On Sunday 15th August 2021 we celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Sir Walter Scott, one of Scotland’s most famous poets and novelists. Although a record of his birth is not preserved in the National Records of Scotland (NRS), there is a wealth of material linking him to Register House in Edinburgh (or General Register House as it is now known), and our archives.
Scott and Register House
Scott was, in his lifetime, a highly celebrated poet and successful writer, but perhaps less well-known is his career as a lawyer. His appointment in 1806 to the office of Principal Clerk of Session (the Court of Session, Scotland’s supreme civil court which sits in Parliament House in Edinburgh) entitled him to an office in Register House. In this role as clerk of the court, he was responsible for the administration of the court and its staff.
In a letter to a friend, George Ellis, dated 7 April 1806, he briefly outlines the duties in his new role which do not appear to be very onerous:
‘The duty is very simple, consisting chiefly in signing my name; and as I have five colleagues, I am not obliged to do duty except in turn, so my task is a very easy one, as my name is very short.’(The Letters of Sir Walter Scott: 1811-1814, edited by H.J.C. Grierson; assisted by Davidson Cook, W.M. Parker and others, 1932, page 284. See also, Edinburgh University’s online resource The Walter Scott Digital Archive, for e-texts of The Letters of Sir Walter Scott.)
The principal clerks of session were allocated rooms at the front of Register House, in a prime position. Scott’s room was either on the ground or first floor, though how much use he made of it is unclear.
Scott and Thomas Thomson, Deputy Clerk Register
Scott was a close friend of Thomas Thomson, the advocate, antiquarian and archivist. In the letter to George Ellis, cited above, he asks after his friend “Tom Thomson” in London and hopes that they will meet as ‘he understands more of old books, old laws, and old history, than any man in Scotland.’ He refers to Thomson’s recent appointment as Deputy Clerk Register and anticipates ‘many valuable discoveries to be the consequence of his investigation, if he escapes being smothered in the cloud of dust which his researches will certainly raise about his ears.’ (Grierson, pages 284-5.)
Scott’s high-regard for his friend and belief in his capabilities were warranted. The office of Deputy Clerk Register was created to oversee the day-to-day running of the Register House and Thomson’s appointment laid the foundation of the modern record office. During his 35 year term of office, Thomson managed a programme of cataloguing and repair of the older records and the start of a series of record publications.
Scott and the discovery of the Scottish Regalia
Scott played a key role in the rediscovery of the Scottish Regalia, also known as the “Honours of Scotland”. Following the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, the Scottish Crown, Sceptre and Sword of State were locked away in a chest in the Crown Room in Edinburgh Castle – and forgotten about for 100 years. Rumours abounded that they had been removed to England.
In January 1817, prompted by Scott, the Prince Regent set up a Commission to search for the regalia and open the chest in which the Scottish crown jewels were thought to be. On 4 February 1818, Scott and a group of officers of state forced open two sealed doors and broke open a great oak chest. The regalia were found, wrapped in linen and in perfect condition. Sir David Wilkie commemorated the discovery in this drawing. They have been on permanent display in Edinburgh Castle ever since. Scott was made a baronet in April 1820 for his part in their rediscovery.
The minutes of the commissioners for opening the chest contain the regalia are preserved in the NRS.
Scott and George IV’s visit
Scott orchestrated the visit of George IV to Scotland in 1822, the first visit of a reigning monarch in nearly 200 years. Scott’s attention to the detail of this special occasion included specifying the clothes to be worn, notably tartan, and masterminding the ceremonial. King George himself participated enthusiastically, wearing full Highland dress including a very short kilt above the knees and flesh-coloured tights. Harriet Scott gives a vivid description of the king’s attire in a letter to her daughter Anne (NRS, GD157/2548).
The royal seal of approval for the wearing of tartan at this occasion was highly significant. The British Government had made wearing the Highland dress, including the kilt, illegal in Scotland following The Dress Act 1746, part of a series of measures to bring the clans under government control following the Jacobite Risings between 1689 and 1746. The royal visit in 1822 made tartan very popular and contributed towards its rehabilitation as a symbol of Scottish culture.
Also included in the Register, is a tartan called the Abbotsford Check, designed by Alistair Buchan to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Scott’s birth in 1971 and recorded by Angela Nisbett of the Scottish Tartans Society.
The royal visit was a huge success. In a letter dated 29 August 1822, from Sir Robert Peel to the Scottish Officers of State, the King’s gratitude to those involved in organising the ceremonies during the visit was conveyed and as well as his ‘unnalloyed satisfaction’ during his stay (Crown copyright, NRS, SP13/220).
Scott and Romantic Scotland
Scott’s novels and poetry had a huge impact on how others viewed Scotland. His works, especially his historical fiction, known as the ‘Waverley novels’, including ‘Ivanhoe’ and ‘Rob Roy’, and poems such as ‘The Lady of the Lake’, contributed to the romanticisation of the Scottish Highlands. Tourism boomed from the early 19th century onwards as a direct result of his novels and poetry, bringing visitors to Scotland determined to experience the places he had described. His legacy continues to this day as Scotland remains a popular holiday destination.
With grateful thanks to colleagues for their suggestions of material to include in this article.
National Records of Scotland