Even though Walter Scott’s famous novels Ivanhoe, Rob Roy and Guy Mannering, have long since disappeared from the school curricula in Great Britain and Scott himself has become a writer who is more likely to adorn shelves than minds, his iconic presence and cultural influence in Scotland endure. In a country famous for the rationality of its Enlightenment writers, he is still described as “the Wizard of the North”. Visitors to Edinburgh continue to arrive at the station named after his first hero, Waverley, and the station itself is still dominated by the 200-foot-high 19th-century Scott monument. No other European capital has ever thought it appropriate to give a writer such a central role. Neither does it seem that tourists are tired of Scott after they’ve climbed the 287 steps to the top of his florid Gothic monument. Nearly one and a quarter million of them happily hand over £11 each to see the Honours of Scotland in Edinburgh Castle, a set of crown jewels which Scott famously claimed to have discovered.Murray Pittock's spread from New Humanist, September/October 2007

Those searching for evidence of similar civic pride in the achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment will be disappointed. There was no official monument to David Hume until the unveiling of Alexander Stoddart’s small classical statue on the Royal Mile in 1997 and there is no evident commemoration to be found of Adam Ferguson (possibly the first sociologist) or James Hutton (who invented modern geology). Nor are these simply civic oversights. There is currently not a single postgraduate course on the Scottish Enlightenment available in any Scottish university.

It could, of course, be claimed that Scott merits such public adulation not because of his intellectual influence but because it was his enormously popular 19th-century novels that did so much to create the tourist view of Scotland as a place of ruined castles, wild moors and rugged highlanders. So great was his influence that at times it seemed the country was attempting to shape itself into the romantic picture he had painted. Prince Albert was famously depicted spearing salmon over a mountain burn (an antique form of fishing described in Scott’s Redgauntlet), while by 1912, one-eighth of the area of Scotland was covered by deer forests, where imperial servants and wealthy magnates could pretend to relive the prestige of the remote aristocratic past through the practice of “deer-stalking”, a term probably invented by Scott, who also contributed to the restoration of the Scottish deerhound as a breed. The country which had produced David Hume, Adam Smith, James Watt and Logie Baird, whose natives had invented much of the paraphernalia of modern life from the bicycle to television, was presented to the eyes of the world as if it were a timewarp themepark.

But would it be completely fair to blame Scott for what humanists might want to call the disfigurement or the obscuring of the once proud Enlightenment landscape? Was his romantic mediaevalism a calculated riposte to the rationality of the 18th century?

The truth is more complicated. One of the reasons for Scott’s massive popularity as a novelist in so many parts of the world was not so much his rejection of the Enlightenment as his capacity for depicting the past as another country. And this depiction leant heavily upon the Enlightenment’s idea of history as a progression of stages.

Adam Smith had argued in his 1762 lectures that history moved from hunter-gatherer to pastoral and on to agricultural and commercial. Writers like William Robertson and Dugald Stewart added the idea that different societies journeyed through these stages at different rates, a theory of development that was greatly to influence the early anthropologists. In the shorter term, best-selling histories such as David Hume’s History of England and William Robertson’s History of Scotland turned stage theory into a teleology of civility: the idea that civility was the eventual goal of any properly advanced society.

These writers regarded Scotland as aspiring to the superior condition of English society, and they sometimes used the metaphor of human maturity to describe this: Robertson infamously said that “Nations, as well as men, arrive at maturity by degrees, and the events which happened during their infancy or early youth … deserve not be remembered.” These writers were largely responsible for ensuring that British history-writing became Whig and teleological, and that Scottish and Irish history were not properly integrated into British history because such history belonged to the childhood of the new imperial nation-state of Great Britain.

For much of Scott’s working life this was the model for his poetry and fiction. Historical change was depicted as a matter of stages, each reaching a further level of maturity: the novels close with a more or less optimistic vision of a British future. In Waverley (1814), for example, the Highland robbers of Donald Bean Lean are less “advanced” than the chieftain’s household of Fergus MacIvor: but both prefer kin loyalty to any idea of a national society. The Baron of Bradwardine is a Lowlander, who believes in Scottish society, but as such he is, if more “advanced” than Fergus, still a Jacobite who opposes the British state. The English Jacobites have already moved from fighting for their cause to romancing it, thus replacing violence by nostalgia, and Protestant and Hanoverian Great Britain is the future, with Jacobinism best restricted to art: hence after Fergus hangs for rebellion, Waverley hangs his picture on the wall.

But there is one central feature of Enlightenment thought which was notoriously absent from Scott’s writing: its claim to universality. Scott’s intense memorialisation of the particular, the locus amoenus or special place, completely undercut this. When Rob Roy’s “foot is on his native heath” his character, personality and language change: location determines character, so how can human nature be a “science” irrespective of circumstance, and how can historical change not imply loss as well as gain ? Although Scott’s “British” characters speak standard English, the intense Scots speech of others provide his most memorable dialogue. In a time of political flux in Europe between 1815 and 1848, Scott’s images of ethnicity and cultural identity were intensely powerful; besides, he seemed to love the past the Enlightenment model committed him to discard. Czech, Slovene and Polish nationalists saw in Scott the promotion of vernacular speech and local identity, of heroic mountains and provincial peoples at war with the homogeneity of the metropolitan centralism of Vienna or Moscow.

Scott seemed to provide a foundational language of national history as struggle, and the Young Italy of 1831 morphed into the Young Ireland of 1846, as ideas of national renewal swept Europe: Manzoni’s keynote Italian nationalist novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) was deeply dependent on Scott. In the 20th century, East Germany valued Scott for his depiction of locality as a surrogate for class struggle, where the Scots-speakers are the proletariat; in Franco’s Spain, Scott’s perceived religious radicalism was censored until the 1970s.

So while Scott’s passion for the particular might seem at odds with the values of commonality, it also inspired across Europe a fervour for questioning, for equality and liberation. And while in character, situation and imagination he challenged the present’s superiority to the past, his plots and presentation of history are imbued with a sense of progress towards civilisation, however imperfect he perceived that modernity to be. Sir Walter Scott was a romance-ridden rationalist. And that was how he became the most passionately adored romantic novelist of the Victorian age, and at the same time a true heir of the Enlightenment.