Tam's Tales

- Abbotsford - A Living Link with a Literary Giant


Breathes there the man, with soul so dead
Who never to himself has said
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart has never within him burn'd
As home his footsteps he has turn'd
From wandering on a foreign strand!

From The Lay of the Last Minstrel
By Sir Walter Scott

Visiting Abbotsford
I suppose that one of the tests of whether a visit has been a success is whether you would like to repeat the experience. I can hardly wait to return to the Borders and back to Abbotsford. It was a wonderful afternoon and has whetted my appetite to explore the area more fully.

Abbotsford scores highly on a number of fronts. Some Scottish country houses are set in beautiful locations; others can be architecturally interesting and a few have an association with a significant historical character. Abbotsford has it all. The Borders home build by Sir Walter Scott is a gem. It has the distinction of being of the first in the 'Scotch baronial' style, which incorporates lots of towers and makes the mansion look as if it could be fortified. It is located hard by the Tweed in one of the Borders' lushest and most beautiful parts and it bears the hallmark of one of Scotland' literary giants in every nook and cranny.

Sir Walter Scott and Abbotsford

Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832) was closely involved in the design of Abbotsford, assisted by a local architect and builder. This intimate association with 'the Wizard of the North' brings the interior of the building to life. You can see the desk on which he wrote his novels and the tiny spectacles he used. There is a display cabinet with his hat, shoes gloves and a pair of his trousers with the distinctive black and white check that he favoured.

Scott was a collector on a grand scale and Abbotsford houses a treasure trove of his possessions. His interest in the military is evident in a large collection of swords, armour and firearms. Scott said, "I am quite feverish about the armoury. I have swords and poniards without end and about a dozen guns, ancient and modern." My own favourite was Scott's own blunderbuss which has an inscription on its muzzle: "When rogues appear, my voice you will hear."

I was also intrigued by a writing case that Napoleon might have abandoned at Waterloo and an elaborate crucifix supposedly used by Mary Queen of Scots prior to her execution.

The library reflects Scott's interest in a vast range of subjects and amounts to 9,000 books. In 1839 Scott's son executed a legal arrangement - 'an entail' - which lasted until 1954 when the library passed into the ownership of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh. The collection is now managed by a partnership between the Faculty, a group of Scottish universities and the National Library and there are plans to increase public access to the collection which includes many very rare and extremely valuable books. In addition to many learned documents, there is a collection of popular publications of sensational subjects as well as many books on witchcraft and the supernatural, which was of particular interest to Sir Walter.

One of the most poignant parts of the house is the dining room. When it became apparent that the author was dying he asked that he should be moved to that room with its outlook on to the garden and the Tweed. It remains a lovely room.

The Garden and the River
Our visit ended with a visit to the beautifully maintained garden and a brief stroll along the banks of the Tweed. It was a lovely afternoon in every sense and a reminder of the energy and intellect of Sir Walter Scott. His presence remains in contemporary Scotland, from Waverley Station and the Scott Monument in Edinburgh through to a range of buildings in the baronial style. Many of his novels and poetry remain in print.

The fact that Abbotsford remains a vibrant and well-maintained house owes much to the extraordinary dedication of two sisters who ran the house and grounds for fifty years. Patricia and Jean Maxwell-Scott were the chatelaines of Abbotsford until 2004 when Dame Jean died. Now the house is poised to enter a new phase, with the construction of a new 10 million visitor centre. Work on the new building is scheduled to start in January 2011. I look forward to returning to a very special place with a unique connection to this most extraordinary man.

Further Information

There is a Windows Media slide show of photographs of Abbotsford, both inside and outside, using graphics from Tam O'Ranter and from Rampant Scotland on YouTube.

You can find the location of Abbotsford on Google Maps and there is an extensive Web Page on Sir Walter Scott and Abbotsford. David Bryce, one of the best 'Scottish Baronial' style architects and the architect of Abbotsford has a Web site dedicated to him too.

Tam O'Ranter
May 2010

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