Walter Scott's Trossachs and Perthshire

Walter Scott was born on 15th August 1771 in the College Wynd, Edinburgh, to a family with deep roots in the Scottish Borders, an area that he would later be closely involved with in literature, as Editor of The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border; professionally as Sheriff of Selkirk; and as Laird of Abbotsford in Roxburghshire.

However he also put the Trossachs area, and indeed the whole boundary of the Highlands in Stirlingshire and Perthshire on the international tourist map with an epic poem The Lady of the Lake and his novels Waverley and Rob Roy. The Trossachs is properly defined as the land around Loch Katrine, but like other popular place names it has been defined in much broader terms at times.

In Scott’s youth few of his neighbours from Edinburgh would ever have had occasion to venture north of the Highland Line and the inhabitants of the Highlands were still seen as outsiders, possible rebels, and certainly suspicious characters. Scott was to do much by his writing and by events such as the clan gathering he staged for the visit to Edinburgh by George IV in 1822 to reconcile Lowlands and Highlands and even to establish the tartan-clad Highlander as the standard image of Scotland at home and abroad.

Scott’s own first acquaintance with the area came as a teenage law apprentice to his father, an Edinburgh Writer to the Signet. He was sent north to see to the execution of a legal instrument against some Maclarens, tenants of Stewart of Appin. Scott himself records the incident:

An escort of a sergeant and six men was obtained from a Highland regiment lying in Stirling, and the author, then a writer’s apprentice, equivalent to the honourable situation of an attorney’s clerk, was invested with the superintendence of the expedition, with directions to see that the messenger discharged his duty fully, and that the sergeant did not exceed his part by committing violence or plunder. And thus it happened, oddly enough, that the author first entered the romantic scenery of Loch Katrine, of which he may perhaps say he has somewhat extended the reputation, riding in all the dignity of danger, with a front and rear guard, and loaded arms.

The youthful and romantic Scott, whose cherished dreams of a soldier’s life were frustrated by his contracting polio in infancy, an affliction which left him crippled, must have enjoyed this adventurous journey across the Highland Line. However the fact that to enforce a legal warrant across the Highland Line in the mid 1780s required the presence of a detachment of soldiers is a reminder that those parts were still not entirely peaceable.

We now think of Scott as a novelist, indeed as the father of the historical novel, but his first reputation was as a poet. His novels, a less respectable art form for a Sheriff and a Principal Clerk of the Court of Session, were originally published anonymously, and although informed opinion always attributed them to Scott it was not until 1827, 13 years after the publication of Waverley, that he publicly acknowledged their authorship. Hard as it may be for us today to imagine it, Scott had become a household name and a best-selling author on the strength of his collection of Border minstrelsy and the epic poems The Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion.

Scott was always fascinated by boundaries, both geographical and cultural, and saw the edge of the Highlands as ripe territory for his writing. As he wrote in the introduction to the 1830 edition of Lady of the Lake:

The ancient manners, the habits and customs of the aboriginal race by whom the Highlands of Scotland were inhabited, had always appeared to me peculiarly adapted to poetry. The change in their manners, too, had taken place almost within my own time, or at least I had learned many particulars concerning the ancient state of the Highlands from the old men of the last generation…
I had also read a great deal, seen much, and heard more, of that romantic country, where I was in the habit of spending some time every autumn; and the scenery of Loch Katrine was connected with the recollection of many a dear friend and merry expedition of former days.

So, in 1809 Scott travelled north to research the setting for a new epic poem – this was published in May 1810 as The Lady of the Lake and 20,000 copies were sold in a few months. Although our taste for epic poetry has perhaps declined individual lyrics from the poem still are familiar and are to be found in many anthologies:

The stag at eve has drunk his fill,
Where danced the moon on Monan’s rill,
And deep his midnight lair had made
In lone Glenartney’s hazel shade…

And the “Coronach” from Canto 3 is still familiar

He is gone on the mountain,
He is lost to the forest.
Like a summer-dried fountain,
When our need was the sorest.
The font, re-appearing,
From the rain-drops shall borrow,
But to us comes no cheering,
To Duncan no morrow.

The beautiful song “Soldier, rest! thy warfare over” also continues to delight.

The romantic narrative of a King (modelled on James V) disguised as a wandering knight being entertained at the home of a fierce Highland chief appealed to a wide audience and the specifics of landscape and setting made visiting the Trossachs a popular pastime and a tourist industry grew up in Perthshire and Stirlingshire to cater for enthusiastic visitors in search of the landscape of Sir James Fitz James, Ellen Douglas and Roderick Dhu.

One noteworthy aspect of the success of The Lady of the Lake is the wider life it has had. The beautiful “Ellen’s Song” or “Hymn to the Virgin” was one of several lyrics (including a setting of “Coronach”) from the poem set to music by Schubert. In the standard catalogue of Schubert’s works it appears as D839 Ellen’s Gesang III. Confusingly the Ave Maria now commonly sung to Schubert’s music does not in fact use Scott’s words but the traditional Latin prayer “Ave Maria, gratia plena.” Scott’s lyrics were:

Ave Maria! maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden’s prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild,
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care.
Though banish’d, outcast, and reviled;
Maiden! hear a maiden’s prayer –
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Not less remarkable is the second life given to the Boat Song in Canto 2. This was set to music by James Sanderson for a London stage production. The tune became popular and “Hail to the Chief” was soon adopted as the music played to announce the arrival of the President of the United States of America. The first President to be so honoured was Andrew Jackson in 1829 and its status as the official anthem for the President was confirmed in 1954.

Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances!
Honour’d and bless’d be the ever-green Pine!
Long may the tree, in his banner that glances,
Flourish, the shelter and grace of our line!

In a sense The Lady of the Lake and the other epic lays were telling a narrative and might just as easily have been turned into a prose fiction. Scott had started the novel that became Waverley in 1805 but put it aside and it was not until 1813 that he rediscovered it while searching for fishing tackle and resumed work on it. It was eventually published in July 1814. Although Scott’s name did not appear on it informed observers guessed who the author was. The Scots Magazine reviewing Waverley perceptively remarked:

Report assigns it to the most admired poet of the age and we see no reason that even such a writer could have to disown a performance like the present.

Even Jane Austen, living quietly at Chowton in Hampshire, on reading Waverley, was in no doubt about the authorship and wrote in mock anger to her niece:

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones – It is not fair – He has Fame and Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.

The novel concerns the adventures of young Edward Waverley, an officer in the British Army who travels to Scotland in 1745 and visits a family friend, the Baron of Bradwardine, meets other figures on the borders of the Highlands and becomes involved in the Jacobite Rising of that year. Much ink has been spilled on the sources for Scott’s characters and the identification of specific geographical locations with the scenes of the novel. Some are quite clear, Flora McIvor sings at Ledard Waterfall:

Mist darkens the mountains, night darkens the vale
But more dark is the sleep of the sons of the Gael:
A stranger commanded – it sunk on the land,
It has frozen each heart, and benumb’d every hand!

The dirk and the target lie sordid with rust,
The bloodless claymore is but redden’d with rust
On the hill or the glen if a gun should appear,
It is only to war with the heath-cock or deer.

The waterfall, at the foot of Ben Venue, is lovingly described by Scott:

It was not so remarkable either for great height or quantity of water, as for the beautiful accompaniments which made the spot interesting. After a broken cataract of about twenty feet, the stream was received in a large natural basin, filled to the brim with water, which, when the bubbles of the fall subsided, was so exquisitely clear, that, although it was of great depth, the eye could discern each pebble at the bottom…

The setting of much of the action of the novel in the Trossachs and Perthshire reinforced the tourist potential of the area, already created by the success of The Lady of the Lake and the success of the novel – which lent its name to Scott’s entire prose fiction output – was swift and overwhelming. The Waverley Novels – which are only connected by their authorship and are in no sense a sequence of novels – were a literary sensation, quickly translated into many languages and did much to establish an international image of Scotland. They are surely also the only works of fiction ever to give their name to a major railway station.

Scott returned to the Trossachs in 1817 with Rob Roy. His hero, another young Englishman, Francis Osbaldistone, loose in Scotland on the eve of the 1715 Jacobite Rising, goes from Glasgow with the remarkable Bailie Nicol Jarvie (surely one of Scott’s most attractive characters) to visit Rob Roy MacGregor. Scott had, years before as a young law apprentice heard tales of this Highland rogue from one of his father’s clients and he reinforced his extensive reading and memories with a visit to the Stirlingshire to see the site of Rob Roy’s cave at Inversnaid on Loch Lomondside.

Osbaldistone and the Bailie venture into:

that mountainous and desolate territory, which lying between the lakes of Loch-Lomond, Loch-Katrine and Loch-Ard, was at this time currently called Rob-Roy’s, or the MacGregor, country.

and encounter both Rob Roy and his not less formidable wife Helen. However they prove equal to the challenges and the Bailie, in a memorable scene at the Inn at Milton of Aberfoyle, defends himself against attack with a red-hot ploughshare and sets fire to his assailant’s kilt.

Brian D Osborne


An excellent scholarly edition of the Waverley Novels has been produced by Edinburgh University Press, but good paperback editions are also plentiful: these are just a brief selection. The Lady of the Lake fares less well in convenient editions but it is included in the anthology of Scott’s poetry noted below.

  • Cover scan of Rob Roy
    Rob Roy - Walter Scott - Paperback
    Sir Walter Scott's classic novel Rob Roy is the story of two heroes, aristocratic Francis Osbaldistone and outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor. Set on the eve of the Jacobite rebellion, the story is one of intrigue, romance and suspicion.
  • Cover scan of Waverley
    Waverley - Walter Scott - Paperback
    Set against the backdrop of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, 'Waverley' tells the story of Edward Waverley, an idealistic daydreamer whose loyalty to his regiment is threatened when they are sent to the Scottish Highlands where he is drawn to Fergus Mac-Ivor and his beautiful sister, both loyal to Charles Stuart.

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott

Loch Katrine, The Trossachs

Loch Katrine

More on