The Revolutionary Present


Abroad, Scott saw movements for political and national freedom sweep aside traditional structures and trigger the collapse of age-old empires. At home, campaigns for social reform, workers’ rights, and greater democracy led to fears that Britain too stood on the verge of revolution.

The American Revolution

As a boy, Scott lived through the American Revolutionary War, when Britain’s thirteen American colonies broke away from the Crown and achieved independence. Though its losses were soon offset by colonial gains in India and South-East Asia, it seemed to many that Britain was surrendering rather than building an empire.

An iconic image of the American Revolution, Trumbull’s painting shows the death of American General Joseph Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, 17 June 1775.

Bunker Hill was a victory for Britain, but one gained at great cost. The British army had many more casualties than the Americans and learned that inexperienced British citizen-soldiers were unable to stand up to regular troops in battle. The experience discouraged the British from making further frontal attacks on well-defended American lines.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution broke out when Scott was 17 years old. His early adult life was dominated by the turbulent events occurring in France: the ending of the Old Regime, the declaration of the Republic, the executions of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, the Reign of Terror that followed the Revolution, and, finally, the rise of Napoleon.

The storming of the Bastille, by armed civilians on 14 July 1789, was one of the opening acts of the French Revolution. A military fortress and political prison, the Bastille was seen as a symbol of monarchist brutality.

Irish Rebellion

Nearer home, Scott was shaken by the Irish Rebellion of 1798, a major republican uprising against British rule. He was particularly worried about links between Irish and Scottish radicals and feared that rebellion in Ireland might spread to his own country. Although a proud defender of Scotland’s native traditions and institutions, he believed that these were best protected, and Scotland’s economic prosperity guaranteed, by union with England.

This image depicts the British victory over the rebel Irish army at Vinegar Hill, Enniscorthy, County Wexford, 21 June 1798. Vinegar Hill is often wrongly portrayed as a decisive blow bringing the rebellion to a rapid end. In reality, it persuaded the rebels to avoid further full-frontal engagements and to begin a lengthy campaign of guerrilla warfare.

Radical Roads: Unrest at Home

The 1790s saw demonstrations, protests, and riots throughout Scotland, sparked by food shortages, rising living costs, and the enclosure of common lands. While many of these outbreaks were spontaneous local events triggered by harsh wartime conditions, the British government blamed them on the Friends of the People, a movement seeking gradual reform and broader parliamentary representation.

In a series of trials, its leaders were imprisoned, transported, or executed. The return of international peace in 1815 brought not stability but economic depression, unleashing a new and more frightening wave of civil unrest.

Poor harvests in 1816-1817 provoked riots and demonstrations. Rapid industrialization put handloom weavers out of work and caused massive rural unemployment.

Scott recognized the hardships suffered by underpaid or unemployed workers but was confident that the economy would right itself. Meanwhile, he urged landowners and employers to adopt a caring attitude toward their tenants and employees. Scott himself found work for unemployed weavers in 1822 when they were used to build a footpath beneath Edinburgh's Salisbury Crags, pictured here.

Situated in Holyrood Park, the path is still known as the Radical Road, commemorating the historical association between weavers and political activism.

Empires Fall

Scott is often associated with Empire. His lifetime saw the consolidation of British rule in India, the colonization of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and the beginning of a century of global dominance. Yet he also witnessed the end of many age-old empires and signs that others were beginning to crumble.

The French Revolutionary Wars brought an end to the Holy Roman Empire and triggered the collapse of the Spanish Empire. Spain lost almost all its American colonies as Simón Bolívar, depicted here, led Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama to independence. Elsewhere in the world, the Ottoman Empire faced revolutions in Serbia and Greece. The Austrian Empire crushed nationalist rebellions in Piedmont and in Northern and Central Italy, while the Russian Empire fought an uprising in Poland.

Scott looked sympathetically upon some of these movements but feared the rise of nationalist currents at home, and the break-up of the British state.