by Anne Fertig

Download PDF

Originally published in 1802, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border was Sir Walter Scott's first major success. A collection of seventy-seven traditional ballads and new imitations, the Minstrelsy is an exemplar of the antiquarian ballad revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Divided into three parts (historical ballads; romantic ballads; and modern imitations), the Minstrelsy contained meticulous critical notes appended to each poem, replete with references to contemporary scholarship and historical documentation. As a book, the Minstrelsy complicates assignments of authorship and editorship. Scott was at once historian, poet, collector, transcriber, and editor. The Minstrelsy also exists within a murky conception of genre. It is both a collection of historical literature and a sourcebook of literary history; it contains antiquarian, anthropological, and creative elements. Because of Scott's own changes, edits, and insertions through the years, the Minstrelsy is an extremely fluid text, which makes tracing its production history both interesting and problematic. Scott adjusted the structure and organization of the poems — while adding to the corpus — throughout his life.

The Minstrelsy forces us to mediate the editorial practices involved in the compilation of the Minstrelsy with Scott's own authorship and antiquarian frameworks. Is this Scott the poet speaking here? Or Scott the antiquarian? Furthermore, the extensive historical notes introduce the idea of Scott the editor, Scott the compiler, and Scott the folklorist. These layered voices have influenced the reception and subsequent editing of the Minstrelsy over the last two centuries. Much of the struggle has derived from the blurred ontology of minstrelsy and balladry in this period. As a genre, Maureen McLane defined minstrelsy in the long eighteenth-century as "that space where poetry is distressed and vexed by history" (432). Kenneth McNeil has suggested that the Minstrelsy is a type of border-zone itself, as it operates between the ancient and modern, the authentic and the imagined, the local and the national. Although McNeil primarily defines Scott as a novelist, he understands the delicate situation of the Minstrelsy's curatorship. Defining Scott as a "compiler-editor," McNeil states, "the tension between the dead (but pristine) past and the living (but corrupted) present gave rise to the antiquarian editor-function" (26). This border zone may account for the editorial mutability between texts. Andrew Piper engages a similar motif, calling the nineteenth-century ballad form a hybrid between oral tradition and modern print consumerism (98). Since the early nineteenth century, editors of the Minstrelsy have struggled to encompass these various valences. As will be demonstrated, many editors have selectively chosen their own anthologies of the Minstrelsy, accepting some poems while removing others. Some have privileged the poems over Scott's critical historical research. Others have added to the appendices and footnotes. Even in the digital age, treatments of the text have been uneven.

The border zones of the Minstrelsy have been erased, redrawn, and expanded by various editors. This literary archaeology will explore a few selected editions of the Minstrelsy to trace the text's evolution so as to demonstrate the fluidity of the text. It will show how some editors have privileged literature over history (or vice versa), inadvertently dichotomizing the two subjects.

Historical Context

Title page of the first edition, Walter Scott, Minstrelsy (1802). Wilson Library, University of North Carolina.

The full title of Scott's work is Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border: Consisting of Historical and Romantic Ballads, Collected in the Southern Counties of Scotland; With a few of Modern Date, Founded upon Local Tradition. This title situates the text within its proper historiographical context. It establishes the tripartite taxonomy of the series (historical ballads, romantic ballads, and modern imitations) while geographically and temporally locating the text within its poetical tradition (both ancient and modern). During the late eighteenth century, the antiquarian establishment had brought poetry into increased scrutiny as historical artifacts, and the success of The Poems of Ossian spurred a curatorial frenzy in the pursuit of oral folk literature (Leerssen 111). Many popular anthologies sold well through this time, including Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, Charlotte Brooke's Reliques of Irish Poetry, and Joseph Ritson's Ancient Songs. In his letters, Scott credited the Poems of Ossian and the subsequent folk movement with his formative interest in literature and folklore (Grierson 319). Such collections heavily influenced the burgeoning genres of Romantic poetry and national tales.

The Minstrelsy ostensibly began as a way of anthologizing local oral verse. Scott began collecting ballads in 1792. In a broader scheme, Scott sought to preserve local cultural memory while exporting the historicity of the poems to the national stage. The Minstrelsy is part history, part literature. Each poem is introduced by a historical note, written by Scott. Footnotes, endnotes, and glosses couch each poem and introduction.

Example of Scott's endnotes from the second edition, Walter Scott, Minstrelsy (1803). Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Occasionally, Scott includes a chart or glossary:

The glossary added after Anna Seward's imitation ballad " Rich Auld Willie's Farewell" as printed in the second edition, Walter Scott, Minstrelsy (1803). Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Scott published the Minstrelsy through his schoolmate and printer, James Ballantyne. It was an immediate success. In a letter to Scott, Ballantyne referred to the Minstrelsy as "one of the most fortunate circumstances of my life" (Memoirs 203). The success of the first edition generated many more editions throughout Scott's life, but in every subsequent edition, Scott continued to edit the text by adding and restructuring his material.

Thus the Minstrelsy has a complicated publication history. Originally, the Minstrelsy was meant to be two volumes, published in 1802. These two volumes were broken into three parts. The first volume (or Part I) contained "Historical Ballads," which Scott described as poems that depicted historically verifiable events. The second volume contained "Romantic Ballads" (Part II) and "Modern Imitations" (Part III), the latter of which were penned by Scott. The first edition sold out in six months, and a second edition appeared a year later. This 1803 second edition had significant changes, the most prominent of which was an extra volume. While Scott preserved the original tripartite structure in the first two volumes, the third volume was also split into three parts that had additional poems in each of the historical, romantic, and imitation taxonomies. These modern imitations came from Scott's own literary circle, including Matthew Lewis, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, and Anna Seward. There were also more of Scott's own imitations. Despite these imitation's very modern nature, Scott supplemented them with the same historical notes and critical context as he did the traditional ballads, acknowledging these imitations as recent productions but situating them within the same antiquarian schematic of the older ballads, thus positioning these modern productions as a continuation of the traditional.

The third edition, published in 1806, expanded the series yet again by including new imitations and poems while rearranging their order. The Minstrelsy was now fixed into three editions — at least, officially. By 1821, there were five editions. Scott continued to tweak the Minstrelsy throughout his life. In 1830, Scott replaced the original introduction with an essay called "Introductory Remarks on Popular Poetry," explaining that the original introduction had been too historical and not sufficiently literary, an interesting acknowledgment of the historical-literary amalgam he had produced. That said, Scott maintained his historical notations throughout the text, indicating that while Scott sought to bolster the literariness of the text, he still invested merit into their historicity.

Despite Scott's efforts, editors of the Minstrelsy would struggle with the relationship of history and literature within the text. While most would acknowledge that these are old poems or poems of historical value, editorial practices have either bolstered Scott's historicization of the text through his critical apparatus or have dismantled the apparatus entirely.

An Archaeology of the Minstrelsy

Regardless of Scott's own editorial practices, his arrangement was the subject of almost every subsequent edition of the Minstrelsy. The Minstrelsy appears in many collections after Scott's death in 1832, but it has been difficult to situate among Scott's other works. Scott has predominately been conceptualized as an author, not as an editor or compiler or even an antiquarian. So while Scott's novels and original poetry have been collected, edited, and reassembled conveniently, works like the Minstrelsy, which is composed of works he collected but did not invent, are difficult to define. There has beenƒ some discontent too about the purpose of the Minstrelsy and whether it existed as a historical text or a literary one. The distinction, editorially, lies in whether or not editors chose to preserve Scott's historical notes and marginalia.

One of the most prominent early editions of the Minstrelsy was John Gibson Lockhart's. In 1833, a year after Scott's death, Lockhart produced a series of Scott's collected works, including the Minstrelsy. Lockhart was also the son-in-law and biographer of Scott; in 1837, he would publish the ten volume Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott. In the Memoirs, Lockhart defined Scott as an eclectic editor; he described Scott as collating several versions of each ballad into their present form, thereby "correcting" the ballads. (Memoirs 221). He noted that "From among a hundred corruptions [Scott] seized, with instinctive tact, the primitive diction and imagery; and produced strains in which the unbroken energy of half-civilized ages [...] are reflected with almost the brightness of a Homeric mirror" (Memoirs 221). In typical antiquarian fashion, Scott's editing of the ballads restored their supposedly ancient passions from the corruptions of generational oral transmission and thereby idealized the ballads within contemporary expectations of what ancient poetry was meant to look like (Trumpener 118-119). Lockhart's production of the Minstrelsy attempts to preserve Scott's intention in this regard. Lockhart reproduces the title and dedication almost exactly, and he includes both the 1802 and 1830 introductions. The notes which Scott had appended to the end of the poems are now represented through footnotes. Yet Lockhart sought to do a little correcting himself. Lockhart has adjusted some notes and inserted his own introduction to the text, alongside Scott's introductions. This edition remained an authority in the nineteenth century. One early twentieth-century editor, T.F. Henderson praised it as a "finally corrected" version, demonstrating the long-influence of this edition as well as the positive reception of its own ideal editing (ix).

By the twentieth century, Scott's antiquarian tendencies were being further emended by editors, who sought to update or, in some cases, remove his antiquated research. For those who saw the Minstrelsy as a historical text — either as a literary history, sourcebook, or as a shrine of oral verse — Scott's contextual material might require updating, but the notations were an essential part of the text. For Henderson, "the most valuable and original portion of the Scott's undertaking was the preservation and annotation of ballads specially connected with the borders" (xiv). In other words, Henderson saw the Minstrelsy as an antiquarian resource, where the poems' history was preserved through Scott's critical apparatus. In 1902, William Blackwood and Sons produced Henderson's four-volume edition of the Minstrelsy. This is the copy that frequently appears in HathiTrust and the Internet Archive; it is the version McNeil cites in his chapter on "Borders and Ballads" (24). This edition preserves Scott's historical notes, but Henderson inserts historical corrections in brackets after the articles. Henderson's work in "fixing" the text was praised by some. One reviewer noted that Henderson's work clearly demonstrated which parts of the ballads were authentic and which were Scott's own insertions — important distinctions for those interested in the Minstrelsy as a history (Burne 433).

Henderson's emendations included some significant reformatting of the text, however. In this edition, all of the imitation ballads are contained within the fourth volume; even the four imitations originally included in the second volume were relocated to the fourth. This decision isolates the modern from the historical while distinguishing between Scott the editor and Scott the poet. At heart, however, Henderson seemed to believe in Scott's antiquarian mission, preserving even Thomas Warton's epigraph in the title page of the book. This version of the text promotes the Minstrelsy as a literary history; while the poems are of interest, editors like Henderson opined that Scott had constructed a scholarly, critical apparatus through which the poems could be understood as artifacts and not mere compositions.

Not all shared this belief in the value of the critical text. A competing view of the Minstrelsy invests it with purely literary significance. Alfred Noyes' 1913 edition of the Minstrelsy is a good example of this. Noyes himself was a poet, known best for "The Highwayman." He stripped the poems of Scott's historical notes and replaced the introduction with his own, thus reducing the three volumes to a monograph. Noyes defended his edition in the introduction:

The present edition seeks to remove two serious obstacles which have hitherto interfered with complete enjoyment of the book — first, the absurdly large mass of prefaces, appendices, "advertisements," footnotes, headnotes, and what-not therein Sir Walter Scott saw fit to bury the gems he had just discovered and collected. [...] The second obstacle to the complete efficiency of the book was the curious intermixture of a certain amount of thoroughly bad and paltry work which blurred the effect of the great ballads and poems and was certainly a serious blot on Scott's achievement in collecting these latter. (Noyes xi-xii).

To facilitate the "complete enjoyment" of the poems, Noyes attempts an unediting of the text through the deletion of Scott's historical context, establishing the significance of the Minstrelsy in its poetic and not its historical content. Unlike Scott, Noyes does not mark a difference between historical and romantic ballads, nor does he indicate which of the ballads are imitations. According to the introduction, Noyes' complaint was not with the anachronistic imitations but with the imitations written specifically by women, such as Scott's long-time correspondent Anna Seward. These occluded details strip the poems of all concomitant information beyond the verse itself. The assumption at play here is that these poems are "gems" that Scott simply organized into a book; Scott's role is in the discovery and transcription of these poems, but his editorial presence is dissolved. Where Lockhart and Henderson indicate that Scott pieced together the poems from several versions, Noyes implies that these poems were fully formed, and Scott, as collector, had no hand in their artistic representation. Rather, Scott's contributions are as turgid and gratuitous additions with no merit to the quality of the book. This interference is characterized as "bad," "paltry," and "a serious blot." For Noyes, Scott's agency lay only in the transcription of these poems; the contextual framework so carefully constructed by Scott obstructed the reading of the poems. Unsurprisingly, Noyes assumes the key role of editor of the Minstrelsy.

Scott was downgraded to collector. Screenshot, The Internet Archive, accessed March 23, 2016.

Noyes' name appears on the cover while Scott is addressed as the "collector" on the title page, thus removing Scott's authority from the Minstrelsy almost entirely, as if to say that the Minstrelsy existed independently as a corpus of traditional folk ballads. This tactic disguises the modern edits, collations, and additions performed upon the text by Scott the editor, thus implying that such elements were authentic and original to the ancient historical tradition.

What Noyes' edition reveals is that the historical apparatus, while interesting to some, distracted others, and that Scott's role as producer of the book can be diminished in such editions of the Minstrelsy. By removing Scott the critic from the verse collected by Scott the compiler, Noyes the editor assumes authority over the production and structure of the poems. Noyes' unediting, then, far from returning the poems to their pure form, thus re-edits the text as a purely literary book.

Translation onto the Digital Stage

While the Minstrelsy has a complicated history in print, its online presence has been further complicated by the erratic and inattentive representation on the internet. Much of the same editorial decisions are represented through the variety of "clean-text" transcriptions offered through eBook platforms, but in addition to these transcriptions, the treatment of the Minstrelsy's metadata has presented new problems of representation and of editorship.

The Minstrelsy only exists online through scanned PDFs of early editions and through plain-text transcriptions. The transcriptions are an example of the uneasy transition of books from print to digital. The Sir Walter Scott Digital Archive, while it does provide many interesting notes on the publication history of the Minstrelsy, does not have a version of the text. Like most of Scott's works, the Minstrelsy is not hosted on this site but accessed through external links that redirect visitors to a variety of facsimiles, transcriptions, and free editions. The Archive has links to transcriptions of the Minstrelsy on Bookrags and the Humanities Web, both of which originated on Project Gutenberg. In fact, most online transcriptions of the Minstrelsy derive from Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg has plain text versions of each of the three volumes from the 1806 edition, but a quick study soon reveals an uneven treatment of the volumes. Bookrags and Humanities Web only contain the transcriptions to the first two volumes of the Minstrelsy, yet their copy-text is the three-volume third edition. As of March 5, 2016, the Wikipedia page for the book states that only the first two volumes are available as e-texts on Project Gutenberg, despite the existence of the third volume on the same site.

Screenshot of Wikipedia page stating that there are two volumes available online, accessed March 5, 2016.

This discrepancy can be explained by the questionable time gap between transcriptions. According to Project Gutenberg, the first volume was released on the platform on June 25, 2004; the second came less than a month later, on July 11, 2004. The third volume is available on Project Gutenberg, but it was released a decade later, on May 27, 2014. Furthermore, where the first two volumes are catalogued with multiple subject tags and LoC Class, the third volume has no tags and no categorization. Some metadata is listed, but the text itself has been excluded from search tags.

Such omissions are interesting because, to reiterate, the third volume added a host of new poems and material, including original compositions by Scott. While the volume may not contain Scott's most celebrated works, the poems within the Minstrelsy have always been well-regarded, reviewed positively in his time and in ours. So why are the first two volumes privileged in this manner? It is not as if these transcriptions came from the two-volume first edition. All three volumes were copied from the same third-edition publication of the text. This edition was published in 1806, and the title of each volume describes the book as being one of three. While there is probably a simple explanation for its late transcription—lack of funding; somebody forgot; the book was misplaced—there is less explanation for why it is not tagged. For whatever reason this occurred, such treatment has affected almost every other plain text transcription available on the internet. This situation demonstrates that the process of digitizing texts can significantly alter the output, even if the intention is to produce a clean text. In this case, the temporal schism between the publication of the first two volumes and the third has influenced how the text is circulated online. This circulation not only reduces access to the third volume, but it has the effect of erasing the third volume, as its current digital presence is constrained by ten years of absence. The omitted metadata in the tagging also serve to obscure the text from public view because while the text is now hosted on Project Gutenberg, it is not searchable in the same way that the first two volumes are. By searching "Scottish Songs and Music," readers are directed to two sources only: the first and second volumes of the Minstrelsy. Someone searching this term would not be directed to the third volume, as they would be for the first and second. In this way, the digital edition is shaped by its circumstantial parameters, which are hidden within the administrative mechanisms of data entry and uploading. Such decisions may attempt to preserve the text, but they cause palpable ripples through the formation, reception, and circulation of the text's digital reincarnation.

There are non-Gutenberg transcriptions, but they suffer from similar problems. There is a version found on ProQuest's Literature Online (which requires institutional access), but this text has notable discrepancies as well. For instance, while it does date the Minstrelsy correctly as an 1802 publication, it misattributes the author as "Maitland, Richard, Sir, 1496-1586." Furthermore, despite claiming to be a full text taken from the first edition, none of the critical material is included. Like the Noyes version, only the poems remain. Somebody, at some point in this transcription, removed those notes. Additionally, Electric Scotland has a plain text version of the first volume taken from an 1881 edition, but the introduction is written by an unknown source. Electric Scotland does preserve the historical criticism of Scott, and it hosts PDF scans of the fifth edition for all three volumes. Yet, once again, almost no metadata about the book is provided.

Thus the same editorial decisions are being repeated on the digital stage. There are those with Scott's critical notes; there are those without. Certain volumes are privileged; certain roles are obscured. What can be said is that the internet has produced a number of outright errors in the presentation of this text and that no critical edition exists. This is problematic if only because the hybridity of the Minstrelsy is further obfuscated and, one could argue, even concealed. These plain text transcriptions still contain particular choices in their presentation, despite the intention to replicate the copy text. Rather than a significant alteration of the text, what appears to have emerged is an inattention towards the metadata. This is surprising, considering Scott's attentive and almost obsessive desire to catalogue and contextualize these poems through his introductions, footnotes, endnotes, essays, and other supplementary materials. If one considers the relationships typically associated with the Minstrelsy — locality and nation, orality and print, poetry and historiography — the distinctive characteristics of the text are muted when transported online in this way. As these are not critical editions, those who transcribed these clean-texts have not explained these choices, and in some way, these texts are thus each represented as the "Minstrelsy" despite the fact that there are uncredited omissions in their transcriptions. By presenting these as clean-text copies, they represent the text not as a version of the fluid text but as a faithful reproduction of a fixed copy-text. In these subtle ways, the Minstrelsy is transformed from its original, fluid antiquarian blend of ancient and modern into a stabilized but denuded edition that presents the Minstrelsy as fixed within a particular historical moment, be it that of the ancient poems or that of Scott's presentation of those poems.


In December 2016, the first modern critical edition of Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border will be released. The Edinburgh Edition of Walter Scott's 'Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border', headed by Sigrid Rieuwerts, has been in production for many years. The project's website describes its aim to "include the literary and antiquarian ferment that surrounded Scott's creative genius and the cultural memory that transmitted the ballads from generation to generation" and calls the edition a "historical critical edition" (Walter Scott Minstrelsy Project). Such terms seem promising in preserving both the literary and historiographical elements of the text. One may hope too that this edition will synthesis the multiple frameworks of the Minstrelsy.

Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border demonstrates the tenuous ontology of text and genre while pushing us to question how such questions will translate to the digital stage. These overlapping modes can be difficult to handle, especially considering the fluctuating structure, text, and form of the Minstrelsy. While there are recognizable elements within these different editions, the idea of the fixed text is challenged by the Minstrelsy's multiple representations in the last two centuries. Scott himself kept editing the text, and it is not surprising that editors have continued this tradition, although the disagreement over the value of his critical notes continues to affect transcriptions and editions of the text. If we cannot locate the role of Scott within the text (editor, compiler, collector, poet) and if the genre still defies prescriptive associations (history, literature, ethnography, and so on), editors will continue to play a formative role in the construction of the Minstrelsy. This itself is not a bad or surprising acknowledgment, although, as digital editions demonstrate, editors should be clear in their goals of representation and reproduction. What these editions do prove, however, is that one should consider how the editorial history of a work — whether it is Scott's editions or any of the subsequent editions — affects the circumstance and reading of its historiographical, historicist, literary, and cultural situations.

Works Cited

Cited Editions of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (Arranged by Date)

Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. 1st ed. Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1802. Vol. 1-2

Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1803.Vol. 1-3

Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. 3rd ed. Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1806. Vol 1-3.

Lockhart, John Gibson, ed. The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott, Comprising Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border ... etc. etc. etc. Philadelphia: E. L. Carey and A. Hart, 1839.

Henderson, T.F, ed. Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Son, 1902.

Noyes, Alfred, ed. The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border: Collected by Sir Walter Scott. New York: F.A. Stokes Co, 1913.

Miscellanies and Collections, 1750-1900: Minstrelsy of the Scottish border. 1802. Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1992. English Poetry Full-Text Database.

Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. 1806. Vol. 1 Project Gutenberg, 2004. < >

Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. 1806. Vol. 2. Project Gutenberg, 2004. <>

Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. 1806. Vol. 3. Project Gutenberg, 2014. <>

Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. 1821. 5th ed. Electric Scotland: Simon Fraser University <>

Rieuwerts, Sigrid, ed. The Edinburgh Edition of Walter Scott's 'Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2016.


Burne, Charlotte S. "Review." Folklore 13.4 (1902): 433–435.

Grierson, Herbert, ed. The Letters of Sir Walter Scott. Vol. 1. London: Constable, 1932-37.

Leerssen, Joep. ‘Ossian and the Rise of Literary Historicism,' in The Reception of Ossian in Europe, ed. Howard Gaskill. London: Continuum, 2004: 109-125.

Lockhart, John Gibson. Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott. Paris: A. and W. Galignani and Co, 1837.

McLane, Maureen N. "The Figure Minstrelsy Makes: Poetry and Historicity." Critical Inquiry 29.3 (2003): 429–452.

McNeil, Kenneth. "Ballads and Borders." Edinburgh Companion to Sir Walter Scott, ed. Fiona Robertson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012: 22-34.

Piper, Andrew. "Processing." Dreaming in Books: The Making of the Bibliographic Imagination in the Romantic Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009: 85-120.

Rieuwerts, Sigrid, ed. Walter Scott Minstrelsy Project. <>

"The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border." Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia. 5 March 2016. Web.

Trumpener, Katie. Bardic Nationalism: the Romantic Novel and the British Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.