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Saturday, 14 August 2021

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott, 1822.

Tomorrow marks 250 years since the birth of Sir Walter Scott, novelist and contemporary of Jane Austen. Young 'Wattie', as he was affectionately known by his family, was born 'in a house belonging to my father, at the head of the College Wynd' in Edinburgh, he later recalled. 

At first Walter was a healthy child, but after an illness in which he lost the use of his right leg, he was sent to live with his paternal grandparents on their farm at Sandy Knowe, Roxburghshire. The fresh country air and lots of exercise greatly restored Walter's health, although he was left with a permanent limp. 

But his stay at Sandy Knowe left an even more lasting legacy. His grandmother, and his Aunt Jenny, told Walter lots of stories and legends about the Border reivers, and the ill-fated Jacobite rebellions. These tales fired the young lad's imagination, and later inspired his poems and fiction. 

After attending school at Edinburgh and Kelso, Walter studied at Edinburgh University before becoming indentured to his father to train as a Writer to the Signet. When his apprenticeship ended, Scott trained for the Scottish Bar. In 1792 he qualified as an Advocate 'with all its duties and honours'. 

While studying at Edinburgh, Walter joined several literary societies. He also composed poetry. During the course of his legal training, he also visited the Highlands - and its scenery had a lasting impact on him. 

Following an unrequited love for a young lady he met during his teens, Scott fell for the dazzlingly beautiful Charlotte Carpenter (Charpentier). They married at Carlisle in 1797. Two years later, Scott was appointed Sheriff-Depute of Selkirk.

Scott's first full-length publication, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders (1802) was a collection of traditional Scots ballads (see Alistair Johnson's essay here); it also included some of Scott's own work. The Minstrelsy was a best-seller, and laid the foundations of Walter's first full-length published poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), followed by Marmion; A Tale of Flodden Field. (1808).

Scott at Abbotsford. 
Abbotsford; Scott's Study.
His poetry was incredibly successful, and warmly received by the critics. However, he had also been trying his hand at fiction, and his novel Waverley was published anonymously in 1814. Waverley was a runaway success, and the stage was set for Scott's incredible writing career. He published over twenty novels before his death in 1832. Walter sold a phenomenal number of books during his lifetime, and the proceeds helped to fund his dream home - Abbotsford - his 'Conundrum Castle'. 

Scott's later years were overshadowed by illness and financial troubles, and the death of his wife. The collapse of his publishers led Scott to try and repay his debts honourably, by writing. He successfully reduced a large amount of the debts before his death at Abbotsford in 1832.

All images from the author's collection. 

Thursday, 20 May 2021

A Great Honour!

I'm very pleased and honoured to say that I've just been elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society! I'd particularly like to thank the President, Emma Griffin, for supporting my application. I am really looking forward to joining this international community of historians, and helping to promote and support the discipline of history as much as I can. 

Illustration: Morning visiting dress, Ladies' Cabinet of Fashion, 1837.

News for Email Subscribers

 It has been brought to my attention that the old 'subscribe by email' function, previously provided by Feedburner, will stop working in July. Therefore, I've switched subscribers to the new service (with help from my dear husband Nigel, and from technical support!) Current subscribers should be switched automatically, if all goes well. 

If you haven't already subscribed to my blog, you can do so via this link. If you'd like to subscribe to my Jane Austen blog, you can do so via this link here.

It's raining today, so here's a nice illustration of a lady wearing pattens - essential wear in Jane Austen's day. 

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Caledonian Collection!

I'm very pleased to announce that I've just published my new book Caledonian Collection on Amazon Kindle! It's a collection of published articles inspired by our holidays in Scotland, in former happier times. The topics covered include the 'Killing Times', Radical rebels, and Bonnie Prince Charlie's ill-fated venture to gain the British throne. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it! 

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Goodbye to 2020!

This has been a horrible year for so many people in so many countries.

However, the advent of several vaccines has given us fresh hope that some day soon we will be able to once again hug our loved ones safely. 

This is not a good time of year weather-wise. But I do take pleasure in small things whilst unable to travel: the joy of spotting our resident Robin Redbreast; the last few chrysanthemums braving the December rain; and the first tentative harbingers of spring as next year's bulbs begin to appear. 

I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and best wishes for the new year. 

Here's to better times next year! 

Image: The Aurora Borealis in Lapland. Penny Magazine, 21 December 1833. 

Monday, 27 July 2020

A Summer Like No Other

This summer seems to have gone by like a dream.

I cannot remember a situation like this during my lifetime – so many weeks of anxiety about the safety of our loved ones, both family and friends.

I meant to start a diary at the start of the pandemic, but for the first time in my life I have been far too anxious and unsettled to write.

The first few weeks of lockdown were the worst – those blisteringly hot, seemingly endless days when we were confined to the house except for our permitted one walk per day.

We have been very lucky compared with many families – we were able to walk round our garden when we needed a breath of fresh air. It was a great comfort to see the spring flowers appearing and to watch birds playing on the lawn, oblivious to the drama unfolding in the human world.

Our son came home just before the start of the lockdown, and it has been a great comfort, knowing he was safe with us.

But the separation from other family members was the worst, especially my elderly parents and our daughter.

We missed our daughter’s birthday, and my sister’s too, during the lockdown. Video calls aren’t the same as a hug, but better than nothing. Even though the restrictions have eased, it still hurts that I can’t cuddle my Mum and Dad, or our daughter.

We have enjoyed a few days out recently, but with no end to our invisible enemy in sight, it is hard to see when or if our lives will ever return to normal.

I hope that you and your loved ones are keeping well – and staying safe.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Meet the Cato Street Conspirators!

Every November, we commemorate the discovery in 1605 of Guy Fawkes' Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament, over four hundred years after the event. Yet the Cato Street Conspirators - who planned to murder the whole British Cabinet and launch a revolution - are seemingly almost forgotten, even though it's the bicentenary of their executions this year. Most of the plotters were arrested in a loft at Cato Street following a police 'sting' operation set up by Home Office spy George Edwards.

On Monday 1 May 1820, Arthur Thistlewood, James Ings, John Thomas Brunt, Richard Tidd and William Davidson were hanged for high treason before a vast crowd at Newgate prison.

What type of men were the conspirators?

All the plotters were as poor as church mice. Their ringleader, Arthur Thistlewood, was already well known to the authorities for his role in the Spa Fields Riots (December 1816). He was 5ft 8in high, with ‘a sallow complexion’, dark hair, ‘dark hazel eyes and arched eyebrows’, a wide mouth and good teeth. Arthur had a scar under his chin, and the ‘appearance of a military man’. He customarily wore a blue riding coat and blue pantaloons. Thistlewood, now about 25 years old, was on his second marriage, and had previously been unfortunate in his finances. Arthur had a pathological hatred of government ministers like Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth, and was notorious for his violent language and demeanour. When the police trap was sprung, Thistlewood fought his way out of the loft, killing a policeman, Smithers, with his sword. George Edwards later led the police to Thistlewood's hiding place.

James Ings, a Hampshire man, had formerly known more prosperous times, but lost much of his property and money during the trade slump after Waterloo. He had a wife, Celia, three daughters, and a son called William. Ings had recently kept a coffee-shop in Whitechapel, from which he sold political pamphlets, but this venture, too, failed. He was penniless in the run-up to the conspiracy, and is said to have been given money by government spy George Edwards to rent a room which served as an arms depot for the conspirators.

John Thomas Brunt was lodging in the same house. A Londoner, he earned a living as a 'boot-closer', and was said to be an 'excellent workman'. A married man, in his late thirties, he had a fourteen-year-old son. Brunt was seemingly of a poetic turn. The night before his execution, he sent his wife the last shilling he possessed, begging her to 'keep the shilling for his sake for as long as she lived'.
He also wrote some verses for his wife:
Tho' in a cell I'm close confin'd,
No fears alarm the noble mind,
Tho' death itself appears in view, 
Daunts not the soul sincerely true, 
Let Sidmouth and his base colleagues
Cajole and plot their dark intrigues;
Still each Briton's last words shall be,
Oh! give me death or liberty!
(George Theodore Wilkinson, An Authentic History of the Cato Street Conspiracy, London, 1820).

Richard Tidd, born in Grantham, was a Radical shoemaker alleged to have been involved in the Despard conspiracy. Tidd was married, with a daughter, and lived in great poverty in Hole-in-the-Wall Passage, Baldwin's Gardens. It's said that Tidd fired a gun at a peace officer during the conspirators' arrest on 23 February.

William Davidson, 'a man of colour', was highly intelligent. Born in Kingston, Jamaica (where his father was Attorney-General), he came to England while still very young for a good education. He studied mathematics, and the law (for a time) before learning the trade of a cabinet-maker.

The Authentic History of the Cato Street Conspiracy gives Davidson a very bad character, accusing him not only of an 'indelicate attack' on a Sunday School teacher, but also the young ladies who attended the school. He too was extremely poor following the failure of his business.

Several of the conspirators who were arrested were lucky to escape the gallows. Five others were transported to Australia.

Two more, John Monument and Thomas Adams turned King's evidence to save their skins.

Thomas Hiden, who had a last-minute change of heart and alerted the authorities to the plot (which they already knew about), was later rewarded with a job by the government.

However, Thistlewood also had links with other revolutionary groups in the UK, and the full extent of the conspiracy may never be fully known.