Seeing ourselves as Russians see us – through Scott’s eyes

Abbotsford's Beverley Rutherford and Ros Dryden wearing Lochcarron coats in front of St Basil Cathedral in Red Square.
Abbotsford's Beverley Rutherford and Ros Dryden wearing Lochcarron coats in front of St Basil Cathedral in Red Square.

Irn Bru and the Famous Grouse aren’t the only two Scottish icons big in Russia – so is Sir Walter Scott.

This summer, his Abbotsford home in the Borders, opens a new, free visitor centre under its £12million restoration project.

A team from the Abbotsford Trust, is visiting Moscow and St Petersburg to tout for Russian business. Why? How popular is Scott in Russia? Can Scotland do more to benefit?

First, the sheer size of this big brother: Russia’s 17 million square kilometres (Scotland has just 79,000) is populated by almost 142 million people – our population is five million. Russia’s GDP of $2.29 trillion dwarfs Scotland’s $221 billion.

It’s no wonder the Abbotsford, team and its accompanying delegation of Visit Scotland and Historic Scotland, are tantalised by how valuable Russian tourism could be to Scotland. But how interested are the Russians in us?

“Of Abbotsford’s 30,000 visitors last year, 5 per cent were Russian tourists: around two to three coach parties per week,” the Abbotsford Trust’s chief executive, Jason Dyer, said.

It’s amazing how many recognize the house; there’s a worldwide love of Scott, and Abbotsford wants to communicate this to Scotland, and to the Borders.

“Scots don’t realize how far his reach is: Abbotsford gets enquiries from Brazil, Argentina, and the Middle East. Very rarely do we get an enquiry from Scotland.”

Perhaps in the future Scotland can ill afford to ignore the interest others show in us.

So why is Scotland popular in Russia? “Russians are drawn to a romanticized image of Scotland, a mystical land of Highlands, castles, lochs and kilts,” according to Jenny Carr, chair of the Scotland-Russia Forum, an Edinburgh charity promoting understanding between the two countries.

It’s the land, in other words, created in the imagination of Sir Walter Scott. Almost 200 years after they were written, his historical novels continue to sell us abroad.

“Scott invented the brand,” said Ms Carr, whose work has won her a medal for friendship and co-operation from Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“You only have to look at a library of books from the great century of Russian literature to see Scott’s influences,” said Dairmid Gunn, chairman of a Cold War UK-USSR cultural commission, and nephew of Scottish writer Neil M Gunn.

“Scott took Europe and Russia by storm, because he was the innovator: he invented the historical novel with Waverley in 1814. No one had written like that before, and lots of people copied him, including the Russians, like Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev and Tolstoy.”

Scott’s novels are even taught on Russia’s curriculum. Ms Carr said: “Russian primary school children as young as 10 are reading Ivanhoe, yet a 14-year-old at one of Edinburgh’s top private schools may never have heard of him.”

It seems more Russians are reading Scott than Scots. And it’s not just the Russians: last year Scott’s Waverley novels were translated into Japanese and Mandarin.

Here, Scott is a forgotten man. Every day he passes under our hands on Scotland’s banknotes, and his towering monument dominates the heart of Edinburgh on Princes Street: the first sight for millions disembarking at Waverley station, named after Scott’s first best-selling novel.

He was the English language’s first best-selling novelist, Scotland’s first artistic celebrity, and arguably the greatest imaginative genius of his time. In his homeland today he is unread, invisible – but not it seems elsewhere in the world, where he continues to sell our brand.

While Scott, a Tory and Unionist, did not believe in a Scottish political identity, he did stand for a cultural one, and used his celebrity to fight for Scots law and Scottish banknotes.

In his novels, Scott’s mission, and legacy, was to unify Scotland in one vision: he reinvented the country’s past to benefit its present and future – reconciling our conflicts at home, and making us fashionable abroad. Love him or loathe him, Scott’s stories told a nation and a world what Scotland means.

The Abbotsford Trust is beginning to exploit the untapped potential of Sir Walter Scott – not just in Russia, the US, Canada, Japan and other far off countries where he still makes us popular – but in Scotland too.

Scott poured his creative energies into designing and building Abbotsford – “a museum for living in” he called it – housing his eclectic artifacts from Rob Roy MacGregor’s sword to a half-eaten oatcake from Culloden field.

An architectural copy of Abbotsford, the Alupka Palace, was built in the Ukraine, at Yalta in the Crimea.

This summer, Scott’s original on the banks the River Tweed near Selkirk is opening its new visitor centre, exhibition, Ochiltrees café and restaurant, gift shop, garden and woodland walks – and later luxury holiday accommodation in the Hope Scott Wing. For more, visit www.scottsabbotsford.co.uk.