Inspiring Walter Scott - new display at National Museum of Scotland

05 August 2021
Dr Anna Groundwater with the Mary Queen of Scots replica casket
A new display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of one of Scotland’s foremost writers, Sir Walter Scott.

Inspiring Walter Scott explores his historical fiction through the real objects that inspired him. 

Drawing on his passion for collecting antiquities, Scott wove tales of political resistance and personal romance from Scotland’s past, that still inspire audiences today. 

Examples on show include the gilt spurs owned by Auld Wat Scott of Harden (1550-1629), and described by Scott in his poem, The Reivers Wedding.  Auld Wat – an ancestor of Sir Walter’s - was a notorious reiver, who lived at a time when ancient Anglo-Scottish enmity was carried out in cross-border raiding.  


Also featured is an ingenious 18th century sporran purse lock, donated to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1783. Scott, as a leading member of this society, will have seen it, and it is thought this inspired the one belonging to his characterisation of Rob Roy Macgregor in his best-selling novel Rob Roy. Concealed within it is a pistol with four barrels designed to fire if tampered with. 

Mary Queen of Scots replica casket

The stories relating to another famous historical figure, Mary Queen of Scots, are illustrated through a replica of the casket in which were found, it was said, letters later used to incriminate her. These events were dramatically imagined by Scott in The Monastery and The Abbott. In The Bride of Lammermoor, Scott describes the practice of treasonous Jacobite toasts made with specially commissioned glasses, and the display shows examples of these. The display will also include audio recordings of excerpts from the novels in which these objects feature.  

Dr Anna Groundwater, Principal Curator of Renaissance and Early Modern History at National Museums Scotland, said:  

“This display explores how Scott derived inspiration for his historical fiction from real events and, more specifically, real things. By combining objects, many of which Scott himself encountered, with relevant audio excerpts from his work, people will be able to get a sense of how vividly these real museum objects inspired elements of his storytelling.” 

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Sir Walter Scott was a member of the Society of Antiquaries, an organisation which still exists to this day, and whose collections went on to form what are now the Scottish History and Archaeology collections at National Museums Scotland. Scott himself was also a prodigious collector, amassing a wealth of material in his Abbotsford home in the Scottish Borders which is now a visitor attraction in its own right. 

Display details

The display is part of a nationwide programme, Walter Scott 250, marking the anniversary of his birth ( There will be an accompanying online event on 26 August featuring the exhibition curators in conversation with writer and critic Stuart Kelly. 

Inspiring Walter Scott, Friday 6 August 2021 to Sunday 9 January 2022 

Venue: National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh  

Admission: Free with pre-booked Museum entry 


(report and images courtesy National Museums Scotland)