Lesson #255 (Part 1): A Look At Scott’s ‘Waverley’ (And How He Uses An Array of Sensory Words to Describe An Unforgettable Experience)

We are so used to having a wide range of historical fiction titles at our fingertips (accessible to us) that we sometimes forget there was once a writer who began to research and write such works.

Many scholars agree that Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish novelist and poet, was such a writer.

His 1814 classic Waverley, which we will be reading from in today’s lesson, was the first widely popular historical fiction novel in western literature. 📗

Sadly, it isn’t read as widely in our time, partly because readers assume (make a guess) that his writing is too dense and difficult to be understood …

All it takes is practice and a little patience!

✏️ I want to share one of the most picturesque passages from Waverley with you below. I will

  • Offer a brief overview of the novel’s main story
  • Together we will read a passage from the novel and address some key words in the vocabulary list
  • In Part 2 of this Lesson (see next post), we consider how many of the words used in this passage reflect one of the five senses (taste, touch, sight, hearing, or smell)
  • There will be one short practical exercise for you to try out at the end!

If this sounds daunting (scary or off-putting because it is difficult), don’t worry – everything you need to know is covered here, and as always, I can answer any specific question you have through my contact form here.


The novel is set around 1745, around sixty years before Scott actually wrote it. (Scott himself was born in 1771, so he relied on both his research and on meeting with anyone from that period who was still alive to help him write this novel more accurately).

It tells the story of a young English gentleman, Edward Waverley, who is granted an officer’s commission in his country’s army. He is sent up north to Scotland, where he meets with native Scottish groups, some living in remote, rural regions. Over time he comes to love and romanticise Scottish life and culture.

During this historical era (just before the Jacobite Rising of 1745), there was great political tension between the English and Scottish on the question of who had a right to the British throne. Edward Waverley soon finds himself in the difficult position of realising he is employed by one army when at heart (in all sincerity, deep within) he is drawn to fight on the other. The novel tells of this young man’s personal development and growth as he travels over different parts of Scotland and learns about the people. 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

In our passage today, he meets a young, spirited (full of energy, enthusiasm, and determination) woman called Flora MacIvor near a stream in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands. The scene evokes (reminds us of a feeling or sensory experience) the rugged (rough, untamed, natural) beauty of Scotland and of Flora as Edward Waverley listens to her singing a native song.


Paragraph 1

📗 Here, like one of those lovely forms which decorate the landscapes of Poussin, Waverley found Flora gazing on the waterfall. Two paces further back stood Cathleen, holding a small Scottish harp, the use of which had been taught to Flora by Rory Dall, one of the last harpers of the Western Highlands. The sun, now stooping in the west, gave a rich and varied tinge to all the objects which surrounded Waverley, and seemed to add more than human brilliancy to the full expressive darkness of Flora’s eye, exalted the richness and purity of her complexion, and enhanced the dignity and grace of her beautiful form. Edward thought he had never, even in his wildest dreams, imagined a figure of such exquisite and interesting loveliness. The wild beauty of the retreat, bursting upon him as if by magic, augmented the mingled feeling of delight and awe with which he approached her, like a fair enchantress of Boiardo or Ariosto, by whose nod the scenery around seemed to have been created an Eden in the wilderness.

– Walter Scott, Waverley; Or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since


Poussin: This refers to the French Baroque painter, Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665), who famously depicted (portrayed, painted) many rural landscapes in his day.

gazing: < to gaze: to look fixedly, with wonder or admiration, at something for a while.

Two paces: two footsteps – a pace being about the length of a stride or a long footstep.

the use of which … : This could be written as ‘the use of the small Scottish harp just mentioned …’ The whole sentence here (beginning with ‘Two paces further back …’) is written in the passive tense, which makes it more difficult to understand. If it could be rephrased in the active sense, it would probably read something like ‘Cathleen stood two further paces back, holding a small Scottish harp, which Rory Dall, one of the last harpers of the Western Highlands, had taught Flora to play.’

stooping: < to stoop: to bend low as if to meet the gaze or level of someone shorter

tinge: a trace of colour

brilliancy: the quality of being brilliant (full of sparkling bright light)

complexion: 1.The natural colour, texture, and appearance of someone’s face. 2. The general aspect or character of something (Oxford Languages Dictionary)

enhance: make richer; improve greatly

exquisite: 1. Extremely beautiful, delicate, and refined. 2. Intensely felt

augmented: < to augment: to make bigger in size or quality

mingled: mixed (usually used to describe mixed liquids, colours, emotions, or people mixing in a crowd)

awe: extreme and reverent wonder

enchantress: a female enchanter (someone who enchants or casts magic spells on another person)

Boiardo or Ariosto: famous Italian poets from the early Renaissance period who each wrote epic poems.

by whose nod: This metaphoric phrase simply means ‘by whose approval’ or ‘with their consent’

an Eden in the wilderness: According to Biblical sources, Eden was the first garden in the world. It symbolised perfection. This short phrase of Scott’s – ‘an Eden in the wilderness’ – also refers back to John Milton’s Paradise Regain’d (1671) which mentions how through Christ’s coming to earth ‘Eden [was] raised in the waste wilderness’.

Paragraph 2

📗 Flora, like every beautiful woman, was conscious of her own power, and pleased with its effects, which she could easily discern from the respectful yet confused address of the young soldier. But, as she possessed excellent sense, she gave the romance of the scene and other accidental circumstances full weight in appreciating the feelings with which Waverley seemed obviously to be impressed; and, unacquainted with the fanciful and susceptible peculiarities of his character, considered his homage as the passing tribute which a woman of even inferior charms might have expected in such a situation. She therefore quietly led the way to a spot at such a distance from the cascade that its sound should rather accompany than interrupt that of her voice and instrument, and, sitting down upon a mossy fragment of rock, she took the harp from Cathleen.

– Walter Scott, Waverley; Or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since


conscious: aware of

power: Here ‘power’ refers to Flora’s great influence.

effects: the results or evidence it produced

discern: to notice, distinguish, recognise

address: words or greetings addressed to (directed to) another person

possessed: had, owned

full weight: full value or worth

unacquainted: not acquainted, not familiar with

fanciful: full of fancy or imaginative ideas or thoughts

susceptible: vulnerable

peculiarities of his character: the unique, sometimes unusual or strange, aspects of his character

homage: great honour shown to a sovereign (a majestic authority or person)

tribute: a token, a small gift, offering, or something due, given in acknowledgement of another person’s goodness or greatness

charms: qualities that make a person attractive and charming

cascade: a river’s rapid overflow or waterfall

mossy: having moss (a soft green or brown growth that covers rocks and other natural surfaces)

fragment: a small piece of something that is normally larger (like stone, cloth, or something more abstract like a speech)

Paragraph 3

📗 “I have given you the trouble of walking to this spot, Captain Waverley, both because I thought the scenery would interest you, and because a Highland song would suffer still more from my imperfect translation were I to introduce it without its own wild and appropriate accompaniments. To speak in the poetical language of my country, the seat of the Celtic Muse is in the mist of the secret and solitary hill, and her voice in the murmur of the mountain stream. He who woos her must love the barren rock more than the fertile valley, and the solitude of the desert better than the festivity of the hall.”

– Walter Scott, Waverley; Or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since


scenery: the natural appearance of a landscape that is considered appealing or picturesque

Celtic: relating to native people groups – the Celts – or their language, mostly coming from Ireland, parts of England, Scotland, and Wales

Muse: an inspirational spirit, especially one who inspires someone to write poetry

mist: a light and damp kind of fog or haze, especially as one finds in the early morning or evening

solitary: lonely, something that describes the state of being alone (usually in a negative way)

murmur: a low reverberating sound, such as a mumbling (for example, when one is complaining) or a soft whispering sound

stream: a small, narrow flow or river

woos: < to woo: to court someone, to try to win someone’s (usually a woman’s) favour, esteem, and affection before proposing marriage

barren: 1. unable to have children or offspring; infertile (not fertile – see below). 2. desolate, dry, bleak, and lifeless

fertile: 1. able to have many children or offspring. 2. producing much vegetation, growth, etc.

valley: a low stretch of land between two hills, mountains, or highland passages; a vale.

desert: a wide tract or region that is completely dry, barren, and usually covered with sand.

festivity of the hall: This is a poetic phrase Scott uses to describe the celebrations or festivities associated with indoor life, especially the kind of life lived in a castle or nobleman’s hall (a long room for receiving and entertaining guests).

Paragraph 4

📗 Few could have heard this lovely woman make this declaration, with a voice where harmony was exalted by pathos, without exclaiming that the muse whom she invoked could never find a more appropriate representative. But Waverley, though the thought rushed on his mind, found no courage to utter it. Indeed, the wild feeling of romantic delight with which he heard the few first notes she drew from her instrument amounted almost to a sense of pain. He would not for worlds have quitted his place by her side; yet he almost longed for solitude, that he might decipher and examine at leisure the complication of emotions which now agitated his bosom.

– Walter Scott, Waverley; Or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since


declaration: a statement that has been said aloud

harmony: the pleasing, connected, and coherent quality of music – this is sometimes extended to describe peaceful relations between members of a group, for example.

pathos: a sad, melancholic, or pitiful quality in something or some situation

exclaiming: < to exclaim: to say with excitement or surprise, usually in a raised voice

invoked: < to invoke: to invite a God, spirit, or another authoritative figure to give help or attention [to someone] in a particular situation

representative: someone who represents another (usually greater) being or person

utter: to say, especially in a low voice as if under one’s breath

the first few notes she drew from her instrument: the first few notes that she was able to ‘bring out’ or play on her instrument

amounted: < to amount to: to add up to (a greater sum)

for worlds: for all that many worlds together could offer

quitted his place: < to quit a place: to leave a place, especially abruptly

longed: < to long for: to desire for something earnestly and heartily

solitude: the positive quality or state of being alone

decipher: to figure something difficult out (such as a mathematical problem, for example)

at leisure: in his own time and given his own free space (to explore)

complication: something that is difficult because it is messed up with many other things at the same time

agitated: < to agitate: to create stress, nervousness, and fear in someone or something

bosom: the breast, usually used in poetic language.

Paragraph 5

📗 Flora had exchanged the measured and monotonous recitative of the bard for a lofty and uncommon Highland air, which had been a battle-song in former ages. A few irregular strains introduced a prelude of a wild and peculiar tone, which harmonised well with the distant waterfall, and the soft sigh of the evening breeze in the rustling leaves of an aspen, which overhung the seat of the fair harpress.

– Walter Scott, Waverley; Or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since


exchanged: < to exchange: to give or take something in place of something else

measured: (adjective) 1. with a slow and regular rhythm 2. restrained and careful

monotonous: repetitive; (especially when describing a voice or speech) lacking dynamism or interesting variety

recitative: (Music) a type of singing that is more like a speech than a song, and is commonly found in operas or oratoria as a narrative section

bard: a poet, songwriter, and musician, who often composed and sang narrative songs associated with certain cultural oral traditions. For example, Homer, the ancient poet and musician, was sometimes called ‘the blind bard’.

lofty: describing something that is high and imposing

air: (Music) a song

former: earlier or previous

strains: distinct melodies or sections of a musical piece

prelude: a musical or literary introduction

tone: a steady, periodic sound in music, which has duration, pitch, intensity (loudness), and timbre (quality). Sometimes also written as musical tone.

sigh: a deep audible exhalation (letting out) of air from the lungs, that usually expresses either sadness, tiredness, or relief.

breeze: a light and fresh flow of wind

rustling: making a low, crackling sound as if moving dry leaves or pieces of paper about.

aspen: a kind of deciduous tree common in the British Isles with a white bark, delicate branches, and golden leaves. It is well-known to have fluttering golden leaves in autumn that, to quote the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, ‘quiver’ spectacularly.

overhung: hung over, covered (something)

harpress: a woman or girl who plays the harp

Head over to Part 2 of this Lesson to see how our vocabulary list actually reflects many of the five senses. This second part is both short and sweet!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)