Tony Delamothe on Walter Scott with a prelude on Australian Impressionists

The only thing you need to know before reading this is that Tony was born and grew up in Australia, moving to Britain in his early 20s. I’ve urged him to start a blog, but as he hasn’t done so yet I’m posting this here (with his permission).

I’m grateful that you returned me to the Scott lecture after my peremptory dismissal of it:

“Walter Scott was going out of fashion by the mid 19th century. It all seems so long ago, and the fictional Scotland he created doesn’t seem (to me) to have much of its original charge..”

Since writing this, I recalled the current exhibition at the National Gallery, “Australia’s Impressionists.” (They’re no such thing, but that’s not the point.

If I have time on my return visits to Australia I seek them out – they’re in all the state galleries. I find them very moving and they seem to “talk” to me in a way I suspect is similar to how Scott talked to the Scots. They’re not that much later than Scott’s work, coming crucially ahead of Australia’s Federation in 1901.

Shields writes: “Nations are not merely political entities [but] “imagined communities,” the members of which are bound together by the shared stories they tell about themselves.  Literature thus plays a central part in creating the amorphous collection of beliefs, values, and traditions that we call national identity.  The novel..has been particularly important in the formation of national identities …”

For literature/novel in this passage you could substitute these paintings when it comes to the formation of Australian identity.


Anyway here are my notes of the talk:

Dr Juliet Shields, “Did Sir Walter Scott invent Scotland?” (Gresham College)

On the centenary of Scott’s birth in 1871, Margaret Oliphant writing in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine declared that without Scott, Scotland would be literally unimaginable—a void—to most Britons.

That seems to have been the general view for most of the nineteenth century.

Scott’s own “story” is interesting. His interest in the songs and ballads of the border country (collected in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border) was largely antiquarian. The success of “this hugely popular collection” inspired Scott’s first major narrative poem, Lay of the Last Minstrel.  Along with his next narrative poem. The Lady of the Lake, they broke all records for the sale of poetry.

A sniffy Carlyle complained early in Scott’s career that he had “no message whatever to deliver to the world” (other than hand over your money). The lecturer agreed that Scott was primarily a storyteller.

With Byron’s increasing popularity, sales of Scott’s poetry took a dip and he started exploring (anonymously) the novel form. Until then novels had been largely by and for women.

Scott’s novels took as their subject some of the most contentious moments of Scottish history (says Shields) — “the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions; the transformation of James VI of Scotland into James I of Britain at the Union of Crowns; and the Covenanters resistance to the Stuart monarchy’s erastianism.”

In one of the most interesting insights of her talk, she quotes Scott’s description of the characters in Waverley: “those who in my younger times …still cherished a lingering, though hopeless, attachment to the house of Stuart.  This race has almost entirely vanished from the land, and with it, doubtless, much absurd political prejudice—but also many living examples of singular and disinterested attachment to the principles of loyalty which they received from their fathers, and of old Scottish faith, hospitality, worth, and honour.”

Scott  explains that he wrote Waverley “for the purpose of preserving some idea of the ancient manners of which I have witnessed the almost total extinction.” According to Shields, Scott’s aim in Waverley was very similar to his project in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border: to collect and preserve in print traditions that would otherwise be lost.

The ethos of the Highlanders belonged to a Golden Age, but one that was unrecoverable – note the “hopeless” above. The twentieth century would have no truck with this romanticised version:

Shields: “A new generation of Scott’s readers began to perceive the Waverley novels’ romanticization of Scotland’s past as detrimental to its development in the present. In the wake of the Great War a predominantly socialist group of Scottish writers sought to foster a more robust forward-looking nationalism in place of Scott’s nostalgia.  Hugh MacDiarmid, one of the leading figures of this Scottish literary renaissance, found Scott “intolerably prolix, dull, and full of false Romanticism,” concluding that he had “no profound and progressive sense of his country.”  MacDiarmid’s close contemporary Edwin Muir bitterly termed Scott and Robert Burns “Sham bards of a sham nation,” and accused Scott of transforming all of Scottish “history into legend, mainly tawdry.”

Shields wants to recover the women who wrote between the death of Scott and the Scottish literary renaissance in the 1920s from a “literary historical void,” and her attempt made up the second part of Shields talk.  These women didn’t attack Scott’s romanticized version of Scotland head-on.  Instead, they turned from his sweeping historical vistas to the details of mundane domestic life.   This in itself offered readers new perspectives on Scotland.   There are few depictions of the everyday in the Waverley novels because they are always set at moments of intense crisis.

I’m sure this was very worthy – reinstating women with their domestic concerns beside men with their lives of thrilling activity – but I don’t see myself seeking out these lost women novelists.


I didn’t find the last five sentences of her talk (quoted below) were “earned”  – ie justified by what had gone before, even if it “feels” probably  true.

“The Waverley novels’ romanticized version of Scotland was attractive to Scots because it gave them a cultural identity distinct from England’s—one that transcended differences of class, religion, and political party.  It was useful to the continued unity of the British state because it assigned Scotland a valuable contributing role as the bastion of traditional ways of life and unspoiled nature, while legitimating a more civilized and progressive England’s role as governing authority.    But as the unity of the British state becomes increasingly questionable, in the wake of devolution and with the possibility of a second referendum on Scottish independence, it is arguably useful to turn to these long-neglected alternative versions of Scotland, versions that are less grandiose, but perhaps more serviceable for their lack of grandeur.  If nations are indeed imagined communities, then surely it is wise to exercise our imaginations broadly.  The more versions of its history a nation has, the greater are its possibilities in shaping its future.”

The title of the talk was “Did Sir Walter Scott invent Scotland?” and the answer has to be: well he invented one Scotland that took a very powerful hold on the Scots, the English, and people around the world (Donizetti and Rossini both wrote operas based on Scott’s work). The next question has to be: why did this happen? And the speaker doesn’t give us enough on the history of the works’ reception to make sense of this undoubted phenomenon. As you point out, his stature was such that a station was named after his novels.

(The character’s name “Waverley” is meant to obliquely refer to his affections that wavered between England and Scotland throughout  the book. Seems appropriate for the railway station through which pass the England bound Scots.)


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