Why we should study Sir Walter Scott in schools

On Saturday 6 June 2015 the Association of Scottish Literary Studies hosted a Conference on Sir Walter Scott in Schools. I left convinced that not only should his work be studied more in schools, but it is eminently possible to teach it without breaking the budget, banging your head against a wall, or boring the bairns to death.

Sir Walter Scott is not a writer who is widely studied in our schools. It seems to be past time to change this. But why should we teach SWS?

Sir Walter Scott is world-famous and celebrated

His monument in Edinburgh is the tallest dedicated to a writer on the planet. Waverley Station in Edinburgh is the only station in the world to be named for a novel, and that novel was, of course, written by Scott. Surely every Scottish citizen should leave school understanding the impact this writer had on our capital city?

His influence on popular culture goes further than we think

The writer James Robertson recently identified a whole host of places named to celebrate Scott's books – from the names of pubs and beverages, to place names and boat names and the name of a Scottish Premiership football team. Scott's influence extends far and wide in the naming of places and products: for instance, the town of Ivanhoe in Texas; Baillie Nicol Jarvie Old Scotch Whisky or The Antiquary Bar in Edinburgh. Every major town and city in Scotland has streets named after his works or characters. It is therefore likely that you will find a link which the weans or bairns you teach will appreciate.

Scott helped to keep Scots alive as a written form at a time when the fates were conspiring against it

Scott invented the historical novel

We have the great man to thank for a genre which, while it may dismay historical purists, brings history to life for an avid readership. Private Peaceful, The Book Thief, Bring Up the Bodies and Gone With the Wind exist because of his work. And he was a Scot. Our weans need to know this. Which leads me to my next point…

Scott is part of the canon of our literature

That Scott is not studied should be a cause for amazement if not consternation. What other nation ignores its literary superstars? When will we stop cringing and begin to celebrate our achievements as a nation and a people? Surely Sir Walter Scott is the birth right of our bairns as much as Shakespeare or Burns is? 

He wrote in Scots

He helped to keep our language alive as a written form at a time when the fates were conspiring against it. He recorded the Border Ballads for posterity and contributed some lively text in Scots of his very own.


How to get started with Scott

So, how are you to introduce Sir Walter Scott to your class, now I have convinced you?

Use the ballads

For years I taught Sir Patrick Spens and The Twa Corbies without appreciating or crediting the role Sir Walter Scott played in preserving them for us. Bairns love ballads: their rhythm, their rhyme, their tragedy and their often gory nature. The texts can be accessed here, along with lots of other useful information.

Use extracts

James Robertson has pointed out that Rob Roy is a particularly good source, but any of Scott’s novels set in Scotland could be used in the same way.

The extract selected by Robertson at the conference is from chapter 10 and begins, ‘While we paced easily forward, by a road which conducted us…’ As he pointed out, this extract goes on to give a fair summation, in Scots, of the issues surrounding independence, which has obvious resonance and relevance to today’s learners.

There are other possibilities. The section in Chapter 2 beginning, “Ah! it’s a brave kirk – nane o yere whig-maleeries and curliewurlies…” in which Fairservice extols the virtues and explores the history of Glasgow Cathedral, would be a super stimulus to descriptive writing in Scots about other landmark buildings. Of course, it is worth exploring for ‘whig-maleeries and curliewurlies’ alone!

Chapter 9 has a wonderful metaphor: ‘his craig wad ken the weight o his hurdies if they could get haud o Rob,' which translates as, 'his neck would know the weight of his buttocks'! If, like me, your mind goes blank when you are looking to illustrate this technique in class, this would be worth having up your sleeve.

The section in Chapter 14 beginning, ‘“Vera true, kinswoman,” said the Bailie…’ gives, in less than a paragraph, a nice wee insight into ‘language an…claes’ and the differences between Highland and Glasgow at the time. This could be a good way into discussions about language variation and/or fashions in dress.

Of course, Scott’s short stories, the most famous of which is an extract in itself, could stand alone for study. You could download the abrigit Wandering Willie’s Tale from the Scuil wab.

Use alternative versions

There are all kinds of abridged versions on the market, if you want to go further than using extracts as mentioned above. Perhaps even better are the new epitomes – David Purdie has adapted Ivanhoe and Heart of Midlothian; Jenni Calder Waverley. These are shorter versions, cut down for a modern audience, with the punctuation altered as well as the word-count. Fewer commas than Walter Scott used might just help your learners to enjoy these texts more.

Use a modern novel to springboard pupils into the more challenging Scott

Compare with other texts

Including Scott in your study of other texts might be the best option for you and your learners. Jane Austen and he were contemporaries who knew and admired each other’s work. Details of what they said about each other can be found here.  With Advanced Higher candidates it might be worth exploring Scott’s assertion that ‘That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life…but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.’

James Robertson, as well as suggesting the above, has identified numerous similarities between Heart of Midlothian and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. Again, this might be of interest to Advanced Higher candidates for specialist studies. But younger or less able learners might access the O’Farrell novel and use that as a springboard into the more challenging Scott.

Aspects of Scott could be studied alongside many another text. Waverley is essentially a quest. Comparison could be made to any other tale in this genre. I think The Gruffalo in Scots might be a perfect way in!

Use expressive arts

Bairns, of all ages, love drama. Why not explore Scott’s very dramatic texts through this medium? Rose Johnston’s Lochinvar Drama Workshop materials are sitting in the Resources section of the Scots Blether on GLOW http://bit.ly/scotsblether to get you started.

Check out our other blogs on Scots in Schools.

Image Credit: David Monniaux on Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported.

Diane Anderson

Diane Anderson is one of Education Scotland's Scots Language Co-ordinators.