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Getting to Know Walter Scott’s ‘Lady of the Lake’ in the Scottish Highlands
walter scott the lady of the lake

Walter Scott the lady of the lake

Walter Scott, the Scottish poet and author, came to the shores of the enchanting Loch Katrine in 1809 where he started crafting a new poem that was received with sensation, smashing all previous records of poetry sales with an immediate 25,000 copies sold.

The poem was The Lady Of The Lake, published in 1810 and putting Scotland on the tourism map not just in the UK but across the world.

I’ve driven up from London with my boyfriend and puppy, for the Highlands experience. To be and breathe in an area of spectacular grace and scenery. A place of fresh air, friendly faces and no litter, unlike my local park.

Yesterday Schiehallion, today the Loch Katrine and the enchantment of Sir Walter Scott.

The loch introduces itself as soon as you leave the car park. A cycle hire shop to the left; restaurant overlooking the loch to the right and in the middle a big, bold steamship. The Sir Walter Scott takes tourists on a 45-minute tour of Loch Katrine and is also a testament to the legacy of naval engineering associated with the nearby city, Glasgow.

The Lady Of The Lake introduction gives a reverential account of Scott’s life and character.

“Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh, August 15, 1771, of an ancient Scotch clan numbering in its time many a hard rider and good fighter, and more than one of these petty chieftains, half-shepherd and half-robber, ”

Born within a few years of notable contemporaries such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, Scott’s verse, especially the Lady Of The Lake focused not only on the beauty of nature, like his fellows but it drove further purpose and depth of storytelling through it.

In a letter from the holiday in 1809 he expressed his desire to push his writing beyond local landscape and spectacular beauty and gain a more profound psychological depth with his main characters.

In the poem, Scott creates a form of historical fiction; using the characters King James V of Scotland, the family Douglas and the brutal Highland tribe leader Roderick Dhu. Amongst these figures, he weaves his tale of the exiled Ellen and the three suitors competing for her love.

Scott was highly inspired by Goethe, who died the same year as him as well as other significant figures of the European Enlightenment. From a young age, he dedicated himself to studying the craft of romance and epic ballads. Edinburgh, being a centre for the Scottish Enlightenment was a fertile ground for his imagination; even if his early career as a man of the law wasn’t.

The poem starts with a Highland stag hunt. The young hero, a fictionalised representation of King James V of Scotland loses his hunting party as he flies ahead in pursuit of a deer.

As his hounds’ yap at his heels, he is on the verge of overcoming the stag when it disappears, and he tumbles, his horse dying of fatigue.

Alone and stranded in the highlands he spots Ellen, the Lady of the Lake pulling into the shore below him on a skiff.

Alarmed to see the huntsman at first she is eventually convinced to allow him on her boat and take him to a woody island where he takes refuge.

Our hero introduces himself as a knight, not disclosing his true King of Scotland identity and promptly falls for fair Ellen, making him the third admirer and candidate for her love.

The story was inspired by the real-life of the infant King James V, father of only one surviving legitimate child, Mary Queen of Scots.

He was declared a king at the age of 14 and kidnapped by his mother’s husband, Archibald Douglas, who kept him prisoner for three years and ruled on his behalf.

After escaping in his teens, King James V outlawed the Douglas family, driving them into exile and seizing their land.

Ellen is the daughter of an outlawed Douglas who has been given refuge on the island by Sir Roderick Dhu, a bloodthirsty Highland chieftain. Though he was a real character, the act of giving him a voice was inspired one of Goethe’s characters in Götz von Berlichingen.

Using the historical framework of King James V; the remainder of the poem is a fictionalised account and takes on the facets of a romantic adventure, giving Scott a reputation for being Scotland’s Homer.

One burnished sheet of living gold,

Loch Katrine lay beneath him rolled,

In all her length far winding lay,

With promontory, creek, and bay,

The introduction to Lady of the Lake by William Vaugh Moody paints a reverential picture of the writer; whose character was full of curiosity and a dedication to learning ancient ballads and European romantic forms and languages.

Scott lived in a small village south of Edinburgh in the time that he wrote Lady of the Lake and another of his great masterpieces Marmion. Moody describes this as one of the happiest times of his life between 1804–1812.

His mornings he spent at his desk, always with a faithful hound at his feet watching the tireless hand as it threw off sheet after sheet of the manuscript to make up the day’s stint. By one o’clock he was, as he said, “his own man,” free to spend the remaining hours of light with his children, his horses, and his dogs, or to indulge himself in his life-long passion for tree-planting.

Unfortunately, by now, he had already started sowing seeds of another kind when he entered into the publishing business with a friend who’s capacity and head for business decision making could only possibly come undone, and they did.

It might have been manageable if Scott hadn’t decided to take on the major publisher and bookseller Constable after being offended by a scathing review of his earlier work by the editor of The Edinburgh Review.

His greatest failing, if failing it can be called, was pride. He could not endure even the mild dictations of a competent publisher, as is shown by his answer to a letter written by one of them proposing some salaried work; he replied curtly that he was a “black Hussar” of literature, and not to be put to such tame service.

Pride! It gets us all at some stage during our lives, writers especially.

If so, he paid for the fault so dearly that it is hard for a biographer to press the issue against him.

In 1825 years of financial mismanagement, such as Scott raising large sums of money for his beloved estate, Abbotsford, and accepting cash advances for work came undone as the city of London experienced a crash.

The debt peaked at £121,000, a heartbreaking sum of money now but in those days it must have been a horrific realisation.

Scott’s spiralling debt and the crash resulted in a period of hardship that led to his wife’s death and the takeover of Abbotsford by creditors.

He lost it all.

The years intervening between this calamity and Scott’s death form one of the saddest and at the same time, most heroic chapters in the history of literature.

After the death of Lady Scott, he embarked on a determined and frantic writing effort to pay back his debtors on Abbotsford.

Through a short period of exceptional grafting he managed to write enough books to pay back over £40,000 in debt. The creditors of the estate, touched at his effort agree to allow him to take ownership once again.

In 1830 he suffered his first stroke and two years later in 1832 he passed away by which time over £53,000 in debt had been repaid.

Today visitors can visit his old home of Abbotsford. It’s on my list following an epic writing splurge, inspired by Scott’s own.

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

Much like his Lady of the Lake character, King James, Scott casts aside pride, ego and his desires to focus on doing the right thing and restoring his reputation as a hero.

The final chapter in Lady of the Lake sees King James V pardon the family Douglas of his beloved fair Ellen and releases her true love Malcolm permitting the two to marry. The true hero of the romantic piece. He allows what he is unable to take for himself.

We’ve passed the Ellen island in Loch Katrine and are making our way back. Things feel different on the way back. We walk by families from all over the world: different colours, languages but the same smile.

Maybe they’ve also been touched by the Lady of the Lake.

And now the mountain breezes scarcely bring

A wandering witch-note of the distant spell

And now, ’tis silent all!

Enchantress, fare thee well!

Walter Scott, The Lady Of The Lake

Thanks for reading.

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