Alison Lumsden: Re-evaluate Walter Scott legacy

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This week sees the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley.

At the time, Waverley was a phenomenal success, outselling all the other novels put together in the year of its publication. But what is Sir Walter’s legacy for Scotland and is he relevant for readers today?

There is no doubt that Sir Walter has had some bad publicity. Often seen as the man who created a ‘tourist board’ image from which modern Scotland wishes to escape, it has been questioned whether he has anything to add to the current debate on the nation’s identity. However, the Edinburgh edition of the Waverley Novels, a new edition of Sir Walter’s work co-ordinated by the University of Aberdeen, has returned to the manuscripts and proofs of the original works to correct errors and has done much to revitalise interest in his fiction.

Scholars question the view that it is irrelevant, recognising that Sir Walter’s view of how nations are shaped and how they engage with their collective pasts is far more complex than has been hitherto recognised. Rather than giving us static images of Scotland, Sir Walter asks pressing questions about how we engage with history and how it relates to our modern experience. While, in a novel like Waverley, he recognises that history must move forward, he shows the price that has to be paid for progress and the emotional legacies which moments of conflict cause.

The versions of Scotland that result from Waverley and Sir Walter’s other novels are highly complex. Too often he has been judged by those who have not read him, or by those who have only experienced his work second-hand in the form of dramas, operas, children’s editions and visual art that arose as a result of his popularity. Sir Walter is Scotland’s major writer and the anniversary of Waverley offers an opportunity to reassess his significance. He may not provide us with answers for what a modern Scotland should look like, but he certainly asks some of the most important questions.

• Alison Lumsden, Walter Scott Research Centre, University of Aberdeen