Abbotsford is a rather grand, gothic baronial house, just outside of Melrose in the Scottish Borders. It was built by Sir Walter Scott, the famed novelist, friend of Wordsworth and favourite of Queen Victoria.
It’s often said that Scott invented the idea of ‘Scottishness’, with his Romantic nostalgia for the Jacobite rebellion, with tartan clad warriors and windswept heroines, set against dramatic, highland landscapes. While I don’t think the identity of an entire nation is directly attributable to a single writer, his Romantic vision certainly chimes with our nostalgic view of Scotland.
Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh in 1771. He contracted polio as a toddler and was sent to live with his grandparents at Sandyknowe, where they owned a farm. He loved to hear tales of his Scottish past and was particularly fond of mythology and fairy tales. Little Wally loved the stories his grandfather told him and, from this early age, he was hooked.
Sandyknowe is not really on the road to anywhere now. You can see it (or rather, the tower on the hillside above it) rising above the surrounding landscape for miles around. If you want to take a look, the road goes through the farmyard, right past the front door of the farmhouse. The best view, however, is to be had from Smailholm tower, that looks down on the farm from the hill above. As we were traversing the country this summer, travelling from Alnwick to Dumfries, we detoured to take a look.
Scott knew the tower well as a child, describing it as “Standing stark and upright like a warden.” I wandered up to the tower for a better view. I say ‘wandered’ but my trip was anything but a casual stroll. There is a well-defined path leading up the hillside towards the tower and I followed it, through thistles and heather, to a sign, which clearly said “tower” above an arrow pointing to my right. Obviously, this was an error: the tower was clearly to my left, so I struck out leftward, wondering why someone had put a silly signpost on the path with the arrow pointing in the wrong direction.
A few steps later, I ran out of path and, a few steps after this, I ran out of ground. I gained access to the tower by hauling my not inconsiderable weight over the iron railings. having already shuffled along the tiny ledge outside the fence, millimetres from plummeting down the perilous drop and smashing into the rocks below. Finally back on terra firma, I had a magnificent view of the tower rising above me and the farm buildings – those Scott would have known as a child – clinging to the hillside below. I took in the view for a few minutes, getting my breath back until, eventually, I followed the lovely smooth and level path down the gentle hillside and back to the car park.
We had already stopped in Kelso, where Scott went to School. The building you can currently see, to one side of the churchyard, dates from 1878, a hundred years after Scott had attended, but a plaque still proudly proclaims Scott as an alumnus. There is a small enclosure at the side of the school, in which some of the Scott family are interred. He stayed in his aunt Janet’s house (across the car park from the school), which now carries a bust of the poet.
We stopped at a local landmark known as ‘Scott’s View’, more-or-less midway between Scott’s home at Abbotsford and his grave at Dryburgh. There was quite a crowd there: people chatting and laughing and getting in the way of a good photograph while they enjoyed Sir Walter Scott’s favourite view, over the river tweed to Melrose and the Eildon Hills. He stopped here so often that his horses began to halt of their own accord. They stopped again as they carried their master’s body to Dryburgh,to give him one last look. A soppy story, I know, probably not true but fittingly romantic.
Scott developed his reputation with verse romances, such as The Lay of the Last Minstrel: the story, in verse, of love between members of warring clans. He later began to tire of poetry, not because he couldn’t master the form but it was an age of poets: Byron, in particular, was enjoying celebrity status. Scott was finding it difficult to compete and, besides, his interests were leaning towards history, in particular the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. His novel, Waverley, was able to re-examine these events and explore a form of Scottishness that had long since disappeared. He had a large cast of supporting characters, from beggars to princes, and was able to bring them all to life with acutely observed accuracy. Waverley was an immediate bestseller and was followed by a whole series of novels.
Scott’s fascination with Scottish history also applied to his taste in architecture. He had Abbotsford built in the Scottish Baronial style, complete with pointed towers and ornate gables. What’s more, he was an inveterate collector of interesting objects, which he displayed prominently in his home
The entrance hall is absolutely stuffed with stuff: suits of armour, swords and shields line the dark wood panelled walls. There is a collection of animal skulls on the wall and, in pride of place on the mantle, the skull of Robert the Bruce. There is a study, complete with bust of Shakespeare and two levels of books, shelves groaning under the weight of leather-bound volumes. There is a music room, with two beautiful harps flanking the doorway and everywhere there is art: generations of the Scott family given pride of place. There is even an armoury, where even more weaponry, some of it of a very exotic nature, clothes the walls of the room. There are swords and shields, axes and halberds, kukuri and crossbows, muskets and arquebus.
By far the finest room is the library: books and paintings line the walls here too and, in the centre of the room, a glass-topped table. This contains treasures the like of which I have never encountered in a single place: a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair; Napoleon’s notebook; Byron’s wedding ring. The table is absolutely stuffed with interesting things. There are stories everywhere. There is the tale of the young bride who played hide and seek with her new husband by locking herself in a trunk and eagerly awaiting discovery, only to be discovered several years later. There is the door of Edinburgh jail, forming a secret entrance to Mrs. Scott’s bedroom, through which Sir Walter could visit her. Ask the staff to tell you any of these stories and they will be only too happy to oblige.
The grounds are lovely too. Mrs. P, who rarely has the energy for a house visit, does love to wander the gardens. The grounds here do not disappoint, with a walled garden with a perplexing array of plants and a lovely organic wilderness feel. There are three gardens: the South court, with circular lawn and sundial, a flower garden with rose bushes and colonnade, and a walled kitchen garden, where fruit and flowers compete for space in tightly packed beds. There is also a summer house undergoing restoration, with the promise that the house will develop and grow with future visits.
I met Mrs. P. for tea at the visitor centre, and a very quick look around as it was nearing closing time. There is an exhibition about Scott and his influence, with even more books, artefacts and curios. There was a decent bookshop and a wonderful array of gifts for sale. We bought some hand-made soap and a book of the sort that you only buy on holiday, in gift shops. The people that staffed Abbotsford were lovely. Not just helpful and pleasant but, as are many of the occupants of this part of the world, warm, nice people. Anything you ask for is “nae baether”, words sung to you in a beautiful, lyrical accent, much softer than in the big cities to the North.
We went on to stay in Melrose for the evening and were to experience more of this famous lowland hospitality. I chose the George and Abbotsford hotel as it was where Sir Walter would stay before Abbotsford was completed, sometimes entertaining his friends here. There is a story that, in 1803, Scott and Wordsworth arrived late having been caught in a storm. The hotel was busy and, not having enough free bedrooms for each of them, the two men had to share.
Tomorrow we would continue our trek across country and I was looking forward especially to Selkirk, where we would discover Scott’s other life, as Sheriff Depute of Selkirkshire.