Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Monday, 9 September 2013

Abbotsford by Mary Smith


I blogged some time back about Red Rose White Rose in which, shortly before the Battle of Flodden, James IV’s Queen Margaret and his mistress, Janet Bairars contemplate what their future will hold if their King is killed in battle. The scripted readings by the two women are interspersed by 16th century music played on authentic instruments by Richard and Vivien Jones, two members of the Galloway Consort.

Last weekend we were privileged to perform in Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s home near Melrose in the Scottish Borders – and even more wonderful, the performance, to a full house, was in his magnificent library, surrounded by his books.


The library contains over seven thousand volumes, arranged on the shelves as he arranged them. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to start taking books of the shelves (though this is probably fortunate for the books) but it is clear these were books which were read. Scott didn’t simply fill a library with books for show: he read them, he used them for research for his own writing and he made comments on the margins. You can almost see him moving along the shelves searching for the volume he wants whether it is Scottish history, folk lore, a treatise on witchcraft, a travel book or a novel.

Abbotsford has re-opened this summer after a major programme of repair and refurbishment. A new visitor centre has been built which has an exhibition about Scott, a shop, restaurant and wonderful views over the gardens to the house. The house itself is jam-packed with a truly astonishing collection of historical artefacts. Scott was an avid collector and the entrance hall is crammed with suits of armour, spoils from Waterloo, a clock once owned by Marie Antoinette and even the wood panelling is from the Auld Kirk at Dunfermline. In fact, if were alive today he would probably be put in jail for stealing antiques – peepholes in the yew hedge against a boundary wall are full of ancient stones Scott ‘acquired’.

Whether or not you are a reader of his work (and a visit to Abbotsford is sure to make you want to try some of his novels) you can’t help but admire this man who decided to pay off his publisher’s debt – the equivalent of £20 million – by writing. He said: “My own right hand shall do it.” By the time he died in 1832 he was better known than any of the Romanticists – and outlived most of them – with a truly international reputation. His work influenced Dickens, Pushkin, George Eliot and Tolstoy. And he was able to buy an old farm house and transform it into his idea of how a baronial country manor should be.

He was a writer but, looking round his fabulous library, it was clear he was also a reader and someone who loved books.

The house and gardens are open seven days a week – do visit if you get the chance. The website is at www.scottsabbotsford.co.uk/visiting-abbotsford

17 comments:

  1. Wish I could have been at your performance, Mary. It must have been wonderful doing it in that Library too!

    We visited Abbotsford a few weeks ago. It's years since I was there and they've done a great job. I thought a lot about the books - nowadays we have research at our fingertips, but for Scott to get things right he did indeed have to check in a book (presumably having read it first, or at least, knowing that it existed and chasing it down from somewhere, waiting for it to arrive on some horse-drawn carriage. It is extraordinary - and, as you say, the sheer dogged determination of the man to 'do the right thing' was astonishing.

    There was a programme on the radio yesterday on 'mountaineering'. Seems Scott probably invented the term. His rugged heroes were certainly the first to scale mountains for the fun of it rather than just to rescue sheep or whatever) and he was a huge influence in tourism to Scotland.

    I downloaded Ivanhoe onto my Kindle while I was there. There's something a bit spooky about that!

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    1. Yes, Jenny, the library made a really wonderful, atmospheric setting.
      Scott was probably one of the first 'celebrity' authors and people came in droves to see his house. I think he'd have been a very interesting person to meet in the pub - lots of stories to tell with wit and humour.

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  2. What a setting for the performance, Mary! It's a place I've long wanted to visit and I mention Scott in passing in my new historical coming out in late October.

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    1. Do go, Rosemary, you will love it. It's a fascinating place which provides a real sense of what sort of person Scott was. Apart from his 7,000 novels in the library, he had a further 2,000 in his study - and the drawing room with the Chinese wallpaper is glorious. I could move in next week!

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  3. I haven't been to Abbotsford for many years. I remember when we went it was a grey gloomy day and I thought the place a little sad. You've inspired me to go again - probably even this weekend.

    Personally speaking I do find I draw inspiration from walking in the footsteps of great writers. (And Jenny - I've also downloaded Ivanhoe, but I've been looking at it with trepidation for several weeks. Maybe I'll actually read it now!)

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  4. Lovely, Mary. So sorry I wasn't there. I am determined to visit!

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    1. Gill, you will love it. I'll be happy to go with you. It might even be a good venue for a WS gatehring sometime - though it's kind of difficult to get to. I have realised we do north/south okay but we certainly don't do east/west very easily.

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  5. It is certainly not sad now, jennifer - apart from the books being kept behind bars - and definitely worth a visit.

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  6. It is a long time since I have been to Abbotsford too so I'm pleased to hear they have made a good job of restoring it. I am still researching an earlier period of the Borders and my main family are Scotts. I believe the clan was ruthless in the Border Raids but became more law abiding once King James VI became king of both kingdoms. I'd love to know what books were read in 1590 by the few who were able to read. Maybe I need a visit to Abbotsford. I still prefer books to the internet, old fogie that I am.

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    1. I don't know what it was like before the restoration, Gwen, but it really is a wonderful experience now. The people on duty in the house, mostly volunteers I think, are knowledgeable, helpful and friendly.

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  7. Fascinating, Mary. It's already on my 'to be visited' list but I'd love to have been there for your performance. You're right about these houses retaining the presence of their owner and in this case what a presence.

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    1. Thanks, Bill. What a presence, indeed. What I felt came over was that he'd have been a really fascinating person to know and not at all pretentious or forbidding. I can't help wondering if his friends and aquaintances locked up their antiques before he came to visit in case he took a fancy to something. His collecting bordered on obsessional.

      We'd be happy to bring Red Rose White Rose up your way if you can find a venue to book us and pay us to come up.

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  8. This is a great inspiration to writers, Mary! Think what we could achieve if we wrote night and day!

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    1. I wonder how much he would have produced had he not been determined to pay off the publisher's debt?

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  9. Oh my goodness....what a wonderful experience you have had....I always find it quite awesome to be in the same space once frequented by someone I admire - great post.

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  10. Oh my goodness....what a wonderful experience you have had....I always find it quite awesome to be in the same space once frequented by someone I admire - great post.

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    1. Thanks, Linda.
      Someone in the audience told me she was at the last event in the library before the house was closed for the renovations and the poet Simon Armitage stood to read on the spot I delivered my lines!

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