By James Ballantyne, Edinburgh.
Sir Walter Scott
The Lay of the Last Minstrel
edited by


Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

*    *    *    *    *
Canto I
Canto II
Canto III
Canto IV
Canto V
Canto VI
Scott's Notes:
Notes on Canto I
Notes on Canto II
Notes on Canto III
Notes on Canto IV
Notes on Canto V
Notes on Canto VI

Eve of St. John (1801)
Ballad of Kinmont Willie (1803)
Edinburgh Review (1805)
Scots Magazine (1805)
British Critic (1805)
Critical Review (1805)
Censura Literaria (1807)
Sir Walter Scott (1830)
George Gilfillan (1857)
W. M. Rossetti (1860)
F. T. Palgrave (1866)
J. S. Phillpotts (1874)
William Minto (1886)
G. H. Stuart (1889)
Andrew Lang (1895)
W. V. Moody (1899)
On Scott:
John Wilson (1812)
William Hazlitt (1825)
James Hogg (1829)
Allan Cunningham (1832)
Thomas Carlyle (1838)
William Howitt (1847)
John Ruskin (1856)
Leslie Stephen (1871)
Henry A. Beers (1901)
The Border Country


The Lay of the Last Minstrel was the first of Walter Scott’s metrical romances and the work that made him famous. This digital rendering presents the text and notes of the first edition, to which are added textual variants and notes from Scott’s Poetical Works (1833-34) edited by John Gibson Lockhart. The poem is illustrated with notes and glosses by four nineteenth-century editors: James Surtees Philpotts (1874), William Minto (1886), George Henry Stuart (1889-91) and Mary R. Willard (1899). Scott's own notes are annotated by the present editor.


In a letter to Anna Seward of 30 November 1802 Walter Scott announced that he was at work on the poem that would become The Lay of the Last Minstrel: “a sort of Romance of Border Chivalry & inchantment which will extend to some length” (Grierson 1:166); in December he told George Ellis that “It will be a kind of Romance of Border chivalry in a Light Horseman sort of Stanza” (Grierson 12:231). Reports were made to Seward and Ellis in letters of 30 January 1803, March 1803, and 25 May 1803; three stanzas of the third canto were sent to Seward 10 July 1803; in September Scott read four cantos to William and Dorothy Wordsworth (Johnson 1:213). On 18 June 1804 Scott reported to Ellis that “I proceed doucement with the Lay of the Last Minstrel” (Grierson 1:262), and 21 August 1804 that “The Lay of the Last Minstrel is quite finishd and in Ballantynes hands” (Grierson 12:263). Scott presented a manuscript transcription of the Lay to Lady Dalkeith dated 10 January 1805.

This chronology does not accord with that given by Scott’s Introduction of 1830, or his earlier assertion to the duchess of Buccleugh that “your Grace was really the original cause of my writing any poetry beyond the limits of a ballad (since the Lay of the Last Minstrel was only written to bring in Gilpin Horner)” (letter of December 1812, Grierson 3:204). Edgar Johnson, Scott’s modern biographer, reports that Scott received the Gilpin Horner story in December of 1802, by which time the poem was already underway. Compare the account of the poem's origin in a letter to Anna Seward of 21 March 1805:

“The story of Gilpin Horner was told by an old gentleman to Lady Dalkeith, and she, much diverted with his actually believing so grotesque a tale, insisted that I should make it into a Border Ballad. I don’t know if ever you saw my lovely chieftainess—if you have, you must be aware that it is impossible for any one to refuse her request, as she has more of the angel in face and temper than any one alive; so that if she had asked me to write a ballad on a broomstick, I must have attempted it. I began a few verses, to be called The Goblin Page; and they lay long by me, till the applause of some friends whose judgment I valued induced me to resume the poem; so on I wrote, knowing no more than the man in the moon how I was to end. At length the story appeared so uncouth, that I was fain to put it into the mouth of my old Minstrel—lest the nature of it should be misunderstood, and I should be suspected of setting up a new school of poetry, instead of a feeble attempt to imitate the old.” (Lockhart, 1:412-13)

In the 1830 preface Scott again says, “the goblin story, objected to by several critics as an excrescence upon the poem, was, in fact, the occasion of its being written” (Works, 6:22-23). The additional information he gives only perplexes this story: Scott recalls that he had considered composing a ballad in octosyllabics but elected to use irregular measures for the goblin story having heard John Stoddard read “the striking fragment called Christabel, by Mr. Coleridge, which, from the singularly irregular structure of the stanzas, and the liberty which it allowed the author, to adapt the sound to the sense, seemed to be exactly suited to such an extravaganza as I meditated on the subject of Gilpin Horner” (6:24). Stoddard, we are told, was then “collecting the particulars which he afterwards embodied in his Remarks on Local Scenery in Scotland” (1801). This implies that Scott contemplating the Horner story as early as 1800.

This early date is confirmed by Scott's use of Coleridge's four-beat, irregular meter in his ballad “The Eve of St. John,” which was also published in 1801. The Introduction continues, “it was, to the best of my recollection, more than a year after Mr. Stoddart’s visit, that, by way of experiment, I composed the first two or three stanzas of ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’” (6:26). These were destroyed after the poem was cooly received by two friends (later identified as William Erskine and George Cranstoun). “Some time afterwards” he began again upon being told that they had merely been rendered speechless. In response to this conversation, Scott reports, ‘I therefore introduced the Old Minstrel, as an appropriate prolocutor, by whom the lay might be sung, or spoken” (6:28). After showing the work in progress to other friends it “was soon finished, proceeding at about the rate of a canto per week” (6:29).

But Scott seems to have made considerable progress on the poem in the interval between these two conversations, the second of which would have occurred after Scott received the request from Lady Scott in December. In his life of Scott, John Gibson Lockhart was able to add further information from the oral testimony of James Skene, Cornet of the Edinburgh Light Horse, who saw Scott laid up with an injury in the autumn of 1802:

“Mr. Skene found him busy with his pen; and he produced before these three days expired the first canto of the Lay, very nearly, if his friend’s memory may be trusted, in the state in which it was ultimately published. That the whole poem was sketched and filled in with extraordinary rapidity, there can be no difficulty in believing.” (1:340)

If he heard only the first canto, Skene would not have encountered the Minstrel, who first appears in the “Introduction,” or the Goblin Page, who first appears in the second canto. Lockhart's account, based on Scott's origin-story, presupposes that the Page was already in place:

“A single scene of feudal festivity in the hall of Branksome, disturbed by some pranks of a nondescript goblin, was probably all that he contemplated; but his accidental confinement in the midst of a volunteer camp gave him leisure to meditate his theme to the sound of the bugle;—and suddenly there flashes on him the idea of extending his simple outline, so far as to embrace a vivid panorama of that old Border life of war and tumult, and all earnest passions, with which the Minstrelsy had by degrees fed his imagination, until every the minutest feature had been taken home and realized with unconscious intenseness of sympathy; so that he had won for himself in the past another world, hardly less complete or familiar than the present.” (1:408)

This cannot be reconciled with Edgar Johnson's report that Scott first received the story of Gilpin Horner from Thomas Beattie in December 1802, as he concludes from an undated letter surving at Lady Scott’s estate at Bowhill: Scott “could not have seen the story of Gilpin Horner before December; therefore, his original narrative could not have included it, and weaving it into the main plot must have been, despite what he says in Lay, Intro., 21-3, a later interpolation; the Introduction was written in Apr. 1830, 28 years later” 1:xx, note 61). Johnson forgets that Scott had told this story to Anna Seward in 1805 and repeated it to the duchess in 1812.

It seems that “the first two or three stanzas of The Lay of the Last Minstrel” that Scott showed to Erskine and Cranstoun were not the “few verses, to be called The Goblin Page,” but the beginning of the “Romance of Border chivalry” heard by Skene. The point of contention then was not the Page, but the use of the irregular measure. Scott's memory may well have been faulty: if the poem was written “at about the rate of a canto per week” there must have been long intervals since its composition extended over a period of close to two years. Scott was still at work while the poem was in press, as appears by some catch-phrases in the notes that differ markedly from the corresponding passages in the text.

It may be that in 1830 Scott conflated a memory of adopting Coleridge's meter in “The Eve of St. John” with another of beginning work on the Lay. The result would be a fictitious poem called “The Goblin Page” which first saw the light in the amusing account given to Anna Seward—a bit of leg-pulling calculated to get abroad the idea that the poem was written at the request of Scott’s “chieftainess.” In 1805 this would have been important. Representing his carefully-crafted work as a careless scribble conformed to aristocratic notions of poetry, as did the gesture of presenting a manuscript to the countess rather than the printed volume.

If the Gilpin Horner story was not in fact the origin of the Lay, Scott may have felt that it should have been. The radically inconsistent strains of loyalty and perversity that mark the Goblin Page's character make him an appropriate genius loci for the Border. His surreptitious peek into Michael Scott's book of magic prefigures the wayward and uncouth reading that inspired Walter Scott to write a poem about glamoury.


If there is an element of equivocation in Scott’s account of the origins of the Lay of the Last Minstrel, the request from the future duchess of Buccleugh was real enough. By fictionalizing it in his frame narrative Scott aligned himself with minstrel tradition and chivalric manners, even as he was making an appeal to a more fickle patron, the anonymous, book-buying public. The Minstrel's offering to the Duchess of Monmouth is itself patently mercenary, suggesting that the difference between “then and now” was perhaps not so great as it might seem. Likenesses and differences can be deceptive, as Scott finds frequent occasions to remind the reader in a story about crossings, borders, and transitional states.

The physical border that unites and divides Scotland and England is only the most obvious in a work exploring boundary conditions in a wide range of registers. In this as in other matters Scott employs a certain slight of hand: while local differences between Scots and English are carefully detailed, readers gradually come to perceive that Borderers are Borderers, persons whose primary allegiance is less to nation than to family. The central conflict is not between Scots and English, but an internecine affair between Scotts and Kerrs, Caledonian families whose manners and attitudes are indistinguishable. What sets them at odds is not a divided place but a common history.

Historical boundaries figure prominently in a narrative organized like a set of nesting dolls. At its core is the mysterious wizard Michael Scott, born in the twelfth century but apparently lingering on into the sixteenth. The primary action is set in the 1550s, a time when medieval and modern mixed incongruously like the knights and hackbut-men arrayed before Branksome castle. The story of Janet Beaton is framed by that of its teller, the Last Minstrel, a relic of the last age who has lived to see, and suffer from, the Glorious Revolution. That historical juncture is implicitly compared to the immediate present in which Scott and other belated admirers of chivalry were squaring off against the champions of democratic revolution.

Temporal divisions, like geographical boundaries, prove to be porous: in every era one encounters persons and attitudes that seem out of place. Scott’s preface describes the borderers as living in a state unfixed with respect to civilization: “partly pastoral and partly warlike, and combining habits of constant depredation with the influence of a rude spirit of chivalry.” The Minstrel straddles a significant historical line, being one who, “supposed to have survived the Revolution, might have caught somewhat of the refinement of modern poetry, without losing the simplicity of his original model.” The Lay itself was conceived as a modern antique, as a melange of old and new.

Scott’s layers-of-the-onion approach to narration leaves readers with an uncanny sense of occupying more than one historical space at a time. To Scots steeped in Jacobitical narrative this mode of storytelling would be fraught with significance. The personages who figure in the narratives are magnificent failures: Michael Scott, like Merlin, was ignominiously undone by love; Janet Beaton, who in real life was not only associated with magic but was aligned with Mary Queen of Scots, was crossed in her ambitions; the wandering Minstrel, having lost his only child at the battle of Killiecrankie, is prepared to follow his Stuart masters into oblivion. Yet all have left something behind: a myth, a family, and a poetical tradition that like the charmed lives enjoyed by Spenser’s Priamond, Diamond, and Triamond prove difficult to suppress.

The presentation of history in the Lay of the Last Minstrel is subtly typological; the more things change the more things stay the same: a conflict between Christianity and pagan magic is followed by a conflict between Catholicism and Reform, which is succeeded by a conflict between Tories and Whigs, which sets up the contest between Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment philosophy. The cyclical treatment of time was deeply rooted in Stuart mythology (“the Golden Age,” “Troynovaunt,” “the King will have his own again”) which Scott adroitly refashions as cultural conservatism: in opposition to the divisions and abstractions of enlightened philosophy, he is concerned with the uncanny continuity of particulars: locations, families, and traditions that are more than what they seem.

Scott, ever alert to the two sides of a question, graciously allows readers to choose the other possibility. Those who are so inclined can ignore the typology and take a more common-sense approach to historical difference, construing the history in the poem as a stately if sometimes violent progress from medieval barbarism to modern refinement.

Akin to this equivocal treatment of history is Scott’s management the supernatural. In the sixteenth century “Superstition” was already a bye-word for Catholicism; Scott’s bold appropriation of “old romance” likely gave offence to Francis Jeffrey of the Edinburgh Review for reasons more than just aesthetic. Scott’s use of “machinery” is typically subtle, having it both ways as it were. As he later explained in an essay on the novels of Clara Reeve, there are two kinds of Gothic: the full-bore supernatural of Walpole and “Monk” Lewis, and the Ann Radcliffe variety in which improbable events are given natural explanations in the end.

Scott works this boundary by presenting supernatural events in a probable sort of way, managing his narrative frames so that readers can enter empathetically into the several temporally-distinguished degrees of credulity. He also exercises restraint: the “glamour” performed by the Goblin Page works by deceiving the senses as opposed to manipulating objects at a distance—“All was delusion, nothing truth.” (A long note on Sir Kenelm Digby invites readers to reflect on the niceties of “sympathetic” magic.) Despite its origins as a goblin-story, the Lay is hardly a Monk Lewis “tale of wonder”; we look about for a natural explanation that never comes. Why, asked Francis Jeffrey, introduce such vulgar fiction into an otherwise literary work? “it is remarkable that no material part of the fable requires the intervention of supernatural agency.”

As a close reader of Shakespeare, Defoe, and Fielding, Scott doubtless understood the narrative pleasure to be obtained by interjecting improbable events into probable fiction; like them he may introduced a dash of pious “superstition” as a reproof to clever ones inclined to doubt the moral efficacy of higher powers. On the other hand, we might be inclined to look no farther for these higher powers than the author himself. Early readers, conflating Walter Scott with Michael Scott, referred to the poet as “the Magician.” Certain it is that Scott toys with his reader. We are told in a note that the introduction of Michael Scott into a tale of the sixteenth century is a deliberate anachronism; the narrative suggests other possibilities.

Credulity figures in yet another boundary Scott probes in the Lay, the divide between fact and fiction. Michael Scott and Janet Beaton may or may not have been magicians but they were real, documented, historical figures. The feud between the Kerrs and the Scotts was real, and was assuaged by the marriage anticipated in the Lay. The particulars of the story, however, were either invented wholesale by Scott, appropriated from other stories, or modeled on typical characters and events. Truth and fiction, history and romance, are thoroughly mixed in a variety of modes. What interests Scott is less literal history or pure fabulation than the boundary conditions uniting and separating them.

In this matter also the poet leaves readers with considerable latitude for drawing conclusions. The notes, like the narrative, present a perplexing picture. They consume half the volume, and if intended to swell the cost of an expensive quarto, they do add value, being replete with interesting and entertaining matter not to be had elsewhere. Like the narrative, the notes mingle fact and fiction in a variety of modes that range from transcriptions of legal documents to a ludicrously anachronistic medieval history of Virgilius (the Roman Vigil).

The notes, it seems, are intended as something more than historical validation for the story. By trotting out a motley assemblage of documents, traditions, rumors, and tall tales the poet invites readers into his workshop. Like Henry Fielding composing prefatory essays to Tom Jones, Scott uses the notes to present his poem as something “made not found"; the sagacious reader must wade through a digressive surplus of entertaining material in search of the telling fact or detail. The notes invite interpretation as much as the poem itself.

These half-digested documents point to yet another boundary straddled by Scott, that dividing polite from vulgar writing. This had been several times redrawn since Joseph Addison had compared traditional ballads to Homeric poetry a century before. At the time the Lay was published literary ballads were common enough as not to raise an eyebrow; even the long-despised metrical romance had become palatable to polite readers of Chatterton’s poems and Percy’s ballads. What was at issue was not the mixing high and low genres, but how it was to be done, as demonstrated by the negative response to Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads.

There the issue was poetic diction; for Scott it had more to do with meter. The one modern metrical romance to become genuinely popular was Thomas Percy’s Hermit of Warkworth (1771) which like most other ballad imitations was metrically regular. The Lake Poets had latterly been experimenting with a metrical irregularity typical of sixteenth-century poetry, notably Coleridge in his unpublished “Christabel” which Scott acknowledged as an inspiration for the Lay. At the time however metrical irregularity was most associated with Robert Southey. It was a practice that syllable-counting critics found most provoking.

In the event, The Lay of the Last Minstrel avoided opprobrium by observing a kind of propriety: Scott’s metrical irregularity was less in-your-face than Southey’s and more persuasively ballad-like; the false rhymes and casual versification made the poem seem more authentic than the Spenserian archaisms previously used in metrically-regular imitations of elder poetry. It is certainly more energetic than The Hermit of Warkworth. This happy concordance of archaic matter with obsolete manner made Scott more successful than the Lake Poets in challenging the norms of polite poetry.

If the characters Scott writes about were of a more elevated sort than those celebrated by the Lake Poets they had things in common beyond a proximity to the Scottish border. While Lady Scott and her peers were Scottish gentry and educated people, they were as credulous as the most ignorant Cumberland beggar. The Minstrel himself, though a mendicant poet, had performed before the king at Holyrood palace. Their ambiguous social status provides Scott with a warrant for mixing high and low genres with perfect propriety: epic conventions for martial affairs, romance for love matters, and ballad material for domestic scenes. In this as in other respects, Scott has it both ways.

The qualities sketched here suggest something of the calculated risks Scott was taking, but also something of why his poem proved so successful. He was, in key respects, doing what others had already done, but doing it differently and doing it better. One has only to compare the Lay to some of the more widely read (or at least talked about) works of its time, such as James Bland Burges’ immaculately regular and deadly dull epic, Richard the First (1801), or John Finlay’s Wallace; or the Vale of Ellerslie (1802), a national poem devoid of locality. One might compare Robert Southey’s attempt to use superstition to write ethnographic poetry in Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), or Frank Sayers’ earlier attempts in Dramatic sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology (1792). James Beattie’s The Minstrel (1771, 1774) had achieved success at the cost of ignoring historical and geographical specificity. One might compare the vacuously sentimental treatment of time in Samuel Rogers’ Pleasures of Memory (1792). Thomas Warton, Scott’s chief predecessor in the antiquarian line, had been unable or unwilling to write a narrative poem.

This list of parallel poems suggests something of the comprehensiveness of Scott’s literary program. For all that The Lay of the Last Minstrel is concerned with local and peculiar matters, Scott addressed literary and social issues of very general concern in a poem at once very sophisticated and immediately accessible. The astuteness with which he straddles issues of class, nationality, religion, and fictional representation had much to do with the popularity of the Lay: by positioning himself on the border rather than taking up one side or the other, he seems to have pleased almost everyone. Francis Jeffrey might fret about the presence of demotic elements in an ambitious literary poem, but even he acknowledged Scott’s achievement.

Because Scott was willing to leave so much to his readers’ discretion, his poem continues to invite critical reflection. How did, or could, such a thoroughly local utterance serve the ends of imperial Britain? Is Walter Scott too national, or (as Jeffrey complained of Marmion) not national enough? Are the gothic elements mere props to modern superstition, or are they subversive of conventional Christianity? Does the poem promote or undermine the authority of history? How does Scott’s idealizing treatment of his violent and in many ways despicable Borderers square with his otherwise conventional morality? Did his poem and his conservative politics advance or repress the interests of these socially marginal people? Why is it, after all, that Scott has such enduring appeal for readers on opposite ends of the political spectrum?


The Lay of the Last Minstrel owed its proverbial success partly to its intrinsic merits and partly to literary circumstances at the time of its publication. English poetry had never been more popular: for several decades poems new and old had been published in ever-increasing numbers and poetry was regularly printed and discussed in general-interest magazines and newspapers. In the prestigious Edinburgh Review (founded 1802) it was being accorded the same kind of respect as books of political economy. Poets, living and dead, were objects of intense interest among polite readers and scholars alike. Scott’s own decision to exchange a safe career in the law for a very uncertain career as a writer bears witness to the prestige literature then held.

Yet there was, in 1805, a perceived dearth of great living poets: the previous decade had seen the passing of many of the writers who had raised poetry to its current status, among them Joseph Warton, William Mason, James Beattie, Robert Burns, and William Cowper. The senior living poets were the no-longer-fashionable William Hayley and Anna Seward. The public had lost whatever interest it had had in William Lisle Bowles and his imitators among the Lake School; George Crabbe had not been heard from in years; William Blake was unknown. The most highly-respected living poets were Samuel Rogers and Thomas Campbell whose well-filed verses Scott could never hope to emulate. To fill the void at the top, he would need to put romantic verse on a new footing.

It had been a long time since the public had warmed to an ambitious narrative poem, Robert Southey’s efforts notwithstanding. The previous generation had favored satire or descriptive verse for long poems. Modern epics were quickly converted to wastepaper, and modern verse romances were written and read as quaint follies. The diffidence and hesitation Scott recalls in his 1830 preface were no doubt genuine, but it is telling that he would also say, “It would be great affectation not to own frankly, that the author expected some success from ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel.’” While Scott had correctly read the public desire for something new and grand, neither he nor his publisher anticipated the unprecedented sale of the poem. The results were tabulated by Scott’s heir and executor:

“The first edition of the Lay was a magnificent quarto, 750 copies; but this was soon exhausted, and there followed an octavo impression of 1500; in 1806, two more, one of 2000 copies, another of 2250; in 1807, a fifth edition, of 2000, and a sixth, of 3000; in 1808, 3550; in 1809, 3000—a small edition in quarto (the ballads and lyrical pieces being then annexed to it)—and another octavo edition of 3250; in 1811, 3000; in 1812, 3000, in 1816, 3000, in 1823, 1000. A fourteenth impression of 2000 foolscap appeared in 1825; and besides all this, before the end of 1836, 11,000 copies had gone forth in the collected edition of his poetical works. Thus, nearly forty-four thousand copies had been disposed of in this country in this country, and by the legitimate trade alone, before he superintended the edition of 1830, to which his biographical introductions were prefixed. In this history of British Poetry nothing had ever equalled the demand for The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” (Lockhart 1:419).

While Scott’s reputation has always fared better with readers than with critics, the reviews were largely favorable. The periodical reviewers, as Scott had feared, objected to his departures from the “regularity” expected from a heroic poem. The Scots Magazine is explicit: “As, therefore, the sentiments are truly epic, and the narrative nearly so, we cannot help wishing that the whole had been more completely accommodated to that standard.” Francis Jeffrey, famously, took umbrage at Scot’s “machinery.” While the program stated in the preface was duly noted, pro forma objections were raised to Scott’s unprecedented local and historical specificity in comments about the matter and diction of the poem.

Common readers who were less committed to reading by rules had no such qualms. Within a very short period of time Scott’s Lay was widely imitated, becoming the original for a new kind of narrative verse. As the sales figures indicate, the later poems only boosted the popularity of the Lay, at least until 1816 when the public decided that for the time it had had enough of Scott’s poetry—literary fashion shifting first to Byron’s Childe Harold and oriental tales, and then Scott’s Waverley novels. The metrical romances lost little of their popularity however. The Lay and its successors continued to sway nineteenth-century taste in poetry, painting, clothing, architecture, and tourism.

Like Scott’s later works the Lay was burlesqued, translated, dramatized, and imitated. In addition to reprintings with his collected poems, it was separately printed an untold number of times after coming into use as a school text in the 1870s. In the early twentieth century its stature seems to have dropped like a stone: modernists rejected nineteenth-century medievalism and a poem taught to schoolchildren was unlikely to garner much respect. Most fatal of all perhaps, was the fact that Scott’s long poems, with their extensive and essential notes, were unsuitable for college anthologies.

But Scott's reputation as a poet had been insecure from the outset; he failed to produce the heroic poem desired by some, or the introspective lyrics required by others. To the many, he was a second Shakespeare; to the few, he was no poet at all. Hazlitt, who had both personal and political reasons for disliking Scott, mocked him in the Spirit of the Age; in Modern Painters Ruskin declared him “the greatest literary man whom that age produced.” Carlyle gave a more nuanced portrait in his review of Lockhart's Life: if Scott was not a great man, he was “a genuine man, which itself is a great matter.”

Estimates of Scott as a writer are closely linked to romance as a genre. For contemporary readers Scott was the quintessence of romanticism, a movement the reading public associated with castles, outlaws, wandering bards, medievalism, and the supernatural. The six-poet romantic canon that omitted Scott reflected high modernism's strong disrelish for what had become the banalities of commercial literature. Perhaps post-modern interest in romance will raise the fortunes of Walter Scott, whose The Lay of the Last Minstrel remains a seminal work for thinking about history, race, locality, and culture.


The object of this edition is to provide the text of the Lay of the Last Minstrel as originally published, illustrated with annotations and supplementary documents. The Lay is what might be described as an “information-rich” poem and as such a good candidate for digital presentation. Scott illustrated the first edition with glosses and copious notes which are presented here as part of the primary document. To these are added supplemental annotations from four nineteenth-century editors.

These annotations are of interest in their own right: in addition to explicating the poem they illustrate how Scott was being read and taught in the nineteenth century. James Surtees Phillpotts (1839-1930), assistant master at Rugby, afterwards headmaster at Bedford, was a graduate of New College, Oxford, who edited a number of textbooks. He approaches Scott's Lay as a classical text, with much attention to historical etymology. William Minto (1845-1893) was educated at Aberdeen University where, after a career in journalism, he returned as professor of Logic and English Literature. His Clarendon Press edition of the Lay is a model of Victorian editing.

George Henry Stuart graduated at Cambridge in 1874 and taught at the Presidency College in Madras, where he was principal from 1882-1899. His copiously annotated Lay (assisted in the second volume by E. H. Elliot) was originally intended for use by Indian students. Mary R. Willard, who taught at the High School, Jamestown, N. Y., produced textbook editions of both the Lay and Marmion in conjunction with the poet William Vaughn Moody (1869-1910) who taught English at the University of Chicago. The notes by Stuart and Willard were intended to assist foreign students in comprehending Scott's historical references and obsolete language.

Rather than reproducing Scott's notes, these four editions resort, when strictly necessary, to brief quotation or paraphrase. Their purpose (Minto aside) is less to illustrate Scott's border history than to instruct readers in English literature. This comparatively new academic subject in the late nineteenth century was being modeled on the study of classical texts, due attention being given to (as Phillpotts puts it) “I. Criticism. II. Metre. III. History. IV. Grammar. V. Etymology.” While there is necessarily some duplication of information, the annotators select different matters for emphasis and, writing for different kinds of readers, go about their tasks in different ways.

The most striking thing about these nineteenth-century annotations is the emphasis given to etymology. While this was doubtless undertaken with an eye towards rendering Scott a classical author and English a classical tongue, it has the (arguably happy) aesthetic effect of rendering Scott's poem even more gothic than it might otherwise be: to the labyrinthine genealogies of Scott's personages are added even more labyrinthine genealogies of his words, variously (and often doubtfully) derived from Norman French, Anglo-Saxon, Icelandic, Greek, and Sanskrit originals. These linguistic studies add even more historical layering to the places, manners, and events Scott describes.

No critical edition of the Lay has ever been done; the task would be formidable since the poem was frequently reprinted during Scott’s lifetime in a variety of formats. In reprinting the Lay for the collected poems of 1833, Lockhart said that “The work is now printed from his [Scott’s] interleaved copy.” He adds, “It is much to be regretted that the original MS. of this Poem has not been preserved.” The standard edition (if it deserves to be so called) is that in Poetical Works (1904) edited by J. Logie Robertson for the Oxford University Press. Robertson took his text from the Lockhart editions of 1833 and 1841, collated “with the text as recently edited by careful scholars.” Until a critical edition is undertaken it will remain difficult to know just what changes were made to the text when.

The first edition differs from Lockhart’s text and modern editions derived from it chiefly in matters of format and pointing. Scott made relatively few changes to the text, the chief being the addition of an inset tale that extended the fourth canto by three stanzas. Several small passages of two or three couplets were added, and an half a dozen lines were altered. Notes were added to illustrate the new material. Changes to the text are here given in the notes, taken from the 1847 edition published by Lockhart. The most important addition Scott made to the poem was the long biographical preface composed in 1830.

In preparing this edition for the screen I have taken the text from Jonathan Wordsworth’s 1992 facsimile edition, which I have encoded in XML using TEIXLITE. I have written style sheets that attempt to reproduce the look of the original pages, though of course something is lost in reducing them to a size that can be read comfortably on the screen. Still, there are advantages to this format since one can link directly to the endnotes rather than having to troll for them at the back of a book.

The design challenge was to provide ample annotation without cluttering the text—what with notes on notes on notes, the volume of information threatens to become visually overwhelming. This digressive structure was plainly part of Scott’s aesthetic design; one can only imagine what he might have done with hypertext. Perhaps the reading experience works better on the screen than on paper. The glosses and additional text and notes are contained in separate XML files, portions of which are added to the HTML document generated by the XSL style sheets. I have written a javascript script that displays or conceals the notes and annotations when the user clicks on links in the text or in the margins.

David Hill Radcliffe

Poetical Works: The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott, ed. J. G. Lockhart. 12 vols (Edinburgh, 1833-34).
Lockhart: John Gibson Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott. 5 vols (Boston, 1902).
Grierson: The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, ed. Sir Herbert Grierson. 12 vols (London, 1937).
Johnson: Edgar Johnson. Sir Walter Scott: the Great Unknown. 2 vols (New York, 1970).

Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, ed. J. Surtees Phillpotts (London, 1874).
Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, ed. W. Minto (Oxford, 1886).
Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, ed. G. H. Stuart and E. H. Elliot 2 vols (London: Macmillan, 1889, 1891).
Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, ed. William Vaughn Moody and Mary R. Willard (Chicago and New York, 1899).

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