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Abbotsford: Sir Walter Scott's Antiquarian Paradise

"Scotland never owed so much to one man".

-Lord Cockburn

I'm excited to share that this week's blog post is the first instalment of a three-part miniseries we are doing on Sir Walter Scott (we have previously written about Scott here). It can be quite overwhelming when you take on such an iconic Scottish hero. However, it is reassuring to know that there have been countless books written about the legendary writer. Therefore, I recommend that you head to your local library if you are looking for more of an in-depth look on him.

However, our miniseries on Scott is painted with broad strokes. Our goal is to get you interested to learn more about the man and some of the places that honour him here in Scotland. In our opinion, one of the best places to start is his former home in the Scottish Borders, Abbotsford.

Abbotsford is located about an hour south of Edinburgh and can be accessed via train or car. One tip when buying your tickets is to purchase them in advance online as it saves you 10%. Otherwise, you can purchase your tickets at their Visitor Centre. Visit the Abbotsford website for important trip planning information. Another nice feature of Abbotsford is that it offers the 'pay once and visit free all year' option. Therefore, if you are a resident in the area or a visitor coming to Scotland more than once in a year, make sure you let the staff at the Visitor Centre know you would like this benefit.

The Centre also has a wide array of souvenirs as well as a lovely café, Ochiltree's (a most appropriate name as it is from one of the main characters in Scott's book, The Antiquary). We had a delicious lunch there and enjoyed spectacular views from our table on the deck overlooking the grounds. Finally, make sure you check out the free exhibition within the Visitor Centre. It has a few unique items that once belonged to Sir Walter Scott and provides a nice overview of his life and time at Abbotsford.

As mentioned above, the grounds and gardens are quite lovely and are fun to explore both before and after you tour the house. Take the time to wander the luscious gardens and appreciate the wide variety of flowers and plants that enrich the already picturesque landscape. And keep an eye out for some surprising collector's pieces in the front garden that hint at the antiquarian paradise awaiting you in the house.

Humble Beginnings

As outlined in the Visitor Centre exhibit, Sir Walter Scott was born on 15 August 1771 in a tenement building in Edinburgh. It's important to point out that Scott was not born in poverty, but he was also not born into a wealthy family as some people often assume. He did have a 'cultured' life as a child, but the conditions in the city at the time were 'cramped' and 'unsanitary'. Consequently, this led to Scott contracting polio and experiencing poor health for the rest of his life. Many of his ancestors were from the Scottish Borders, and 'he spent much of his childhood convalescing at his grandparent's farm' in the Borders. Abbotsford does a great job at describing how this was the point in Scott's life where he formed his lifelong passions for Scottish poetry, ballads, and- of course- his love of the Scottish Borders; all of which greatly influenced his later writings.

Sir Walter Scott worked hard for his money as a talented, popular, and prolific writer and was able to build Abbotsford as a result of this. As an adult, he split his time between his homes in Edinburgh and Abbotsford. There are some interesting bits of information on his life in Edinburgh at the Visitor Centre exhibition. Additionally, if you are in Edinburgh, make sure to book one of our wee walking tours as we also discuss aspects of Sir Walter Scott's fascinating life in the capital city.

'Conundrum Castle'

Sir Walter Scott once described Abbotsford as his 'conundrum castle'. There is much represented at the house- glory, sadness, and triumph. There is a bit of a phoenix rising from the ashes feel, but we'll come back to the reasoning for that a little bit later. Scott also described the house as one that would "suit none but an antiquary". This description probably helps to explain why it is one of my favourite places in Scotland. I have a strong fascination of all things 'antiquarian', and Abbotsford fits that description more than I could have ever dreamt. There are many wonderful rooms for visitors to explore throughout the grand home. However, I will feature just a few of my favourites in this article.

When you enter the entrance hall it is quickly obvious that Sir Walter Scott loved to collect and display his various 'curiosities'. You are immediately greeted by a fantastic assortment of armoured knights, swords, animal antlers, and an exquisite fireplace. All of this is featured on magnificently carved oak panelling. Volunteers welcome visitors at the entryway and provide those interested with an audio tour. You can choose from either a regular narration or one done by an actor playing Scott. I chose the actor narration and it was quite fun! I think it was more interesting to hear about the home as if Sir Walter was telling the story.

Another of my favourite rooms was Sir Walter Scott's library. It is a place where you get to stand in the footsteps of incredible literary history and is a book lover's dream. It is also the room (along with his study but sit tight for that one- it's coming up next) that provides a true reflection of Sir Walter Scott- the man and the writer. It represents the triumph of Scott, is a fantastic part of his Antiquarian collection, and celebrates his love of lifelong learning.

The library is quite a large space but is smartly designed to be warm and inviting. The Jamaican cedar wood bookshelves contribute to this sense of comfort and the ceiling is painted to match. What is particularly wonderful about the library is that all the books are still shelved as Sir Walter Scott wanted them. Therefore, you get a real feel for what he liked and how he liked it. If you are interested in learning more about the catalogue of books (which are owned by the Faculty of Advocates Abbotsford Collection Trust), you can go to the the Advocates Library website.

If you visit Abbotsford, make sure to take the time to appreciate all the exquisite details and design of the library. For example, in one alcove area, you can find the 'Roslin Drop' (see picture below); an intricately carved wooden boss modelled after features from Rosslyn Chapel (and make sure to check out our previous article on Rosslyn). There is also a lovely fireplace made of Italian marble that I would love to curl up next to with one of Sir Walter's books. We next venture to a more intimate space- Scott's study.

"For success, attitude is equally as important as ability". - Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter's study is one of the rooms where you can feel the quintessential Scott spirit. It is quite inviting with books lining the walls throughout. It's amazing to look around at the items that were actually used by him- his desk, chair, and various personal pieces are there as if he just left the room. Yet, it's here that you also get a feel for some of the sadder elements to his story. The audio tour (and the Visitor Centre exhibition) discusses the deep financial crisis that Scott faced towards the end of his life. Due in part to the recession of 1826, his publisher and printer went under. Unfortunately, Sir Walter had a great deal of financial stake in his printer's business and felt it was his responsibility to pay off the large debt rather than declare bankruptcy.

All of this had a major impact on Scott's quality of life and is illustrated with his writing schedule. Prior to his fiscal difficulties, Scott would go to his study in the early hours of the morning to write before his family awoke. That way he could spend the afternoons and evenings with them. However, after his financial difficulties started, he was forced to write all day and into the night. He was determined to pay off his debts and not file bankruptcy. Unfortunately, he died before the debt was paid off. There is some comfort knowing that he passed away at Abbotsford- the home that he loved so dearly. Additionally, it needs to be noted that he did pay off the debts through the sales of his new books and royalties from his older books by 1836 (not long after his death in 1832).

Standing in his study, I was faced with incredible sadness and admiration for Sir Walter Scott. It must have been horrifying for him that his joy of writing became, in a way, his 'prison sentence'. In fact, his gruelling schedule and workdays didn't help his already precarious health and most likely contributed to his death. Yet, I think we can try to look at this from a more positive perspective. Yes, it was horrible that such a great writer and hero of Scotland had to face such difficult times at the end of his life. But what I take from it is that Abbotsford is like Sir Walter Scott's phoenix rising from the ashes. This is because he did pay off his debts through his determined attitude (see the quote the top of this section) and hard work. Most importantly, his legacy lives on all over the world- especially at Abbotsford. We are so very fortunate that the house is still around, and the Trust exists to make sure that Scott's memory is alive and well among the walls of his grand 'palace of the imagination'.

Abbotsford is a feast for the eyes, mind, and soul. If you really want to get a sense of Sir Walter Scott, the man and how he lived his life, you must visit his beloved home in the Scottish Borders. It certainly is a place that stays with you long after you leave- I know it has for me.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

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