Sir Walter Scott: Friend or Foe?

Monday, July 3, 2017

The lighthouse museum at Hynish includes a short biography of Sir Walter Scott. As a Commissioner of Northern Lights, Scott had visited the site of the future Skerryvore Lighthouse many years before it was built. Here is how he described it in his diary.

Having crept upon deck about four in the morning, I find we are beating to windward off the Isle of Tyree, with the determination, on the part of Mr. Stevenson, that his constituents should visit a reef of rocks called Skerry Vhor, where he thought it would be essential to have a Lighthouse. Loud remonstrances on the part of the Commissioners, who, one and all, declare they will subscribe to his opinion, whatever it may be, rather than continue the infernal buffeting. Quiet perseverance on the part of Mr. S., and great kicking, bouncing, and squabbling upon that of the yacht, who seems to like the idea of Skerry Vhor as little as the Commissioners. At length by dint of exertion, come in sight of this long ridge of rocks (chiefly under water) on which the tide breaks in a most tremendous style.*

My brother Gordon and I were standing on the pier at Hynish (shown in the photo) when Gordon told me more about Sir Walter Scott’s history. I had to laugh because it sounded just like Mark Twain’s history. And that’s funny because Twain was Scott’s nemesis. The two men would not have known each other (Scott died three years before Twain was born), but Twain hated Scott with a passion. In Chapter 46 of Life on the Mississippi, Twain blames Scott for giving people romantic notions that kept them living in the past.

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinessses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual who ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South, they flourish pretty forcefully still.

And yet, the two men seemed to have the same faults and the same moral code. Both were easy prey for swindlers, or at least for people promoting bad business deals; each ended up bankrupt because of it; and each vowed to pay every last one of his debts—and did.

So maybe Twain should have respected Scott rather than despising him.


*  Quoted from Chapter 3 of Outer Isles by A. Goodrich-Freer (1902), as reprinted at

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