The novels of Sir Walter Scott are now – in England, at least – almost unread. It is hard to imagine an author simultaneously so famous and so unfashionable, his novels frequently written off as prolix and unbearably dense.
However, according to one writer and critic, the author of Ivanhoe and the Waverley novels was not only crucial in creating the idea of Scotland as it persists today, but also "invented England". Speaking at the Edinburgh international book festival, Stuart Kelly argued that Scott invented a raft of English national stereotypes. That quintessentially English hero, Robin Hood, for example, owes some of his most famous exploits to the author.
The notion of Robin's arrow splitting that of the Sheriff of Nottingham – which appears in the Disney cartoon – comes direct from Ivanhoe, in which Scott's character Robin of Locksley performs the deed. The detail, said Kelly, was then incorporated into later versions of the Robin Hood story.
Scott was also, said Kelly, the first person to coin the phrase "the Wars of the Roses" to describe the conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster, while the incident in which Sir Walter Raleigh laid his cloak before Elizabeth I to protect the royal footstep from a muddy puddle comes from Scott's novel Kenilworth.
He was key in making "medievalism the centre of English experience", said Kelly. Without Scott, "there would probably have been a neo-classical houses of parliament rather than a neo-gothic houses of parliament". Scott, by way of novels such as Ivanhoe, popularised the notion of the centrality of the medieval period to the extent that its architecture was adopted as "the national style" when the new Palace of Westminster came to be built in 1835.Share