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Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Marking the 250th anniversary of his birth, we celebrate the life of Sir Walter Scott, Edinburgh's most renowned literary son, through 10 places in Edinburgh and beyond that helped form his life and work.

1. College Wynd

Left: College Wynd shortly before demolition. The vague building in the distance is the north side of Old College. Right: the plaque on Guthrie Street marking Scott's birthplace.
Left: College Wynd shortly before demolition. The vague building in the distance is the north side of Old College. Right: the plaque on Guthrie Street marking Scott's birthplace.

Scott was born on 15 August 1771 in a third-floor flat in College Wynd in the Old Town of Edinburgh. College Wynd climbed from the Cowgate to the gates of the old University of Edinburgh. Scott's birthplace was pulled down a few years later to make room for the northern front of Old College. College Wynd was a cramped, dimly lit alleyway with poor sanitation and little fresh air. Such unhealthy conditions undoubtedly contributed to the death in childhood of six of his siblings. Scott himself developed polio, and in 1773 was sent to recover in the country.

Today, you'll find nothing of the old College Wynd. It was completely demolished and replaced by the dog-legged Guthrie Street during the period of Victorian improvements to the Old Town in the 1860s and 1870s. Its name remains, however, at its Cowgate entrance that now leads to University student accommodation, and a plaque at the top of Guthrie Street marks the locations of Scott's birthplace.

2. Sandyknowe

Smailholm Tower at Sandyknowe
Smailholm Tower at Sandyknowe

It was to Sandyknowe Farm that Scott was sent during his bout of polio. Belonging to Scott's grandfather Robert Scott, it lay on the outskirts of the village of Smailholm, Roxburghshire. It was located some thirty miles southeast of Edinburgh and roughly halfway between Kelso and Melrose. His time there would prove highly formative, instilling him with a lifelong love of the ballads, traditions, and landscape of the Border region. Returning occasionally to Edinburgh and making lengthy visits to Bath and Prestonpans to attempt a water cure for his lameness, Scott would remain at Sandyknowe until early 1778. By that stage, Scott's father judged his health sufficiently firm to permit him to start school in Edinburgh

3. George Square(s)

25 George Square in Edinburgh and George Square in Glasgow
Left: 25 George Square in Edinburgh. Right: the Walter Scott Monument, George Square, Glasgow.

Scott thus moved back to Edinburgh to join his family in their spacious new home at 25 George Square. George Square was a new residential development built by James Brown outside the old city walls. It catered for the professional classes who were beginning to abandon the cramped streets of the Old Town for lighter, airier accommodation. Scott's father, who had now risen to sole head of his firm, was one of the first to have a house built there. His neighbours were a distinguished set, including the Countess of Sutherland, Lord Braxfield, the Justice-Clerk of the Court, and Henry Dundas, the future Lord Melville. This was to remain Scott's home until his marriage in 1797. From here he attended Edinburgh High School and then Edinburgh University, finally qualifying as an Advocate in 1792. 

Later another George Square made a link to Scott - the famous Glasgow square was given the Walter Scott Monument in 1837 - a testament to his importance to the whole of Scotland.

4. High School Yards

high school yards

On his return from Sandyknowe, Scott was privately educated in preparation for attending the High School of Edinburgh (now the Royal High School), which he started in October 1779. The School had just moved into its new building on Infirmary Street. Scott initially felt at something of a disadvantage, for although he was a year older than most of his classmates, his knowledge of Latin, the staple of the school's curriculum, was noticeably inferior. Soon, however, he had bridged the gap and became a diligent student.

5. Edinburgh Castle

Honours of Scotland and Edinburgh Castle

Scott is widely credited with helping to popularise the romantic notion of Scotland that characterises the country today. He did this through his writing, but also very deliberate actions such as rediscovering the Honours of Scotland.

Having been smuggled out of Edinburgh Castle in politically turbulent times, the Scottish Crown, Sceptre and Sword of State were returned following the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. They were locked away in the Crown Room, but over the years their location was forgotten and it was rumoured that they had been taken to England. With the support of the Prince Regent, on 4 February 1818, Scott and a group of Officers of State forced open two sealed doors and a great oak chest, in which they found the regalia wrapped in linen and in perfect condition. Since then, they have been on permanent display in Edinburgh Castle.

6. Heart of Midlothian

Heart of Midlothian moasic
The Heart of Midlothian on Edinburgh's High Street. The brass markings in the bottom right mark the location of recently uncovered foundations of the Old Tolbooth.

Today the Heart of Midlothian is a pretty mosaic on the road next to St Giles Catherdral, as well as a local football team. But in Scott's day it was how the city's infamous Old Tolbooth was known. This fearsome building stood where the heart moasic is today, forming a dark obstruction in the High Street and known for tales of the grim accomodation it offered unfortunate prisoners. 

Scott made mention of the Old Tolbooth numerous times in his novel ‘The Heart of Midlothian’ (1818) which detailed the Porteous Riots of 1736.

7. Abbotsford House

Abbotsford House
Abbotsford House and (right) a door from Edinburgh's Old Tolbooth that Scott salvaged and had installed at Abbotsford.

As Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire, Scott needed to spend part of the year in easy reach of the courtroom in Selkirk, so he spent legal terms in Edinburgh and legal vacations in the country. For a few years he rented a house at Ashestiel, but in 1811 he bought his own ‘mountain farm’, as he described it, ‘on a bare haugh and bleak bank by the side of the Tweed’.

It was called Newarthaugh on the deeds, but was Cartleyhole (and sometimes ‘Clarty Hole’) to local people. He immediately renamed it Abbotsford, after the ford across the Tweed below the house used in former times by the monks of Melrose Abbey.

Over the years, Scott who was enjoying the financial fruits of his labours as a novelist, historian and poet as well as a lawyer, enlarged the house. It was while living at Abbotsford that he wrote the series of Waverley novels.

But the expense of creating his "conundrum castle" as he called it, overstretched his finances and, when his publishers and printers failed in 1826, he was nearly bankrupt. But he pledged to repay all his debts and worked prodigiously to clear the huge some (for those days) of £120,000. He wore himself out to pay off the creditors and indeed they were finally all paid after his death by selling copyrights to some of his works.

8. Malta

Valletta in Malta

Scott's last years were blighted firstly by a series of strokes which greatly impaired his physical and mental powers, and secondly by enormous debts, which he attempted to pay off by writing novels with all the exertion and diligence he could still muster. In October 1831, he set sail for the Mediterranean in an attempt to recover his health, spending three weeks in Malta.

There he was inspired to write 'The Siege of Malta', which tells the story of events surrounding the Siege of Malta by Ottoman Turks. It was published posthumously in 2008.

9. Waverley Station and Bridge

Waverley Bridge and novel
Waverley Bridge in Edinburgh, and a first edition copy of the novel that gave it its name.

Famous sites in Edinburgh, the station is the only in the world to be named after a work of fiction.

10. Scott Monument

Scott Monument

The ultimate homage to Scott, the monument is one of the most recongnisable structures in his home city. Very soon after his death in 1832, a design competition was held for a memorial to the writer. George Meikle Kemp - a self-trained architect - won with his Gothic revival masterpiece that is today known as an iconic tourist attraction.

The statue of Scott that perches in the centre of the monument was scuplted by John Steell and also includes Maida, Scott's favourite dog.

Additional sources

The Walter Scott Digital Archive

Abbotsford House

All images used by license of Creative Commons.