A Birthday to Remember

21st Aug 2015

There is always a buzz amongst staff and volunteers at Abbotsford on Scott's birthday. It's a particularly beautiful day today, and, having just hosted a wonderful outdoor theatre performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest in his honour, we're now poised to welcome archers, re-enactors and visitors for all manner of family fun at the annual Abbotsford Arrow tomorrow.

The Tempest in the Sunken or 'Morris' Garden

In the mist of all of this celebratory activity, I stopped to look through the journal and see if Scott ever acknowledged his own birthday. I had a suspicion that he wouldn't, as squirreled away in our collection stores, we have a wonderful little notebook where Scott actually notes down the birthdays of his children and close relations (including, poignantly, the nameless infant who did not survive). With delicious eccentricity, he duly adds his own name and birthday to this list, as if it might easily slip his mind! Leafing through the journal, he is almost always writing on his birthday in these later years, which, considering his literary output and the financial challenge he faced, isn't surprising. In August 1826, he spends the 15th beavering away writing portions of The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte and Chronicles of the Canongate and suffering from 'oppression' of the chest, proclaiming:

I will never relax my labour in these affairs either for fear of pain or love of life. I will die a free man if hard working will do it.

As far as birthdays go, this day of toil, anxiety and palpitations probably wasn't a particularly pleasant one. However, in 1822, the situation was somewhat different. By this time, Scott had become much more than just a writer; he was a phenomenon, a man that seems to encapsulate the essence of Scotland and speak on her behalf.

The day before his birthday that auspicious year, Scott had famously been branded by King George IV as 'the man in Scotland I most wished to see,' on the deck of the HMS Royal George in the driving rain. The arrival of this ship marked a momentous occasion for a Scotland still nursing deep wounds stemming from the Jacobite rising - a British monarch was to step on Scottish soil for the first time since 1650. The pressure was on Sir Walter Scott, the nationalist unionist, to heal this rift and banish the bad blood, rekindling a sense of pride in Scottish nationhood. He had only three weeks to plan and stage manage a theatrical spectacle the likes of which Edinburgh had never seen.

The entry of George IV into Edinburgh from the Calton Hill by John Wilson Ewbank, (c) City of Edinburgh Council

The 300,000 or so spectators lining the streets of the capital on the 15th August 1822, sporting springs of thistles and heather and clasping St. Andrews crosses, eagerly awaited the progress of the king. This procession from the king's landing to Holyrood Palace took just over two hours and commenced and ended with the firing of a royal salute. Pomp and pageantry was very much the order of the day, with a bonfire on Arthur's seat, presentation of the keys to the city and even the erecting of a large illuminated crown on the chimney of the Edinburgh Gas Works that seemed to float above the building. Once inside the palace, he was presented with the Honours of Scotland, the crown jewels long buried within the vaults of Edinburgh Castle and 'recovered' by our very own Sir Walter Scott in 1818. Then, mid-afternoon, he departed for Dalkeith Palace with a party of Scots Greys to spend the evening as the guest of the young Duke of Buccleuch.

Oil painting of The Regalia of Scotland. Gilt frame with 2 shell decorations, by Andrew Geddes (1783–1844), Scottish portrait painter and etcher.

In this first 24 hours, Sir Walter Scott had achieved a tremendous amount. The king had proclaimed that the crowds represented 'a nation of gentlemen' full of 'patriotism and valour.' Of course, Scott had ensured that all those in proximity to his esteemed guest wore their flower pins and carried their crosses and medals to denote their loyalty to the Hanoverian monarch. That particular day, the king was in naval uniform but he is also famed for sporting rather lurid tartan regalia during the state visit. This choice of clothing was a masterstroke dealt by Scott to re-establish the legitimacy of Highland dress, even if some spectators saw more of the kilt-wearing King than they were intending to!

David Wilkie's portrait of George IV in Highland dress. Wilkie has kindly lengthened the cut of the kilt on the rather portly monarch and removed his infamous pink tights!

As his birthday drew to a close on the 15th August 1822, Scott must have reflected on the first hours the king had spent in Scotland and savoured the success of his rigorous planning (even if the rain had slightly muted the effect of his flaming beacon!). Fast forward to the 29th August after a fortnight of jubilation and the king leaves Scotland armed with a gift from the great writer that really encapsulates all the symbolic and historic threads of a proud nation acknowledging their monarch. This 'compound relic' was a snuff box made from eleven varieties or sources of wood associated with Scottish legends, history, events and song. This little snuff box could be viewed as a symbolic message illustrating how the diverse strands of Scotland's past might be reconciled and brought together in the hands of a just ruler who never dismisses the proud heritage of her people. Talk about loaded gifts!

An example of a Mauchline Ware wooden snuff box, made of segments of wood from ten different trees/woods by Daniel Craig of Helensburgh,the man responsible for making the snuff box gifted to King George IV.

It must have been an electric day, one that propelled Sir Walter Scott and Scotland to the forefront of the British conciousness. So, on that note, a very happy birthday to Sir Walter and thank you for reading.

Kirsty Archer-Thompson

Collections and Interpretation Manager

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