7 July 2014 09:11

In a recent speech at the University of Edinburgh’s Playfair Library, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, mentioned the inspiration she felt at seeing, in an ante-room, a writing desk once used by Sir Walter Scott.

If the SNP politician was speaking in earnest, her claim may come as a surprise to many readers of the great Scottish poet and novelist, who, for all his love of the tales and traditions of his native land, was an outspoken advocate of the Union.

But regardless of Sturgeon’s intentions, her invocation of Scott seems timely, as the summer of 2014 – whilst being the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn – is also the 200th anniversary of the publication of Scott’s first novel, Waverley; or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since.

Printed anonymously in Edinburgh on 7 July 1814, Scott’s Waverley inaugurated a long series of novels that were the publishing sensation of their era. Widely recognized as the foundation stones of the modern historical novel, these books – though seldom read nowadays – achieved unparalleled success during their author’s lifetime.

Waverley itself raced through five editions and more than 6,000 copies in Britain within six months of its first printing. This may not sound like all that much today, but for the period these figures were prodigious. Think J. K. Rowling big.

The story of a young Englishman, unexpectedly swept into the ranks of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army during the rebellion of 1745, but safely restored, at the novel’s end, within the fold of the British crown, Waverley is a tale heavily marked by the cultural politics of its age.

Published nearly seven decades after the Battle of Culloden, the novel does as much to eulogise the end of Scotland’s existence as an independent kingdom as it does to celebrate its emergence as part of a modern British state.

On another level, it is also tells a deeply personal tale, and one that reflects both Scott’s sentimental attachment to the great events and figures of his nation’s past and his abiding belief that Scotland’s future lay within a united kingdom.

In this way, the novel makes for a particularly compelling read today, as people on both sides of the border come to terms with their own feelings about the forthcoming referendum.

Those who support independence will, no doubt, enjoy Scott’s novel for its portrayal of the ardour of Scottish nationalism. Those who oppose independence will, in turn, appreciate how Waverley shows such nationalism to be rooted in a seductive yet ultimately untenable attachment to the past.

For in the end, if anything, Scott’s Waverley is the story of the triumph of prudence and compromise over nationalist fanaticism.

With all due respect to Scotland’s Deputy First Minister, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if sixty years hence the story of the 2014 referendum doesn’t seem a rather similar tale.

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  • Saltire image has been adapted from this image by byronv2, used here under the Flickr Creative Commons licence. The image of the Sir Walter Scott statue is the author’s own.

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