As we reach the mid-point of our first full week on the road, (Wednesday September 5th), we continue to move eastward across the part of Scotland known as “the Borders”, and begin to leave Robbie Burns country behind.
We had a remarkably comfortable night’s sleep in our quirky room at the Neidpath Inn in Peebles, and once we were packed and ready to go, we sauntered downhill to a little coffee shop where breakfast was laid on for us, courtesy of the Inn. It was clearly a favorite of the locals, and the decor was flavored with an eclectic mix of old cameras, miscellaneous knick-knacks, and humerous sayings.
Mother Nature seemed to be on our side for the second day in a row, and while it was somewhat cloudy as we set off on our day’s travel’s, there was no rain in the forecast.
Our first stop on this day, was the magnificent home of Sir Walter Scott – Abbotsford House. Scott first built a small villa on this site, and in calling it Abbotsford, he created the name from a ford nearby where abbots of Melrose Abbey used to cross the river. Scott’ fame after his death led to the name Abbotsford being used for cities in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States, as well as three London streets. Scott lived here from 1811 until his death in 1832.
Over the years, Scott built additions to the house and made it into a mansion, building into the walls many sculptured stones from ruined castles and abbeys of Scotland. In it he gathered a large library, a collection of ancient furniture, arms and armour, and other relics and curiosities, especially connected with Scottish history.
Calling Abbotsford House magnificent was no expression of hyperbole on my part. The splendour of the exterior speaks for itself, but the interior was equally as impressive. Stepping into the house, we were greeted by several delightful hosts, and in picking audio guides for our tour, Mary selected one that was delivered by a female narrator. I opted for an alternate version which featured an actor imagining himself as Sir Walter Scott, describing his home as if he were walking along side me.
The tour starts in the Entrance Hall where it is immediately apparent that Scott was as much of a collector of antiquities as he was a writer. The Entrance Hall shows the breadth of his interests. The fireplace (below) was carved by John Smith, a local builder responsible for much of the work at Abbotsford House, and it was inspired by the Abbott’s seat from Melrose Abbey. The grate had belonged to Archbishop Sharp, who was murdered by a band of Covenanters on May 3rd 1679; the first scene in Scott’s “Old Mortality” was set the very next day.
Elsewhere in the entrance hall, there were two sets of armor, casts of Saints Peter, Paul and Andrew, and oddities such as a set of keys that had once opened the doors of Edinburgh’s old prison. The carved oak walls had been made from pews from the ancient Abbey of Dunfermline.
Scott’s interest in heraldry and family history are clearly reflected by the presence of painted decorations representing each branch of Scott’s family. This included the shields of his ancestors that ran from one end of the room to the other, on the ceiling.
It was interesting to us, that although the Entrance Hall was the logical place to begin the tour, it was actually among the last of the interiors at Abbotsford to be completed.
Adjacent to the Entrance Hall was Scott’s Study, the very last room to be completed in 1824. Scott’s later novels were written here, but instead of this room being a source of inspiration and joy, it was in fact a space that he came to resent. Despite his enormous wealth, and worldwide fame, in 1826, the business operations of his publishers and printers collapsed during a recession, and Scott became saddled with a debt of £126,000. The bulk of this amount was not rightly his, but in an age before the laws of limited liability, he felt duly bound to pay for everything, rather than declare bankruptcy.
Scott was now obliged to write morning, noon and night declaring that “my time and talents need be focused on the production of literary work as may pay off my debts”. The task was monumental and it certainly affected his health. But, on he went until the debts were able to be cleared by the sale of new work and the sale of some copyrights not long after his death in 1832.
Once again illustrating the collecting side of Scott, the wooden box in the picture below was constructed from wood salvaged from the ship-wrecked galleon of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
The bookcases remain as they were during Scott’s time, and are filled with dictionaries, reference works, and books that he either collected during his travels, or received as gifts from visitors and friends. There is a small door in the back right corner of the room which led to a stair-case that allowed Scott to escape to his bedroom when he did not want to be set upon by visitors. It also allowed him to start writing in the “wee hours” of the morning, descending into his study without waking the rest of his household.
The room next to Scott’s study, was the Library, and this was a truly magnificent room.
It contains about 7,000 of the more than 9,000 books that Scott collected. As the “voice in my ear” told me “together, they form the raresr of survivals – a writer’s working library exactly as I laid it out myself”. The books reflect Scott’s wide-ranging interests.
The space above the bookshelves is covered in green cloth that are original from Scott’s time in the house. He apparently rued the waist of space (he thought he could have shelved more books), while at the same time remarking “the lives of worthies such as myself are too often closed by a fall from the steps of their own libraries”.
At one end of the room was a bust of Scott himself, but this was not a product of his own vanity. It was Walter Scott the younger, who brought it into the room after Scott’s death in 1832 and placed it in a position of honour. It supplanted a bust of Shakespeare that Scott had held in great reverence. The furniture in the room was a mix of antiques and custom-made pieces that Scott commissioned from local craftsmen, and those remain in place to this day.
Moving into the next room, we were struck by how bright and colourful it was compared to the more serious and “woody” rooms we had explored up to this point.
We were now in the drawing room, where evening leisure pursuits took place. When there were no guests, the ladies of the house would retire to this room for conversation, reading and needlework. At other times, Scott’s oldest daughter Sophia (said to be his favorite) would play the harp, as songs and musics were reportedly a favorite form of entertainment when the family was alone.
Scott had a liking for technology and fitted his home with many modern comforts of the day. Abbotsford House was one of the first buildings in Scotland to be lit by gas. It was generated by an on-site gas plant that was installed in the house in 1823. Scott was Chairman of the Edinburgh Oil and Gas Company and as such had access to cutting-edge expertise.
Mary was particular taken with the wallpaper that had been hand-painted in China and was a gift to Scott from a relative who worked for the East India Company. The portrait above the fireplace is of Scott hmself, painted in 1808 by Sir Henry Raeburn.
Exiting the drawing room, we found ourselves in the Armoury, a room that Scott was said to have often used as his private sitting room. When the house was first built, it was intended to be a sitting room for Lady Scott, but it never materialized as such, instead becoming pace where Sir Walter could display his fine collection of arms and armour.
Scoot reportedly knew the history of every piece he assembled in this room, but of greater interest to me were six bizarre gargoyles strategically placed around the edge of the ceiling.
They gave Scott great amusement, especially when he got to observe the reactions of those whom he brought into the room. The window at the far end of the room is where his gardener and faithful companion/servant Tom Brodie would come and persuade Scott that it was time to come outside and walk the gardens and “take a break from his work”.
The final stop on our tour was the dining room, the room in which Scott died on September 21st, 1832. He had returned to Abbotsford House after a year-long tour of Malta, Naples and Rome, and was gravely ill following a series of strokes.
A bed was made up for him in the dining room in view of his beloved River Tweed. Scott died in front of the window, surrounded by his family, on a beautiful autumn day. His biographer, and son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart noted “the sound he best loved, the gentle ripple of the Tweed over its pebbles, was distinctly audible as we sat with him, until he closed his eyes for the last time”.
The grounds themselves were almost as impressive as the house, and Mary and I enjoyed strolling among the plants, trees and flowers that even today are maintained by three full-time gardeners.
If it seems like I’ve a gone to a great deal of effort to describe and detail our visit to Abbotsford House, its because we were absolutely enthralled, entertained, and in awe of the magnitude of what Scott had assembled and built in his lifetime – and, the fact that so much of it remains exactly as it was!
In some writings, Scott has been referred to as the “first international superstar”, and its not difficult to see why. During his lifetime, which spanned from 1771 to 1832, he was a historical novelist, playwright, historian and poet. Many of his works remain classics of literature, with famous titles including Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Old Mortality, The Lady of the Lake, Waverley, and The Heart of Midlothian. His influence on other European and American novelists was immediate and profound, and his reputation remains secure for all time.
More on our adventures on this day to follow in a separate post.