Edinburgh and the Waverley Novels

Paul Barnaby, Walter Scott Digital Archive

“This, then, is Edinburgh?” said the youth, as the fellow-travellers arrived at one of the heights to the southward, which commanded a view of the great northern capital—”This is that Edinburgh of which we have heard so much!”

0030011: ‘The Heart of Midlothian’, pencil drawing by James Skene (1829) (Corson MSS)

‘The Heart of Midlothian’, pencil drawing by James Skene (1829) (Corson MSS)

Roland Graeme, page to Mary Queen of Scots in The Abbot (1820), is one of many Scott heroes dazzled by a first glimpse of Scotland’s capital. Awed by the ‘extreme height of the houses’, ‘the variety of Gothic gables and battlements, and balconies’, and the population swarming ‘like bees on the wide and stately street’, he descends the Royal Mile to Holyroodhouse where he is received by the Regent Murray. Graeme follows in the footsteps of Edward Waverley, who is presented to Charles Edward Stewart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) at the same site, no longer ‘an irregular pile of monastic buildings’ but a ‘modern palace’. Waverley’s own first vision of Edinburgh is the Castle wreathed in gun smoke, as the garrison fires upon the invading Highlanders. He later traverses the ‘mean and dirty suburbs’ of the Canongate (a refuge for debters in Chronicles of the Canongate (1827)) to watch the Jacobite Army gather in Holyrood Park before the Battle of Prestonpans.

The fullest portrayal of Edinburgh in Scott’s fiction is, of course, The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818), with its vivid pictures of the Old Tolbooth, Parliament House, the Grassmarket, St Leonard’s, and St Anthony’s Chapel. The capital, however, figures prominently throughout the Waverley Novels. In The Antiquary (1816), Edinburgh is again in a ‘military frenzy’, the threat of French invasion driving its citizens ‘mad—irretrievably frantic—far beyond dipping in the sea, shaving the crown, or drinking hellebore’. Guy Mannering (1815) commemorates the legendary Clerihugh’s Tavern in Writers’ Court, where the advocate Paul Pleydell entertains his clients,  as ‘a sort of Pandemonium, where men and women, half undressed, were busied in baking, broiling, roasting oysters, and preparing devils on the gridiron’.

Redgauntlet (1824), in particular, revisits the scenes of Scott’s childhood. Darsie Latimer and Alan Fairford evoke schoolboy battles in High School Wynd, scaling Cowgate Port to pelt passers-by with snowballs, and describe ‘being carried home, in compassion, by some high-kilted fishwife’ after wading out of their depth at Leith Sands. It also portrays the city’s professional classes deserting the overcrowded High Street. On medical advice, Fairford’s father relocates to the newly built Brown Square, with its elegant ‘self-contained’ houses, although ‘leaving his old apartments in the Luckenbooths was to him like divorcing the soul from the body’. Edinburgh features even in the London-set The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), as the expat Scot Richie Moniplies remains stubbornly unimpressed by the English capital:

“The Thames!” exclaimed Richie, in a tone of ineffable contempt—”God bless your honour’s judgment, we have at Edinburgh the Water-of-Leith and the Nor-loch!”

‘The March of the Highlanders’, engraved by Thomas Higham after J. M. W. Turner (1836) (Corson P.3613)

‘The March of the Highlanders’, engraved by Thomas Higham after J. M. W. Turner (1836) (Corson P.3613)

Edinburgh University Library’s Corson Collection of Sir Walter Scott materials, comprising nearly 7,000 books and 10,000 artworks, contains many engravings of Edinburgh scenes, illustrating or inspired by Scott’s novels. Many document vanished streets and buildings, including the Old Tolbooth and Guard House (sketched by Scott’s friend James Skene of Rubislaw) and Brown Square itself (demolished to build George IV Bridge and Chambers Street). Others are gloriously anachronistic, like J.M.W. Turner’s ‘The March of the Highlanders’ which shows the Jacobite army crossing the North Bridge from Calton Hill. Neither the bridge nor any of the New Town buildings portrayed existed in 1745. (Scott accurately portrays the army filing through Holyrood Park to Duddingston Village.)

Illustrations to The Heart of Mid-Lothian reflect the strangely dilated geography of that novel, where Holyrood Park and the ‘secluded cottage’ at St Leonard’s are so far from Mrs Saddletree’s shop in the High Street, that Jeanie and Effie spend months without seeing each other.

'St Anthony's Chapel, Salisbury Crags', engraved by Robert Staines after Henry Melville (1836) (Corson P.2938)'

‘St Anthony’s Chapel, Salisbury Crags’, engraved by Robert Staines after Henry Melville (1836) (Corson P.2938)’

Digital copies of these engravings can be accessed on the Edinburgh University Library website, the Walter Scott Digital Archive. Some can also be seen in ‘Waverley 200’, an exhibition marking the bicentenary of Scott’s first novel in the Centre of Research Collections, Edinburgh University Library. The exhibition also features many rare items from the Corson Collection, including presentation copies of the first edition of Waverley, French and Italian translations, a chapbook abridgement, and a popular theatrical adaptation. The exhibition is open to the public, Monday to Friday 9 am to 5 pm, until 2 July 2014. Do come along and see the collection for yourselves!

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