Scott on Waterloo

29th Apr 2015

'Bones of horses , quantities of old hats, rags of clothes, scraps of leather and fragments of books and papers strewed the ground in great profusion...'

This was the sight that greeted Sir Walter on his visit to the battlefield in August 1815. Indeed, he had felt full of such fire to make the trip that the venture would see him take his very first steps on foreign soil. The words themselves, although a reflection of Sir Walter's own experiences, come from the eponymous narrator of Paul's Letters to his Kinsfolk, a strange work that purports to be a series of letters penned for five different recipients back home. In effect, this short work is Scott's closest brush with journalism. A brand new edition of this fascinating text, along with The Field of Waterloo and 'the Dance of Death,' was published at the end of April this year and we were delighted to assist Penguin Random House with the cover!

Front Cover Photograph showing the Soldier's Book and Tricolour Cockade from the Abbotsford Collections

On the evening of Tuesday 12th May we were very fortunate to welcome Dr. Paul O' Keeffe, the editor of this new publication, to Abbotsford to introduce his new book and talk a little more about Scott's battlefield visit in the run up to the bicentenary of Waterloo next month. The evening was a wonderful, theatrical affair (with belly laughs aplenty), but it was not without a suitable dose of the macabre.

Battlefield tourism seems a pretty alien pastime to our modern sensibilities; nowadays when we visit the sites of previous conflict, say the Somme, Culloden or Waterloo, we are fuelled by a thirst for knowledge or a need to pay our respects. Curiousity and the sense of reaching out and touching history was certainly still a motivating factor for visitors to Waterloo in 1815, but when you consider that a few intrepid onlookers started arriving the morning after the battle, presumably jostling with the local peasants ransacking valuables from the dead, something quite different was at work. There was a powerful sense that Waterloo was the key battle of the time and tourists were eager to acquire souvenirs from the field.

Napoleonic Plaque displayed in the Abbotsford Entrance Hall; French Cuirassier's Steel and Brass Breast and Back Plate and to the right, a copy of the Imperial Eagle Standard

O'Keeffe had the audience grimacing suitably as he evoked the dizzying stench of poorly buried mass graves, human bodies slowly baking just below the surface in the stifling heat of summer. The battlefield area was relatively small and could be explored easily on a day excursion from Brussels but once visitors arrived, they would have found it essential to have packed both quantities of snuff and an iron constitution!

By the time Sir Walter Scott arrived on the scene, the craze for Waterloo relics had spawned a veritable marketplace where nearby villagers successfully flogged weaponry and cuirasses to awestruck tourists. The bodies had been long stripped but not long buried and Scott encounters an eerie landscape strewn with paper and rags. He set about picking up smaller relics and arranging the purchase of more impressive artefacts over the duration of his trip. One of his most treasured acquisitions, a French soldier's book now in the Abbotsford collections, is photographed on O' Keeffe's book cover. In amongst the cuirasses, sabres, pistols and Napoleonic totems, it is fitting that this little book has been given pride of place. With papers flitting in the breeze before him as far as the eye could see, these military livrets were far from a rarity but they offered a tangible link with an individual life. Scott finds his soldier's book to be a very personal snapshot of a life snuffed out, 'and with it, all his earthly hopes and prospects.'

Thanks for reading!

Kirsty Archer-Thompson

Heritage and Engagement Manager

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