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Walter Scott and the Matter of Landscape: Ecologies of Violence for our Time

Walter Scott is receiving more attention than at any time since the early nineteenth century. Reasons for his prominence in the literary landscape are not difficult to conjecture. The bicentenary of Waverley, the Scottish Independence Referendum, the seven-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, and the reopening of Abbotsford with its award-winning Visitor Centre have contributed to a renaissance of interest in his works. Television and radio, opera houses, book clubs, and university courses have fostered a climate of discussion of his poems and novels. Conferences this summer brought academic scholars together, enriching a soil from which emerged the new International Association for Studies in Scottish Literature. The most exciting feature of contemporary Scott studies must be the turn they are taking in archival, textual, and theoretical interpretation. Scott is being read and reread as an author whose works resonate with meaning for the twenty-first century world.

As a planter and farmer as well as a writer, Scott was interested in the land and what grows from it. His engagement specifically with soil as a key component of landscape in The Tale of Old Mortality (1816) can help us with the problem of reconciling his constructed, literary nation with what can be known about a real Scotland that had gone though, and continues to face social, political and environmental change. Thinking about the matter of the landscape and the dirt surrounding the roots of the nation involves acknowledging connections between metaphor and something more physical. In this post-Referendum moment, does the relationship between words and land in Scott's 'Covenanter' tale – based as it was on events behind the cementing of the British Union – reveal anything significant about the implications of the word 'country'?1

To understand a country as district from a nation or even a region requires looking closely at the land. Country conjures a sense of permanency and belonging. The OED defines it as 'the land of a person's birth, citizenship, residence'. We might add to that, the land of a person's death. The 1829 introduction to Scott's novel Rob Roy (1817) informs readers that the hero 'died lamented in his own wild country'. Etymologically, the Anglo-Norman and Old French sources contré and cuntree are more collectively cultural, denoting 'an area of land delimited by natural or political boundaries', while the Latin root contrata suggests 'that which lies opposite the view, the landscape spread out before one' (OED). The opposition of view and landscape in the last instance foregrounds a longstanding instability underpinning how we see and relate to the land, or the country, itself: although country is homely, we rely on seeing landscapes from a distance. Country consists of the soil beneath our feet, to which we are intimately connected; landscape is the horizontal extension into a distance of something above ground that can be looked at and enjoyed.

Wordsworth's 'Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree which stands near the Lake of Esthwaite, on a desolate part of the shore, yet commanding a beautiful prospect' (1798) is concerned with the problems of reconciling view with a sense of rootedness.2 That poem turns on the relationship between the comfortable familiarity of a framed local landscape, looked back upon in reflection, and universal anxieties relating to human existence in a wider historical and geographical world. The interlocutor prompts us to ask to what extent charmed viewpoints transform nostalgia and grief into something redemptive; or do they, on the contrary, remain damaged, or damaging, forms of memory? 'Lines left upon a Seat' explores how a landscape seen from the edge of the public way (the path of familiarity) becomes a counterfeit and increasingly partial view of the world commanded by a solitary figure who has reached a point of physical and intellectual stasis. From that standpoint of desolation, first occupied by a man decaying into death, then by the poet narrator and the detained reader, the seductive, distant vista seen from the seat in the yew tree (it is by degrees 'lovelier', 'beautiful', and 'more beauteous') metamorphoses into a degenerate and narrow worldview. Ultimately, the visionary, distanced prospect and the memories it hides or reveals are seen as the products and ongoing sustenance not of a healthy perspective, but of human ruin. The yew tree that provides the seat for the traveller symbolizes death.

Scott also confronts the sustainability of distant views and the false comfort that can too easily attach to homeliness. In the 1829 introduction added to his earlier Tales of my Landlord series of novels (the first series was published in 1816), Jedediah Cleishbotham casts the tales that he is about to tell as 'such fare as the mountains of your own country produce'. Fiction is analogized with food to be consumed and enjoyed, in novels that themselves contain numerous references to the healthiness of local produce: kebbocks, beer and salmon in The Tale of Old Mortality. Through processes of cultural digestion, stories are internalized in an organic cycle of production that ultimately collapses the fiction that mountains and valleys are places apart.

For the last two centuries Scott has defined a culture that imagines Scotland not as a political entity, but as a country comprising connected yet distinct landscapes and seascapes. The descriptive sketches, picturesque vistas, and prospect views that run through his poetry and prose have long been recognised as structural to his writing. But those commonplaces, drawn from theories of art as distinct from actual environmental awareness, prompt questions. The privileging of a picturesque in action over one in scenery, a distinction that Scott makes in the Ashestiel Autobiography, shows how the familiar aesthetic discourses of his time could be undermined to question the wholesomeness of those same aesthetics. Getting down onto the field rather than just looking at it removes the distance that is necessary to a conventional picturesque, or even sublime, experience. The resulting intimacy with the land itself, and the close-up encounter with the ecology that it supports, reveals a messy natural archive that involves getting one's intellectual hands dirty and taking risks.

I have written elsewhere about the disruption of soil that occurs towards the end of Waverley, where the frantic removal of tree roots during the re-landscaping Tully-Veolan disembowels the body of the country in a visceral echo of the execution of Highlanders Fergus MacIvor and Evan Dhu Mccombich.3 Scott foregrounds the role of redesigning Scotland in that novel, while as author he takes on the task of commemorating what has been lost. But is the body of Scotland that is left in Waverley held up as a form of literary taxidermy: a static, preserved, reminder of what once was? The Tale of Old Mortality, written and published two years later, as Sam Baker has said, is Scott's most violent novel and a response to both the Battle of Waterloo and a redress of what he only obliquely described in Waverley.4 It is certainly the more directly graphic novel in its accounts of terror and cruelty. But what do Old Mortality's accounts of the Lanarkshire countryside add to the descriptions of intimidation, torture, and murder that carry the action of the main story? And what does the ultimate uncanniness of the soil portend for reading it as an archive either of environmental or human history?

Old Mortality insists from its point of departure that the most disturbing cultural memories must be read ecologically as well as in the form of things written (whether in stone or printed on the page). Early in the frame narrative, the soil is introduced as the key agent in an act of natural alchemy in which the stuff of a horrific episode in human history – a bloody massacre of Covenanters – is converted into the continuing, visible living matter of plants and trees. Scott's fascination here with flora as war memorials asks questions about the adequacy of conventional monumentalism: are the inscriptions on the half-buried gravestones, however legible they may be, sufficient to go on sustaining a sense of horror at what happened? If they are, why did Scott need to pay so much attention to the organic material accumulating on the stones, the flora that grows around them, and – most fundamentally – to the earth in which they are half embedded? The connections between subtext and the subsoil in this novel, as literary and natural correlatives that are easily overlooked, allow for a more sophisticated reading. The 'Monuments', Scott writes, 'which were the objects of the care' of his most Wordsworthian character, the eponymous Old Mortality, 'are hastening, like all earthly memorials, into ruin or decay'. This seems to me like a concurrence with 'Lines left upon a set in a Yew-tree' and a pessimistic response to another poem by Wordsworth, 'Resolution and Independence', where the self-obsessed gloom of a wandering narrator is dispelled through the admonishment of the uncanny figure of the leech-gatherer, a man who seems himself to be half stone in his extreme age and solid resolve to keep on going. [...]


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1 For an earlier discussion of Scotland, independence and 'country' see my 'Green Scotland: Literature and the Seeds of Independence' in The Bottle Imp Supplement 1 (2014).
2 William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads (London, 1798), p. 59, and subsequent editions.
3 'Walter Scott's Transatlantic Ecology' in The Wordsworth Circle 44:2/3 (2013), pp. 115-20.
4 'Scott's Worlds of War' in The Edinburgh Companion to Sir Walter Scott, ed. Fiona Robertson (Edinburgh University Press, 2012), p.77.