Historical events that reveal authors as encountering the world in ways other than through their pens add a dimension of intrigue to their personal stories. In Walter Scott’s case, a particular treasure hunt in Scotland blurred the lines between the thematic content of his fiction and his personal love for Scottish folklore.
This story starts around the time when Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protectorate of England. During his reign, Cromwell sold some of the English crown jewels in order to raise money for his new government. Scotland—which had yet to be unified with England (that happened in 1707)—feared that Cromwell and his armies would invade them and steal the Honours of Scotland, their royal regalia. The Honours consisted of three pieces: the Sword of State, a gold crown that predates the 1540s, and a silver scepter, thought to be a papal gift and topped with a large crystal stone. According to local legend, Cromwell wanted to melt the pieces down; for him, they stood as a symbol of the monarchical system he opposed. The story goes that the treasures were smuggled away before he could find them. They remained missing for a century. Over time, people began to believe the Honours were simply mythical objects.
In 1818, the Prince Regent expressed a desire to discover the Honours’ hiding place. He decided that Scottish animosity against the English regarding their union could be lessened with this kind of cultural revival, and the Honours could be kept in Scotland for the Scots to view—at a small price, of course. To do this, he enlisted the help of none other than England’s token Scot, Mr. Walter Scott. According to the London Times, at 1:00 in the afternoon on Wednesday, February 4th, 1818, Scott found the Honours of Scotland carefully wrapped in a simple linen cloth and locked away in an old wooden chest in Edinburgh Castle.
In a letter to Irish statesman and author John Wilson Croker, Scott relayed one potential account of the Honours’ mysterious history:
“They were, in 1652, lodged in the Castle of Dunnottar, the seat of the Earl Marischal, by whom, according to his ancient privilege, they were kept. The castle was defended by George Ogilvie of Barra, who, apprehensive of the progress which the English made in reducing the strong places in Scotland, became anxious for the safety of these valuable memorials. The ingenuity of his lady had them conveyed out of the castle in a bag on a woman’s back, among some hards, as they are called, of lint. They were carried to the Kirk of Kinneff, and intrusted to the care of the clergyman named Grainger and his wife, and buried under the pulpit. The Castle of Dunnottar, though very strong and faithfully defended, was at length under necessity of surrendering, being the last strong place in Britain on which the royal flag floated in those calamitous times. Ogilvie and his lady were threatened with the utmost extremities by the Republican General Morgan, unless they should produce the Regalia. The governor stuck to it that he knew nothing of them, as in fact they had been carried away without his knowledge. The Lady maintained she had given them to John Keith, second son of the Earl Marischal, by whom, she said, they had been carried to France. They suffered a long imprisonment, and much ill usage. [. . .] As for Ogilvie’s lady, she died before the Restoration, her health being ruined by the hardships she endured from the Cromwellian satellites. [. . .] On her deathbed, and not till then, she told her husband where the honours were concealed, charging him to suffer death rather than betray them.”
Inspired by his love for Scottish tradition, he traced a series of rumors, developing a theory that the regalia might be hidden in Edinburgh Castle. According to the Times, the men approached the locked Crown-room, where they were met with a surprising obstacle: two sets of doors that had been locked for fifty years and had to be broken down. The first was made of oak and the second of iron. According to the Times, the room was entirely bare except for “a large, oblong oaken chest, secured by two strong locks, for which no keys have been found.” There was a thick layer of dust on the chest, affirming that it hadn’t been disturbed in decades. After much difficulty, the chest was forced open, revealing the Honours inside.
Although little information exists as to how the group’s other members were rewarded, Scott’s prominent role in the discovery earned him his baronetcy, marking the moment from which he would be called Sir Walter Scott.
London Times articles:
“On Saturday last, Mr. WARING JAMES, eldest son of JOSEPH JAMES, Esq. of Esher, Surrey, left.” Times [London, England] 10 Feb. 1818: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.
“Regalia Of Scotland.” Times [London, England] 22 Jan. 1818: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.
Various versions of this story can be found at the following websites, and the above information is collected from these sources as well as The Times. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it has a few places to start if you’re interested in this story.