While checking my agenda this morning, I noticed a scribble indicating that today was Sir Walter Scott’s birthday!
I said to myself that we could not let this day go by without honouring our favorite scottish writer . To celebrate his priceless legacy which had such a great impact on historical fiction and upon so many worldwide readers, let’s walk down memory lane together for a moment…
Can you imagine? Already 240 years have passed since Walter Scott was born on 15 August 1771 in a flat near the Cowgate Valley in Edinburgh.
At the age of 16, his father employed him as “a writer to the signet”, but he did not like that kind of work. He opted instead to become a lawyer and in 1792 entered Edinburgh’s Law School. He had fun and success inside this tight community but did not defend a lot of cases.
What he preferred most was to take long rides in the countryside and collect romantic ballads as well as learning how to speak local dialects. He later felt a strong calling towards literature and from 1799 started writing. Thereafter, Walter Scott devoted almost all his time to his novels, until his death on 21 September 1832.
Coming back to his date of birth, I recall reading somewhere that there was a discrepancy about it, and if my memory serves me well, it was question about him being born in 1770 instead of 1771.
Does that ring a bell to you Mairiuna?
Yes Janice, it does! The date I can remember is 15 August 1771 but I’m going to check it at once in my books about Sir Walter.
David Daiches doesn’t seem to give much credit to the idea of a mistaken birth date:
‘In April 1808, when Walter Scott was in his thirty-seventh year, and already known as editor, antiquary and poet, he sat down at Ashestiel, that ‘decent farm-house overhanging the Tweed’ where he had moved in 1804, to write a fragment of autobiography (..) Though his home was in the Border country throughout most of his adult life, Scott was not born there, but at Edinburgh, on 15 August 1771. (There is some evidence to suggest that Scott was mistaken about the year of his own birth, and that he was really born on 15 August 1770; but it is far from conclusive, and the weight of evidence is on the side of the traditional year of 1771.)’
Stuart Kelly, in his recent biography of Sir Walter, doesn’t even mention the fact.
‘Sir Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh on 15 August 1771, the fourth child of a farmer’s son who had climbed the social ladder to become a lawyer. His mother was the daughter of Edinburgh University’s Professor of Medicine. Those with a bent towards astrology might note that on 15 August 1769, a child had been born whose fame would rival Scott’s in due course, and of whom Scott would eventually write a biography: Napoleon Bonaparte.’ (Scott-Land – ‘The Man’ - Stuart Kelly)
However, in his Autobiography, Sir Walter doesn’t seem so sure about his birth date for he writes : I was born, as I believe, on the 15 August 1771, in a house belonging to my father, at the head of the College Wynd. It was pulled down, with others, to make room for the northern front of the new College.
Anyway, it all began here, in the heart of ‘Auld Reekie’, in the midst of summer and one can easily imagine, from that old engraving, what life must have been like there, in the 18th century.
Do you remember Janice the time when we used to read one page a day of Sir Walter’s Journal, trying to make our calendar coincide with that of Sir Walter? Let us open the book at the date of August 15 1826, just to see if he mentions his birthday. Sir Walter was 55 years old then.
“I must home to work while it is called day; for the night cometh when no man can work.
I put that text, many a year ago, on my dial-stone;
but it often preached in vain.”
[SCOTT'S Life, x. 88.]
August 15 th
The weather seems decidedly broken. Yesterday, indeed, cleared up, but this day seems to persevere in raining. Naboclish! * It’s a rarity nowadays. I write on, though a little afflicted with the oppression on my chest. Sometimes I think it is something dangerous, but as it always goes away on change of posture, it cannot be speedily so. I want to finish my task, and then goodnight. I will never relax my labour in these affairs, either for fear of pain or love of life. I will die a free man if hard working will do it. Accordingly, to-day I cleared the ninth leaf, which is the tenth part of the volume, in two days – four and a half leaves a day. Walter and Jane, with Mrs Jobson, are arrived to interrupt me.
At that time, Sir Walter was writing himself to death to honour his and his friends’s debts and he didn’t seem to care much about his birthday, not even mentioning it in his Journal! He was to die 6 years later, on his return from a long journey in Italy which had been supposed to restore his health. Sir Walter’s death is already looming in these lines…
I’ve just fallen upon this nice perpetual calendar which I got in Scotland a few years ago. Why not write in it the birth and death anniversaries of our favourite authors. We could even open a new category on Scotiana called “A Scots Yearbook”
What do you think of this idea, Janice ?
Great idea my friend! Done
Until next, take care and all the very best!
Janice & Mairiuna
* Naboclish : ‘Don’t mind it”, an Irishism picked up the previous summer (The Journal of Sir Walter Scott Canongate 1972 edition Note 3 )