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Bid to put Sir Walter Scott back on literary pedestal

posted Oct 4, 2011, 8:10 AM by Brian Mitchell   [ updated Oct 4, 2011, 8:14 AM ]
HE’S the man Scotland forgot and this is his house: A big baronial pile in the Borders where Sir Walter Scott wrote his epic stories of tartan chivalry and romantic adventure and collected together the most extraordinary curios and historical artefacts – such as Rob Roy’s sword, a lock of Napoleon’s hair, and the crucifix Mary Queen of Scots held in her hands as she went to her execution.

But more than 200 years on from all of Scott’s success, wealth and fame, his reputation needs some work.
He’s no longer taught in schools, he’s no longer widely read and few people in Scotland recognise him any more. If they know him at all, it’s as the man on the banknotes or the man whose monument is on Edinburgh’s Princes Street.

Now a team of conservators and curators have started putting this right. After raising £11 million from the lottery, the Scottish Government and the public, a huge project has begun to restore Scott’s house, Abbotsford near Melrose, and conserve the collection piece by piece before putting it all back together again.

Work on the project has just got under way and will continue until 2013. Over the next few months, a team lead by Joanna Cook, the project conservator, will pack each object into boxes and crates before it is taken away to be cleaned and inspected by specialists.

I don’t think people get just how phenomenally popular he was in his day . . .
that he had a huge impact globally

In many cases, it will be the first time the objects have been moved since Scott lived in the house.

Jason Dyer, chief executive of the trust which looks after the house and its contents, says one of the aims of the restoration is to put Scott back on a map dominated by Burns.

Scott was phenomenally successful in his time, with massive print runs (his novel Waverley sold more in one year than Pride and Prejudice did in Jane Austen’s lifetime).

He is also feted in America and Russia, but is still poorly understood in his homeland.

“People know him as a literary figure, often quite vaguely,” says Mr Dyer. “I don’t think they get just how phenomenally popular he was in his day, particularly the fact he had a huge impact globally, and that is really what first encouraged people to come to Scotland as a tourist destination.”

For Mr Dyer, and curator Matthew Withey, Scott is actually a modern figure, even a radical one, whose ideas were far more aligned with those of his friend Burns than is traditionally thought. Mr Withey believes Scott’s popularity has withered because he’s traditionally seen as a Tory and a unionist.

“The idea of him as a unionist is true but he was also very much a spokesman for Scotland,” says Mr Dyer. “He was always really keen to convey to Scots they had a heritage equal to that south of the Border – everything he’s driving at is to show Scotland can be an equal partner.”

For Scots who don’t know any of this, a new visitors’ centre will tell the story. Work has already started on the building, which sits just across the garden from the house. The project will cost £11m – most of which came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with £1m from the Scottish Government and around £2.7m raised from the public. Another £1.3m is needed to hit the target.

What we get for that, say the team at Abbotsford, is a culturally priceless collection which includes a clock that belonged to Marie Antoinette, artefacts from Waterloo and, most bizarrely, a piece of oatcake said to have been found on the battlefields of Culloden.

The house itself is important too, says Mr Dyer – it was the first Scottish house in the baronial style and also the first in Scotland to be fitted with gas. Scott was not only a great novelist, he was an innovator. If he were alive today, says Mr Withey, there would surely be solar panels on the roof.

If he were alive, what Scott would make of the state of his literary popularity is less certain. He is no longer on the school curriculum and is certainly not as widely read as he once was.

Mr Dyer admits getting into one of Scott’s novel can be tough. “He’s known as having a heavy literary style,” he says. “He himself always said ‘skip the first 100 pages and get to the story’ and those stories are fantastic.”

Hollywood certainly seems to agree. There have been numerous film versions of his stories, including Rob Roy starring Liam Neeson and there are reports of a new movie of Ivanhoe.

As far as the team at Abbotsford is concerned, that is nothing but good news because it could mean more visitors for them but, more importantly, it could be another step forward in their mission – to make Walter Scott a hero again.