Windham Life and Times – June 4, 2015

Canobie, Canonbie, Cannobie

Part 2: Sir Walter Scot and Border Ballards

Canobie, Scotland

Canobie, Scotland

Sir Walter Scott was one of the most influential writers, in the English language, during the nineteenth century. Today, most, including myself, know very little about the life and work of this writer. He is responsible for one of the most vivid lines from my childhood, one that is indelibly seared into my conscience. It is two lines from the epic poem Marmion written in 1808, which are one of the most quoted excerpts from Scottish poetry which is derived from Canto VI, XVII :

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!

Another quote that I’ve heard often but didn’t ever know where it came is, “Blood is thicker than water,” which comes from Guy Mannering, Ch. 37 (1815). Then there is this choice saying from, The Heart of Midlothian’, Ch. 8 (1818). Revenge is the sweetest morsel to the mouth, that ever was cooked in hell. And then this from The Talisman, Ch. 24 (1825). A miss is as good as a mile.

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott

Most important to us here is the fact that the Scott’s were an old Scottish borders family. “Scott spent his childhood years in Edinburgh, with occasional extended visits to his grandfather Robert Scott’s farm in Tweeddale in the Borders, where he became versed in his family’s history, and in Borders culture in general.” (BBC) As a boy, youth and young man, Scott was fascinated by the oral traditions of the Scottish Borders. He was an obsessive collector of stories, and developed an innovative method of recording what he heard at the feet of local story-tellers using carvings on twigs, to avoid the disapproval of those who believed that such stories were neither for writing down nor for printing.” (Wiki) “He attended the famed Edinburgh High School, and then followed in his father’s wake by taking a law degree at Edinburgh University, being called to the Bar in 1792. At 25 he began writing, first translating works from German then moving on to poetry.

In 1797 he married the daughter of a French refugee, Charlotte Carpenter, with whom he had four children. Five years later, he published a three-volume set of collected Scottish ballads, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders. This was an early indicator of his interest in Scotland and history from a literary standpoint.” (BBC)
“Scott was a poet, novelist, ballad-collector, critic and man of letters, but is probably most renowned as the founder of the genre of the historical novel, involving tales of gallantry, romance and chivalry. In 1802-03, Scott’s first major work, Minstrelsy Of The Scottish Border appeared. As a poet Scott rose into fame with the publication of The Lady of the Lake (1810), Rokeby (1813), and The Lord of the Isles (1815). With their romantic, often sublime, depictions of landscape, they fuelled the taste for the ‘picturesque’ and encouraged the trend for the inclusion of Scotland in the ‘Grand Tour,’ the cultural European tour that enticed much of the travel-minded gentry in the 18th and 19th centuries.” (BBC)

His novels and poetry are still read, and many of his works remain classics of both English-language literature and of Scottish literature. Famous titles include Rob Roy, The Lady of the Lake, Waverley, The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermoor. Scott’s novel Ivanhoe was required reading in many American high schools into the 1950’s.

Next week we will return to our main interest, which resides in the epic poem Marmion, in which are found the lines about the hero Lochinvar. The setting for this poem is the borders of Scotland near Canonbie.



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