Celebrating 250 Years of Sir Walter Scott

Today, the world seems far smaller thanks to video calls, instantaneous news and information at our fingertips. We can cross the globe in a matter of hours and can easily discover the new and the beautiful. We have a solid vision of what our existence looks like; its beauty and its challenges and can explore everything at our leisure.

ScottFest at Abbotsford House this weekend includes jousting, falconry and more.

In the late 1700s, when Sir Walter Scott was born, things were markedly different. Paper was the main conduit for news, PR and marketing. Simple journeys could take days and as a result, whispers of Scottish unrest, brutality and unlivable conditions easily seeped into polite English society. Thus, the perception of our country as an unlawful land, ruled by wild highlanders and surrounded by bleak scenery, painted a rather alarming picture of the neighbours to the north. 

In the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion, at its height 25 years before Scott’s birth, imposing restrictions were placed on Scotland to stamp out any simmering dissent. The most crushing was the ban of “martial dress” between 1747 and 1782, central to the Jacobite identity. The Act of Proscription in 1725 stated, “… from and after the first day of August, one thousand seven hundred and forty seven, no Man or Boy, within that Part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as should be employed as Officers and Soldiers in His Majesty’s Forces, should, on any Pretence whatsoever, wear or put on the Clothes, commonly call Highland Clothes; […] The Plaid, Philebeg or Little Kilt, Trowse, Shoulder belts, or any Part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb…”

The result was that proud highlanders were forced into wearing lowland wear and, although the full banning of tartan material was not imposed, some zealous authoritarians at the time may have tried their best to remove the plaid altogether. 

At the time of his birth in 1771, Sir Walter Scott would have been born into a country suffering from the effects of the destruction of the Scottish clan system, the Highland clearances and restrictions on what could be worn and when.  

Throughout his life, Scott’s wit, intelligence and passion for presenting Scotland the way he saw it amassed him an army of fans via his best-selling Waverley novels. He worked to tirelessly reinvent the image of Scotland; capitalising on the fearsome reputation of The Highlanders, regarded as one of the most formidable regiments in the world proudly wearing tartan. 

Scott’s literary work resulted in one rather important fan, George IV, who quickly planned a long overdue visit to the north of his kingdom. Scott jumped on the opportunity, seeing it as an occasion to present the Scotland of his novels to the King – a romantic, “tartan extravaganza” filled with evening balls, Clan processions, theatre productions and more. Throughout the course of a few days, Scott changed the trajectory of the country - a one-man tourist campaign that influenced his English peers that Scotland was a place of beauty, mythical legend and worthy of visiting. Scotland had a new national identity. 

Whilst it did little to slow the clearances, the visit of George IV resulted in mild tartan hysteria. Scott’s vision of Scotland captured the imagination of the world. It presented our culture in a romanticised, beautiful way, helping reinstate the power of the Scottish clan system and celebrating our culture and ceremonies.

Although Scott died some 13 years prior to the birth of our founder Robert Kirk Inches, his legacy was deep rooted in our country and, as a result, the products on offer at Hamilton & Inches. As described in the 1950s Mrs Dundas leaflet, “Scottish and particularly Highland, ornaments of good quality are made by the firm… here you can obtain the complete accessories of the Highland dress – the dirk, the sgian dubh… the silver-adorned belt, the brooch and the cap badge”.

Such items are still on offer today, being worn by those representing Scotland here and abroad. From waistplates to quaichs, our Highland dress items have been hand-crafted in Edinburgh by artisans with a proud Scottish heritage. And although Scott may have presented a fairy tale version of Scotland, without his romantic vision and passion, our ceremonies and traditions would not be celebrated as beautifully as they are today.  

To find out more about the 250th anniversary celebrations of Sir Walter Scott’s birth this weekend,known as ScottFest, visit https://walterscott250.com/