Famous writers throughout history have often had their well-known quirks. Many of them have created work-spaces that inspire and surprise. They can be placed into all sorts of categories, from the mildly romantic to the Spartan. And amidst all these categories, Walter Scott’s Abbotsford ranks somewhere between ‘inspired’ and ‘downright mad’.
Scott, who rose to fame in the early nineteenth century as a writer of sweeping historical romances, is one of Scotland’s most famous writers. He helped romanticise Highland culture and brought the stories of Scottish heroes like Rob Roy to the attention of the world. In the early Victorian period, everyone knew his name. From Ivanhoe to Waverley to The Lady of the Lake, Scott was a medievalist extraordinaire. What’s more, he wasn’t content to simply write about the past. He was determined to live in it. Or, rather, to live in a re-created romantic ideal of the past.
That romantic ideal became his home – Abbotsford, the house that Scott spent a significant portion of his life renovating in a mock-medieval style. Late last year, I took a little day trip down to this mad place, in order to see just what kind of creature Scott had created in the Scottish countryside.
Before they even get close to the house itself, the visitor to Abbotsford is first encouraged to pass through a small museum-building which tells the story of Scott’s life and career. One of the curious things about the museum is how aware they are of Scott’s reputation. The exhibits suggest that Scott is not terribly well-though-of. One of the first things you hear when you enter the centre is a video playing on a loop, of a Scott hater arguing with a Scott lover. I know what you’re thinking. Fisticuffs, right? It’s going to be like a scene in Fight Club. Scott Lover vs. Scott Hater. Two men enter. One man leaves. (In case you’re wondering, this is just how I imagine Fight Club to go. I’ve never seen the movie, being more comfortable with light-hearted parodies (30 Rock Page-off, anyone?).)
Personally, I had no idea there were so many Scott haters out there. But it says something about the museum itself, when they feel that the first thing they need to do for visitors is justify their very existence. I’m not sure if it’s a charming act of self-awareness or a scathing criticism of the way our society deals with famous literary figures.
Abbotsford itself is a strange place, a kind of fairytale castle on the outside, medieval manor on the inside. It’s full of knick-knacks and trinkets, from locks of famous peoples’ hair to skulls on mantelpieces to medieval swords on the walls. Whether you find it charming or gauche is entirely a matter of taste. Entering through the front door, you’re immediately greeted by the sight of massive suits of armour guarding the modest entrance hall to the house. For my part, I wouldn’t have liked to see two great hulking suits of armour staring down at me whenever I went through the front door – but I think for Scott they would have been a source of contemplation and inspiration. Just not at night, with nothing but moonlight and flickering candlelight to see by. Then it would probably feel like the beginning of a Doctor Who episode.
The entire house follows this pattern. It’s still chock-full of mementoes that Scott collected throughout his life. The library boasts an impressive collection of literary knick-knacks, including a silhouette of Robert Burns, Lord Byron’s mourning ring, and a crucifix that belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots (who isn’t strictly literary, but is nowadays something of a legend). Although it’s meant to emulate a medieval castle or manor, the impression you get wandering through Abbotsford’s halls is actually one of cosiness (if you can ignore, for a minute, the lethal-looking swords and pistols hanging on the walls of some of the rooms, of course).
The exception is perhaps the dining room, which happens to be the room where Scott died in 1832. It’s light and sunny, opening out to a view of the River Tweed. Scott was carried down here after he became too weak to move around himself, and died within sight of one of his favourite views. What’s amazing about the house, and this room in particular, is seeing how deeply Scott felt a connection to the landscape he saw out of that window, and the way he orchestrated his surroundings in order to provide himself with the sights that were the most intellectually and emotionally uplifting and inspiring. It’s this thought which turns Abbotsford, despite its potential to be quite – for want of another word – tacky, into a truly lovely place.
All in all, I was very lucky – I went to Abbotsford on a beautiful day. I could go into raptures about the stunning sunlight, the way it reflected off the creamy walls and tiny little towers, or lit up the surrounding fields and flowerbeds – but I won’t. Much.
But one of the best things about the weather was that it left me free to wander the countryside after I left Abbotsford, taking in some of the views that Scott might have enjoyed (minus the highways and electricity poles). I eventually walked all the way to the neighbouring village of Melrose, which boasts a beautiful ruined abbey. Scott was said to have been very inspired by the ruins of this place, and it’s not difficult to see why. Apart from its picturesque qualities, it’s also supposedly the burial-place of Robert the Bruce’s heart, and features a stone carving of a pig playing the bagpipes. Which, considering bagpipes used to be made out of the skins of local livestock, could be seen as a little disturbing. Make of that what you will.
Apparently Scott particularly favoured the place at night. Sadly, I didn’t have time to stick around and find out what the Abbey might look like. Even in the daytime, however, it was an awe-inspiring sight, the picturesque ruins of the Abbey making for a fascinating place to contemplate the power and passage of history.
It’s not difficult to see why Scott found this area of the Scottish countryside so inspiring. Aside from its picturesque ruins and ancient history, it’s wonderful countryside for walking in, even today. It encourages the mind to wander, engaging the imagination and absorbing the visitor completely. It’s the perfect place for stories to begin.