Sir Walter Scott and A Christmas Carol: Six Degrees of Separation?

13th December 2022

Collections and Interpretation Manager, Kirsty Archer- Thompson, discusses the connection between Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

The year is 1822. Walter Scott had brought himself to the brink of a nervous breakdown choreographing three weeks of festivities to mark King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh. To the world, it was presented as a monarch’s homecoming to Scotland. On home soil it was more complex and emotive, offering opportunities for reconciliation and restoration of national pride. Naturally, feasting and drinking was a keystone of the celebrations and the contracts for such provision were lucrative. A fun-loving and jovial merchant by the name of Baillie (town official) Ebenezer Scroggie, originally from Kirkcaldy in Fife, had already demonstrated considerable form in catering for such large-scale contracts, supplying alcohol to the Royal Navy at Leith.

Charles Dickens at his desk

This experience provided evidence that Scroggie could deliver in volume and satisfy Scott’s desire to promote ‘Highland brandy’ on the national stage during the state visit. Scroggie was appointed the principal whisky supplier for this extraordinary programme of events, not to mention the considerable quantities of the fine wines he imported from Europe for the galas, balls and dinners.

Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh

Scroggie was known for his lavish parties and theatrical event-planning, and he was instrumental in the logistical planning and catering provision for the Peers Ball in Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms on 23rd August 1822. Perhaps more than any other event, this is the moment in time that super-charged the fashion for Scottish tartans. 

We now fast-forward almost twenty years to 1841. The writer Charles Dickens is touring Scotland, having visited Abbotsford itself on the 15th July. Shortly afterwards he finds himself back in the capital and wandering through the Canongate Kirkyard as dusk approaches.

The cemetery is most famous for the burials of the economist Adam Smith and the poet Robert Ferguson, but something else makes an impression on the writer and he scribbles an aide memoire in his diary. The note reads : “to be remembered through eternity only for being mean seemed the greatest testament to a life wasted”. A year or two later, when perusing that same notebook, Dickens is reminded of this extraordinary lost gravestone, an astonishing monument to a ‘mean man’, and Ebenezer Scrooge and a Christmas Carol is born.

Of course, what Dickens was actually looking at in the gloaming was the tombstone of Ebenezer Scroggie, a ‘meal man’, i.e. a grain merchant. Through a trick of the eyes and the slip of a pen, a rambunctious society man of late-Georgian Edinburgh who had made a fortune from providing for the city’s tables and catering to her excesses, gifts his name to the most famous and miserly recluse in British literature. Sadly, Scroggie’s grave marker was destroyed in 1932 during development work, though the interest in the man who inspired Scrooge endures. What survives is a great story and somehow, I think Scott would be rather pleased with that!    

Kirsty Archer- Thompson, Collections and Interpretation Manager.

A Christmas Carol illustration, Scrooge with the ghost of Jacob Marley