To Sir Walter Scott, Bart.
From Letters to Dead Authors
Andrew Lang

                  Rodono, St. Mary's Loch:
                  Sept. 5, 1885.

Sir,--In your biography it is recorded that you not only won the favour of all
men and women; but that a domestic fowl conceived an affection for you, and
that a pig, by his will, had never been severed from your company. If some
Circe had repeated in my case her favourite miracle of turning mortals into
swine, and had given me a choice, into that fortunate pig, blessed among his
race, would I have been converted! You, almost alone among men of letters,
still, like a living friend, win and charm us out of the past; and if one
might call up a poet, as the scholiast tried to call Homer, from the shades,
who would not, out of all the rest, demand some hours of your society? Who
that ever meddled with letters, what child of the irritable race, possessed
even a tithe of your simple manliness, of the heart that never knew a touch of
jealousy, that envied no man his laurels, that took honour and wealth as they
came, but never would have deplored them had you missed both and remained but
the Border sportsman and the Border antiquary?

Were the word 'genial' not so much profaned, were it not misused in easy
good-nature, to extenuate lettered and sensual indolence, that worn old term
might be applied, above all men, to 'the Shirra.' But perhaps we scarcely need
a word (it would be seldom in use)for a character so rare, or rather so
lonely, in its nobility and charm as that of Walter Scott. Here, in the heart
of your own country, among your own grey round-shouldered hills (each so like
the other that the shadow of one falling on its neighbour exactly outlines
that neighbour's shape), it is of you and of your works that a native of the
Forest is most frequently brought in mind. All the spirits of the river and
the hill, all the dying refrains of ballad and the fading echoes of story, all
the memory of the wild past, each legend of burn and loch, seem to have
combined to inform your spirit, and to secure themselves an immortal life in
your song. It is through you that we remember them; and in recalling them, as
in treading each hillside in this land, we again remember you and bless you.

It is not 'Sixty Years Since' the echo of Tweed among his pebbles fell for the
last time on your ear; not sixty years since, and how much is altered! But two
generations have passed; the lad who used to ride from Edinburgh to
Abbotsford, carrying new books for you, and old, is still vending, in George
, old books and new. Of politics I have not the heart to speak. Little
joy would you have had in most that has befallen since the Reform Bill was
passed, to the chivalrous cry of 'burke Sir Walter.' We are still very Radical
in the Forest, and you were taken away from many evils to come. How would the
cheek of Walter Scott, or of Leyden, have blushed at the names of Majuba, The
Soudan, Maiwand, and many others that recall political cowardice or military
incapacity! On the other hand, who but you could have sung the dirge of
Gordon, or wedded with immortal verse the names of Hamilton (who fell with
Cavagnari), of the two Stewarts, of many another clansman, brave among the
bravest! Only he who told how

    The stubborn spearmen still made good
    Their dark impenetrable wood

could have fitly rhymed a score of feats of arms in which, as at M'Neill's
Zareeba and at Abu Klea,

    Groom fought like noble, squire like knight,
      As fearlessly and well.

Ah, Sir, the hearts of the rulers may wax faint, and the voting classes may
forget that they are Britons; but when it comes to blows our fighting men
might cry, with Leyden,

    My name is little Jock Elliot,
    And wha daur meddle wi' me!

Much is changed, in the country-side as well as in the country; but much
remains. The little towns of your time are populous and excessively black with
the smoke of factories--not, I fear, at present very flourishing. In
Galashiels you still see the little change-house and the cluster of cottages
round the Laird's lodge, like the clachan of Tully Veolan. But these plain
remnants of the old Scotch towns are almost buried in a multitude of 'smoky
dwarf houses'--a living poet, Mr. Matthew Arnold, has found the fitting phrase
for these dwellings, once for all. All over the Forest he waters are dirty and
poisoned: I think they are filthiest below Hawick; but this may be mere local
prejudice in a Selkirk man. To keep them clean costs money; and, though
improvements are often promised, I cannot see much change for the better.
Abbotsford, luckily, is above Galashiels, and only receives the dirt and dyes
of Selkirk, Peebles, Walkerburn, and Innerlethen. On the other hand, your
ill-omened later dwelling, 'the unhappy palace of your race,' is overlooked by
villas that prick a cockney ear among their larches, hotels of the future. Ah,
Sir, Scotland is a strange place. Whisky is exiled from some of our
caravanserais, and they have banished Sir John Barleycorn. It seems as if the
views of the excellent critic (who wrote your life lately, and said you had
left no descendants, _le_pauvre_homme_) were beginning to prevail. This pious
biographer was greatly shocked by that capital story about the keg of whisky
that arrived at the Liddesdale farmer's during family prayers. Your Toryism
also was an offence to him.

Among these vicissitudes of things and the overthrow of customs, let us be
thankful that, beyond the reach of the manufacturers, the Border country
remains as kind and homely as ever. I looked at Ashiestiel some days ago: the
house seemed just as it may have been when you left it for Abbotsford, only
there was a lawn-tennis net on the lawn, the hill on the opposite bank of the
Tweed was covered to the crest with turnips, and the burn did not sing below
the little bridge, for in this arid summer the burn was dry. But there was
still a grilse that rose to a big March brown in the shrunken stream below
Elibank. This may not interest you, who styled yourself

     No fisher,
     But a well-wisher
     To the game!

Still, as when you were thinking over Marmion, a man might have 'grand gallops
among the hills'--those grave wastes of heather and bent that sever all the
watercourses and roll their sheep-covered pastures from Dollar Law to White
, and from White Combe to the Three Brethren Cairn and the Windburg and
Skelf-hill Pen. Yes, Teviotdale is pleasant still, and there is not a drop of
dye in the water, _purior_electro_, of Yarrow. St. Mary's Loch lies beneath
me, smitten with wind and rain--the St. Mary's of North and of the Shepherd.
Only the trout, that see a myriad of artificial flies, are shyer than of yore.
The Shepherd could no longer fill a cart up Meggat with trout so much of a
size that the country people took them for herrings.

The grave of Piers Cockburn is still not desecrated: hard by it lies, within a
little wood; and beneath that slab of old sandstone, and the graven letters,
and the sword and shield, sleep 'Piers Cock-burn and Marjory his wife.' Not a
hundred yards off was the castle door where they hanged him; this is the tomb
of the ballad, and the lady that buried him rests now with her wild lord.

    Oh, wat ye no my heart was sair,
    When I happit the mouls on his yellow hair;
    Oh, wat ye no my heart was wae,
    When I turned about and went my way! (1)

Here too hearts have broken, and there is a sacredness in the shadow and
beneath these clustering berries of the rowan-trees. That sacredness, that
reverent memory of our old land, it is always and inextricably blended with
our memories, with our thoughts, with our love of you. Scotchmen, methinks,
who owe so much to you, owe you most for the example you gave of the beauty of
a life of honour, showing them what, by Heaven's blessing, a Scotchman still
might be.

(1) Lord Napier and Ettrick points out to me that, unluckily, the tradition is
erroneous. Piers was not executed at all. William Cockburn suffered in
Edinburgh. But the _Border_Minstrelsy_ overrides history.

_Criminal_Trials_in_Scotland_ by Robert Pitcairn, Esq. Vol. i. part I. p. 144,
A. D. 1530. 17 Jac. V.

May 16. William Cokburne of Henderland, convicted (in presence of the King) of
high treason committed by him in bringing Alexander Forestare and his son,
Englishmen, to the plundering of Archibald Somervile; and for treasunably
bringing certain Englishmen to the lands of Glenquhome; and for common theft,
common reset of theft, out-putting and in-putting thereof. Sentence. For which
causes and crimes he has forfeited his life, lands, and goods, movable and
immovable; which shall be escheated to the King. Beheaded.

Words, empty and unavailing--for what words of ours can speak our thoughts or
interpret our affections! From you first, as we followed the deer with King
, or rode with William of Deloraine on his midnight errand, did we learn
what Poetry means and all the happiness that is in the gift of song. This and
more than may be told you gave us, that are not forgetful, not ungrateful,
though our praise be unequal to our gratitude. _Fungor_inani_munere!_

Previous Letter (to Edgar Allan Poe) | Letters to Dead Authors | Next Letter (to Eusebius of Caesarea)

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.