THE Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch are to fund the world's biggest book award for historical fiction, The Scotsman can reveal.
The Walter Scott Prize, named after the founding father of the historical novel, will be worth 25,000 to the winner – making it one of the top six annual literary awards in Britain. Two of these will now be decided north of the Border.
Although the Walter Scott Prize will be open to all historical novelists living in the UK, it will be firmly based in Scotland. All shortlisted authors will be invited to the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, which will also organise the awards ceremony at Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott's former home.
The duke, who set up the prize to celebrate his family's close links with Scott, hopes that the award will boost the fundraising campaign to restore Abbotsford to its former glory.
"I see the new award and the restoration of Scott's house as being closely linked," he said yesterday. "I believe that Scott as a figure of international renown offers a huge and hitherto untapped potential for the economic and cultural life of the Borders."
The Abbotsford project was boosted last month by a 1.5 million grant from Scottish Borders Council towards a 10m plan to repair and refurbish Scott's former home. If a Heritage Lottery Fund application is successful, organisers hope to have this completed, along with a new visitor centre, caf and car park, by 2012.
Establishing the Walter Scott Prize also reflected his family's deep friendship with the author, the Duke of Buccleuch said, pointing out that Scott was a confidant of three of his ancestors. "On top of this, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border was dedicated to the third duke, and The Lay of the Last Minstrel inspired by the death of the fourth duke's wife."
The prize is the brainchild of Alistair Moffat, director of the Borders Book Festival.
"I've always argued that Melrose was a natural home for a book festival, not least because the world's first bestselling author lived just up the road at Abbotsford," he said. "I'm delighted that, thanks to the Duke of Buccleuch's generosity, we are now able to bring the historical novel back home.
"Given that popular historical fiction started on our doorstep with Scott, it has long seemed odd to me that, unlike America, we in Britain had no literary award for it.
"Historical fiction regularly leads the bestseller charts. It is not only hugely popular but includes works of enormous craft and imagination. All six novels shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, for example, were works of historical fiction, and at least 12 of their winners over the last 40 years have been too."
Defining a historical novel is harder than it might at first appear. Clearly there has to be some cut-off point in the past, otherwise a novel set just a year or so back could qualify. But where to draw the line?
For guidance, the organisers used the subtitle of Scott's Waverley – "'Tis Sixty Years Since". To be eligible for the prize, a novel has to be mostly set at least 60 years before publication, which effectively means that the events described would be beyond the author's experience as a mature adult.
On these terms, for example, a novel such as Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, set in 1949, would – only just – qualify, whereas Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, set in 1963, would not.
The Walter Scott Prize will be the fifth largest annual fiction prize in the UK after the Man Booker, the Orange and the Costa Book of the Year award. The winner's award equals that of the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Scottish Book of the Year award – which will also be awarded at this year's Borders Book Festival in June.
This year's winners will be decided by a panel of judges including the Duchess of Buccleuch, the children's writer Elizabeth Laird, The Scotsman's chief fiction reviewer Allan Massie, and Gavin Wallace, head of literature at the Scottish Arts Council.
WHAT kind of novel will win the inaugural Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction?
Alistair Moffat, the man whose idea the whole thing is, says: "What the new historical fiction is doing is to slake some of that thirst for an understanding of the past, as well as putting it in a new perspective."
As an example, he cites Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which reimagines the English Reformation through the eyes of the man charged with pushing it through.
"There are many others – Robert Harris Lustrum, for example, which transposes modern politics into Cicero's Rome. Or AS Byatt's The Children's Story, piecing together the madly innocent idealism of 1880s Britain.
So who should the bookies make as favourite? He's not saying. But asked for his pick of 2009's best books, he described Wolf Hall as "the best Booker winner for years".
If there's one book to beat for the first Walter Scott award, it's surely this one.
David Robinson: Historical fiction was born here, and the world is richer for it