This purse once belonged to Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), the Scottish historical novelist, playwright and poet whose compositions include Ivanhoe, the Lady of the Lake and Rob Roy. As well as the purse, here in the Library we have many of his works including a copy of the first edition of Halidon Hill (an historical poem about the battle of 1333) in its original wrappers and a rare early version of the first canto of The Lay of the Last Minstrel (a narrative verse romance).
The purse is engraved on the upper rim of the clasp with the words ‘The gift of the Author of Marmion, &c to A. Cunningham, the Purse which he wore on the 17th of August, 1810.’ The poem Marmion to which the engraving refers was written in 1808 and describes the Battle of Flodden fought between the English and the Scots in 1513. The poem enjoyed immediate popularity and contains the well-known lines: “Oh! what a tangled web we weave/When first we practise to deceive!”
The person to whom the purse was given was the Scottish poet and author, Allan Cunningham (1784-1842). Cunningham was born in rural Scotland and early in his career he collected and submitted a number of works for R. H. Cromek’s collection of ballads, Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, published in 1810. It later transpired that at least half of these poems were Cunningham’s own compositions. Encouraged by Cromek, Cunningham moved to London and, though trained as a stonemason, he worked in a variety of jobs including as a journalist and newspaper poet. In 1814, however, he was taken into the employment of the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey, a job which provided him with the opportunity to make many literary contacts. He continued to write prolifically in his spare time and amongst many titles he produced a play Sir Marmaduke Maxwell in 1820, a four volume collection entitled The Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern in 1825 and between 1829 and 1833 he produced his six volume work, Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects.
Cunningham’s connection with Scott began around the time of the publication of Marmion in 1808 when Cunningham walked the considerable distance from Nithsdale to Edinburgh simply to be able to catch a glimpse of the author. The two did not meet face-to-face until 1820 when Cunningham, acting on behalf of his employer Chantrey, visited Scott (who was in London to receive his baronetcy) to ask him to sit for a bust. Their association endured as Scott continued to advise Cunningham on his literary efforts and publicly praised Cunningham in the introductory epistle to his (Scott’s) 1822 work, Fortunes of Nigel. He also helped Cunningham to secure cadetships for two of his sons. Cunningham himself wrote a biography of Scott which was published after the older man’s death in 1832.
The purse was given to the Library by Revd William Cunningham (1849-1919), an economic historian, Trinity Fellow, rector of Great St Mary’s Cambridge and Archdeacon of Ely. The purse and works by Sir Walter Scott are currently on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours.