Sir Walter Scott
Sir Walter Scott was born on 15 August, 1771, in Edinburgh but lived in the Borders for much of his life. A lawyer, an author and a poet his most famous works include Waverley, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian and Ivanhoe. Described as “a born storyteller who could place a large cast of vivid and varied characters in an exciting and turbulent historical setting”. He is seen as a key figure in the development of the modern historical novel and did much to create the historically romantic image of Scotland enjoyed by the Victorians and later generations. His home was Abbotsford House where he wrote his novels and poetry until his death in 1832.
He purchased the farm and farmhouse, then known as Cartleyhole, in 1811, nicknamed Clarty (i.e., muddy) Hole. The name Abbotsford came from a ford nearby where previously abbots of Melrose Abbey used to cross the river. A few years later he extended the farmhouse to the southwest, but in 1821-2 he called in architect William Atkinson to completely redesign the house. The farmhouse was completely demolished, and a new, much larger house begun, in a new architectural style create by Scott that would later be termed Scots baronial. Abbotsford was the very first house in Scotland to install gas lighting.
The original ‘new’ building (now Grade 1 Listed) forms the core of Abbotsford House, where Scott lived and worked until his death in 1832. He called it ‘the Dalilah of his imagination’, his ‘Conundrum Castle’ and his ‘flibbertigibbet of a house’ that would ‘suit none but an antiquary’. In the house he gathered a large library, a collection of ancient relics, furniture, arms and armour, and other curiosities, connected with Scottish history.
Scots Baronial – a new style of architecture
So popular was Scott as a writer that his new house set a fashion for architecture that would influence Scottish buildings throughout the 19th century. Scott looked far and wide across Scotland for decorative elements to embellish his house; he rescued architectural fragments from houses, and took casts from existing houses to create copies that reflected Scotland’s architectural heritage. The result was a very ‘Scottish’ building, not just inspired by Scotland’s heritage but, also containing pieces from a variety of dwellings across the country. For example the doorway of the old Tolbooth in Edinburgh and the “jougs” from Threave Castle in Dumfries and Galloway (which are attached to the castellated gateway). The popularity of the house led to the Abbotsford style being copied and many came to see this new style of Scots architecture – Scots Baronial. Queen Victoria stayed at Abbotsford on her first trip to Scotland and was so influenced by Scott’s home that that she remodelled Balmoral Castle in the same style.
The house seems emptier than I remember from visiting it, as a schoolgirl. Gone are the handwritten labels to be replaced with more explanation but perhaps less charm. But you will be charmed by the remarkable story of the man, his works and his influence today on Scotland.
The Entrance Hall and Armoury
The entrance hall is truly impressive – a richly decorated chamber with oak panelling rescued from the old church in Dunfermline, decorated with armour and booty from the Battle of Waterloo. The Armoury, designed by Scott and unaltered since 1818, displays swords and guns, including a blunderbuss used by Scott himself, Rob Roy’s broadsword, and the keys to Lochleven Castle, tossed into the loch after Mary, Queen of Scots escaped from her island prison.
Dining Room and Chinese Drawing Room
Scott took a hand in designing the Dining Room, with its panelled ceiling and elegant plasterwork. It was here in that he died in 1832. The Chinese Drawing Room is a beautifully decorated Oriental chamber with early 18th century Chinese wall paper (a gift from his cousin, who worked for the East India Company).
Scott’s library contains 7,000 books, in 17 different languages, covering folklore, history, travel, witchcraft, and more. Scott was an avid reader and used his book collection for inspiration – many have annotations in his handwriting. In the nearby study where he created his literary classics, another 2000 books line the walls, along with his writing desk and chair. A second chair is the Robroyston Chair, made from wood rescued from the house where William Wallace was betrayed and captured (Memoirs of Sir Walter Scott, Volume 3).
But Scott would not have recognised the beautiful little Chapel, built in 1855 by his granddaughter Charlotte, after she and her husband converted to Catholicism.
There are three main garden areas at Abbotsford; a walled garden, formal entrance courts (planted after his death), and a woodland, with walking trails. Leading off the walled garden, with its orangery designed by Scott, is the Morris garden, named for a character from the novel Rob Roy. In the centre is a stone basin upon a plinth; this came from the Tolbooth in Edinburgh, where in 1660, it was famously filled with wine so that people could drink to the Restoration of Charles II to the throne. The gardens are wonderful and whatever you do, take a walk down to the magnificent River Tweed.
£10 million debt
Scott had only enjoyed his new home for one year when in 1826 his business publisher (Constable and Ballantyne) and business partner fell into into debt. Though not personally responsible, Scott took it upon himself to repay his partner’s creditors – £126,000, equivalent to around £10million today. He worked tirelessly, writing book after book in his wood-panelled study, and ruining his health in the process, in order to pay off the debts of his publisher.
As a schoolgirl I used to walk past a plaque on the Melrose Road every day that read:
At this spot on his pathetic journey from Italy home to Abbotsford and his beloved borderland Sir Walter Scott gazing on this scene for the last time sprang up with a cry of delight.
July 11th 1832 Lockhart Chap 18.
He died 2 months later on 21 Sep 1832.
In 1830 the library and museum were presented to him as a free gift by the creditors. In 1847 Robert Cadell, the publisher, cancelled the remaining debt upon Abbotsford in exchange for the family’s share in the copyright of Sir Walter’s works.
Work continued on the building following Scott’s death in September 1832. The house was opened to the public in 1833, but continued to be occupied by Scott’s descendants until 2004.
The Abbotsford Trust
The Abbotsford Trust was formed in 2007 following the death of Dame Jean Maxwell-Scott (his great-great-great-granddaughter) in 2004, the last of his descendants to live in the house. She inherited it from her elder sister Patricia in 1998. The sisters turned the house into one of Scotland’s premier tourist attractions after they had to rely on paying visitors to afford the upkeep of the house. Electricity was only installed in the house in 1962.
In 2012, a new Visitor Centre opened at Abbotsford which houses a small exhibition on the life and works of Sir Walter Scott, the story and development of the house, a gift shop and Ochiltree’s Dining, a cafe/restaurant with views over the house and grounds. In 2014 it won the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award for its recent conservation project. Visits to the house are by guided tour. Entry fees apply for the house and garden.
Abbotsford’s Hope Scott Wing provides luxury accommodation (for up to 14 people) and a unique opportunity to experience the splendour of the surroundings that proved such an inspiration to Scott throughout his long and illustrious career. The Hope Scott Wing retains the intimacy and integrity of what was the private home of Scott, his granddaughter Charlotte Hope Scott and her descendants, while introducing all the essentials of modern-day comfort.
How to Get There
Abbotsford House, near Melrose, TD6 9BQ
Grid Reference: NT508342
Phone: 01896 752 043
If driving you will find Abbotsford House, 2 miles SE Galashiels, near Melrose, off the A72/A6091 on the B6360 by the River Tweed. There is large car park (suitable for a wide variety of vehicles), with a path down to the Visitor Centre. Tweedbank railway station is nearby and you can walk along a signposted path from the station to Abbotsford House.