Sir Walter Scott's India network

Influence, inspiration and anguish: Scott and India

Scott had family and friends who had been or were in India while he was writing his novels: their experience was useful to him for three of his novels: The Surgeon's Daughter; Guy Mannering; and St Ronan's Well.

In 1821, Scott wrote: India is ‘the corn chest for Scotland, where we poor gentry must send our youngest sons as we send our black cattle to the South’. Scott’s novella, A Surgeon’s Daughter, is partly set in India and friends serving there helped with details. One of these was Colonel James Fergusson who, after his return from India, in 1823, had settled at Huntlyburn, a house on Scott’s Abbotsford estate. As he approached the end of The Surgeon’s Daughter and the scene shifted from Britain to India, Scott felt he needed Fergusson’s help:

‘I cannot go on with the tale without I could speak a little Hindhanee, a small seasoning of curry powder — Fergusson will do it if I can screw it out of him’.

The problem was that Fergusson was not always there when wanted:

Colonel Fergusson’s absence is unlucky. So is Maxpopple [Sir William Scott of Raeburn, who owned the farm ‘Maxpoffle’] and half a dozen Qui His besides, willing to write chits, eat Tiffing and vent all their pagan jargon when one does not want to hear it and now that I want a touch of their slang, lo! There is not one near me.[i]

Ferguson provided some written material that Scott, describing it as ‘highly picturesque’, incorporated directly into his novel.

Family, like brother Robert and cousin James Russell, were in the East India Company; his wife Charlotte received about £40,000 annually (today’s value) from her brother in India; Walter helped his nephew to an Indian position – but discouraged his sons. His eldest son, Walter Scott (1801-1847) fulfilled Scott’s military ambitions by becoming an accomplished soldier. Scott purchased his son a commission and he joined the army, initially as Cornet before being promoted to Captain and Lieutenant Colonel of the 15th King’s Hussars. He married Jane Jobson in 1825. Walter went to Madras only after his father’s death and died en route home. By the time of death in 1847 there was no issue, and the Abbotsford estate passed to his eldest sister’s children.

When his other son Charles was offered a place as a lawyer in India Scott promptly had the offer postponed and ensured that Charles never went, and when the daughters of his dead friend William Erskine planned to go to India Scott offered only reluctant approval because he could not see any other path for them. Evidently the experience of so many deaths amongst those he had sponsored to go there had cooled his enthusiasm for India as a place of opportunity.

Typical of Scott’s personal engagement with India include his active involvement in finding friends, the sons of friends and clients places in India and then promoting their careers with letters to the governing powers. In addition to his nephew (another Walter Scott), he helped his cousin, Patrick Meik, John Leyden, the son of neighbours in the Borders, and the two sons of the poet Allan Cunningham. Amongst gifts of Indian origin, he received from David MacCulloch, formerly a merchant in Bengal, a sword which was claimed to be that of Tipu Sultan. Sadly, his letters also record the deaths in India of Richard Lockhart, his son-in-law’s brother, and of the brothers Hugh and John Scott (sons of Francis Scott of Beechwood and his distant cousins) who died in India within a month of each other, as well as the death on his way back from India of the eldest son of his friend William Adam of Blairadam. Given all this it is perhaps not surprising that Scott had mixed feelings about India as a destination for Scotland’s sons (and daughters). When his elder son, Walter, hoped to go to India with his regiment Scott opposed it resolutely:

'in the Kings service […] you can get neither experience in your profession nor credit nor wealth nor anything but an obscure death in storming the hill fort of some Rajah with an unpronounceable name […] or if you live it is but to come back 20 years hence a lieutenant or captain with a yellow face a diseased liver and not a rupee in your pocket to comfort you for broken health.' 


Source: Graham Tulloch (2017) Scott, India and Australia’ The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 47, pp. 263-278

Also see: Walter Scott (1827, revised 2003), The Surgeon's Daughter, in Chronicles of the Canongate, Penguin Classics, London, with explanatory and historical notes by Claire Lamont.


[i] Scott’s Journal for 22 August 1827. The terms mentioned are Anglo-Indian words, simple versions of Hindustani, the common language of north India, an overlap of Hindi and Urdu. Qui Hi is now more usually written koi hai, ‘is anyone there?’, often addressed to servants; chits are letters (chitthi), and Tiffing (now normally tiffin) is a light meal.