Millgate Union Catalogue of Walter Scott Correspondence

Introduction: Scott and his letters

Walter Scott (1771-1832) achieved his first fame as the author of a series of long romantic poems – beginning with The Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805 and ending with The Lord of the Isles in 1815 – that made him the best-known poet in the English-speaking and European world. From the anonymous publication of his first novel Waverley in 1814 to his death in 1832 at the age of 61 – by which time he had published almost thirty novels – he enjoyed similar fame as a writer of fiction under the name of the 'Author of Waverley'. Nor were these by any means the limits of his amazing literary output. He did major editorial work, including an eighteen-volume edition of Dryden (1808) and a nineteen-volume edition of Swift (1814). He wrote histories – including a seven-volume Life of Napoleon (1827) – political pamphlets, travel accounts, plays, and lyrics for musical settings, as well as innumerable essays and reviews. He was largely instrumental in founding a major periodical, the Quarterly Review, heavily involved as part owner in both a printing and a publishing firm, and from 1814 to 1826 co-proprietor of an Edinburgh newspaper.

These literary activities, however, by no means constituted Scott's entire life. He began his professional career as an Advocate in 1792 and from 1806 until 1830 he was one of the Principal Clerks to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, a full-time job that involved his daily attendance in court during the legal terms. From 1802 onwards he was also Sheriff of Selkirk, not only acting as chief magistrate for the county but overseeing its political management in the interest of the Duke of Buccleuch. He was a member of the committee overseeing the Edinburgh Theatre for a number of years, and from 1820 to his death he was President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His political activity and influence extended well beyond Scotland – at various periods of his life he enjoyed friendships with, for example, George Canning, Robert Peel, and the Prince Regent – and he also numbered among his acquaintance scientists, actors, writers, architects, painters, sculptors, and a legion of would-be authors. He had a special gift for friendship with women, and some of his most interesting correspondence was with such figures as Lady Louisa Stuart, Lady Anne Barnard, and the actress Sarah Smith.

His interests, activities, and writings touched almost every aspect of the cultural, social, intellectual, and political life of the day, and his fame, both during his lifetime and in the years following his death, ensured that his letters would not only be treasured and preserved by recipients and their families but become much sought after by collectors and libraries and end up in many different parts of the world. Since Scott, for his own part, kept a considerable proportion of the letters he received, the combination of his outgoing and incoming correspondence constitutes a crucial body of primary material, not just for admirers of his literary achievements, but for students of all aspects of the life of his period. Both sides of the correspondence are recorded in the present catalogue, which for the first time provides a finding tool that enables users not only to identify the current location of each item of correspondence that survives but also to access publication information for letters that have appeared in print.

A considerable number of Scott's own letters were included in Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart (1837-1838), the seven-volume biography written by his son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, soon after his death. Others appeared in a range of smaller collections throughout the nineteenth century, to be followed by the publication of several groups of letters to particular individuals during the early decades of the twentieth century. To coincide with the centenary of Scott's death, Herbert Grierson, assisted by a number of other scholars, embarked on a full-scale edition, The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, that eventually reached twelve volumes between 1932 and 1937. The Grierson edition, which remains the standard edition, includes approximately 3,500 letters or parts of letters, but because of the incompleteness of its search procedures, the publishing constraints limiting it to twelve volumes, and the simple fact that over time new letters were bound to turn up, it can now be seen that a great many of Scott's letters were not in fact gathered in. Work on the present catalogue has brought to approximately 7,000 – double the Grierson total – the number of Scott's own letters currently known to survive, and has succeeded in tracing the original manuscripts of many letters printed by Grierson on the basis of nineteenth-century copies.

Some of Scott's incoming correspondence has been published in editions of the letters written by those, such as Wordsworth, who were themselves famous, and around the time of the centenary celebrations Wilfred Partington edited two volumes of selections: The Private Letter-Books of Sir Walter Scott (1930) and Sir Walter Scott's Post-Bag (1932). But Partington looked only at the principal accumulation of such material in the bound volumes then owned by Sir Hugh Walpole, and did not include the other correspondence scattered throughout the papers retained by Scott's family at Abbotsford. These groups of letters from the Abbotsford Papers have now been re-united in the National Library of Scotland with the forty-six volumes from the Walpole Collection, thus bringing together under one roof the vast majority of the more than 6,500 surviving letters from Scott's incoming correspondence and facilitating their listing - together with the approximately 7,000 outgoing letters – in the present catalogue.

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