Get Your Premium Membership

Letters to Dead Poets: To Sir Walter Scott

by Andrew Lang

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 Street, 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 Zareba 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 countryside 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 the 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 Innerleithen.  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 Combe, 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 Cockburn 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! [160]

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.

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 James, 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!