Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 2.

Youth — Choice of a Profession.

As Scott grew up, entered the classes of the college, and began his legal studies, first as apprentice to his father, and then in the law classes of the University, he became noticeable to all his friends for his gigantic memory — the rich stores of romantic material with which it was loaded — his giant feats of industry for any cherished purpose — his delight in adventure and in all athletic enterprises — his great enjoyment of youthful “rows,” so long as they did not divide the knot of friends to which he belonged, and his skill in peacemaking amongst his own set. During his apprenticeship his only means of increasing his slender allowance with funds which he could devote to his favourite studies, was to earn money by copying, and he tells us himself that he remembered writing “120 folio pages with no interval either for food or rest,” fourteen or fifteen hours’ very hard work at the very least — expressly for this purpose.

In the second year of Scott’s apprenticeship, at about the age of sixteen, he had an attack of hæmorrhage, no recurrence of which took place for some forty years, but which was then the beginning of the end. During this illness silence was absolutely imposed upon him — two old ladies putting their fingers on their lips, whenever he offered to speak. It was at this time that the lad began his study of the scenic side of history, and especially of campaigns, which he illustrated for himself by the arrangement of shells, seeds, and pebbles, so as to represent encountering armies, in the manner referred to (and referred to apparently in anticipation of a later stage of his life than that he was then speaking of) in the passage from the introduction to the third canto of Marmion which I have already given. He also managed so to arrange the looking-glasses in his room as to see the troops march out to exercise in the meadows, as he lay in bed. His reading was almost all in the direction of military exploit, or romance and mediæval legend and the later border songs of his own country. He learned Italian and read Ariosto. Later he learned Spanish and devoured Cervantes, whose “novelas,” he said, “first inspired him with the ambition to excel in fiction;” and all that he read and admired he remembered. Scott used to illustrate the capricious affinity of his own memory for what suited it, and its complete rejection of what did not, by old Beattie of Meikledale’s answer to a Scotch divine, who complimented him on the strength of his memory. “No, sir,” said the old Borderer, “I have no command of my memory. It only retains what hits my fancy; and probably, sir, if you were to preach to me for two hours, I would not be able, when you finished, to remember a word you had been saying.” Such a memory, when it belongs to a man of genius, is really a sieve of the most valuable kind. It sifts away what is foreign and alien to his genius, and assimilates what is suited to it. In his very last days, when he was visiting Italy for the first time, Scott delighted in Malta, for it recalled to him Vertot’s Knights of Malta, and much, other mediæval story which he had pored over in his youth. But when his friends descanted to him at Pozzuoli on the Thermæ— commonly called the Temple of Serapis — among the ruins of which he stood, he only remarked that he would believe whatever he was told, “for many of his friends, and particularly Mr. Morritt, had frequently tried to drive classical antiquities, as they are called, into his head, but they had always found his skull too thick.” Was it not perhaps some deep literary instinct, like that here indicated, which made him, as a lad, refuse so steadily to learn Greek, and try to prove to his indignant professor that Ariosto was superior to Homer? Scott afterwards deeply regretted this neglect of Greek; but I cannot help thinking that his regret was misplaced. Greek literature would have brought before his mind standards of poetry and art which could not but have both deeply impressed and greatly daunted an intellect of so much power; I say both impressed and daunted, because I believe that Scott himself would never have succeeded in studies of a classical kind, while he might — like Goethe perhaps — have been either misled, by admiration for that school, into attempting what was not adapted to his genius, or else disheartened in the work for which his character and ancestry really fitted him. It has been said that there is a real affinity between Scott and Homer. But the long and refluent music of Homer, once naturalized in his mind, would have discontented him with that quick, sharp, metrical tramp of his own moss-troopers, to which alone his genius as a poet was perfectly suited.

It might be supposed that with these romantic tastes, Scott could scarcely have made much of a lawyer, though the inference would, I believe, be quite mistaken. His father, however, reproached him with being better fitted for a pedlar than a lawyer — so persistently did he trudge over all the neighbouring counties in search of the beauties of nature and the historic associations of battle, siege, or legend. On one occasion when, with their last penny spent, Scott and one of his companions had returned to Edinburgh, living during their last day on drinks of milk offered by generous peasant-women, and the hips and haws on the hedges, he remarked to his father how much he had wished for George Primrose’s power of playing on the flute in order to earn a meal by the way, old Mr. Scott, catching grumpily at the idea, replied, “I greatly doubt, sir, you were born for nae better then a gangrel scrape-gut,”— a speech which very probably suggested his son’s conception of Darsie Latimer’s adventures with the blind fiddler, “Wandering Willie,” in Redgauntlet. And, it is true that these were the days of mental and moral fermentation, what was called in Germany the Sturm-und-Drang, the “fret-and-fury” period of Scott’s life, so far as one so mellow and genial in temper ever passed through a period of fret and fury at all. In other words these were the days of rapid motion, of walks of thirty miles a day which the lame lad yet found no fatigue to him; of mad enterprises, scrapes and drinking-bouts, in one of which Scott was half persuaded by his friends that he actually sang a song for the only time in his life. But even in these days of youthful sociability, with companions of his own age, Scott was always himself, and his imperious will often asserted itself. Writing of this time, some thirty-five years or so later, he said, “When I was a boy, and on foot expeditions, as we had many, no creature could be so indifferent which way our course was directed, and I acquiesced in what any one proposed; but if I was once driven to make a choice, and felt piqued in honour to maintain my proposition, I have broken off from the whole party, rather than yield to any one.” No doubt, too, in that day of what he himself described as “the silly smart fancies that ran in my brain like the bubbles in a glass of champagne, as brilliant to my thinking, as intoxicating, as evanescent,” solitude was no real deprivation to him; and one can easily imagine him marching off on his solitary way after a dispute with his companions, reciting to himself old songs or ballads, with that “noticeable but altogether indescribable play of the upper lip,” which Mr. Lockhart thinks suggested to one of Scott’s most intimate friends, on his first acquaintance with him, the grotesque notion that he had been “a hautboy-player.” This was the first impression formed of Scott by William Clerk, one of his earliest and life-long friends. It greatly amused Scott, who not only had never played on any instrument in his life, but could hardly make shift to join in the chorus of a popular song without marring its effect; but perhaps the impression suggested was not so very far astray after all. Looking to the poetic side of his character, the trumpet certainly would have been the instrument that would have best symbolized the spirit both of Scott’s thought and of his verses. Mr. Lockhart himself, in summing up his impressions of Sir Walter, quotes as the most expressive of his lines:—

“Sound, sound the clarion! fill the fife!

To all the sensual world proclaim,

One crowded hour of glorious life

Is worth a world without a name.”

And undoubtedly this gives us the key-note of Scott’s personal life as well as of his poetic power. Above everything he was high-spirited, a man of noble, and, at the same time, of martial feelings. Sir Francis Doyle speaks very justly of Sir Walter as “among English singers the undoubted inheritor of that trumpet-note, which, under the breath of Homer, has made the wrath of Achilles immortal;” and I do not doubt that there was something in Scott’s face, and especially in the expression of his mouth, to suggest this even to his early college companions. Unfortunately, however, even “one crowded hour of glorious life” may sometimes have a “sensual” inspiration, and in these days of youthful adventure, too many such hours seem to have owed their inspiration to the Scottish peasant’s chief bane, the Highland whisky. In his eager search after the old ballads of the Border, Scott had many a blithe adventure, which ended only too often in a carouse. It was soon after this time that he first began those raids into Liddesdale, of which all the world has enjoyed the records in the sketches — embodied subsequently in Guy Mannering— of Dandie Dinmont, his pony Dumple, and the various Peppers and Mustards from whose breed there were afterwards introduced into Scott’s own family, generations of terriers, always named, as Sir Walter expressed it, after “the cruet.” I must quote the now classic record of those youthful escapades:—

“Eh me,” said Mr. Shortreed, his companion in all these Liddesdale raids, “sic an endless fund of humour and drollery as he had then wi’ him. Never ten yards but we were either laughing or roaring and singing. Wherever we stopped, how brawlie he suited himsel’ to everybody! He aye did as the lave did; never made himsel’ the great man or took ony airs in the company. I’ve seen him in a’ moods in these jaunts, grave and gay, daft and serious, sober and drunk —(this, however, even in our wildest rambles, was but rare)— but drunk or sober he was aye the gentleman. He looked excessively heavy and stupid when he was fou, but he was never out o’ gude humour.”

One of the stories of that time will illustrate better the wilder days of Scott’s youth than any comment:—

“On reaching one evening,” says Mr. Lockhart, “some Charlieshope or other (I forget the name) among those wildernesses, they found a kindly reception as usual: but to their agreeable surprise, after some days of hard living, a measured and orderly hospitality as respected liquor. Soon after supper, at which a bottle of elderberry wine alone had been produced, a young student of divinity who happened to be in the house was called upon to take the ‘big ha’ Bible,’ in the good old fashion of Burns’ Saturday Night: and some progress had been already made in the service, when the good man of the farm, whose ‘tendency,’ as Mr. Mitchell says, ‘was soporific,’ scandalized his wife and the dominie by starting suddenly from his knees, and rubbing his eyes, with a stentorian exclamation of ‘By ——! here’s the keg at last!’ and in tumbled, as he spake the word, a couple of sturdy herdsmen, whom, on hearing, a day before, of the advocate’s approaching visit, he had despatched to a certain smuggler’s haunt at some considerable distance in quest of a supply of run brandy from the Solway frith. The pious ‘exercise’ of the household was hopelessly interrupted. With a thousand apologies for his hitherto shabby entertainment, this jolly Elliot or Armstrong had the welcome keg mounted on the table without a moment’s delay, and gentle and simple, not forgetting the dominie, continued carousing about it until daylight streamed in upon the party. Sir Walter Scott seldom failed, when I saw him in company with his Liddesdale companions, to mimic with infinite humour the sudden outburst of his old host on hearing the clatter of horses’ feet, which he knew to indicate the arrival of the keg, the consternation of the dame, and the rueful despair with which the young clergyman closed the book.”1

No wonder old Mr. Scott felt some doubt of his son’s success at the bar, and thought him more fitted in many respects for a “gangrel scrape-gut.”2

In spite of all this love of excitement, Scott became a sound lawyer, and might have been a great lawyer, had not his pride of character, the impatience of his genius, and the stir of his imagination rendered him indisposed to wait and slave in the precise manner which the prepossessions of solicitors appoint.

For Scott’s passion for romantic literature was not at all the sort of thing which we ordinarily mean by boys’ or girls’ love of romance. No amount of drudgery or labour deterred Scott from any undertaking on the prosecution of which he was bent. He was quite the reverse, indeed, of what is usually meant by sentimental, either in his manners or his literary interests. As regards the history of his own country he was no mean antiquarian. Indeed he cared for the mustiest antiquarian researches — of the mediæval kind — so much, that in the depth of his troubles he speaks of a talk with a Scotch antiquary and herald as one of the things which soothed him most. “I do not know anything which relieves the mind so much from the sullens as trifling discussions about antiquarian old womanries. It is like knitting a stocking, diverting the mind without occupying it.”3 Thus his love of romantic literature was as far as possible from that of a mind which only feeds on romantic excitements; rather was it that of one who was so moulded by the transmitted and acquired love of feudal institutions with all their incidents, that he could not take any deep interest in any other fashion of human society. Now the Scotch law was full of vestiges and records of that period — was indeed a great standing monument of it; and in numbers of his writings Scott shows with how deep an interest he had studied the Scotch law from this point of view. He remarks somewhere that it was natural for a Scotchman to feel a strong attachment to the principle of rank, if only on the ground that almost any Scotchman might, under the Scotch law, turn out to be heir-intail to some great Scotch title or estate by the death of intervening relations. And the law which sometimes caused such sudden transformations, had subsequently a true interest for him of course as a novel writer, to say nothing of his interest in it as an antiquarian and historian who loved to repeople the earth, not merely with the picturesque groups of the soldiers and courts of the past, but with the actors in all the various quaint and homely transactions and puzzlements which the feudal ages had brought forth. Hence though, as a matter of fact, Scott never made much figure as an advocate, he became a very respectable, and might unquestionably have become a very great, lawyer. When he started at the bar, however, he had not acquired the tact to impress an ordinary assembly. In one case which he conducted before the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland, when defending a parish minister threatened with deposition for drunkenness and unseemly behaviour, he certainly missed the proper tone — first receiving a censure for the freedom of his manner in treating the allegations against his client, and then so far collapsing under the rebuke of the Moderator, as to lose the force and urgency necessary to produce an effect on his audience. But these were merely a boy’s mishaps. He was certainly by no means a Heaven-born orator, and therefore could not expect to spring into exceptionally early distinction, and the only true reason for his relative failure was that he was so full of literary power, and so proudly impatient of the fetters which prudence seemed to impose on his extra-professional proceedings, that he never gained the credit he deserved for the general common sense, the unwearied industry, and the keen appreciation of the ins and outs of legal method, which might have raised him to the highest reputation even as a judge.

All readers of his novels know how Scott delights in the humours of the law. By way of illustration take the following passage, which is both short and amusing, in which Saunders Fairford — the old solicitor painted from Scott’s father in Redgauntlet— descants on the law of the stirrup-cup. “It was decided in a case before the town bailies of Cupar Angus, when Luckie Simpson’s cow had drunk up Luckie Jamieson’s browst of ale, while it stood in the door to cool, that there was no damage to pay, because the crummie drank without sitting down; such being the circumstance constituting a Doch an Dorroch, which is a standing drink for which no reckoning is paid.” I do not believe that any one of Scott’s contemporaries had greater legal abilities than he, though, as it happened, they were never fairly tried. But he had both the pride and impatience of genius. It fretted him to feel that he was dependent on the good opinions of solicitors, and that they who were incapable of understanding his genius, thought the less instead of the better of him as an advocate, for every indication which he gave of that genius. Even on the day of his call to the bar he gave expression to a sort of humorous foretaste of this impatience, saying to William Clerk, who had been called with him, as he mimicked the air and tone of a Highland lass waiting at the Cross of Edinburgh to be hired for the harvest, “We’ve stood here an hour by the Tron, hinny, and deil a ane has speered our price.” Scott continued to practise at the bar — nominally at least — for fourteen years, but the most which he ever seems to have made in any one year was short of 230l., and latterly his practice was much diminishing instead of increasing. His own impatience of solicitors’ patronage was against him; his well-known dabblings in poetry were still more against him; and his general repute for wild and unprofessional adventurousness — which was much greater than he deserved — was probably most of all against him. Before he had been six years at the bar he joined the organization of the Edinburgh Volunteer Cavalry, took a very active part in the drill, and was made their Quartermaster. Then he visited London, and became largely known for his ballads, and his love of ballads. In his eighth year at the bar he accepted a small permanent appointment, with 300l. a year, as sheriff of Selkirkshire; and this occurring soon after his marriage to a lady of some means, no doubt diminished still further his professional zeal. For one third of the time during which Scott practised as an advocate he made no pretence of taking interest in that part of his work, though he was always deeply interested in the law itself. In 1806 he undertook gratuitously the duties of a Clerk of Session — a permanent officer of the Court at Edinburgh — and discharged them without remuneration for five years, from 1806 to 1811, in order to secure his ultimate succession to the office in the place of an invalid, who for that period received all the emoluments and did none of the work. Nevertheless Scott’s legal abilities were so well known, that it was certainly at one time intended to offer him a Barony of the Exchequer, and it was his own doing, apparently, that it was not offered. The life of literature and the life of the Bar hardly ever suit, and in Scott’s case they suited the less, that he felt himself likely to be a dictator in the one field, and only a postulant in the other. Literature was a far greater gainer by his choice, than Law could have been a loser. For his capacity for the law he shared with thousands of able men, his capacity for literature with few or none.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, i. 269–71.

2 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, i. 206.

3 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ix. 221.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29