Portrait of Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn, courtesy National Galleries of Scotland.

“Among all the provinces in Scotland, if an intelligent stranger were asked to describe the most varied and the most beautiful, it is probable he would name the county of Perth.”

So begins one of Sir Walter Scott’s most popular novels, published in 1828 and entitled ‘The Fair Maid of Perth’.   The story, which is set in the late 14th century, tells how a bitter rivalry springs up between the suitors of Catharine Glover, the eponymous ‘Fair Maid’ who is famed for her beauty and piety. Encouraged by her devout father, Catharine spurns the advances of notable warriors, who eventually resort to violence and murder. Only at the end of the story, when a lot of blood has been shed, does Catharine choose to accept the hand of one of them in marriage. It is a dark tale, and perfectly suited to the taste of Scott’s adoring readers.  But where did he find the inspiration for his story?

In his introduction to ‘The Fair Maid of Perth’, Scott gives us some insights.  He relates a conversation that took place in Canongate, Edinburgh, between himself and a woman whom he names as Mrs Baliol.  As they talk, Scott laments that so many stirring deeds in Scotland’s history are so thoroughly researched that they leave no scope for the imagination;  as an example, he cites the assassination of David Rizzio in Mary Queen of Scots’ chambers at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and he argues good-naturedly with Mrs Baliol about the origin of the bloodstains that can still be seen on the floor.  Trying to glimpse a well-worn story in a fresh light, Scott ponders the motives of the chief protagonists in Rizzio’s murder…  and an idea for the plot of ‘The Fair Maid of Perth’ begins to form in his head, harking back to a gilded age of romance and chivalry. 

Scott decided that, in order to capture the imagination of his readers and persuade the historians among them to suspend disbelief, he would set his story in the late 14th century - a timeframe that could still claim an acceptable degree of mystery.  He also needed a geographical stage that had the same qualities:  a landscape of exceptional beauty that was far enough off the beaten track to appear wild and unexplored.  To Mrs Baliol, he asserts that fertile gaps in human knowledge still exist, despite the inroads of research:

“There are plenty of wildernesses in Scottish history, through which, unless I am greatly misinformed, no certain paths have been laid down from actual survey, but which are only described by imperfect tradition, which fills up with wonders and with legends the periods in which no real events are recognised to have taken place.  Even thus, as Mat Prior* says—

‘Geographers on pathless downs

Place elephants instead of towns.’”

Setting aside his rather brutal observation about the habits of geographers, Scott can now be as creative as he likes, because he has conjured a misty no-man’s land where the elements of fact and fiction are still unresolved.

But was Scott really that scornful about the work of geographers?  His lyrical descriptions of Scotland’s landscape hint at someone who is passionate about topography, and they were persuasive enough to attract visitors to Scotland in their thousands, keen to experience for themselves the ‘land of the mountain and the flood’.  In his ‘Landscape in history and other essays’ (1905), Sir Archibald Geikie observed that “…no man ever did so much as Walter Scott to make the natural features of his native country familiar to the whole world.” 

It is possible that Scott acquired an interest in geography as a schoolboy in the late 1700s.  While he was a pupil at Edinburgh High School, he was taught geography by Alexander Adam, the Rector, who took the senior class.  During this time - or maybe just afterwards - one of Scott’s private tutors was Dr Ebenezer McFait.  McFait was a Greek scholar and mathematician, but he also produced a book on geography, and recent research has suggested that he may have had a strong influence on Scott’s writing.  Whether or not this is so, Scott’s poetry and prose contain richly detailed tributes to geographical features, and even hint at the processes of their formation:

“One burnish’d sheet of living gold,

Loch-Katrine lay beneath him rolled;

In all her length far winding lay,

With promontory, creek, and bay,

And islands that, empurpled bright,

Floated amid the livelier light;

And mountains, that like giants stand,

To centinel enchanted land.

High on the south, huge Benvenue

Down to the lake in masses threw

Crags, knolls, and mounds, confusedly hurled,

The fragments of an earlier world;

A wildering forest feathered o’er

His ruined sides and summit hoar,

While on the north, through middle air,

Ben-an heaved high his forehead bare.”

The Lady of the Lake’ (1810)

‘The Lady of the Lake’ was an instant bestseller, and its imagery had a galvanising effect on the public.  Robert Cadell, Scott’s publisher, recalled that  “…crowds set off to view the scenery of Loch Katrine, till then comparatively unknown;  and as the book came out just before the season for excursions, every house and inn in that neighbourhood was crammed with a constant succession of visitors.”  The momentum continues to this day, as cruise vessels carry hundreds of admiring passengers around Ellen’s Isle on Loch Katrine.

'Lady of the Lake' on Loch Katrine

The source of Scott’s appetite for history and folklore is easier to pin down.  As an infant, he suffered from an attack of polio, and for the sake of his health he was sent to live with his grandparents, Robert and Barbara Scott, who farmed at Sandyknowe near Kelso.  In the imposing shadow of Smailholm Tower, a relic from the time of Border reivers, Scott listened eagerly to all the old traditional stories that were woven into the fabric of the place;  alongside a keen interest in history, the young boy developed a passion for legends and folklore that would be a rich source of inspiration in years to come.

In ‘The Fair Maid of Perth’, real-life historical events such as the death of King Robert III (in 1406) and the murder of the Duke of Rothesay (in 1402) are brought forward in time to the late 1300s and squeezed into a period of six weeks.  However, the battle which takes place on North Inch is closer in time to its factual counterpart.  In September 1396, members of two feuding clans met here in order to settle their differences in combat.  The identity of the participating clans is still open to debate:  some sources specify Clan Chattan and Clan Kay.

The building which Scott envisioned as the Glovers’ home still stands in North Port, on the corner of Curfew Row.  Parts of the Fair Maid’s House date from around 1475, and it is believed to be the oldest secular building in Perth - although it is still not old enough to be the 14th century house of the Glovers!  In Scott’s story, Catharine’s father was a senior member of the Glover Incorporation, and in fact the Glovers did meet here - but in the 17th and 18th centuries.  During the late 1800s, when the building was restored, some architectural features were added to enhance its ‘authenticity’ as the home of Catharine Glover, no doubt to please enthusiasts of Scott’s work.  A neat parallel, when you consider that Scott took such a creative mix-and-match attitude to historical events!

Fair Maid's House in Perth

In Scott’s tale, Henry Smith, one of Catharine’s admirers, creeps cautiously towards the Fair Maid’s House under cover of darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.  His plans are thwarted, however:

“He had not made three steps towards Simon Glover’s which stood in the midst of the narrow street, when two men started from under the houses on different sides, and advanced, as it were by concert, to intercept his passage.” 

Today, the Fair Maid’s House is - quite fittingly - a home of geography, and luckily no one has to approach it by stealth.  It houses the Visitor Centre of RSGS, and is a rich repository of maps, books and stories that relate to geographical exploration.  Exhibition rooms are on the ground floor, while upstairs the Explorer’s Room is a quiet sanctuary for reading and study.  Meanwhile, anyone looking for the Fair Maid can find her sitting in quiet contemplation on a bench in the High Street, with a book on her lap.  The bronze sculpture, created in 1995, is the work of Graham Ibbeson.

The Fair Maid of Perth


*It is possible that Scott is actually referring to Jonathan Swift’s ‘On Poetry:  A Rhapsody’ (1733):

“So geographers in Afric maps

With savage pictures fill their gaps,

And o’er unhabitable downs

Place elephants for want of towns.”



‘The Fair Maid of Perth’ (1828)

‘The Lady of the Lake’ (1810)

Sir Archibald Geikie, ‘Landscape in history and other essays’ (1905)

J G Lockhart, ‘Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart.’ (1838)

Edinburgh University Library:  The Walter Scott Digital Archive http://www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/home.html

Gazetteer for Scotland https://www.scottish-places.info/features/featurefirst9764.html