Background

  • The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was founded in 2010 by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and Alistair Moffat, the Chair of Judges. Born from a desire to mark the very great achievements of their distant kinsman, Sir Walter Scott, the Duke and Duchess wanted to celebrate the new resurgence of the genre he created.

Historical fiction was dominating both the bestseller lists and the review pages, and indeed in the year of its formation the Prize was won by the bestselling historical novel of many years, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Hilary Mantel said of winning the Prize in 2010:

“This has been an interesting year for writers and readers of the historical novel – perhaps a turning point year. The genre that Sir Walter established has had mixed fortunes, even in my reading lifetime. It has been deeply unrespectable. But a genre doesn’t need respectability so much as it needs vitality. This is what this prize will ensure. It will push writers on to explore the limits of technique and the limits of their influence, and will open up for readers, I hope, the treasures of the genre.”

The Duke and Duchess developed the Prize with Alistair Moffat, historian, writer and director of Borders Book Festival, which takes place in Melrose in the Scottish Borders. The Prize was conceived to award the very best work of fiction, published in the previous year in the UK, and set in the majority at least 60 years ago (echoing the subtitle of Sir Walter Scott’s famous book Waverley) and therefore outside the mature personal experience of the author. A panel of five Judges was convened, comprising writers, historians and cultural commentators, with Alistair Moffat as Chair. Unusually for a Book Prize, it had no overtly commercial sponsor, leading Hilary Mantel to further comment:

…”much the best thing that has happened for lovers of historical fiction is the founding of this prize. When I first heard of it I couldn’t quite believe it; it is such a startlingly generous and imaginative gesture, an appropriately old-fashioned act of patronage of the arts.”

The Prize is among the richest UK book prizes, with a total value of £30,000.  Shortlisted authors receive £1,000 each, and are offered the opportunity to stay in the writer’s retreat Lodge on the Hebridean Isle of Jura, courtesy of the Borders Book Festival sponsors Jura Whisky.

Duke and Duchess with prizewinning book Wolf Hall

The Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch with inaugural prizewinning book Wolf Hall

Winners of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction include Hilary Mantel, Andrea Levy, Sebastian Barry, Tan Twan Eng and Robert Harris. The Prize is judged every year in the Spring and a shortlist chosen in March or April. The winner is then announced and presented at a public event at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose in June. The Prize is unique amongst UK literary prizes in having a public, ticketed performance event as its prizegiving ceremony. Traditionally, extracts from the shortlisted books are read by a distinguished character actor during the event, and these have included Robert Powell and John Sessions.

In 2012 a new rule added the Commonwealth to the UK and Ireland as places of original publication. Since then the Prize has included books from Canada, Australia and New Zealand in its shortlists, and in 2013 the Prize was won by a Malaysian author living in South Africa, Tan Twan Eng. The author must write in English and be published first or simultaneously in the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth.

Timeline

2009   Prize conceived by Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and Alistair Moffat

2010   Inaugural prize awarded to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel at Abbotsford, Scott’s home in the Borders

2011     Second Walter Scott Prize awarded to The Long Song by Andrea Levy at Borders Book Festival, Melrose

2012    Commonwealth rule introduced. Third prize won by On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry

2013     Fourth prize won by The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

2014     Fifth Walter Scott Prize won by An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

2015      Longlist of 12 to be announced for the first time. Young Walter Scott Prize launched