Chris Bambery celebrates the novels of Walter Scott, which provide a unique insight into the emergence of the modern world
As you exit Edinburgh’s Waverley Station onto Princess Street one of the things that will grab your attention is a monument looking for all the world like a rocket ready to be launched. It is the Scott Monument, commemorating one of the city’s most famous sons, the novelist, Sir Walter Scott.
The station itself boasts that it is the only one in the world to be named after a novel. For Waverley was the book that established Scott as the greatest novelist of his age, the man who created the historical novel. His reputation was recognised by those who came after him, the great French novelist, Honoré de Balzac, and later still the Marxist philosopher and literary critic, Georg Lukács. Lukács in his book The Historical Novel was wrong to argue the bourgeoisie could not produce any great workers like those of Scott and Balzac because it had entered its historic decline after the revolutionary year of 1848, when it failed to carry through the revolution and reshape Europe, but he was right to highlight the importance of Scott.
I doubt few of those reading this will have read Scott, which is true today in his home country unfortunately. I say unfortunately because in five crucial novels Scott traces how it was that Scotland could go from a country on the fringe of Europe, socially as well as geographically, to being at its centre, and, in the process, the creation of today’s United Kingdom.
The five novels, which I’ve just reread and thoroughly enjoyed are, in the sequence of the period they cover, Old Mortality, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, Waverley and Redgauntlet. Waverley was the first to appear and its centre is change – economic, political and social. It deals with the Jacobite revolt of 1745, an attempt to restore the exiled House of Stewart, deposed in 1688 by the Glorious Revolution, which crowned the transformation of England and Wales from a feudal monarchy to a capitalist society in which a new commercial class governed, albeit under the canopy of the crown.
You may have noted that I said England and Wales were transformed. Ireland was further reduced to complete colonial status but Scotland continued to be a feudal country where landowners had powers of life and death over their tenants and could raise them in arms. The majority had backed the toppling of the Stewarts in 1688 and it was felt in London it was best to let sleeping dogs lie and not to tamper with their power if the bulk of them were loyal to the new order.
But that left behind a minority, mainly in the Scottish Highlands and in the North East, who wanted a return to Stewart rule, as a guarantee that their feudal privileges would remain for time immemorial. Added to that was this minority followed a religious teaching similar to the Church of England in a country where the Glorious Revolution had acknowledged the Presbyterian faith as the state religion. That minority had rallied in arms to the Stewarts in 1688 and had risen to restore them in 1715 and 1745.
But returning to Waverley what Scott does in the novel, written as if the narrator of the events of the 1745 rebellion was looking back decades later, was to focus on the change Scotland went through in a few short years after its eventual defeat of the Jacobites at the bloody battle of Culloden. The full weight of the British state, supported by much of Scotland, was deployed to destroy feudalism in Scotland so that the country could be thrust forward into the new capitalist society.
Whereas the English Revolution of the 1640s, which effectively destroyed feudal rule (the restoration of the Stewarts changed little and when James 11 tried to reimpose royal rule he was easily overthrown) was a revolution from below Scotland underwent a bourgeois revolution from above, like Germany in 1871.
The ground was laid for a complete transformation of society with, firstly an agrarian revolution, and secondly industrialisation. Scotland went from being a poor country on the edge of Europe to being at its economic cutting edge. Intellectually too Edinburgh became the centre of what is known as the Enlightenment, whose key figures included Adam Smith and David Hume. This was the city, transformed by the construction of a new Georgian city centre, in which Scott was educated and grew up.
Scott was a curious character, a Tory who championed the British state in its wars with revolutionary and Napoleonic France; he could be moved to tears over threats to Scotland being able to issue its own currency or over threats to its separate legal system. He was also scared by industrialisation and the emergence of a militant working class: he was mightily scared by the Radical Wars of 1820 when a general strike involving 50,000 workers swept through Glasgow and the West of Scotland culminating in a foiled insurrection.
In many ways Scott summed up the attitudes of the Scottish upper classes in the 19th and early 20th century. They were British, absolute in their loyalty of the UK state, but combined that with a Scottish nationalism which largely centred on the exploits of the Scottish regiments in the wars with France and the mainly colonial wars which followed. This was washed down with a faux Jacobitism which, being no longer a threat in any way, translated into love of the crown and tartanry.
It was only with the eclipse of native Scottish capitalism following the First World War and the relentless decline of Britain economically that a section began to look towards a very different form of nationalism, the creation of a separate state. Scott wouldn’t have approved.
But returning to his best novels, they convey a brilliant description of Scotland’s transformation. Old Mortality centres, in the 1670s, on the Covenanters, staunch Presbyterians who refused to accept the imposition of Bishops and royal control by Charles II on the Church of Scotland, and who resisted royal power in arms. Rob Roy deals with the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion, Heart of Midlothian with a massive riot in Edinburgh in 1736, Waverley as said with the 1745 Rebellion and Redgauntlet with the demise of Jacobitism within the new British state of 1765.
This does not do justice to these wonderful novels but for sceptics reading this the favour shown Scott by Balzac, Marx’s favourite novelist, and Lukács should be sufficient for dipping your nose into them.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- Ernie O'Malley's On Another Man's Wound: books that made me a socialist
- The violence of the Spanish state
- VE Day: a struggle for the future
- Neil Davidson (1957-2020)
- A People Betrayed - book review
- The Fall and Rise of the British Left - book review
- The Irish election: the centre has not held and the left can win