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Magic: The Ambivalence of Sir Walter Scott

Michael Hunter—

Sir Walter Scott was second to none in his use of supernatural stories and allusions in a fictional setting. In Rob Roy, for instance, he speaks of fairies as “a race of airy beings, who formed an intermediate class between men and dæmons, and who, if not positively malignant to humanity, were yet to be avoided and feared, on account of their capricious, vindictive, and irritable disposition.”[i] The Bride of Lammermoor tells of the “feeling of wonder approaching to fear” that afflicted Edgar, Master of Ravenswood, when he witnessed a terrible apparition, “whose withered lips moved fast, although no sound issued from them.”[ii] Sir Walter Scott constantly plays with the numinous as a theme throughout all of the Waverley novels, using such excursions to encourage a sense of mystery and to titillate and intrigue his readers.

Yet what is surprising is how Scott proves to have been relentlessly skeptical about the reality of such phenomena. His Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, published in 1830 but planned much earlier, was intended as “a selection of the most striking and absurd stories of apparitions witchcraft demonology and so forth tacked together with ironical disquisitions and occasionally ornamented with historical and antiquarian anecdotes… for amusement of a winters or autumnal evening.”[iii] In the first of the letters that the book comprises, Scott invoked the brutally reductionist attitude towards phenomena of this kind taken by his protégé, Samuel Hibbert, in his Sketches of the Philosophy of Apparitions; or, an Attempt to Trace such Illusions to their Physical Causes (1824), which attempted “a physical explanation of many ghost-stories which may be considered as most authentic” largely in terms of “the recollected images of the mind.”[iv] Scott also referred to the comparably dismissive view expressed in a well-known paper to the Royal Society of Berlin in 1799 by Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, who was himself heir to a sceptical attitude towards such phenomena that went back to English and French savants in the eighteenth century.[v]

Commenting on his Letters in retrospect in a letter to Lady Louisa Stuart dated October 31, 1830, Scott professed that, in it, he was acting “positively in lending a blow to explode old and worn out follies.” Lady Louisa had criticised him for not dealing with more recent fads like that for “animal magnetism,” to which Scott replied how “every age must swallow a certain deal of superstitious nonsense.” He revealingly told of his own experience of the supposed curative powers of Dr James Graham at his “Temple of Health” at the Adelphi in London in the later years of the eighteenth century, whom Scott described as “the great Quack of the olden day.” Scott explained his own view that, for all Graham’s virtuosity in treating patients, “the magnetism was all humbug.” He added that, though he had considered “turning on the modern mummers,” he “did not want to be engaged in so senseless a controversy,” adding: “the inference was pretty plain that the same reasons which explode the machinery of witches and ghosts proper to our ancestors must be destructive of the supernatural nonsense of our own days.”[vi]  

It is perhaps further telling that a series of illustrations to Scott’s Letters was prepared by the graphic artist, George Cruikshank—a skeptic himself about modern spiritualist claims, as revealed by his Discovery concerning Ghosts, with a Rap at the ‘Spirit-Rappers’ of 1863.[vii] For the manner in which Cruikshank illustrated the stories in Scott’s book made the supposed supernatural occurrences retailed in it seem ridiculous rather than sinister, as the example reproduced here shows.

Plate 1: ‘The Persecuted Butler’, Cruikshank’s illustration to a story from Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus(1681) in Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, pp. 126-7.

In all, we have a curious paradox: Scott seeing the literary potential of magic to produce a certain frisson in his fictional writings, yet himself remaining wholly sceptical about the phenomena involved. It is hardly surprising to find him rejecting second sight, the strange ability of certain individuals to foresee future events, as “inconsistent with the general laws of nature” —yet at the same time viewing it as highly suitable for “the use of poetry.”[viii]

Michael Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History, Birkbeck, University of London. He is the author of numerous works on early modern science and culture such as The Occult Laboratory and the award-winning Boyle: Between God and Science.

Further Reading:


[i]Scott, Rob Roy (3 vols., Edinburgh, 1818), vol. 3, p. 6. He here almost certainly alludes to Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth, which Scott first published: see Michael Hunter, The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment(New Haven and London, 2020), p. 166.

[ii]Scott, Tales of My Landlord, 3rdseries (3 vols., Edinburgh, 1819), vol. 2, p. 219. See also Coleman O. Parsons, Witchcraft and Demonology in Scott’s Fiction(Edinburgh and London, 1964), pp. 115-17, 173 and passim.

[iii]Scott to C.K. Sharpe, 6 June/July 1812, in H.J.C. Grierson (ed.), The Letters of Sir Walter Scott (12 vols., London, 1932-7), vol. 3, pp. 144-5.

[iv]Scott, Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (London, 1830), pp. 21ff.; Samuel Hibbert, Sketches of the Philosophy of Apparitions; or, an Attempt to Trace such Illusions to their Physical Causes (2ndedn., 1825), pp. v, 231 and passim. 

[v]Scott, Letters, pp. 21-2; Hunter, Decline of Magic, pp. 143, 163. See also Shane McCorristine, Spectres of the Self. Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920 (Cambridge, 2010), ch. 1.

[vi]Scott to Lady Louisa Stuart, 31 October 1830, Grierson, Letters of Scott, vol. 11, pp. 400-3. For Graham see Roy Porter, Quacks: Fakers and Charlatans in English Medicine (Stroud, 2000), ch. 6.

[vii]George Cruikshank, Twelve Sketches Illustrative of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Demonology and Witchcraft’ (London, 1830); Hunter, Decline of Magic, p. 179.

[viii]Ibid., pp. 161-4.

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