Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2018
In August 1868, the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet William Bell Scott decided to propose an edition of the first Scottish dream-poem, the Kingis Quair, for publication. For several years, he had been decorating Penkill Castle in Ayrshire with a series of murals that depict key scenes from the poem. Each summer, beginning in June 1865, Scott visited the house, the home of the Boyd family, and continued this grand undertaking. The murals still survive today, but, as Scott was to discover, fresco painting in the Scottish climate presents a number of difficulties. Each summer when he returned to continue his work, he discovered that damp had permeated the thick walls of the castle, causing the murals to crumble away. After numerous attempts to remedy the pernicious effects of the climate, Scott was eventually forced to conclude that he was fighting a losing battle. He lamented, “I think the advantage of fresco is pretty much given up. I fancy we shall never take to fresco again in this country, unless it be on carefully prepared interior walls.”
A printed edition of the poem, then, accompanied by etchings produced in preparation for the frescoes, would provide a more lasting form of the images, placed alongside the context of the dream poem itself. Yet, in a twist of fate that will prove sadly familiar to many scholars, Scott found that he had been beaten to it. About to ask Walter Skeat for permission to view Skeat's revised version of the poem, Scott learned that the Scottish Texts Society was to publish it. Worse was to come. Scott's next idea was to produce a modernized version of the poem, believing that many potential readers of the poem were dissuaded by its linguistic and grammatical difficulty. Just as he had completed his task, a modernized version produced by William MacKean appeared in print (1886). Eventually, Scott resolved only to publish his etchings, alongside a brief, introductory essay. It is this privately printed volume that survives today. Scott's introductory essay to his etchings of the Kingis Quair conveys a sense of personal disappointment that his particular project failed to break new ground.