Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Lay of the Last Minstrel - Sir Walter Scott

For most of my life the Scottish borders were somewhere that we passed through on the way North or South without ever stopping to look at and then perhaps a decade ago my father and stepmother got a place near Hawick, the borders became an actual destination and I fell in love with what turned out to be Scott country. Growing up I was easily as familiar with Scott as I was with Shakespeare; Scott is inextricably bound up with a particular strain of Scottish identity (Ivanhoe, the Scott monument, Waverley station and later on the idea of tartan and chivalry) in a way that's quite unique. 

Scott's baronial fantasy of a house at Abbotsford came up during my degree when I put it on a mental list of places I'd like to visit and then promptly forgot about it to the extent that it was an effort of memory to recall where I'd heard the name before the first time we drove past a sign for it. Since then I've managed to visit 3 times - it's a charming spot - and actually managed to read some Scott all the way through. If I hadn't got to know the part of the borders where Scott spent parts of his childhood, later chose to settle, and uses to set some of his books I probably wouldn't have got very far with him. A previous attempt had been with 'The Pirate' because it was set in Shetland, I guess it came from the latter part of his career when he was writing to pay of liabilities, it certainly isn't one of his better books. The right setting for the reader can be very encouraging though and a curiosity about border history (undoubtedly colourful) got me through 'The Bride of Lammermoor' (which I enjoyed) and 'Old Mortality' (which I enjoyed even more) so once I got out of the Midlands and somewhere near the lake district on the train I cracked open 'The Lay of the Last Minstrel' and gave it my best effort. 

An effort was needed because I'm not used to reading poetry, certainly not at this length, and I don't think it's a particularly easy thing to do and enjoy when you're not used to it but the effort was well rewarded. This poem in six cantos is told by an old minstrel - the last of his kind - to Anna, Duchess of Buccleuch (published in 1805 the tale is set in the sixteenth century but narrated in the seventeenth century) concerning the exploits of some of her ancestors. There are brave Knights, beautiful maidens, elements of witchcraft and sorcery, battles, duels, abductions and more, all of which is very exciting, the descriptions of Melrose abbey by moonlight are as vivid and appealing as anything I've read - it really is a page turner. (I read chunks of it aloud which also took some getting used to; it helped it to come alive but was also quite distracting.)

I'm inclined to be a little bit evangelical about Scott - I believe he deserves more of an audience than he willingly gets, he's an incredibly important writer - not just influential as a novelist (John Sutherland says 'he did not merely create fiction, he procreated it' which is as neat a summing up as you could wish for) but also in how significantly he contributed to the romantic conception of Scotland as a country. Something that's surely very relevant at a time when we're debating devolution and independence (I imagine Scott would have been pro union). I also believe that you have to want to read him to really enjoy his books, they've certainly called for a certain amount of perseverance in my experience. It would have been easy to a read bit of 'The Lay of the Last Minstrel' and not bother with the rest simply because of the amount of concentration needed to untangle the plot from the verse and stay on top of it (and I don't feel that one reading is enough) but not to have read it thoroughly would have meant missing out on some really good stuff. 

My copy now has an oak leaf from Abbotsford pressed between the pages to act as a bookmark - it's very much in the spirit of the thing and I will read it again. I've noticed with previous Scott novels I've read that the introductions have a vaguely apologetic air about them, they talk of reading strategies and suggest that it would be alright to skip various bits and I find myself doing much the same thing because he's not the easiest writer to recommend but for anyone minded to enjoy the classics he has a lot to offer and 'The Lay of the Last Minstrel' is a great example of that.   


  1. I'm including a couple of Scott's books in my nineteenth century of books challenge next year as I've only read Ivanhoe and I feel I should know him better than that. I'll take your note about patience and perseverance on board though.

  2. I think he's great (D and I were reading bits of The Lay of the Last Minstrel' to each other last night for fun which isn't something we do with a lot of poetry, or even really the sort of people we are) well worth getting better acquainted with. I look forward to seeing which ones you choose for your challenge :)