When I’m hunting for old books, I am surprised sometimes at how often I come across works by Sir Walter Scott. I’m not sure if this is a testimony to how prolific a writer and poet Scott was, how well known he is, how adored he was, or how little people care about holding onto his old books nowadays. I can’t really complain regardless because I’ve managed to collect several beautiful copies of works by Scott.
Scott is beloved in Scotland. The giant gothic Scott Monument in Edinburgh is supposedly the largest monument to a writer in the world.
I don’t know if Scott is the most beloved poet of Scotland, but he’s everywhere. His monument is one of Edinburgh’s most distinctive features. The railway station is named after his Waverley novels. Scott is it.
Or is he?
On January 25th, Scotland celebrates Burns Night in memory of Robert Burns. There is haggis (which I still maintain is like eating meat paste) and there is the “Address to a Haggis” which, if you are very lucky, you will hear someone recite in a proper brogue:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
The first time I heard it recited in Edinburgh was at a student event. Two fellow international students (for whom English, much less that of Rabbie Burns, was not their first language) leaned over to me and asked me with great concern if the speaker was, “Praying to demons.” I kid you not. Come to think of it, my explanation that he was talking to the haggis probably didn’t make them feel much better.
One of the many things I love about Scotland is its literary history and I’ve been able to supplement my old book collection with a little bit of Scotland: lots of Scotts, a little Burns, a smidge of J.M. Barrie…
But the most Scottish book that I own is not by Scott. It’s not even by Robert Burns.
It is by a man known as Wallace Bruce. Part William Wallace. Part Robert the Bruce. His parents clearly planned a great Scottish destiny for him, which he carried out by writing this book.
The title of the book is The Land of Burns. It is essentially an ode to Scotland, to Burns’ Scotland, no less, and despite being a slender book, it is weighty with Scottishness.
The thistles! The Burns! The drama! The Scotlandery! I love it.
This is an 1879 copy that may be a first edition, although I’m not entirely sure. It’s old; it’s beautiful; it’s covered in thistles. This book is Scotland. Or at least, Scotland viewed through plaid-colored lenses.
I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this, but this book out-Scotlands Scott’s books, in my opinion. I’m not sure that Robert Burns would be comfortable being lauded quite so dramatically, but I find it delightful.
The land of “Auld Lang Syne” is there,
The cotter’s home, the evening prayer:
To these in truth the memory turns,
To these which make the Land of Burns
It’s a beautiful little book that couldn’t be more Scotlandy if it were made of haggis.
Okay, maybe if it were made of haggis…
Another book that I snatched up recently is a 1909 copy simply titled Edinburgh, and it is by another very notable Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson. Yes, he of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island, and Kidnapped. But he also put together this lovely book, Edinburgh which narrates the city’s story and is filled with old sketches.
The sketches are what caught my attention. So many of them, while over a hundred years old, look exactly like what I remember. Well, perhaps a few more horses and not so many cars. But the places are the places I remember.
One of my favorite things to do on a halfway decent day (one of those occasional days when rain wasn’t misting about) was to play some music or an audiobook and just take a walk somewhere, anywhere, in the city. I miss all the walking. I miss being able to climb the “hill” up to the top of the Salisbury Crags to get a look at the whole city spread out below me.
The city has changed. It is more modern with new structures, new streets, new people, but so many of its old features are still there.
Everyone who comes to Edinburgh tours Edinburgh castle, and it is a decent castle as far as castles go, but I admit that I preferred the old ruins of Craigmillar just a few miles’ walk down the road.
I can’t claim to love Scotland like Wallace Bruce loves Scotland. But these old books feed my nostalgia and make me want to scroll endlessly through all my pictures, forgetting the homesickness, rain, and cold, and just remembering a beautiful, beautiful old city.