25th Jan 2021
Here, at Abbotsford, it is hard to let Burns’ Day pass without discussing the impact that Robert Burns had on Sir Walter Scott.
As a young man of 15, in Sciennes House, the auspicious Edinburgh residence of Professor Adam Ferguson which hosted many a literary salon, Sir Walter Scott had his first and only meeting with Robert Burns. This encounter was brief, but the profound effect it had on Scott and his literary development lasted until the end of his life.
On the evening in question, Scott, with the rest of the youngsters present, ‘sate silent, looked and listened’. When Burns sought to discuss lines of poetry under a print on the wall and asked whose they were, Scott was the only person who knew. Too shy to speak to the Poet, Scott whispered the information to a friend who passed it on to Burns.
Scott remembered that Burns: “Rewarded me with a look and a word, which, though of mere civility, I then received and still recollect, with very great pleasure”.
The Meeting of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott at Sciennes Hill House by Charles Martin Hardie (1858–1916)
Little did Scott know, as an apprentice writer to the Signet, his own later literary career would often be compared to and revered alongside that of the national bard, to whom he had been too starstruck to speak.
Burns’ & Scott’s exceptional literary talents are not the only comparisons that can be drawn between these two giants among men. As Burns sprang from country stock, his knowledge of the rural people of Scotland ran deep. You only have to read the first few lines of Tam O’Shanter to acknowledge the sharp observations and warm comical attention 'The Ploughman Poet' gives to the common folk, the everyday men and women, with whom he identified:
When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate.
Like Burns, Scott’s own admiration for and observations of the common folk are often at the very heart of the Waverley Novels. His relationship with those considered scallies, such as Tam Purdie, and his fondness for the people who tended and shaped his beloved landscape is etched throughout the very human history of Abbotsford and our wider estate.
The two men also shared a passion for music. Many fine poets have tried the delicate and difficult art of marrying words and music but, as Scott himself acknowledged, none have come close to the astonishing success which Robert Burns achieved. The bank of literally hundreds of songs written and inspired by Burns’ work include some of the most beautiful and remarkable written in any language.
Like Burns, Scott’s musical interests stretched far beyond simply gathering the songs of the common people, no matter how rustic and imperfect. Scott also liked to embellish and improve upon the songs where he thought it was needed. This sometimes resulted in entirely new compositions that were imitations of the ballad form, some of which were included in his three-volume collection of songs known as the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3). One of these original poems broke the mould, growing too lengthy to be included in this work. It was published independently as The Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805 and marked the beginning of Scott’s premiership as a poet.
It is difficult to summarise the immense contribution to both literature and to so many other aspects of Scottish life attributed to both Scott and Burns. Ironically, Scott’s own description of the great man rings true of our feelings towards Scott himself nowadays.
He stated: “[Burns’] person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents”.
In fact, Walter Scott was a key player in efforts to build a national monument in Edinburgh to honour the memory of Robert Burns. History tells us that the campaign started in 1812, but a year earlier than this, Scott wrote the following words of despair to an Irish friend:
It is a disgrace to our country that something more worthy of his fame is not erected over his grave, but altho frequently proposed it has uniformly fallen to the ground for want of subscriptions or from some disagreement about the nature of the monument to be erected.
The campaign for memorialisation that Scott was a part of eventually resulted in the monument at the foot of Calton Hill, in Edinburgh. It takes the form of a neo-classical temple. By the time the foundation stone was laid in the early autumn of 1831, Scott was very ill and would not live to see it take shape.