Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 5. Minstrelsy of the Scottish-Border

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

I. Sir Walter Scott

§ 5. Minstrelsy of the Scottish-Border

This small pamphlet was the beginning of business relations with Ballantyne which were to exercise a cardinal influence both on Ballantyne’s and on Scott’s fortunes. So pleased was Scott with this specimen of his friend’s press that he promised to him the printing of a volume of old border ballads, should such a project take shape. It not only did so, but in a more comprehensive and elaborate form than he had at first contemplated. While it was still under consideration, he received, in 1799, an appointment to the sheriffdom of Selkirkshire. This marked a still more important turning-point in his life. It determined his permanent local connection with the border; and, meanwhile, it multiplied his opportunities for the acquisition of old border lore and for augmenting his topographical knowledge of the district. An acquaintanceship now formed with Richard Heber, also, greatly aided him in his medieval studies; and he received valuable suggestions from the remarkable young borderer, John Leyden, to whom, and, also, to William Laidlaw, his future steward, and to James Hogg, he was further indebted for several ballad versions. The collection appeared in 1802 in two volumes; and a third volume, which included ballad imitations by himself, Lewis and others, was published in 1803. In subsequent editions, changes were made in the ballad texts, by way both of amendment and of additions, the arrangement was altered and the notes were improved and supplemented. Though entitled Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, it included ballads and other pieces which had no special connection with the borders either of Scotland or England. According to Motherwell, forty-three poems were published for the first time; but a few of these were forgeries by Surtees; some were not properly ballads; several had appeared as broadsides; and others were accessible in manuscript collections. Nearly all those detailing border feats or incidents, or misfortunes, were, however, previously unknown outside the border communities; and it is to Scott and his coadjutors that we are indebted for the rescue from gradual oblivion of such fragments and rude versions of them as were still retained in vanishing tradition. Most of the versions published by Scott were of a composite character. Unlike Percy, he obtained several traditional copies—often differing widely in phraseology—of most of the ballads; and he constructed his versions partly by selecting what he deemed the best reading of each; partly by amending the more debased diction, or the halting rhythm, or the imperfect rime, partly by the fabrication of lines, and even stanzas, to replace omissions, or enhance the dramatic effect of the ballad. In some cases, as in that of Kinmont Willie, fragmentary recitals were merely utilised as little more than suggestions for the construction of what was practically a new ballad, inspired by their general tenor; and large portions of other ballads, as in the striking instance of Otterbourne, were very much a mere amalgam of amended and supplemented lines and phrases, welded into poetic unity and effectiveness by his own individual art. The publication of Minstrelsy led, gradually, to a more critical enquiry into the genesis and diffusion of the ancient ballad. By collecting several versions of many ballads and preserving them at Abbotsford, Scott helped to supply data towards this enquiry; while his introductions and notes tended to awaken a more scientific curiosity as to the sources of ballad themes, the connection of the ballad with old tales and superstitions and its relation to other forms of ancient literature.