‘A vast o’ bits o’ stories’: Shortreed, Laidlaw and Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border


Editing the ballad collection Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–3), Scott sought to salvage and preserve the cultural memory of the Border region, rescuing “popular superstitions, and legendary history, which, if not now collected, must soon have been totally forgotten” (Scott, 1802: 1, cix). As much was brought to his attention through his extensive network of contributors as was gleaned from his own antiquarian study and capacious memory. This paper examines the role of Scott’s friendships with Robert Shortreed of Jedburgh (1762–1829) and William Laidlaw of Blackhouse farm, Yarrow (1779–1845). Although the two men are largely unacknowledged within the Minstrelsy itself, both Shortreed and Laidlaw provided Scott with significant assistance before and after the publication of the first edition. While Shortreed introduced Scott to the remote corners of Roxburghshire during the so-called “Liddesdale Raids” of the 1790s, Laidlaw was a prolific collector of ballads in Selkirkshire during the early 1800s. The memoirs of the two men, combined with extant correspondence and historical evidence concerning the families, provide fascinating insights into the social networks of the area as well as the cultural contexts surrounding the Minstrelsy’s creation. This paper examines what the Shortreed and Laidlaw families can reveal about Border life at the turn of the nineteenth century, and assesses the place of the Minstrelsy ballads in the contemporary cultural memory of the region.