THIS coming Sunday is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Sir Walter Scott which will be celebrated with a whole host of events, some of which are running throughout this most difficult year.

Today and in Sunday’s National and next Tuesday’s Back in the Day I am going to attempt to tell in short form the life and career of an extraordinary man whose genius is, in my opinion, still not as marked by his fellow Scots as it should be. I’ll have about 5000 words to tell his story – honestly, nearer 500,000 would be needed to tell it all. I have written about Scott before, but have never attempted to write a “life”. I will divide this account into three parts – his early life until he began writing poetry, then his literary career and the final instalment will be on the many other other things he did, and his legacy to Scotland and the world.

Having read most of his novels, I am perfectly well aware that they are not an easy read for the modern generations. The language is often archaic and stilted, and many people dismiss his work as out of date, forgetting that they are reading novels by the man who did not invent this art form – Cervantes, Rabelais, Daniel Defoe all have a better claim and we know the Ancient Romans and Chinese read non-fiction novels – but who almost single-handedly transformed novel writing and reading and popularised historical novels in particular.

Thanks to his son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart, we know just about everything we need to know about Scott. Lockhart’s Memoirs of the Life of Walter Scott, Baronet, run to seven volumes and are often compared to his fellow Scot James Boswell’s biography of Dr Samuel Johnson (below). Most of the facts in these columns are drawn from Lockhart’s works which are still in print today.

The National: Samuel Johnson

I will be making no attempt at literary criticism in these three columns – I leave that to Alan Riach who is incomparably better at it. Rather I will confine myself to, and address as needs be, the facts of his marvellous life, that began in Edinburgh on August 15, 1771.

Scott was born in a third floor apartment in College Wynd in the Old Town – there is a commemorative plaque at the top of Guthrie Street. His father, also Walter, was a successful lawyer while his mother Anne née Rutherford was the daughter of Edinburgh University Professor John Rutherford. Anne’s mother was connected to Scottish Borders aristocracy while Anne herself was a collector of folk ballads and stories mostly from the Borders, a passion which she inculcated in her son. Sadly, five of Scott’s siblings had died in infancy and a sister Barbara died while he was still young.

Young Walter had his own brush with death. In 1773 at the age of 18 months he contracted polio and was dangerously ill. The disease terribly affected his right leg, leaving Scott lame for life. That is something many people are not aware of – Scott was disabled for most of his life.

His parents decided that Scott’s health would improve in the countryside, and he was sent to live with his grandparents, Robert and Barbara Scott, at their farm at Sandyknowe in what was then Roxburghshire and is now the Scottish Borders. He stayed there for two years until his grandfather died. Scott’s health had improved enough for him to go home to Edinburgh and start a private education.

That time in the Borders left a huge mark on Scott. His grandmother Barbara kept him amused with lots of stories about the history of the Borders and the battles between the Scots and English, but it was his aunt Janet, always known as Jenny, who taught her nephew to read and also recited poetry to him when he was confined to bed.

Walter Scott snr had bought a magnificent new house in George Square in the New Town and young Walter was able to get around it with the help of a walking cane. He would become an inveterate walker, exploring the city and beyond.

The family decided to try and cure his lameness and in the summer of 1775 in the care of his Aunt Jenny he was sent to Bath to see if that city’s spas and mineral waters could help him. He did grow stronger in Bath but unfortunately the lameness remained. It was back to Sandyknowe, but in one final attempt at a water cure, Scott was taken to Prestonpans in the summer of 1777, only for this last effort to fail, too.

The time in Bath and at Sandyknowe had strengthened him up, however, and his father enrolled him in the Royal High School, then located in Infirmary Street. Scott was behind in his Latin studies at first but soon caught up and he came under the influence of school Rector Dr Alexander Adam – it was he who was credited with persuading Scott to try his own compositions.

Walter Scott snr brought in a private tutor, James Mitchell, to round out his son’s education with writing and arithmetic, and meanwhile young Walter improved physically and grew several inches – he would eventually be six feet tall or so, making him big for the time.

Before going to university, it was decided to send Scott back to Sandyknowe and from there he attended the grammar school at Kelso. It was there that he met James Ballantyne, who would become his lifelong friend and sometime business partner, and his brother John Ballantyne.

At Kelso he had access to good libraries and began to read the novels of fellows Scot Tobias Smollett, who had died in the year Scott was born, and Man of Feeling author Henry MacKenzie. He was taken, too, with the novels of England’s Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, but it was an English cleric who was to have the most influence, namely Bishop Thomas Percy, editor of the collection Reliques of Ancient Poetry. This best-selling work contained several Borders ballads, and Scott was inspired to start writing down the ballads he knew and adding more of his own composition.

He was just 12 years old, and university life beckoned. In November, 1783, Scott duly enrolled to study Classics but his lack of Greek proved a hindrance and while popular with his fellow students – they included many future powerful friends – he did not care much for the teaching.

A further bout of illness saw him back in Kelso and when he recovered, the 14-year-old Scott went back to Edinburgh to take up a legal apprenticeship in his father’s office. His big choice was whether to train to be an advocate at the Bar or follow his father as a Writer to the Signet, what we would now call a solicitor.

Before resuming his legal studies, Scott had the good fortune to study moral philosophy and universal history, the former taught by Dugald Stewart and the latter by Alexander Fraser Tytler. Both of these major figures of the Scottish Enlightenment would have huge influence on Scott, the former with his belief that moral philosophy should be the study of man in society while the latter preached an empirical approach to history.

All the time, Scott remained a voracious reader and through his friend Adam Fergusson’s father Professor Adam Fergusson, he gained introductions to two impressive men of letters. One was the blind poet and cleric Rev Dr Thomas Blacklock and the other was Robert Burns.

Scott write many years later about Blacklock: “I know not how I attracted his attention, and that of some of the young men who boarded with his family; but so it was that I became a frequent and favoured guest. The kind old man opened to me the stores of his library, and through his recommendation I became intimate with Ossian and Spenser. I was delighted with both, yet I think chiefly with the latter poet.”

Much more importantly he met Robert Burns, already acclaimed as Scotland’s Bard. I think I can pinpoint the exact moment when Scott decided to dedicate himself to poetry – when he met Burns at a literary evening in Sciennes House in Edinburgh.

The National:

Scott recalled in 1827: “I was a lad of fifteen in 1786-7, when he came first to Edinburgh, but had sense and feeling enough to be much interested in his poetry, and would have given the world to know him; but I had very little acquaintance with any literary people, and still less with the gentry of the west country, the two sets that he most frequented.

“Mr Thomas Grierson was at that time a clerk of my father’s. He knew Burns, and promised to ask him to his lodgings to dinner, but had no opportunity to keep his word, otherwise I might have seen more of this distinguished man.

“As it was, I saw him one day at the late venerable Professor Fergusson’s, where there were several gentlemen of literary reputation, among whom I remember the celebrated Mr Dugald Stewart. Of course we youngsters sat silent, looked and listened.

“The only thing I remember which was remarkable in Burns’ manner, was the effect produced upon him by a print of Bunbury’s, representing a soldier lying dead in the snow, his dog sitting in misery on the one side, on the other his widow with a child in her arms. These lines were written beneath, – ‘Cold on Canadian hills, or Mindens’ plain, Perhaps that parent wept her soldiers slain: Bent o’er her babe, her eye dissolved in dew, The big drops, mingling with the milk he drew, Gave the sad presage of his future years, The child of misery baptized in tears.’

“Burns seemed much affected by the print, or rather the ideas which it suggested to his mind. He actually shed tears.

“He asked whose the lines were, and it chanced that nobody but myself remembered that they occur in a half-forgotten poem of Langhorne’s, called by the uncompromising title of The Justice Of The Piece.

“I whispered my information to a friend present, who mentioned it to Burns, who rewarded me with a look and a word, which, though of mere civility, I then received and still recollect, with very great pleasure.

“There was a strong expression of sense and shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical temperament. It was large and of a dark cast, and glowed (I say literally glowed) when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men in my time.

“His conversation expressed perfect self-confidence without the slightest presumption. Among those who were the most learned of their time and country he expressed himself with perfect firmness, but without the least intrusive forwardness; and when he differed in opinion, he did not hesitate to express it firmly, yet at the same time with modesty. I do not remember any part of his conversation distinctly enough to be quoted, nor did I ever see him again, except in the street, where he did not recognize me, as I could not expect he should.

“I remember on this occasion I mention, I thought Burns’s acquaintance with English poetry was rather limited, and also, that having twenty times the abilities of Allan Ramsay and of Fergusson, he talked of them with too much humility as his models; there was doubtless national predilection in his estimate.”

It is often forgotten that Scott published poetry long before he embarked on the novels for which he is more renowned. Did Burns inspire Scott to his literary career? It is very possible, and I believe Burns did. But first came the law. Find out on Sunday what Scott did next.