cabinet and see these originals for myself.  What I particularly liked was the illustrations and also the fact that these books have a glossary in the back of them, explaining the more obscure Scots words and phrases!

And for those who enjoy a little ghostly encounter…

Nothing to do with Scott, but I am sure he would approve….

A 16th century woman at the house fell in love with a monk. They began a secret love affair but when the Abbot found out, the monk was sentenced to death and hanged in view of her house.

The woman was so upset she threw herself off the nearby bridge into the River Tweed, where she drowned. But her spirit haunts the bridge and she has been sighted in the hotel itself as a grey lady.  She is seen most frequently during times of change at the hotel, such as when renovation work is being carried out.

So, there you have it

I hope you have enjoyed this little day-trip into Scott-land.  I started with a quote so I shall leave you with another one. This time from the man himself. Since he was a man who made his fortune, lost everything but then recovered, he should know what he is talking about.

“For success, attitude is equally  as important as ability.”

Happy reading (and writing)


Sarah Mallory

15 thoughts on “A Brief Encounter with Sir Walter Scott

  1. Liz Fielding

    Ivanhoe was a set read for me at school, Sarah. It was supposed to be a chapter a week, but I found it a total page turner and read the whole thing straight off. Having said that, I can’t remember reading anything else by him. But oh, yes, I do remember the young Roger Moore as Ivanhoe in the television spin-off series, with his faithful sidekick, Garth. I know I’ve seen a film or another television series – but I can’t remember who played Ivanhoe.

  2. Sophie

    Someone gave me a child’s version of Ivanhoe when I was still at primary school and I gobbled it up. And I was much more interested in the villain Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert and the unacceptable love interest, Rebecca, than I was in either Ivanhoe or the deathly dull but virtuous Rowena.

    My mother, when she stopped laughing, said the first was probably down to finding out that Ivanhoe’s Christian name was Wilfred. I suspect she agreed with me about Rowena.

    We had to read the Lay of the Last Minstrel my first year in secondary school. Like Liz, I took it home and finished it the first night and came back looking for more. The teacher was aghast. it was supposed to last the whole term. Have the feeling I was never their ideal pupil after that.

    I struggle with a lot of Scott’s writing, I admit. But Red Gauntlet is a cracker and so are Rob Roy, The Fair Maid of Perth and his book about Montrose.

  3. lesley2cats

    I have to confess to never having read any Scott – the closest I got when I was a child was seeing the 1953 film with Richard Todd, Glynis Johns and James Robertson Justice. So thank you for opening my eyes, Sarah. And I did the same thing with David Copperfield – special edition for schools – as Jenny and Liz did with Scott, took it home and finished it. Perhaps it could be a diagnostic tool – if your child takes books home and finishes them before they are supposed to, they are going to be a writer.

  4. Joanna

    We had a complete hardback set of Scott’s novels at home. I started reading them at about 8 or 10 when there was an adaptation on the BBC. I think it may have been Redgauntlet. Anyway, as I have said before, I soon discovered that the secret to getting into Scott’s novels was to start in the middle of chapter 2. Before that, it was all description and as a child I found that super-boring. Actually, I still do 😉

    I absolutely agree about soupy Rowena. Rebecca was much more interesting but Scott reflected the mores of his time in making her taboo because she was Jewish. I did like Ivanhoe, though I thought his taste in women was poor. Must admit I’d forgotten about “Wilfred”.

  5. Liz Fielding

    I’m nor sure I favoured Sir Brian as a child, but as an adult he’s certainly the more interesting character. All that suppressed passion.

  6. sarahmromance

    Totally agree about the villain and Rebecca, Sophie: so much more interesting as characters. I suppose Wilfred was a good strong name in Victorian days – it hasn’t aged that well. I intend to try more Scott now (and why was your teacher so aghast? Perhaps is they hadn’t done their prep, and intended reading just one chapter ahead of each lesson…)

  7. sarahmromance

    I had almost forgotten about Scott, until we moved north and I started realising how influential he was in his day. I think if he was around now he’d definitely be on TikTok (or is it BookTok now???) I like your idea of a diagnostic tool. I can remember spending whole school holidays indoors, reading, whatever the weather!

  8. sarahmromance

    Thanks for the tip about where to start, Joanna. As to his characters, Scott had the same problems we have as historical novelists – you have to please your reader as well as telling telling a good yarn.

  9. sarahmromance

    I think there are a lot of books where the villain is far more interesting than the good guy, Liz. I hae always had a soft spot for a bad boy (between the pages of a book, anyway, maybe not in real life!)

  10. sarahmromance

    Glad you enjoyed it, Yvonne, thanks for stopping by. Every day is fun learning day on Liberta!

  11. janegordoncumming

    Thanks for this interesting post. Coincidentally I recently decided it was time I had a go at Scott, partly for research, prepared to find him rather turgid and full of that irritating dialect you mention, and tried Ivanhoe (yes, Roger Moore), and Kenilworth, and that one about Culloden, and found him really rather good. Then I thought I’d take a look at David Copperfield, much as I hate Dickens, and it’s certainly a page-turner, though could do with a good editor, and rather schmaltzy for modern taste.

    Irrelevant to your post, but now I’m into Frances Hodgson Burnett, having enjoyed her children’s books, and ‘The Shuttle’ is one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read, apart from being a gripping thriller. (And about an American heiress who married an English lord, though I didn’t know that when I started, so I can call that research too.)

  12. sarahmromance

    Thanks for the info, Jane – I think there are a lot of latter-day authors who are worth a another look. So many books, so little time…..

  13. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Thank you for this interesting post – I, too, have read Ivanhoe and enjoyed the film. My grandfather’ library included all of Scott’s novels – and I read the lot at a child – each in two volumes (my mother had taught me to speed read) and my abiding impression is that they are very wordy and would benefit from some serious pruning.

  14. sarahmromance

    Glad you enjoyed it, Elizabeth! I will have to try speed-reading Scott – there’s quite a few to get through! I read my way through my Dad’s bookcase as a child – it didn’t have any of Scott’s novels but I did get through a couple of Dickens, The Count of Monte Cristo, lots or Edgar Rice Burroughs and almost all the Biggles books!

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