Smailholm Tower and Scott

The wild landscape around Smailholm Tower inspired Scott's writings

Smailholm Tower dominates a rocky craig in the Scottish Borders.

As a baby, Scott contracted what we now know as poliomyelitis, or polio. In 1773, still only a toddler, he was sent to his grandparents in the Borders to improve his health.

The Scott farm at Sandyknowe stood in the shadow of the family’s ancestral home, Smailholm Tower. In this wild landscape, his Aunt Jenny taught him to read and Barbara Haliburton, his grandmother, told him old Border tales. The place and its culture would inspire his writing.

In turn, inspired by Scott's poetry, his uncle restored the tower making it safe around 1800.

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Listen to ‘Thoughts of Early Time’

Walter Scott’s memories of his childhood fascination with Border stories and the shattered tower of Smailholm.

Read ‘Thoughts of Early Time’

Thus while I ape the measure wild
Of tales that charmed me yet a child,
Rude though they be, still with the chime
Return the thoughts of early time;
And feelings, roused in life's first day,
Glow in the line and prompt the lay.

Then rise those crags, that mountain tower,
Which charmed my fancy's wakening hour.

Though no broad river swept along,
To claim, perchance, heroic song;
Though sighed no groves in summer gale,
To prompt of love a softer tale;
Though scarce a puny streamlet's speed
Claimed homage from a shepherd's reed;
Yet was poetic impulse given,
By the green hill and clear blue heaven.

It was a barren scene, and wild,
Where naked cliffs were rudely piled;
But ever and anon between
Lay velvet tufts of loveliest green;
And well the lonely infant knew
Recesses where the wallflower grew,
And honeysuckle loved to crawl
Up the low crag and ruined wall.

I deemed such nooks the sweetest shade
The sun in all its round surveyed;
And still I thought that shattered tower
The mightiest work of human power;
And marvelled as the aged hind
With some strange tale bewitched my mind,
Of forayers, who, with headlong force,
Down from that strength had spurred their horse,
Their southern rapine to renew,
Far in the distant Cheviots blue,
And, home returning, filled the hall
With revel, wassail-rout, and brawl.

Methought that still, with trump and clang,
The gateway's broken arches rang;
Methought grim features, seamed with scars,
Glared through the window's rusty bars,
And ever, by the winter hearth,
Old tales I heard of woe or mirth,
Of lovers' slights, of ladies' charms,
Of witches' spells, of warriors' arms;
Of patriot battles, won of old
By Wallace wight and Bruce the bold;
Of later fields of feud and fight,
When, pouring from their Highland height,
The Scottish clans, in headlong sway,
Had swept the scarlet ranks away.

Sir Walter Scott - Celebrating 250 Years

In 2021-22, Scotland celebrates the 250th anniversary of one of its most famous sons, Sir Walter Scott. This online exhibition and audio trail of his legacies is part of the celebrations.

'Thoughts of Early Time' has been performed by Edinburgh actor Gavin Paul, who is looking forward to visiting some of these important historical sights.