I had to read Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe at school and vowed never to open one of his books again. So what am I doing visiting Abbotsford, his house in the Scottish Borders? It’s re-opened to the public after a refurbishment (the Queen did the honors on July 4th 2013) and it’s only a slight detour on our route home from Edinburgh where, on Princes Street, a tall, gothic structure pays homage to his memory.
In the visitor center, the smell of home baking tempts us into the restaurant where we indulge ourselves with the best fruit scones, jam and clotted cream we’ve tasted in a while. Thus fortified, we wander through the exhibition of his life and works.
The first thing that strikes me is his appearance. In his portrait, he looks very modern, he’s clean-shaven, unusual in gentlemen of that era, and he seems friendly, nothing like the stern old pen-pusher I’d imagined at school. His old black coat is on show, the right hand cuff worn and ink-stained from the many hours he spent writing.
In Your Bucket Because…
- He established the genre of the historical novel.
- Although out of favor now, he was the JK Rowling of his day.
- He was responsible for creating a romantic view of Scotland — all tartan and mists and Braveheart.
- Good for families and lovers of history and literature and scones with clotted cream.
Sir Walter Scott: A Brief Bit on his Life and Not-so-Brief Works
Sir Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh in 1771, though for health reasons (he had polio) he spent much time at his grandparents in the Borders where he soaked up tales of Borders history, cross-border raids and general derring-do.
He qualified as a lawyer, following his father before him, and became Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire in 1799, dividing his time between Edinburgh and the Borders. He began collecting the songs and ballads of the area and published them in 1802. Then he turned his hand to poetry, writing several long poems such as Marmion and The Lady of the Lake, which proved extremely popular and brought him into contact with some of the literary greats of the time such as Byron.
Then came the novels; Waverley, Rob Roy, Heart of Midlothian, the Bride of Lammermoor and many, many more.
He was the first writer to use literary agents to sell his work to publishers and they secured a considerable amount of money for him. His books were the best-sellers of the day and once uncovered as their author, Walter Scott was feted everywhere and met the great names of the age including the Prince Regent, who knighted him in 1818.
The money was used to build Abbotsford on the banks of the river Tweed. However, the recession of the 1820s caused his publisher to go bankrupt and Walter Scott was left with debts totaling £126,000 (about $15 million in today’s money). He only just avoided bankruptcy himself by persuading creditors to let him write his way out of debt. By his death in 1832, he had cleared half of the debt and the rest was paid by the sale of the copyright of his books.
A Tour of Abbotsford
In the entrance hall we choose an audio guide – mine purports to be Sir Walter himself leading us around his house. There is even one for children of his dog and cat showing the way. Scott was a great collector of anything and everything and the entrance hall is where much of it is displayed ; suits of armor, weapons of all descriptions, skulls, both animal and human and coats of arms of all the families he was related to.
My favorite room is his study where he wrote his way out of debt. It’s a small room lined with books from floor to ceiling, almost 2000 of them arranged alphabetically according to subject. These were the reference books that informed his writing. His desk is there and his battered old leather armchair. A narrow mezzanine around the room is reached by an even narrower staircase. In a corner of it, a door leads upstairs to his bedroom — an escape route if unwanted visitors were to arrive.
In the library, a magnificent room with a bow window overlooking the meadows down to the banks of the river Tweed, is the remainder of his collection of books – a further 7000 of them, all of which he arranged in subject groups. They are still in the places he allocated them. He read widely; history, of course, and also witchcraft and the occult, books from his childhood, and cheap chapbooks sold on Edinburgh streets. In here too, is the bust of Scott, watching benevolently as his visitors wander around.
The drawing room with its colorful Chinese wallpaper was the domain of his wife and daughters and here they entertained their visitors including William Wordsworth and Washington Irving. His eldest daughter, Sophia, played the harp and sang and many a convivial evening was had there.
We walk around the dining room whose most recent VIP was the Queen, who lunched here. It was also the room where Sir Walter Scott died in 1832, beside the window overlooking his beloved Tweed.
I take my leave of Sir Walter with a greater appreciation of the man and his talents. Who knows, I may even read one of his books after all.
Abbotsford lies 35 miles south of Edinburgh and is best reached by car. As well as the house and visitor center, there are walks through the extensive grounds and a children’s play park. A picnic area is provided near the banks of the river Tweed. There are good facilities for disabled visitors.