Read CHAPTER XV of Historic Boyhoods , free online book, by Rupert Sargent Holland, on

Walter Scott

The Boy of the Canongate: 1771-1832

The business office of a Scotch solicitor is not an especially cheerful place at any time, and the interior of such a room looked particularly cheerless on a late winter afternoon in Edinburgh in 1786. A boy of fifteen sat on a high stool at an old oak desk, and watched the snow falling in the street. Occasionally he could see people passing the windows: men and women wrapped to their ears in plaid shawls, for the wind whistled down the street so loudly that the boy could hear it, and the cold was bitter.

The boy looked through the window until he almost felt the chill himself, and then, to keep warm, held his head in his hands and fastened his eyes on the big, heavy-leaved book in front of him, which bore the unappealing title, Erskine’s “Institutes.” The type was fine, and the young student had to read each line a dozen times before he could understand it. Sometimes his eyes would involuntarily close and he would doze a few moments, only to wake with a start to look quickly at another desk near the fire where his father sat steadily writing, and then to a table in the corner where a very old man was always sorting papers.

The winter light grew dim, so dim that the boy could no longer see to read. He closed the book with a bang.


“Yes, Walter, lad?” The lawyer looked up from his writing, and smiled at the figure on the high stool.

“I’d best be going home; there’s no more light here to see by.”

“A good reason, Walter. Wrap yourself up warm, for the night is cold.”

Young Walter slid down from his seat, and stretched his arms and legs to cure the stiffness in them. He was a sturdy, well-built lad, with tousled yellow hair, frank eyes with a twinkle in them, and a mouth that was large and betokened humor. When he walked he limped, but he held himself so straight that when he was still no one would have noticed the deformity.

Five minutes later the boy was plowing his way through the narrow streets of the Canongate, the old part of Edinburgh that had as ancient a history of street brawls as the Paris kennels. Nobody who could help it was abroad, and Walter was glad when he reached the door of his father’s house in George’s Square and could find shelter from the cutting wind. The Scotch evening meal was simple, soon over, and then came the time to sit before the blazing logs on the great open hearth and tell stories.

The older people were busy at cards in another room, and Walter, with a group of boys of his own age who lived in the neighborhood and liked to be with the lame lad, had the fireside to themselves.

In front of the fire young Walter was no longer the sleepy student of Erskine’s “Institutes”; his eyes shone as he told story after story of the Scotch border, half of them founded on old ballads or legends he knew by heart and half the product of his own eager imagination. Whole poems, filled with battles and hunts and knightly adventures, he could recite from memory, and his eye for the color and trappings of history was so keen that the boys could see the very scenes before them. They sat in a circle about him, listening eagerly to story after story, forgetting everything but the boy’s words, and showing their fondness and admiration for the romancer in each glance.

Walter was minstrel and prophet and historian to the boys of the Canongate by the winter fire, as he was to be later to the whole nation of Englishmen.

By the next day the snow had ceased falling, and the open squares of the city presented the finest mimic battle-fields that could be imagined. The boys of Edinburgh were divided into clans according to the part of the city in which they lived, and carried on constant warfare as long as winter lasted. Walter Scott and his brothers belonged to a clan that made George’s Square their headquarters, and their nearest and dearest enemies were the boys of the Crosscauseway, a poorer section of the city that lay not very far distant.

On the day the storm ceased Walter left his high stool and ponderous book early and joined his friends in solid array in their square. While they waited for the enemy to come up from the side street, the boys built snow fortifications across the Square and stocked them with ammunition sufficient to stand a siege. Still no enemy appeared, and, eager for a chance to try their aim, the boys of the Square boldly left their own haunts and proceeded down the Crosscauseway in search of the foe.

The enemy’s country lay through narrow winding streets, and there was great need of care to avoid an ambuscade. Slipping from door to door, from one point of vantage to the next, the boys made the whole distance of the enemy’s land without sight of an enemy. They came to the further boundary and raised a cheer of defiance, when suddenly a hail-storm of snowballs struck them, and from a side street the boys of the Crosscauseway shot out. The invaders fired one round, then turned and fled before a fierce charge.

Back the way they came the boys retreated, and after them came the enemy pelting them without mercy and with good aim. In the van of the pursuit ran a tall, fair-haired boy, who wore the bright green breeches of a tailor’s clerk, who was famous for his prowess in these schoolboy battles, and who, because of his clothes, had been given the picturesque nickname of “Green Breeks.”

Young Scott and his friends ran back into their square, but the enemy were close upon their heels. Green Breeks was now far in the lead of his forces, so far in the lead that he might have been cut off had not the pursued been panic-stricken. Over their own fortifications the boys fled and dropped behind them for safety. Their banner, a flag given them by a lady of the Square, waved defiantly in Green Breeks’ face. The tall boy leaped upon the rampart and seized the standard, when a blow from a stick brought him to the ground. He fell stunned, and the blood poured from a cut in his head.

The watchman in George’s Square was used to the boys’ battles, but not to such an ending to them. He hurried over to the fallen Green Breeks, and the boys of both armies melted silently away. Shortly after Green Breeks was in the hospital, his head bandaged, but otherwise little the worse for his mishap.

A confectioner in the Crosscauseway acted as messenger between the boys of the Causeway and the Square, and to him Walter Scott and his brother went early the next morning and asked if he would take Green Breeks some money to pay for his wound and loss of time in the tailor’s shop. Green Breeks in the hospital had been asked to tell the name of the one who had struck him, but had refused pointblank, and none of either party could be found to tell. When the wounded leader heard of Walter’s offer he refused to accept the money on the ground that such accidents were apt to happen to any one in battle, and that he did not need the money. Walter sent another message, inquiring if Green Breeks’ family were in need of anything he could supply, and received the answer that he lived with his aged grandmother who was very fond of taking snuff. Thereupon Walter presented the old woman with a pound of snuff, and as soon as Green Breeks was out of the hospital made him one of his friends.

With the opening of spring Walter spent all his spare hours in his favorite pursuit, riding through the country on a search for old legends or curious tales of the neighborhood. Scottish history was his never-ending delight; he knew every battle-field in the vicinity of Edinburgh, and could tell how the armies had come to meet and what was the result. Stories of sprites and goblins, of witches and magicians, were eagerly sought by him. Many an old woman was led to tell the lame boy with the eager eyes the tales she had heard as a schoolgirl, and was well repaid by the boy’s rapt attention. Hardly a stick or a stone, a stream or a hill in the Lowlands that had a history but Walter Scott learned it, and at the same time he learned to know the plain people, all their habits and customs, and all the little eccentricities that made up their characters.

Every Saturday in fair weather, and more frequently during the vacations, his father allowed him a holiday from the office. Walter and a boy friend named John Irving used to take two or three books from the public library of Edinburgh, and go out into the neighboring country, to Salisbury Crags, Arthur’s Seat, or to a height called Blackford Hill, from which there was a splendid view of the Lowland country. There they read the books together, Walter always a little ahead of his friend, and obliged to wait at the end of every two pages for him to catch up. The books were almost always stories of knights-errant; the romances of Spenser, the “Castle of Otranto,” and translations from such Italian writers as Ariosto, were very popular.

Often the boys would climb high up over the rocks to find places where they would be sheltered from the wind, and the harder the nooks were to reach the better they liked them. Walter, in spite of his lameness, was a good climber, and time and again, when it seemed as though they had contrived to get into a place from which there was no way out, and must call to passers-by for help, he would manage to discover some jutting stone or crevice in the rock that allowed them finally to make a perilous escape.

That sort of adventure appealed to the boy tremendously; he liked to try to use his wits in grappling with some natural difficulty, as the heroes of his stories so often had to do.

The boys devoured a great many books in these expeditions, which lasted over two years, and Walter so mastered the pages that he read that he could recite long passages from them to his friend weeks after they had finished the stories. Finally they fell into the habit of making up stories of knights for themselves, first Walter telling the adventures of a knight to John, and leaving the hero in some very difficult situation for John to rescue him from, and then John carrying on the story with another adventure, and leaving the next rescue to his friend. The stories went on from day to day, and week to week, because the boys grew so fond of their heroes that neither had the heart to kill the brave knight, and they could find no other way to bring his adventures to an end.

Although Walter spent considerable time in his father’s office, he was still studying under a tutor with other boys, preparing for college. He was a brilliant scholar when he wanted to be, but all subjects did not interest him.

At one time there was a certain boy who always stood at the top of Walter’s class whom young Scott could not supplant, try as he would. Finally Walter noticed that whenever the master asked that boy a question the latter always fumbled with his fingers at a certain button on the lower part of his waistcoat. Walter Scott thereupon determined to cut off that particular button, and see what would happen. He found a chance soon after and cut off the button with a knife, while the owner of the coat was not looking. Then Walter waited with the greatest interest to see what would happen.

The next time the master asked questions of the youth at the head of the class Walter saw the boy’s fingers feel for the button, and then saw him look down at the place on his coat where it should have been. When he saw it was missing he grew confused, stammered, muttered to himself, and could not answer the question. Walter came next, and, being able to answer the question, took the other boy’s place, chuckling to himself. He did not hold it long. He had simply wished to see what would happen, and having found out he was quite willing to surrender the place to the boy who was really the better scholar.

In a thousand ways Walter showed his love of history and romance. Anything that was picturesque, whether it was a view or an old dirk, caught his attention at once. For a short time he took lessons in oil painting from a German. He soon found that he had not the eye nor the hand for the work, but it happened that the teacher’s father had been a soldier in the army of Frederick the Great, and as soon as Walter found this out, he plied the man with questions. Long afterward he said he vividly remembered the man’s picturesque account of seeing a party of the famous Black Hussars bringing in forage carts which they had captured from the Cossacks, with the wounded Cossacks themselves lying high up on the piles of straw.

Often in good weather the boys of George’s Square would go on long excursions into the country, frequently staying away from home for several days at a time. On one such occasion they found themselves some twenty miles away from Edinburgh without a single sixpence left among them. Walter said afterward, “We were certainly put to our shifts, but we asked every now and then at a cottage door for a drink of water; and one or two of the good wives, observing our worn-out looks brought out milk in place of water so with that, and hips and haws, we came in little the worse.”

His father was not at all pleased with his long absence, and asked how he had managed with so little money.

“Pretty much like the ravens,” said the boy. “I only wished I had been as good a player on the flute as poor George Primrose in ’The Vicar of Wakefield.’ If I had his art, I should like nothing better than to tramp like him from cottage to cottage over the world.”

“I doubt,” said the father, “I greatly doubt, sir, you were born for nae better than a scapegoat.”

It may be that as a result of these chance expeditions Walter’s father finally came to realize that the boy might be made use of in certain legal business that required sending messengers into the Highlands. Soon he was sent with some legal papers to the Maclarens, who lived in that beautiful lake country about Loch Lomond which Scott was later to make famous in “The Lady of the Lake.” It was the first time he had been in that country, and the changing panorama unrolled before his eyes like a land of dreams.

It happened that Walter was traveling in the company of a sergeant and six men from a Highland regiment stationed in Sterling, and so he journeyed quite like some ancient chieftain, with a front and rear guard, and bearing arms. The sergeant was a thorough Highlander, full of stories of Rob Roy and of his own early adventures, and an excellent companion. The trip was a great success, and fired Walter’s desires to see more of a country which even then was only half-civilized.

A little later he had another chance, being sent north to visit another of his father’s clients, an old Jacobite who had fought in the uprisings of 1715 and 1745. Paul Jones was then threatening a descent on the Scotch coast, and Walter had the satisfaction of seeing the old Jacobite chief making ready to bear arms again, and heard him exult at the prospect of drawing claymore once more before he died. The boy was so delighted at the stories the old man told that the latter invited him to visit him that fall, and so he spent his holiday with him.

Riding northward on this visit the vale of Perth first burst on his view. Long afterward he described the tremendous impression this sight made upon him. “I recollect pulling up the reins,” he wrote later, “without meaning to do so, and gazing on the scene before me as if I had been afraid it would shift, like those in a theatre, before I could distinctly observe its different parts, or convince myself that what I saw was real.”

Even as he remembered so vividly the tales the old men and women had told him when he was a very little boy, the stories of his grandmother, of border warfare, of heroes of Scotland, such as Watt of Harden, and Wight Willie of Aikwood, merrymen much like Robin Hood and Little John, and as he remembered the romances he and his friend had read in the hills, so he was now treasuring up wild bits of scenery with all the ardor of a poet or a painter. He was growing to know Scotland as no other man had ever known it.

The boy Walter had little knowledge then of the great use to which he was later to put his love of Scottish history; he expected to be a lawyer and was studying to that end, but all his spare moments were spent in hunting legends of his land. He became eager to visit the then wild and inaccessible region of Liddesdale, so that he might see the ruins of the famous castle of the Hermitage, and try to pick up some of the ancient “riding ballads” as they were called, songs which were said to be still preserved among the descendants of the old moss-troopers, who had followed the banners of the House of Douglass, when they were lords of that remote castle.

He found a man who knew that rugged country well, and for seven successive years Walter Scott made a “raid,” as he called it, into that country, following each stream to its source, and studying every ruined tower or castle from foundation stone to topmost battlement.

There were no inns in the whole district. The explorers had to stop over night at any chance shepherd’s hut or farmer’s cottage, but everywhere they met with open welcome, and from each home they gathered songs and stories, and sometimes relics of border wars to take back with them to Edinburgh. Even then the youth had little notion of what he should do with all the facts he was gathering. The friend he traveled with said later, “Walter was makin’ himself a’ the time, but he didna ken maybe what he was about till years had passed. At first he thought o’ little, I dare say, but the queerness and the fun.”

In course of time Scott was called to the bar as a lawyer, and took his place with the dozens of young men who hung about the Parliament House in Edinburgh waiting for briefs of cases to be argued. There were lots of debating clubs in the Scotch capital at that time, and Scott was a member of several. Some time was spent in argument, but more in telling stories and in singing songs.

Here the young lawyer ruled supreme. No other man could tell such tales as he, and none knew so many and such curious songs. The stories were not all his own; frequently he retold old ones that he had heard, dressing them up to suit his taste. Once a friend complained that he had changed a story told him the day before.

“Why,” said Scott, with twinkling eyes, “I don’t change stories. I only put a cocked hat on their heads, and stick a cane into their hands to make them fit for going into company.”

Fifteen years passed and all England was reading eagerly the wonderful historical poems and romances written by a man who called himself the “Wizard of the North.”

Scotland had always been a desolate barren country in the eyes of the rest of the world, its history unknown, its people cold and uninviting. Suddenly all that was changed: Scotland sprang into being as a land of romance, filled with poetry, a country full of glorious scenery, a people descended from a line of kings. Even the narrow streets of Edinburgh and the old Canongate itself became historic ground under the Wizard’s spell. The Wizard was Walter Scott, and now he found the whole world as eager to hear the stories and poems he had to tell about his country as his boy friends had been years before. He had not changed much as he grew up. At the height of his fame Walter Scott was still in spirit the eager boy of the old city, finding romance everywhere about him because he looked for it with the eyes of youth.