Sir Walter Scott in Kevock, Lasswade

This is a transcript of a lecture given to Bonnyrigg & Lasswade Local History Society on Wednesday 19th November 2003 by Alistair Johnson.

“From the years 1798 to 1803 a young advocate by the name of Walter Scott, rented a small cottage in Lasswade, as his country residence. In the period that he spent there, Scott was to develop himself as both a scholar and a poet. Here he was to discover a unique artistic voice, which was later to make him one of the most successful authors of his day. In 1798 Walter Scott was just another Edinburgh lawyer; but by 1803 he was well on the way to becoming the world famous writer, Sir Walter Scott.

Scott was born on the 15th of August 1771 in a third-floor flat in College Wynd in the Old Town of Edinburgh. College Wynd was a cramped, dimly lit alleyway with poor sanitation and little fresh air. Six of Scott’s brothers and sisters were to die here. Scott himself was to develop polio in College Wynd in 1773.

Scott was removed from this unhealthy environment and sent to live on his grandfather’s farm at Sandyknowe in Roxburghshire. His stay there was to have an immense influence on his life. It was his stay at Sandyknowe that was to instill in him a lifelong love of Scottish ballads, folk traditions, superstitions and history.

Scott returned to Edinburgh in 1778. By this time the Scott’s residence had moved to a new home at 25 George Square. This square had recently been built to allow the professional classes of Edinburgh to escape the squalor of the Old Town. Scott studied at the High School and then at Edinburgh University. He eventually entered his father’s office as an apprentice to the Writer of the Signet in 1786. In 1788 it was decided that Scott should return to University in order to gain admittance to the Faculty of Advocates. He was admitted to the bar in 1792. Scott was to stay at George Square until his marriage to Charlotte Carpenter in 1797.

Initially, the newly weds rented a house at 50 George Street but they were soon to move to 10 South Castle Street in October 1798. They were to remain there until 1802 when they moved to a house, which Scott had built for his family at 39 North Castle Street. This remained Scott’s Edinburgh residence until 1826. He was eventually forced to sell it because of financial difficulties.
However Scott’s Edinburgh residence was only to be his home during the term time of the Court of Session. For about four to five months of the year the Scottish Courts did not sit. This gave Walter Scott the chance to get away from the legal world of Edinburgh and left him the time to develop his talents as a scholar and a writer.

A country residence, near Edinburgh, would allow him the space to concentrate on his artistic endeavours without withdrawing completely from the legal world of Edinburgh.
Scott was to find his country retreat in the summer of 1798. He decided to rent a small thatched cottage in the village of Lasswade from Sir John Clerk of Penicuik for thirty pounds a year.
The cottage was fairly basic, downstairs there was a spacious dining room and a small room Scott called his oratory, upstairs under the thatched roof was their bedroom. It also included paddocks for Scott’s mare and cow, and came with a vegetable and flower garden, as well as commanding a beautiful view of the Esk Valley. The house has remained thatched in deference to its famous occupier but the present interiors date from about 1810 to the period shortly after Scott left Lasswade.

During his time in Lasswade, Scott was to indulge in his love of walking, shooting, fishing and riding his horse. Furthermore, it allowed Scott to visit places of historic interest in a romantic setting.
Scott said: “No stream in Scotland can boast such a varied succession of the most interesting objects as well as of the most romantic and beautiful scenery.”

From Lasswade he could easily visit Hawthornden Castle, Roslin Chapel, Melville Castle and Dalkeith Palace. According to Scott’s biographer and son-in-law John Lockhart, he also became a keen gardener while at Lasswade: “Scott delighted to train his flowers and creeper. Never, I have heard him say, was he prouder of his handiwork than when he had completed the fashioning of a rustic archway, now overgrown with heavy ivy, by way of ornament to the entrance from the Edinburgh road.”

However Scott’s creation of a rural idyll was also to be a means to further both his legal and artistic career. One of the advantages of the cottage was that it brought him into close contact with neighbours who were highly influential in the Scottish political and legal establishment.
As mentioned previously the cottage belonged to Sir John Clerk of Penicuik. Melville castle was an estate, which belonged to Henry Dundas, then the most politically powerful man in Scotland. Dalkeith Palace was the home of the Duke of Buccleuch, one of the largest landowners in Britain and a kinsman of Walter Scott. Nearby Arniston House was the residence of Robert Dundas, nephew of Henry Dundas, and Lord Advocate of Scotland.

From Lasswade, Scott would visit these influential people in order to gain their patronage to gain a responsible official post in the legal profession. His efforts were rewarded in December 1799 when he was appointed Sheriff Depute of Selkirkshire, thanks to the influence of Henry Dundas and the Duke of Buccleuch. The salary was £250 a year and the workload was far from onerous. Most of Scott’s work was done by a Sheriff substitute in Selkirk, so Scott could remain living in Edinburgh and Lasswade. Scott had the cases sent to him from Selkirk and made written judgements, which were then sent back to his Sheriff substitute. Only very rarely did he have to venture to Selkirk in person to attend court.

Besides furthering his legal career at Lasswade, Scott was to spend much of his time there developing his talents as a scholar and artist. In 1798 Scott was still unsure of where his creative talent lay, but by 1803 he was well on the way to becoming Scotland’s leading writer of his generation.

Scott in 1798, possibly under the influence of his French wife, was displaying an interest in becoming a playwright. During his first summer at Lasswade, he had translated a Gothic drama by the German writer Goethe. This was published in London in 1799, thanks to the influence of the English writer Matthew Lewis. While visiting London in the spring of that year he tried to interest a Drury Lane company in a Gothic play of his own called ‘The House of Aspen’. This was however rejected and Scott began to look for another medium to fulfil his talents as a writer.

Having failed as a playwright, he began to turn his attention to the ancient ballads of Scotland, which had so entranced him as a child at Sandyknowe. This turn of events was stimulated partly by his friendship with Matthew Lewis, the author of the Gothic novel ‘The Monk’.
Lewis had used ballad fragments in his book and was now looking for contributions to his new book ‘Tales of Wonder’, which was to be a collection of ballads from both Britain and Europe.

Lewis suggested to Scott that he might like to help him in this project.

His response began in the summer of 1799 at Lasswade when he began what he called his ‘first serious attempts at verse’. These were the ballad imitations ‘Glenfinlas’, ‘The Eve of St. John’ and ‘The Fire King’. These were to be published in ‘Tales of Wonder’.

Another, uncompleted work, was ‘The Gray Brother’ which concerned the barony of Gilmerton.

This included verses about the Esk Valley:

“Sweet are the paths, 0 passing sweet!
By Eske’s fair streams that ran,
O’er airy steep, through copsewood deep,
Impervious to the sun.

There the rapt poet’s step may rove,

And yield the muse the day:

There beauty, led by timid Love,

May shun the telltale ray;

From that fair dome, where suit is paid
By blast of bugle free,
To Auchendinny’s hazel glade,
And haunted Woodhouselee.

Who knows not Melville’s beechy grave,
And Roslin’s rocky glen
Dalkeith, which all the virtues love,
And classic Hawthornden.”

Scott no doubt began to wonder why he was poring his energy into someone else’s work when he could undertake a similar task himself.

Furthermore, his new job as a Sheriff Depute reconnected him with the part of Scotland, which had introduced him to the ballad tradition as a child. Many of Scott’s legal colleagues in the borders were themselves interested in folklore and collected ballads. Everything in Scott’s life was suggesting that ballads could be the means to make a serious bid to becoming accepted as an artist.

By the end of 1799, he was beginning to formulate the idea of producing a small volume of ballads. However the projected modest volume soon gave way to a far bigger project as Scott’s efforts produced ever-larger numbers of ballads. This project was to be his ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’.

In producing such a work, Scott was following in a long Scottish tradition of poets, who were interested in the folk songs of their nation. Allan Ramsey, Robert Ferguson, Robert Bums, James Boswell, Lord Byron and James Hogg, all collected or wrote songs in the folk tradition.

Why was this the case?

Scotland’s high art culture in the first place had been seriously weakened by the Reformation in the 16th century, then secondly by the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and finally the Treaty of Union in 1707. These events left Scotland with few sources of patronage for high art culture. Scotland was thus forced to look to its traditional culture to maintain its separate sense of cultural identity. The Jacobites in the 18th century had proved to be very effective in using traditional culture for their political purposes.

Furthermore, there was an increasing intellectual fashion for traditional folk culture amongst the European intelligentsia in the 18th century. The philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that the classical music of his day was decadent and needed to be reformed by returning to the primitive simplicity of folk melody. Scottish philosophers such as James Beattie and Adam Ferguson praised the simple beauty of Scottish folk songs believing that they embodied the natural virtues of the Scots. Scott therefore had good reason to believe that a collection of ballads would establish him as a famous ballad scholar.

Over the next few years, Scott was to travel round the borders collecting manuscripts, chapbooks and ballad broadsheets. He sought the advice and help of ballad collectors from not just the Borders, but other parts of Scotland too and also England.

Sometimes his trips there, involved him listening to country folk singing ballads. One of these ballad singers was the mother of Scott’s fellow writer James Hogg.

Scott however was to prove brilliant in persuading other ballad collectors to do a lot of the work for him. Many of them gladly handed over material they had collected over the years for his collection.
Some of these collectors themselves went out and gathered songs from oral sources when Scott was unable to locate the words to certain ballads. The highly eccentric John Leyden was to be a major driving force behind the project and was willing to walk miles to get the material Scott requested.

Thus a lot of Scott’s work on the Minstrelsy was done at his desk in Lasswade cottage. The cottage was to prove ideal to wine and dine the many ballad collectors who were contributing to the project.

In a letter to Robert Anderson in 1800, addressed from Lasswade he wrote:

“I this day received a letter from Mr Jamieson a friend of yours and the intended publisher of a collection of Scottish Ballads. As he proposes being in Edinburgh this week, I hope the enclosed which I have taken the liberty of addressing to your care, will find him there. I have taken the liberty of asking him to spend a day with me here to talk over the proposed publications and as far as possible prevent the possibility of interference. We dine at four but I would wish to see you early as I think Mr Jamieson may be pleased to see some of our walks if he is not already acquainted with them.”

James Hogg on first meeting Scott also received an invitation to visit him at Lasswade. The famous English ballad scholar Joseph Ritson also visited Scott here. No doubt Scott felt that a rustic cottage set in a beautiful landscape was a more appropriate setting to conduct his ballad business than the New Town. His fellow ballad collectors would be more easily persuaded to part with their material in an environment where inhibitions could be more easily overcome with generous hospitality.
Scott’s achievement was to persuade his fellow ballad collaborators that they were working on a common patriotic mission and not just for his glory.

Scott’s main job in the Minstrelsy, besides co-ordinating the work of the other ballad collectors, was to act as the editor of the various versions of the ballads that had been collected. From these versions Scott tried to recreate the ballads as the Minstrels of old might have originally written them. Much of this editorial work was done at Lasswade. How much Scott tampered with his sources is controversial. Some of the ballads offered to Scott were also of dubious origin. However, on balance the Minstrelsy was a significant achievement in ballad scholarship.

Scott’s versions of Scottish ballads such as “The Wife of Usher’s Well” and the “The Twa Corbies” – first collected by him – are still the ones included in poetry anthologies to this day.

The Minstrelsy first conceived of as a slim volume was published in 1802, as a two-volume work. Enlarged by a third volume of modern ballads, there were successive re-editions in 1803, 1806, 1810, 1812, and 1821. The volumes also became widely known abroad. Publishers on the Continent brought out editions and they were translated into German, Danish and Swedish. The Minstrelsy was also published in the United States spreading Scott’s fame into the New World.

Edgar Johnson has written:

“Among all the ranks of the bibliophiles and scholars there was no voice of dissent in the chorus of praise for Scott’s achievement. The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border was a ringing success.”

In 1800 while working on the Minstrelsy at Lasswade, he was to receive two visits from an English gentleman called John Stoddart. He was to introduce Scott to the work of the English poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Scott in particular was impressed by a poetic romance by Coleridge, recited by Stoddart, called ‘Christabel’.

Inspired by the galloping rhythms of the irregular four beat lines, he set out to write a “Romance of Border Chivalry and enchantment which will extend to some length.” This Romance was originally intended for inclusion in the Minstrelsy. He began work on the poem at Lasswade during the summer of 1802. These were to be the opening verses of his first ballad epic “The Lay of the Last Minstrel”.
While working on the poem he was to receive a visit from William and Dorothy Wordsworth at Lasswade in September 1803. The first four cantos of the poem had now been completed and he was soon reciting these to his guests.

Wordsworth wrote that:

“The novelty of its manners – the clear picturesque descriptions, and the easy glowing energy of so much of the verse, greatly delighted me.”
Wordsworth’s praise and the encouragement of his friends persuaded Scott to see this piece as the means to make his name known as a poet in his own right.

Thus the “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” became an independent project, separate from the Minstrelsy. It was published in January of 1805. Its success was immediate and the first edition melted from the bookshelves. Within a few months Scott found himself famous not only as a scholar, but now also as a poet.

While Scott had used the cottage at Lasswade to pursue his legal career and business, it was his artistic career that really benefited from his time there. At Lasswade he had sown the seeds of his future fame.

Scott’s residence at Lasswade was to end as a result of his duties as Sheriff Depute of Selkirkshire. The Lord Lieutenant of Selkirkshire, Lord Napier, began to politely suggest that he and the other gentlemen of the county would like to have the pleasure of their Sheriff Depute more frequently. Scott took the hint and began to look for a residence to rent in Selkirkshire. He eventually settled on a cottage on the south bank of the Tweed, about six miles from Selkirk. In mid-August of 1803 Scott, Charlotte and the children said farewell to Lasswade.

In a letter Scott wrote:

“I had to superintend the removal, or what we call a flitting, which, of all bores under the cope of Heaven is bore the most tremendous.”

As we have seen Scott’s time at Lasswade was to be immensely productive in the development of his career as a scholar and writer. His ballad collecting and production of the Minstrelsy established his name amongst the intelligentsia. This collection alone would have guaranteed him some fame.

One biographer has said of the Minstrelsy:

“Even if Scott had never published anything else, even if we had never known Scott the poet and Scott, the novelist, his name would have been spoken with admiration by students of sung folk-narrative all over the world.”

Two years after he left Lasswade, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel”, which had it’s genesis in the Lasswade years, had propelled Scott into an artistic celebrity. By 1815 the poem had sold 27,000 copies and continued to sell well throughout his life.

Scott’s biographer Edgar Johnson wrote that:

“In the entire history of British poetry there has never been anything like the popularity of The Lay of the Last Minstrel.”

In time Scott was to develop his talents further in the form of the novel, which brought him even more fame and wealth. The seeds of this success had been planted in his country residence in Midlothian.

Lockhart was not exaggerating when he wrote that in a little cottage in Lasswade, Sir Walter Scott,
” did produce the pieces which had laid the imperishable foundations of his fame. It was here, that in the ripened glow of manhood he seems to have first felt something of his real strength, and poured himself out in those splendid original ballads which were at once to fix his name.”