Walter Scott, Child Life


It was at Sandy Knowe, at the home of my father's father, that I had the first knowledge of life; and I recollected distinctly that my situation and appearance were a little whimsical. I was lame, and among the old remedies for lameness some one had recommended that, as often as a sheep was killed for the use of the family, I should be stripped and wrapped up in the warm skin as it was taken from the carcass of the animal. In this Tartar-like dress I well remember lying upon the floor of the little parlor of the farm-house, while my grandfather, an old man with snowy hair, tried to make me crawl. And I remember a relation of ours, Colonel MacDougal, joining with him to excite and amuse me. I recollect his old military dress, his small cocked hat, deeply laced, embroidered scarlet waistcoat, light-colored coat, and milk-white locks, as he knelt on the ground before me, and dragged his watch along the carpet to make me follow it. This must have happened about my third year, for both the old men died soon after. My grandmother continued for some years to take charge of the farm, assisted by my uncle Thomas Scott. This was during the American war, and I remember being as anxious on my uncle's weekly visits (for we had no news at another time) to hear of the defeat of Washington, as if I had some personal cause for hating him. I got a strange prejudice in favor of the Stuart family from the songs and tales I heard about them. One or two of my own relations had been put to death after the battle of Culloden, and the husband of one of my aunts used to tell me that he was present at their execution. My grandmother used to tell me many a tale of Border chiefs, like Watt of Harden, Wight Willie of Aikwood, Jamie Telfer of the fair Dodhead. My kind aunt, Miss Janet Scott, whose memory will always be dear to me, used to read to me with great patience until I could repeat long passages by heart. I learned the old ballad of Hardyknute, to the great annoyance of our almost only visitor, Dr. Duncan, the worthy clergyman of the parish, who had no patience to have his sober chat disturbed by my shouting for this ditty. Methinks I see now his tall, emaciated figure, legs cased in clasped gambadoes, and his very long face, and hear him exclaim, "One might as well speak in the mouth of a cannon as where that child is!"

I was in my fourth year when my father was told that the waters of Bath might be of some advantage to my lameness. My kind aunt, though so retiring in habits as to make such a journey anything but pleasure or amusement, undertook to go with me to the wells, as readily as if she expected all the delight the prospect of a watering-place held out to its most impatient visitors. My health was by this time a good deal better from the country air at my grandmother's. When the day was fine, I was carried out and laid beside the old shepherd among the crags and rocks, around which he fed his sheep. Childish impatience inclined me to struggle with my lameness, and I began by degrees to stand, walk, and even run.

I lived at Bath a year without much advantage to my lameness. The beauties of the Parade, with the river Avon winding around it, and the lowing of the cattle from the opposite hills, are warm in my recollection, and are only exceeded by the splendors of a toy-shop near the orange grove. I was afraid of the statues in the old abbey church, and looked with horror upon the image of Jacob's ladder with its angels.

My mother joined to a light and happy temper of mind a strong turn for poetry and works of imagination. She was sincerely devout, but her religion, as became her sex, was of a cast less severe than my father's. My hours of leisure from school study were spent in reading with her Pope's translation of Homer, which, with a few ballads and the songs of Allan Ramsay, was the first poetry I possessed. My acquaintance with English literature gradually extended itself. In the intervals of my school-hours I read with avidity such books of history or poetry or voyages and travels as chance presented, not forgetting fairy-tales and Eastern stories and romances. I found in my mother's dressing-room (where I slept at one time) some odd volumes of Shakespeare, nor can I forget the rapture with which I sat up in my shirt reading them by the firelight.

In my thirteenth year I first became acquainted with Bishop Percy's "Reliques of Ancient Poetry." As I had been from infancy devoted to legendary lore of this nature, and only reluctantly withdrew my attention, from the scarcity of materials and the rudeness of those which I possessed, it may be imagined, but cannot be described, with what delight I saw pieces of the same kind which had amused my childhood, and still continued in secret the Delilahs of my imagination, considered as the subject of sober research, grave commentary, and apt illustration, by an editor who showed his poetical genius was capable of emulating the best qualities of what his pious labor preserved. I remember well the spot where I read these volumes for the first time. It was beneath a huge platanus-tree, in the ruins of what had been intended for an old-fashioned arbor in the garden adjoining the house. The summer day sped onward so fast that, notwithstanding the sharp appetite of thirteen, I forgot the hour of dinner, was sought for with anxiety, and was found still entranced in my intellectual banquet. To read and to remember was in this instance the same thing, and henceforth I overwhelmed my schoolfellows, and all who would hearken to me, with tragical recitations from the ballads of Bishop Percy. The first time, too, I could scrape a few shillings together, which were not common occurrences with me, I bought unto myself a copy of these beloved volumes; nor do I believe I ever read a book half so frequently or with half the enthusiasm.

To this period also I can trace distinctly the awaking of that delightful feeling for the beauties of natural objects which has never since deserted me. The neighborhood of Kelso, the most beautiful, if not the most romantic, village in Scotland, is eminently calculated to awaken these ideas. It presents objects, not only grand in themselves, but venerable from their association. The meeting of two superb rivers, the Tweed and the Teviot, both renowned in song; the ruins of an ancient abbey; the more distant vestiges of Roxburgh Castle; the modern mansion of Fleurs, which is so situated as to combine the ideas of ancient baronial grandeur with those of modern taste,—are in themselves objects of the first class; yet are so mixed, united, and melted among a thousand other beauties of a less prominent description, that they harmonize into one general picture, and please rather by unison than by concord.