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Issue 35 - Scott's country home

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 35
November 2007


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Scott's country home

Charles Douglas visits Abbotsford House at Melrose in the Scottish Borders, home of Sir Walter Scott

Ihave an enduring image of Sir Walter Scott, the mercurial Scottish author and icon, glimpsed through the window of his town house in Edinburgh late at night seated at his desk with his quill pen furiously writing to pay off his debts. Of course, that is certainly not how he would have wished us to remember him, which is why he created Abbotsford, his breathtakingly magnificent home set amid the Borders landscape of his childhood.

As a youngster he contracted polio, an affliction which would leave him lame in his right leg for the remainder of his life.

However, to convalesce, he was sent to his grandparents’ farm, Sandyknowe, at Smailholm, where he absorbed many of the folklore legends of the Scottish Borders which he would later put to masterly use in his novels. It was the beginning of a great love affair with the river valley of the Tweed with its undulating hills and rolling vistas.

Scott’s early career was as a lawyer and, in 1799, he was appointed Sheriff Deputy of the County of Selkirk. After 1805, however, his writing and poetry (The Lay of the Last Minstrel, The Lady in the Lake) brought him international fame and he founded his own printing and publishing press, copublishing the Quarterly Review in 1809.

In 1811, with the money he had accumulated, he bought the farm known as Cartleyhole, near Melrose, from a local minister for £4,000, and, through the subsequent purchase of adjacent properties, extended the estate to 1,400 acres. He then made plans to build a lavish mansion house overlooking the River Tweed, and, on its completion, named it Abbotsford after the monks who inhabited the nearby monastery of Melrose which had originally owned the land.

Abbotsford House took six years to build, and was finally ready for occupancy by Scott, his French wife Charlotte Charpentier, and their four children, in 1824. “My Delilah,” he called the house. It was his plaything in stone, an environment in which he could fulfill his fantasies of being a laird, “with a plaid about my shoulders and an immense bloodhound at my heels.”

Contemporary architects Walter Atkinson, William Stark, Daniel Terry and Edward Blore each had an input in the ongoing creation, and, after Scott’s death in 1832, the house was much enlarged by William Burn. It was opened to the public by his family in 1833, five months after his death, and has remained so ever since.

However, despite the sales of his prolific literary works (including, The Heart of Midlothian, Rob Roy, The Fortunes of Nigel, The Bride of Lammermoor and Quentin Durward), he in 1825 ran into serious financial problems, and, rather than declare himself bankrupt, he placed Abbotsford and his income into a trust for his creditors while he wrote his way out of debt. The most remarkable aspect of this brave initiative is that he succeeded.

Today, visitors to Abbotsford find themselves enthralled by Scott’s impressive collection of historic relics, among them Rob Roy’s purse, a tumbler once owned by the poet Robert Burns, and a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair; weapons, including Rob Roy’s gun and the noble first Marquis of Montrose’s sword.

Sir Walter’s library contains more than 9,000 rare volumes and can be inspected on the tour along with his study, the drawing room, the entrance hall, his armouries, and the dining room, where he died on 21st September 1832.

During his lifetime, Scott entertained the American essayist Washington Irving and the poets William Wordsworth and Thomas Moore. Among those who visited Abbotsford after his death were Queen Victoria, King George V and Queen Mary, and the Duke and Duchess of York, who later became King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

The chapel was added onto the house in 1855 by Sir Walter Scott’s granddaughter Charlotte, and her husband, James Hope- Scott. Hope-Scott was a Catholic, while Sir Walter had been a Presbyterian, and it was built during the mid-Victorian Catholic Revival. Cardinal Newman, the Victorian prelate, was a close family friend and celebrated Mass here on several occasions.

As important as the house was to Sir Walter, so were the woods and grounds of Abbotsford. “You can have no idea of the exquisite delight of a planter,” he wrote.

“He is the painter laying on his colours – at every moment he sees his effects coming out... I look back to the time when there was not a tree here; I look around and see thousands of trees growing up, all of which – I may say almost each of which – have received my personal attention.”


Melrose, Roxburghshire TD6 9BQ
Tel: +44 (0)1896 752 043. Fax: +44 (0)1896 752 916

House and grounds are open daily between March and 31st October 09.30 - 17.00. Sundays March, April, May, October 14.00 - 17.00. November to March, Monday to Friday, group bookings only by appointment