Sir Walter Scott,
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definite hope or ambition in that direction. His imagination perpetually wandered to the Borders, to the Highlands, to remote periods of chivalry and war. Daily in the habit of rehearsing fictitious narratives to his friends, he charmed the circle in which he moved by his startling combinations and life-like pictures. It was in this way that his great narrative faculty first found exercise. His first publication was in verse; a translation of Burger’s “Lenore” and “Wild Huntsman.” Those who refer to “Lenore” will find Scott’s version of the ghastly tale a stirring ballad, unmistakably Scott’s in its rapid fiery pace and rough music.
He had now a more important project in hand. His capacious memory had treasured ballads, and fragments of ballads innumerable. Lingering in farms and hamlets in quiet Ettrickdale and Liddesdale were hundreds more, genuine survivals from the age of minstrelsy. Piously to gather these and fix them, before they perished, in imperishable type seemed an undertaking worth the labour of a few vigorous years. For some six years then, with such assistance as he could find, Scott searched Tweedside and the Borders for these interesting remains. During these researches he made the acquaintance of Laidlaw and Hogg, to both of whom he continued a kind and constant benefactor. But his most valuable assistant, scarcely second to Scott himself in Border lore, was John Leyden, a powerful but eccentric Border genius, whose brilliant life was prematurely cut short while pursuing philological investigations in India.
“A distant and a deadly shore Holds Leyden’s cold remains.”
In 1797 Scott, having recovered from his first disappointment, espoused Miss Carpenter, a young lady of French extraction, whom he met at a Cumberland watering-place. They retired to Lasswade, where the young couple resided in a small wayside cottage on the Roslin Road. The cottage overlooks the matchless woods that embower the valley of the Esk, and the paths that wind along the river past classic Hawthornden, and on to Roslin Chapel, present some of the finest woodland pictures that Scotland can show. From internal evidence one judges that the “Lay of the Last Minstrel” was planned in this beautiful retirement. Here also Scott translated Goethe’s “Goetz von Berlichingen,” selling the copyright to a London publisher for £25, the first instalment of the enormous wealth which flowed to Scott from literature.
About this time he was appointed sheriff of Selkirk, with an income of £300, and the lightest judicial duties. Continuing to arrange and complete the numerous ballads which he had recovered, he gave two volumes of the Border Minstrelsy to the world in 1802. As a commercial speculation it cannot be said that the Minstrelsy was successful, but it established Scott’s reputation on a solid basis. Visiting London in the following year, he was able to take his place among the greatest writers of the time, as an author who had done signal service to his country. He was now an occasional contributor to the Edinburgh Review, although his pronounced Toryism rendered his connection with the great Whig organ precarious and brief.
The duties of his sheriffdom compelling him to reside in the county of Selkirk, he removed to the beautiful residence of Ashestiel in 1804. Here he completed and published his first original work, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” Scott, with all his varied endowments, lacked the intensity of feeling which genuine poetry demands. Nevertheless, his vivid pictorial gift, the freshness of his imagery, and the freedom and boldness of his measures,