On a visit to Edinburgh I climbed to the top of the Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens and took a number of pictures from the viewing platforms. That prompted me to look again not just at the history of the monument and also at the life of Sir Walter, a man who not only wrote great novels and poetry but also focused attention on many of the aspects of Scottish culture and history that we take for granted today. Of course, the monument itself and the views from the top allowed me to create a great video slide show as well. Read on!
Sir Walter Scott
Born in Edinburgh, the ninth child of a lawyer, Scott contracted polio as a child which left him with a permanent limp. He trained as a lawyer but it was his poetry, beginning with The Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805, that initially brought him fame. Needing to earn more money, Scott set out in 1814 to write the novel "Waverley", which met with considerable success. There followed a succession of novels such as Rob Roy, Guy Mannering, Ivanhoe, Old Mortality, and The Talisman, each with a Scottish historical setting. Wishing to preserve his reputation as a poet, he always published the novels anonymously. During this time the nickname The Wizard of the North was popularly applied to the mysterious best-selling writer.
A prominent figure in Edinburgh society, he entertained famous people like Washington Irving and William Wordsworth. He was knighted in 1820 and organised the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822. He practically re-invented Highland society and clan tartans (which had not previously existed in this form) for the visit. Even the king was bedecked in false tartanry.
Scott's interest in things Scottish led him to rediscover the Scottish crown and sceptre which had been left, forgotten, in Edinburgh Castle. He also fought a successful defence of Scottish Banknotes - his portrait is on current Bank of Scotland notes in memory of that event.
Scott's management of his financial affairs left much to be desired. He was extravagant both in expanding his baronial country mansion at Abbotsford in the Borders and in buying historical Scottish artefacts. In 1826 he found himself 100,000 pounds in debt. From 1827 to 1831 we worked furiously to produce work which would pay off his debts. He had cleared 70,000 pounds by the time he died in 1832 and the remainder was paid by selling copyrights. In 1840 a grateful nation erected a magnificent monument to him in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh.
The soaring, Gothic monument to the memory of Sir Walter Scott was built in 1840-46 to a design by George Meikle Kemp, a self-taught architect. In the competition to design the monument, Kemp initially came third, but embellished his design to win (though professional architects were not amused). It was influenced by Melrose Abbey but nowadays looks more like a space rocket, ready to blast off from Princes Street Gardens - or an invention from the studios of Walt Disney? The architect had met Scott in 1813 when the author, who was also the Sheriff of Selkirkshire, gave him a lift in his carriage. Kemp entered the competition as "John Morvo" who was a medieval master mason at Melrose Abbey. But he never saw his ideas come to fruition - he tripped into the Union Canal in a fog in 1844 and drowned. The picture here shows the monument under construction in the early days of photography
Placed in Princes Street Gardens, below Edinburgh Castle, the building rises 200.5 feet and has 287 steps to the topmost viewing platform. The foundations to support the structure are 52ft deep. The statue of Scott below the arches of the monument (see graphic, above right), by Sir John Steel, is made of white Carrara marble. The 30-ton block of marble actually fell into the harbour at Leghorn in Italy on its way to Edinburgh, but that does not seem to have had any adverse effect! The monument is decorated with 64 statuettes, illustrating many of the characters from Scott's novels. These were placed there in the 1870s, some years after the monument had been completed.
The sandstone came from a Lothian quarry which, as time has proved, had shale oil which leached out and mixed with the smoky the atmosphere in "Auld Reekie" as Edinburgh was once called. The stonework blackened over the years and in the 1990s it was covered in scaffolding for a number of years while preservationists argued about what to do to rectify the problems. When it was finally uncovered (after £2.36 million had been spent), much of the stonework had been left in a blackened state because of concern that cleaning would hasten further corrosion. But badly affected areas had been replaced with pristine sandstone from the original quarry, creating a piebald effect!
The Views from the Top
The views from the Scott Monument of the Edinburgh skyline (if you can make it up all those 287 stairs) are tremendous. There are a series of viewing platforms on the way up the monument, reached by a narrow spiral staircase (which gets narrower on upper levels). There are great views of nearby buildings such as the Jenners department store, Bank of Scotland HQ and the Balmoral Hotel and of course Edinburgh Castle is on the other side of Princes Street Gardens. But the most impressive view is across the skyline of the Old Town of Edinburgh towards Holyrood Park and the soaring Salisbury Crags on Arthur's Seat. All these views, plus the Scott Monument itself can be seen in a Windows Media Slide Show - click here: