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Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border
First Edition, First Impression:
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border: Consisting of Historical
and Romantic Ballads, Collected in the Southern Counties of Scotland;
With a Few of Modern Date, Founded Upon Local Tradition. In
Two Volumes. Vol. I (II). Kelso: Printed By James Ballantyne, For
T. Cadell Jun. And W. Davies, Strand, London; And Sold by Manners
and Miller, and A. Constable, Edinburgh, 1802.
Compilation | Reception | Links
Scott's interest in the folk traditions of the Border region
stemmed from early childhood stays at Sandyknowe,
when he heard ballads from the lips of his grandmother Barbara
Scott and his favourite Aunt Jenny. As an older boy, he thrilled
to the medieval ballads collected in Bishop Thomas Percy's Reliques
of Ancient English Poetry. Scott began collecting ballads
himself in yearly trips to the Borders from 1792 onwards.
He first had the idea of publishing a collection in 1796,
but it was not until he renewed contact with his old schoolfriend,
the printer James
Ballantyne, that the idea bore fruit. In 1799 Ballantyne
had published An Apology for
Tales of Terror which
contained ballads by Robert
John Aikin, and Scott himself (see Literary
Beginnings). He now welcomed the idea of publishing a
volume devoted entirely to ballads, a genre rendered newly
fashionable by Wordsworth's and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads (1798).
Scott fitted his ballad-collecting trips around his duties as Sheriff
of Selkirkshire (see Professional
Life). In addition to his own (often hazardous) travels in Ettrick
Forest and Liddesdale, he received assistance from other ballad-collectors,
including John Leyden, Robert Jamieson, Robert Surtees, George Ellis,
and Bishop Percy himself. Scott's approach to authenticating, editing,
and arranging material caused controversy at the time and falls
short of modern standards of scholarship. He relied on an innate
'feeling' for the genuine article and did not hesitate to 'improve'
ballads, changing words, inserting new stanzas, mending rhymes and
rhythms, fusing various versions, and sometimes setting old legends
to verses of his own. Scott argued that the ballad was, by definition,
a fluid form, to which each interpreter gave his or her own stamp.
He insisted that he was always faithful to the spirit of a ballad,
and valued readability over antiquarian exactitude. Scott was also
careful not to deal too rude a shock to the aesthetic sensibilities
of readers brought up on neoclassical verse.
|Scott originally intended to concentrate on ballads celebrating
historical incidents, particularly those connected with the
old Border raids, but the first two-volume edition of the Minstrelsy,
which appeared on February 24, 1802, eventually contained twenty-nine
historical pieces and twenty-four romantic ballads, together
with a handful of 'imitations' mostly by Scott himself (see Scott
the Poet for further information). Almost immediately after
publication, Scott set about preparing a third volume which
would be comprised entirely of modern imitations of traditional
ballad forms. Contributors included Matthew Lewis, Charles
Kirkpatrick Sharpe (portrayed, right), Anna Seward, and Scott
himself. Among the pieces that Scott originally intended for
the third volume was a tale of Border rivalry which rapidly
grew too long for the Minstrelsy and would eventually
appear as Scott's first verse narrative The
Lay of the Last Minstrel.
Along with the third volume, Scott also began preparing a second
edition of the first two which would include further traditional
ballads gathered on his own travels or sent to him by fellow antiquaries.
While ballad-hunting to this purpose in Selkirkshire in April 1802,
Scott made the acquaintance of the young farmer, William Laidlaw,
later to become a valued member of the Abbotsford
'family'. Laidlaw showed Scott a copy of 'Auld Maitland', a ballad
Scott had heard of but so far never seen. Laidlaw had been given
the copy by one of his shepherds, James
Hogg, whom Scott visited shortly afterwards, the beginning of
an important literary friendship. On May 25, 1803, the second edition
of the Minstrelsy was published, comprising revised versions
of vols. I-II along with the 'modern' third volume. A third, expanded
edition appeared in 1806, a fourth in 1810 (containing, for all
Scott's feel for authenticity, three forgeries by Surtees), and
the fifth and final edition in 1812, containing ninety-six ballads,
forty-three printed for the first time.
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The Minstrelsy sold well on both sides of the border, and
the first edition was exhausted in six months. German, Danish, and
Swedish translations followed, and North American editions gave
Scott his first taste of transatlantic fame. The volume's success
laid the foundations of James Ballantyne's career as a printer.
'I shall ever think', he wrote, 'the printing the Scottish Minstrelsy
one of the most fortunate circumstances of my life' (letter to Scott,
March 30, 1802).
Critical response was highly favourable too, though not all reviewers
were impressed by the modern imitations. The one negative notice
was published by the Monthly Review, but even this complimented
Scott on his 'fidelity, taste, and learning'.
For all the reservations that have subsequently been expressed
concerning Scott's editorial principles, his skill and commitment
as a collector is beyond doubt. The Minstrelsy, over its
various editions, contains almost a quarter of the known corpus
of ancient Scottish ballads.
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