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Issue 88 - From Waverley to Abbotsford

Scotland Magazine Issue 88
August 2016


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From Waverley to Abbotsford

Alasdair Hutton reveals the link between Sir Walter Scott and the re-opening of the Borders Railway

When Her Majesty the Queen pulled aside the little curtains on the plaque at Tweedbank Station on 9 September 2015, she also pulled back the curtain on a vista of Borders history that had been missing from Scotland’s railway journeys for nearly half a century.

The signs at the Tweedbank terminus tell passengers that they are alighting for Abbotsford and Melrose. Turn right out of the station and you head for Abbotsford, which lies hardly a mile from Tweedbank station and remains to this day one of the most famous houses in the world. It reflects, almost as no other place, the mind, enthusiasms and preoccupations of the man who built it. Already many of its visitors make their way to Tweedbank on the train and then take the chance to stretch their legs and walk the relatively short distance up to the house.

Abbotsford was the stone-and-lime love of Sir Walter Scott’s life. It was his most cherished possession, but it also possessed him. He called it ‘the Delilah of [his] imagination,’ his ‘Conundrum Castle’ and his ‘flibbertigibbet of a house’ that would ‘suit none but an antiquary.’ This special house was built on the proceeds of a literary career without parallel and is an enduring monument to the tastes, talents and achievements of its creator. The stones of Abbotsford speak both of triumph and disaster; first of literary and worldly success, then of fortitude as Sir Walter faced adversity and ultimately conquered it in his noble final years.

Its architecture and interior decoration combine to make it a unique example of the 19th Century Scottish Baronial style. With its wonderfully eccentric collections and antiquarian atmosphere, it is a key site in the history of European Romanticism.

The name of Abbotsford has travelled around the world. There are Abbotsfords in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. There are no fewer than three London streets named after Scott’s home. Already in his lifetime Abbotsford was a place of pilgrimage for curious and well- informed tourists, and after Scott’s death it rapidly assumed the character of a literary shrine – something it has never lost. Abbotsford remains a place of wonder and pilgrimage, evoking the spirit of one of Scotland’s greatest sons and remaining a place well worth visiting over and over again.

Abbotsford was built at a time when the railways were only beginning to be constructed in Britain, horse-powered at first and later with the trains hauled by steam engines. Scott was interested in this new development and was well aware of the potential of the railways to use the wood in which he believed so passionately as sleepers for its tracks.

Like so many other lines, the origins of the Borders railway were purely local. The first section was the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway that opened in 1831 with a gauge of four feet, six inches and was pulled by horses. In 1845 the line was acquired by the recently formed North British Railway, which by 1849 had extended the route to Galashiels and Hawick; changed the gauge to the standard size of four feet, eight and a half inches; and adopted steam engines to pull its trains. Hawick remained the terminal until 1862 when the line was finally extended into Carlisle.

The rugged Border country always made the line difficult to operate. The severe south- bound climb to Falahill, a mere 18 miles from Edinburgh, and the equally long, hard gradients to Whitrope in the Cheviot Hills, between Hawick and Newcastleton, were made even more difficult by the continuous and, in places severe, curvature of the line which ruled out any high speed running.

Even though he had died in 1832, Sir Walter Scott’s influence remained pervasive and the line acquired the name ‘Waverley,’ inspired by the main character from his first novel of the same name, who in turn had been given the name following Scott’s visit to Waverley Abbey, a ruined Cistercian monastery near Farnham in Surrey. Later, it became the collective title for the entire series of Scott’s novels, which had stunning popular success with the reading public.

The North British Railway had named its splendid Edinburgh station ‘Waverley’ and as the new line passed within about a mile of Scott's remarkable house and estate at Abbotsford, in the beautiful Border countryside along the River Tweed, it seemed appropriate to adopt the name to publicise the route.

But Scott’s connections with the line did not end there. 15 years after it was completed, a series of large locomotives were built for the Edinburgh to Carlisle service and were dubbed the 'Abbotsford' class. All the engines were named after places along the route including Abbotsford.

Then, in the early 20th Century, even more powerful locomotives with greater stamina for the 98 mile route, known as the 'Scott Class,’ appears. They famously carried the names of ten of his Waverley novels and 32 of the stories’ memorable characters.

They ran until 1960, but by then passenger numbers were falling and the last steam- hauled stopping train from Hawick to Carlisle left on 5 June 1965. After steam had gone, a variety of diesel locomotives continued until the closure of the service to passengers on 5 January 1969, and the last freight service on 25 April that year.

Today, the Borders is again connected to the rest of Scotland, with trains running over at least part of the old line as far as the new station at Tweedbank. Even steam engines have started to bring passengers back to the Borders on special trains hauled by the popular 60009 Union of South Africa, one of six remaining LNER Class A4 steam locomotives in the UK for a limited season, with the prospects of more steam powered journeys in the months and years ahead.

The visitors who turn right out of the station and head for Abbotsford will find themselves carried back down the years to a wonderful house that, even after a multi-million pound make-over, has kept its unique character.

Sir Walter Scott was a magpie and he filled his Conundrum Castle with a huge and extraordinary collection that is still there, almost as he left it nearly 200 years ago.

Tree-planting was Scott’s great outdoor passion, but he also embraced up to date landscape design on a smaller scale. He greatly disapproved of the massive rearrangement of nature by such men as Capability Brown, but he did think that the best landscape gardeners should be classed with fine artists.

Scott laid out three walled gardens blending modern with antiquarian, picturesque with functional. Each garden is distinct in character and, taken together, they form three outdoor ‘rooms’ designed to offer picturesque settings for the main house.

Sir Walter was a benevolent Border laird who planted his garden and the estate around Abbotsford with great care. If you pause in the woods and half-shut your eyes, you might be lucky enough to imagine a glimpse of his tall figure striding towards you with his beloved dogs around his legs, a broad smile on his ruddy face and his hand outstretched in welcome.

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