Sir Walter Scott’s true life financial disaster

Fact can be as dramatic as fiction, as I discovered during my research for a new book on Edinburgh’s turbulent financial history. The archives revealed a fascinating story of the unscrupulous side of Scotland’s great novelist. And how he would redeem himself.

In 1825 Sir Walter Scott was at the height of his powers. His day job, as a principal clerk to the Court of Session, paid well and left him considerable time to write. He had won fame in Britain and abroad as a poet and editor and his Waverley series of historical novels, although published anonymously, were huge commercial successes, earning large advances and copyright fees.

He was a man of property, with an elegant New Town house and a country estate at Abbotsford, and he was a businessman – chairman of two companies and director of others. By the beginning of 1826 he was financially ruined and facing huge debts. How it happened throws a light on how businesses were financed in the early 19th century as well as on Scott’s unscrupulous business dealings and his insatiable demand for money.

How he avoided bankruptcy and paid back his creditors in full, showed the other side of his character – a man of honour who worked until his death to redeem his reputation.

I was invited to tell the story by the Library of Mistakes. Before the lecture (in the 21st century – and unrelated –Walter Scott offices in Charlotte Square), we recorded this video. My new book, a financial history of Edinburgh, from the Darien disaster to the credit crunch of 2008, will be published in the autumn.