Sketches that Inspired Scott

Earlier this year, an album surfaced at auction containing Sir James Skene’s sketches of locales that inspired Sir Walter Scott’s writing, such as the brooding Castle Ravenshench.

As befits a writer who rediscovered the Scottish crown jewels, has a major railway station named after one of his books, and largely created the historical novel format, the 250th anniversary celebrations of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) are impressively extensive.

Running throughout 2021 and well into 2022, the festivities focusing on one of Scotland’s most popular writers began officially back in March with a light show at Smailholm Tower near Kelso in the Scottish Borders, which overlooked Scott’s grandfather’s house. But other delights are also being uncovered.

Among them is a unique but little known album of 420 sketches by lawyer and talented amateur artist Sir James Skene (1775–1864), the friend to whom Scott dedicated the fourth canton of his epic poem, Marmion (1808). After decades in private ownership, the collection came up for auction earlier this year at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh.

Courtesy of Edinburgh University Library

Skene’s sketchbook contains drawings of (left) Doune Castle, which features in Scott’s novel, Waverley (1814) and (right) Den of Finella, a waterfall named for a woman believed to have murdered a Scottish king and then leapt to her death.

“These sketches are a record of an extraordinary creative collaboration,” said Dr. Paul Barnaby, acquisition and Scottish literary collections curator at the Centre for Research Collections, Edinburgh University Library, which bought the album for £42,500 ($60,000). “James Skene accompanied Scott on riding excursions to localities that Scott planned to feature in his novels and poems. There, at Scott’s suggestion, Skene made sketches of landscapes and buildings that Scott then used as inspiration and aide-memoires for his own work.”

Here is Skene describing these joint literary-artistic expeditions: “The beauty of the scenery gave full employment to my pencil, with the free and frequent exercise of which he [Scott] never seemed to feel impatient, for he was ready and willing at all times to alight where any scene attracted our notice.”

The album includes sketches with connections to Scott’s novels Rob Roy (1817), The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818), and The Abbot (1820), and among Barnaby’s favorites are two drawings of Smailholm Tower. “An ailing Scott asked Skene to sketch the tower on what he realized would be his last trip to Smailholm,” he said. “I also like the eerie sketches of Doune Castle and Niddrie Castle which feature in Waverley and The Abbot respectively.”

Skene’s sketches of Smailholm Tower, a dramatic structure once owned by Scott’s ancestors.

The Edinburgh University Library plans to digitize the sketches after the newly acquired album undergoes some conservation work, and then build an online resource around them. (The library maintains the Walter Scott Digital Archive.) Its online exhibition on the theme of ‘Scott and Revolution’ will open in August 2021 and will argue that Scott’s work was a response to an age of revolutionary change rather than an escape into a romantic past.

“The album has huge research potential for scholars charting the links between the famously vivid descriptions of locations, real or imaginary, in Scott’s novels and poems and the sketches that Scott used to prompt his memory and inspire his words,” explained Barnaby. “Besides casting light on Skene’s relations with Scott, with Scott’s publishers, and with professional illustrators, the sketches also provide an invaluable insight into Skene’s own life and activities. A collectable artist in his own right, Skene was a prominent member of Scottish literary and antiquarian circles, with extensive cultural and scientific interests. Not all the sketches are connected to his artistic collaboration with Scott. Some of the earlier pieces date from his days as a student in Germany, while sketches postdating Scott’s death suggest a lively and informed interest in archaeology and geology.”

Celebrating Scott

There are many events scheduled for the 2021–22 celebrations, and the most up-to-date roundup is at

Inspiring Walter Scott

An exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland showing how Scott used historical objects as inspiration. August 6, 2021 to January 9, 2022

Scott's Day

Music, dancing, storytelling, sword fighting, equestrian displays, and more at Scott's home at Abbotsford on his 250th birthday, August 15.

Scott and the History of Children's Literature

Sarah Dunnigan of the University of Edinburgh and Gerard Carruthers of the University of Glasgow discuss Scott's collection of children's literature. Free, booking required online at 2:00 pm local time, August 17, 2021

Scott in the HES Archives

An exhibition of drawings, photographs, and sketches from the Historic Environment Scotland Archives showing buildings and monuments associated with Scott. Opens October 4, 2021

Alex Johnson is a UK-based writer and journalist. His latest book is How To Give Your Child A Lifelong Love Of Reading.