Walter Scott


Home | Corson Collection | Biography | Works | Image Collection | Recent Publications | Portraits | Correspondence | Forthcoming Events | Links | E-Texts | Contact

The Lady of the Lake

First Edition, First Impression:

The Lady of the Lake; A Poem. By Walter Scott, Esq. Edinburgh: Printed for John Ballantyne and Co. Edinburgh; and Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, and William Miller, London; By James Ballantyne and Co. Edinburgh 1810.

Composition | Synopsis | Reception | Links


Ellen Douglas, 1811, engraved by Charles Heath after Richard Westall (Corson H.WES.4)Scott began writing The Lady of the Lake in August 1809 while holidaying with his wife, Charlotte, and daughter, Sofia, in the Trossachs and along the shores and islands of Loch Katrine, the very scenes that would provide the poem's setting. With this new poem, though, Scott wished to depend less on local colour and spectacular action and to attain greater psychological depth in his characterization. As he worked on the poem, Scott felt that, in this respect, it would only be a partial success. While he was confident that he had brought King James V and the clan chieftain Roderick Dhu vividly to life, he feared that the romantic hero, Malcolm Graeme would remain 'a perfect automaton' (letter to Lady Abercorn, March 14, 1810). Although initial progress on the poem was rapid, work was delayed when his children Walter, Charles, and Anne fell dangerously ill with an inflammatory fever. Only when they had fully recovered was he able to complete the poem which was published on May 8, 1810.

Back to top


Heraldic watercolour by T. Willement (Corson P.4807)The narrative of the poem concerns the struggle between King James V and the powerful clan Douglas. The King has banished the entire family from his realm, including James of Douglas, the Earl of Bothwell, who had been his protector during his youth. The Earl and his daughter Ellen take refuge with Roderick Dhu in his castle on an island in Loch Katrine. At the beginning of the poem a mysterious knight calling himself James Fitz-James arrives at the castle and is granted hospitality. During his brief stay, he falls in love with Ellen but finds rivals for her affections in Roderick himself and in Malcolm Graeme, a young knight loyal to the King but moved by sympathy at the plight of Douglases. It is Malcolm that Ellen favours. Facing attack from royal forces for sheltering Douglas, Roderick gathers his clan. Douglas, though, is loath to bring disaster upon his host, and sets out for the royal court at Stirling, determined to surrender. Fitz-James returns and offers to take Ellen to safety but is told that she loves another. He nonetheless presses on her a ring which, he says, will obtain any favour from the King. Travelling to Stirling, Fitz-James meets and quarrels with Roderick. In the ensuing fight, Roderick is mortally wounded and carried to Stirling as a captive. Ellen presents herself at court and, showing the ring, pleads for her father's pardon. She discovers that Fitz-James is no other than the King himself. The King and Douglas are reconciled through her intervention, and Ellen and Malcolm marry.

Back to top


The Lady of the Lake marked the pinnacle of Scott's popularity as a poet. With 25,000 copies sold in eight months, it broke all records for the sale of poetry, and Scott's fame spread beyond Great Britain to the United States. The critics almost matched the enthusiasm of the public. In the Edinburgh Review, the habitually glacial Francis Jeffrey felt it far exceeded its predecessors: the story was 'constructed with infinitely more skill and address' and there was 'a larger variety of characters, more artfully and judiciously contrasted'. For the British Critic, the story itself was more interesting than in Scot's earlier poems, but the poem's real charm lay in 'painting real manners; and displaying the character of an interesting because singular people'. Reservations were expressed by the Critical Review which thought Canto III superfluous and by the Rev. Francis Hodgson in the Monthly Review, for whom the composition careless and the language barbaric. The public, though, continued to devour the poem. Sightseers flocked to Loch Katrine, and a hotel was built at Callander catering for those who wished to visit 'Ellen's Isle'. The Lady of the Lake created a vogue for the Trossachs and is primarily responsible for the area's enduring popularity with tourists.

Back to top

Loch Katrine and Ellen's Isle, engraved by J. Swan after J. Fleming (Corson P.1946)


Back to Index of Works

Last updated: 19-Dec-2011
© Edinburgh University Library