Scotland goes to the polls this year in its national referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. How fitting, then, that 200 years ago to the day, Waverley, the first great historical novel of the Jacobite rising of 1745 – and, according to some critics, the first true historical novel in the Western tradition – was published, anonymously, by Walter Scott, probably the second greatest Scottish writer after Robert Burns. Waverley not only kicked off Scott’s Waverley novels cycle, and made him a European celebrity, it also inaugurated a political project which culminated in his stage-management of the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822, confirming both Scottish loyalty to the British Crown and symbols of Scottish identity like the clan tartan that have endured ever since. And in the pro-independence case for a Yes vote this September, that fealty to the Crown will remain, within an independent nation.
By 1814, Scott was already a successful Romantic poet, in a country that, thanks to the Ossian cycle of supposed ancient Gaelic ballads and Scott’s own collection of Border ballads, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, had already put itself firmly on the cultural map of Romantic Europe. His 1810 long poem The Lady of the Lake was set to music by Franz Schubert, giving us Ave Maria. As William Macintosh (a fellow clansman but no direct relation), wrote in Scott and Goethe: German influence on the writings of Sir Walter Scott, “A great wave of romanticism was passing over Europe at the time that Scott began to write … The romantic element appealed to Scott, but he was not carried away by it and could use it for his own purposes.” And with Waverley, he wanted to try his hand at a new genre while protecting his poetic reputation. Published anonymously, the book was so successful on its appearance that only a year later, Scott was invited to dine with the Prince Regent (the future George IV) as “the author of Waverley.”
Part of the story of that success lies in its subtitle: ‘Tis Sixty Years Since. Scotland had only gradually recovered its standing and its identity within the Union after the Forty-five, with the old clan jurisdictions and the national dress outlawed. The Scottish Enlightenment had helped that recovery, but Scottish national identity remained an awkward topic for many decades until the Romantic movement brought it back into fashion. Scotland in 1814, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, was still susceptible both to the romance of revolt and the appeal of established order, and Waverley captured them both, with its picaresque hero who dallied with the Jacobites only to find wedlock and security with the Hanoverian establishment. And by 1822, Scotland’s ancient Celtic traditions were so alluring that Scott was able to persuade George IV that he too was entitled, as a Jacobite heir, to assume the title and the mantle of a Stuart prince and a Highland chieftain.
Whatever its inspirations, though, Waverley was not a political tract: It was a romance, and received as one. Goethe rated it as the best of all Scott’s novels, never surpassed by his later work. And it translated political and historical fact into psychological and romantic tension in the split loyalties of the hero Edward Waverley and his split romantic attachments to Rose Bradwardine and Flora MacIvor, leaving one of the characteristic documents of that uniquely Scottish national schizophrenia, the Caledonian Antisyzygy.
“Walter Scott is a great genius; he has not his equal; and we need not wonder at the extraordinary effect he produces on the whole reading world,” said Goethe of his great contemporary and correspondent. “He gives me much to think of; and I discover in him a wholly new art, with laws of its own.” That sounds like the voice of a truly independent tradition that deserves to stand alone, if any does.