The Scottish people have a reputation for their strong oral tradition in song and story, as well as their high literacy and keenness for education. Not surprisingly, therefore, Scotland has produced many world-renowned authors.
Sir Walter Scott, father of historical fiction and popularizer of the
Born in Edinburgh, Scott had polio as a child and limped all his life. Due to his health, he spent a lot of time in southern Scotland and built a castle there. Sir Walter Scott labored at the law for over 30 years while writing “on the side”.
Scott enjoyed his fame, his fortune and being in the limelight. After writing poetry for several years, he turned to fiction. He not only became a best-selling author, but inventing a whole new genre and ensuring himself a place as “the father of historical fiction.”
Scott represented the two sides of Scottish culture. On the one hand, he did more than anyone to popularize and rehabilitate the image of the Highlander, talking King George IV into visiting Scotland and even wearing the kilt. It was Scott’s efforts that revitalized an interest in the tartans, Highland history and the contribution of the clans. While he sometimes went overboard in his portrayal of swashbuckling, hard-drinking, Jacobite clansmen, there is no doubt that much of today’s interest in clan history is due to his efforts.
On the other hand, he was a Borderman and his ties to England were strong. He was not against the union, but rather sought to enhance Scotland’s status within the empire. Many of his books, including his most famous, Ivanhoe, take place in England.
Scott proved better at business than many authors, and wrote his way out of his financial troubles. He produced well over a dozen volumes in his final years. After a lengthy illness, Scott died at his beloved Abbotsford.
“His worst is better than any other person’s best,” said William Hazlitt (1778–1830), essayist, praising Sir Walter Scott.
“O Caledonia! stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,
Land of the mountain and the flood,
Land of my sires! what mortal hand
Can e’er untie the filial band,
That knits me to thy rugged strand!”
Breathes there a man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself has said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!”
From “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” (1805)
Robert Burns, National Poet and Hero of Scotland (1759–1796)
Scots around the world celebrate January 25 as Burns Night.
Robert Burns grew up poor. His father was a struggling Ayrshire farmer who valued education for his bright and lively son. Burns started writing poetry to impress women, later saying, “My heart was completely tinder, and eternally lighted up by some Goddess or other …I never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I once got heartily in love, and then rhyme and song were, in a manner, the spontaneous language of my head.”
As he grew older, he watched how hard his father struggled and he died when Burns was 25 years old. So Burns began to write poems about the daily struggles of ordinary people. He was inspired by the traditional Scottish folk ballads his mother had sung him, and he wrote in Scottish dialect rather than formal English. Those poems made his name when he published as Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786).
Burns spent much of the rest of his life traveling around the countryside collecting and rewriting the lyrics of folk songs for an anthology called The Scots Musical Museum. He considered the songs to be the property of all people, and even for some of the most famous songs attributed to him (“Auld Lang Syne”) he claimed only to have made corrections and additions. By rewriting the traditional songs with his own lyrics, he rescued them and was able to revitalize Scottish cultural pride.
He also reinvigorated the Scottish vernacular through his wonderful poetry which revolves around the life he knew. He wrote satires and beautiful love poems about the many women he loved. He wrote with affection, respect and often humor about country folk and their lives. He never accepted a penny for his poems; this generosity of spirit marks what is best in the heart of man, and that is why the Scots took Rabbie Burns into their hearts.
Burns failed at farming and at everything aside from writing. Discouraged and dissipated, Burns died at the age of 37, having refused to give up drink.
“Ye canna recite Burns juist out of your head. If it does not come from your heart and up through yer head, it’s not worth sayin. Because it must touch the heart, because Burns touched the heart all the time.”
Wullie Morrison, an Ayrshire Grocer and Burns enthusiast
“On my lonely walks I have often thought how fine it would be to have the company of Burns. And indeed he was always with me, for I had him in my heart. On my first long walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico I carried a copy of Burns’s poems and sang them all the way. Wherever a Scotsman goes, here goes Burns. His grand whole, catholic soul squares with the good of all; therefore we find him in everything, everywhere.”
John Muir, U.S. naturalist born in Dunbar, Scotland, 1838
“Let kings and courtiers rise and fa;
This world has mony turns,
But brightly beams aboon them a’
The star o’ Robbie Burns.”
Words to a traditional tune written by James Thomson
Robert Louis Stevenson, writer of adventure and horror
stories and children’s verses (1850–94)
A sickly only child, Stevenson studied law instead of engineering (his father’s profession). He knew he was meant to be a writer, so he began with travel essays. After school, he moved to the continent and he never lived in Scotland again. Yet his abiding love for his country, for its history and culture, never died and his works pay tribute to the land of his birth. “…in my heart of hearts I long to be buried among good Scots clods. I will say it fairly, it grows on me with every year: there are no stars as lovely as Edinburgh street-lamps. When I forget thee, Auld Reekie, may my right hand forget its cunning!” (from The Scot Abroad)
At the age of 30, Stevenson married an older American. The idea for Treasure Island came on a visit to Scotland, while drawing a treasure map with his 12-year-old stepson. Published in 1883, this was Stevenson’s first novel, written for young people but popular with adults as well. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published three years later, became a best-seller. Kidnapped came out the same year and his career was established.
He lived in Europe, California, and the Pacific island of Samoa. The climate was good for his health and he wrote many fascinating stories about the South Seas. Having fought for health all his life, he died of a sudden stroke in December 1894.
Duality is the theme of Stevenson’s life and work – most clearly expressed in Jekyll and Hyde. He understood that people and cultures battle between good and evil; the pull of the past and the push to the future. In Kidnapped, the two protagonists are a Lowland Scot and a swashbuckling Highlander and the interplay of their characters is a clash between the “two Scotlands”. In The Master of Ballantrae, the two brothers, good and evil, are yet but two sides of the same coin struggling for supremacy. Set during the Jacobite risings, this story also contrasts the dual nature of Scotland’s heritage.
For Stevenson, life was a struggle – for health, for accomplishment, for appreciating good and for overcoming evil. If any man ever lived his life to the full, it was Stevenson. It’s a long way from Edinburgh to Samoa. He made his life’s journey in 44 short years.
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me die.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
By Robert Louis Stevenson
(written as his own epitaph and engraved on a tablet at his grave in Samoa)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the best mystery writer
Edinburgh’s School of Medicine ever produced (1859–1930)
After Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remains Edinburgh’s most famous literary son, though he was not a genetic Scot, but only through birth and breeding. Young Arthur was raised in a tumultuous, poverty-stricken household. One of ten children in an Irish-Catholic family, he watched his mother hold the family together through periods of alcoholism that destroyed his father.
Arthur’s uncles educated him at Catholic boarding schools in England. After completing medical training at Edinburgh’s School of Medicine, years of stress followed, as he tried to start his medical practice and began publishing his Sherlock Holmes stories. They ultimately provided him with fame and much of his income.
Intelligent, imaginative and inquisitive, Doyle led a life of both controversy and great service to his country. He was knighted for setting up and running a field hospital during the Boer War. In his later years, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, by now quite famous, was ridiculed in the press for his beliefs in spiritualism. His first wife Louise died after a long battle with TB. He then married Jean, his second love.
Doyle’s tumultuous upbringing and his lack of a sense of place haunted him his whole life; he was an Irish-Catholic, raised in Scotland, living later in England. Doyle’s books remain so very popular because Sherlock Holmes deifies the mind’s capacity for reason and logical deduction. Holmes presents us with a worldview that is imminently sane, secure and predictable – the antithesis of what Doyle found in his own life. In creating Holmes, Dr. Watson, and the cozy confines of Baker Street, Doyle performed a wonderful service to readers the world over. Along with his mysteries, Doyle also wrote some terrific supernatural tales.
Following a heart attack in 1929, Doyle’s health failed and he died at home the next year, leaving behind a legacy of extraordinary talent, and, of course, the most famous sleuth in the world. For Sherlock Holmes did not die with his creator.
Other Leading Scots Authors:
John Barbour (1325–1395) was born in Aberdeen and wrote the story of the triumphs of Robert the Bruce, recounted in The Bruce, the first major work of Scottish literature. Barbour studied at Oxford and his 20-book national epic, The Acts and Life of the Most Victorious Conqueror, Robert Bruce King of Scotland, was completed in 1376.
James Matthew Barrie (1860–1937) was born in Kirriemuir and was determined to be a writer. He sent a story to a London newspaper and they replied: “We like that Scotch thing. Any more of those?” In 1885, he moved to London and worked for newspapers. Many novels followed. He wrote the successful play “Peter Pan” and gave the rights to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children.
James Boswell (1740–1795) was an Edinburgh-native and Anglophile. He met the scholar and writer Samuel Johnson and in 1763 became his biographer. The Life of Johnson is generally regarded as a supreme achievement in biography. Boswell’s tour of his native Scotland in 1773 along with the indefatigable Dr. Johnson, which led to The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) helped create an appetite for touring the “wilderness” areas of Britain.
John Buchan (1875–1940) wrote in the first half of the 20th Century and his most famous book is the spy novel The 39 Steps. He also served as the 15th Governor General of Canada.
Kenneth Grahame (1859–1932) is the author of classic children’s tale The Wind in the Willows (1908). Secretary of the Bank of England in London from 1898–1907, Edinburgh-born Grahame wrote his stories for his son “peopled” by countryside frogs, toads, badgers and rats.
Dame Muriel Spark (1918–2006) wrote about a heroine in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She was brought to unforgettable life in the wonderful film version.
The Scottish people have poetry in their blood and Bobbie Burns is it’s leading light. Other key poets:
Book of the Dean of Lismore (late 15th Century)
This is the oldest collection of Gaelic poetry (Scottish and Irish) extant in Scotland compiled by Sir James MacGregor, Dean of Lismore, Argyll and his brother Duncan.
Robert Fergusson, Scotland’s “forgotten” Poet
Fergusson was born in Edinburgh and attended St. Andrews University. He found escape from the boredom and drudgery of his work by writing poetry. His first published poem appeared in 1771 and his last in December 1773. He left 83 poems in all, 50 in English and 33 in dialect Scots, of which “Auld Reekie”, tracing a day in the life of the capital city, is the most well known.
He was a depressed alcoholic and went insane. A book of his poetry was published in the year before his suicide. He died, a pauper, at the early age of 24. Robert Fergusson did not receive much public recognition, but contemporary writers saw his talent and idolised him. Robert Burns was deeply influenced and inspired to become a poet by reading his work.
Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978)
The pen-name used by Christopher Murray Grieve. He controversially pioneered a Scottish literary renaissance in the 20th Century. Central to his work was the recreation of the Scottish literary language, involving using a vocabulary from all regions of Scotland and all historical periods and put it to lyrical use. In Scotland his most famous work is probably “A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle” (1926).