Wednesday, August 15, 2012


I’ve always enjoyed John Buchan’s framing of the environment surrounding Edinburgh in the year 1771.  The first three paragraphs say so much in a brief space.  Walter Scott, of course, was born on August 15, 1771.  From Buchan’s biography “Sir Walter Scott”:

In the autumn of the year 1771 an Edinburgh citizen, returning after many years' absence, would have noted certain changes in his native city. If, on the morning after his arrival at the White Horse Inn in the Canongate, he had ascended to the high places of the Castle hill, and looked north and east, he would have missed one familiar landmark. The Nor' Loch, his haunt on youthful holidays and the odorous grave of city refuse, had been drained, and its bed was now grass and shingle. Across the hollow which once had held its waters a huge mound of earth had been thrown, giving access to the distant fields. Farther east, another crossing was in process of making, a bridge to carry a broad highway. Before he had left home the Canongate had burst its bonds into New Street and St John Street, and he noted that the city had spilled itself farther southward beyond the South Bridge of the Cowgate into new streets and squares. But now the moat of the Nor' Loch was spanned, and on its farther shore building had begun according to the plans of the ingenious Mr Craig. He had heard much of these plans that morning in Lucky Boyd's hostelry—of how a new Register House, with the Adam brothers as architects, and paid for out of the forfeited Jacobite estates, was designed to rise at the end of the new bridge. And the spectator, according as he was a lover of old things or an amateur of novelties, would have sighed or approved. The little city, strung from the Castle to Holyroodhouse along her rib of hill, where more history had been made than in any place of like size save Athens, Rome and Jerusalem—which, according to the weather and the observer's standpoint, looked like a flag flung against the sky or a ship riding by the shore—was enlarging her bounds and entering upon a new career. 

Another sight of some significance was to be had in the same year at the same season. From every corner of the north droves of black cattle were converging on Falkirk moor for the great autumn Tryst. It was the clearing-house of the Highlands, as Stagshawbank on the Tyne was the clearing-house of Scotland. The drover from Glen Affric, herding his kyloes among the autumn bracken, could see from his bivouac a cloud of dark smoke on the banks of the Carron river, and hear by day and night the clang of hammers. This was the Carron Ironworks, now eleven years old, and a canal was being made from Grangemouth-on-Forth to carry their products to the world. There, within sight of the Highland Line, a quarter of a century after a Jacobite army had campaigned on that very ground, the coal and iron of the Scottish midlands were being used in a promising industry. Cannon were being made for many nations, and the Carron pipes and sugar-boilers and fire-grates were soon to be famous throughout the land. The Highland drover, already perplexed by the intrusion of Lowland sheep on his hills and the cutting of his native woods by English companies, saw in the flame and smoke of the ironworks a final proof that his ancient world was crumbling. 

There was a third portent, the most pregnant of all, which our returned exile, if he were a man of some education, had a chance of noting. He had heard with pleasure during his absence a rumour of good literature coming from the north. The London critics had spoken well of Mr David Hume's works in history and philosophy, of Mr Robertson's excursions in the former domain, of Mr Ferguson's treatise on civil society, and of the poetry of Mr Beattie of Aberdeen, while visitors had reported the surpassing eloquence of Mr Hugh Blair of the High Kirk of St Giles'. Our traveller, when he had access to these famous men, found that Edinburgh had indeed become a home of brilliant talk and genial company—Edinburgh with her endless taverns where entertainment was cheap, since the Forth at the door gave her oysters, and sound claret was to be had at eighteen shillings a dozen. Around the tavern board or the dinner-table he found the illuminati good Scotsmen, speaking the tongue he fondly remembered, and perpetuating the tales and humours of his youth. But their public performance surprised him, for it was a sedulous aping of London. They strove without much success to acquire an English accent, and Mr Adam Smith was envied because Balliol had trimmed the roughness of his Fife tongue. They cultivated a thing called rhetoric, which was supposed to be a canonical use of language freed from local vulgarities, and in the shabby old college Mr Hugh Blair lectured on that dismal science with much acceptance. In their writings they laboriously assisted each other to correct the solecisms of the northern idiom, and a year or two later, when David Hume lay on his death-bed, it was the jest of a caustic Lord of Session that the philosopher confessed not his sins but his Scotticisms. 

So our restored exile may have regarded the scene with mingled feelings. His countrymen beyond doubt had their heads at last above water, but the land they were making for was not the kindly soil he had known. …

The Family of Buccleuch
From the family of Buccleuch there was an early offshoot, called first of Sinton and then of Harden, whose tower still stands in a dark nook of Borthwick water. The Scotts of Harden were scarcely less noted in the Border wars than the parent house, and they produced such figures of ballad and folk story as Auld Wat of Harden, who in 1567 married Mary Scott, the "Flower of Yarrow," and his son William, who espoused the daughter of Sir Gideon Murray of Elibank, the "Muckle Mou'd Meg," of a tale which is probably apocryphal. The third son of this William of Harden became laird of Raeburn, and his wife was a MacDougal of Makerstoun, of a family which has some claim to be the oldest in Scotland. This Walter Scott was a Whig and a Quaker, but his sons walked in other paths, for his eldest fell in {22} a duel, and the second, Walter, was known on Teviotside as Beardie, from the great beard which he allowed to grow in token of his regret for the banished Stuarts. Beardie, after narrowly escaping the gallows on account of his politics, married a kinswoman of the Campbells of Blythswood, and in his old age had some repute for learning. His second son took to sheep-farming, and leased the farm of Sandy Knowe from the Scotts of Harden, after staking all his fortune on the purchase of a hunter, which he fortunately sold for double the price he gave. He prospered, and made a great name on the Border as a judge of stock. His wife was a Haliburton of Newmains, who brought to the family the right of burial in Dryburgh Abbey. The sheep-farmer's eldest son, Walter, forsook the family pursuits and, first of his race, settled in a town and adopted a learned profession, for he became a Writer to the Signet in Edinburgh, the highest stage in Scotland of the solicitor's calling. His wife was Anne Rutherford, the eldest daughter of the professor of medicine in the University, and with her came into the blood two other ancient strains. For the Rutherfords had been longer settled on the Border than the Scotts, and her mother was a Swinton of that ilk, one of the most sounding names in early Scottish history, and a descendant of Ben Jonson's friend, the poet Earl of Stirling. 

Scott’s Ancestry
So much for the details of pedigree. The child born in August, 1771, to Anne Rutherford and Walter Scott at the head of the College Wynd, had a more varied ancestry than falls to the lot of most men. No doubt the ancestry of all of us is oddly mixed, but in his case the record was known. He was linked collaterally through the Buccleuchs with the greater noblesse. He had behind him the most historic of the Border stocks in Scott and Murray and Rutherford and Swinton. He had Celtic blood from MacDougal and Campbell. Of the many painted shields on the ceiling of the hall at Abbotsford which enshrine his pedigree, only three lack a verified heraldic cognizance. Among his forbears were saints and sinners, scholars and sportsmen and {23} men-at-arms, barons and sheep-farmers, divines and doctors of medicine, Whigs and Jacobites, Cavaliers and Quakers. Above all he had that kindest bequest of the good fairies at his cradle, a tradition, bone of his bone, of ancient pastoral, of a free life lived among clear waters and green hills as in the innocency of the world. …’

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