Sir Walter Scott

Much water has flowed under the Cuddy Brig since the first publication of St. Ronan’s Well by Sir Walter Scott in December 1823. No one, least of all the author himself, could have envisaged the effect the novel would have on a then remote and secluded Borders village of weavers and herdsmen. No doubt Innerleithen today would have its annual festival in common with other Borders towns but it is highly unlikely it would be called “St. Ronan’s Border Games”, nor would we have our unique Cleikum Ceremonies. As a boy Scott had visited Innerleithen with his mother and sister when they came to “take the waters” at the Doo Well whose sulphur and saline springs enjoyed a wide reputation for their medicinal properties. Scott himself was sceptical about the efficacy of such spa waters. In a letter to Miss Rutherford of Ashiestiel in September 1794 he related his mother’s and sister Anne’s disappointment at being prevented from coming out from Edinburgh because heavy rain had made the road impassable. In the letter Scott pokes fun at their frustration – their tempers lacked “that Christian meekness which might have beseemd” – and his description of the Well as “this fountain of health” is almost certainly ironic. To rub salt in the wound, by the time the weather had eased they received word there was now no accommodation available! In May 1823 his advice to a lady in England was “ . . . We have many medical springs recommended in scorbutic cases as Moffat, Pitcaithly and Inverleithen, but of course I would not venture to recommend any of them without a physician’s advice . . .”

St. Ronan’s Well was the only novel Scott set in his own time. It is a tale of idle, decadent gentry and pleasure seekers who seasonally frequent a “spaw” somewhere in the south of Scotland. Scott was a genuine superstar and such was his prestige and popularity that the novel, in common with most of his other works, quickly sold well, particularly north of the border. Although the description of the landscape in the story bore little resemblance to the actual environment of the town, “St. Ronan’s” quickly became identified with Innerleithen. John Gibson Lockhart, Scott’s son-in-law and first biographer, wrote, “. . . the book . . . was rapturously hailed by the inhabitants of Innerleithen . . . who . . . foresaw in this celebration a chance of restoring the popularity their long neglected Well”. It worked too!

Soon “an unheard-of influx of water-bibbers” invaded the town and the rest, as they say, is history. Lockhart did not seem greatly enamoured of “the spruce hottles, and huge staring lodging houses” that were built to accommodate the visitors. In his mind they tarnished the idyllic scene “that had induced Sir Walter to make Innerleithen the scene of a romance”. There were no planners to worry developers in those days! Local place names such as Waverley Road, Ivanhoe and Marmion House are, however, reminders of the esteem with which the town’s inhabitants regarded Scott.

Scott became a member of the St. Ronan’s Border Club, which had organised the first games in September 1827. Despite his infirmity as a child, which left him with a game leg, he grew up to be physically strong and energetic, becoming a competent horseman. He was interested in sports and attended the early St. Ronan’s Border Games on at least one occasion, as a rare eyewitness account testifies. A hundred years after the event John A. Anderson, in his weekly column “The Cleikum” for the Peeblesshire News, published a short poem by William Air Foster, a shoemaker, poet and sportsman from Coldstream. A friend of James Hogg, Foster won the Silver Arrow in 1830. On seeing that Scott and his party were about to depart just before the end of the Games, Foster ran across the park, which was then in the vicinity of the present Leithen Crescent, for a closer look. He recorded the encounter as follows:

Across the haugh a path I took

To gain a sure and nearer look.

The hound came first, I spoke him kind,

The other group not far behind,

My cap I lifted from my brow,

And in return a graceful bow

Sir Walter gave me as he passed.

I took one look – it was the last –

A look my memory ne’er forgot,

Of our Great Wizard, Walter Scott.

This simple doggerel gives some inkling of the tremendous regard in which Sir Walter Scott was held. We in Innerleithen should also hold his memory in the highest esteem and never forget why his name is on the Games banner. But for his genius there might never have been a Games Week.