I fell in love with Abbotsford the moment I saw it. It’s impossible not to; from the outside it looks like the type of building that appears in fairy tales, all twisty turrets, winding pathways and luscious green hills.
This is the house in which Sir Walter Scott, renowned author of novels including ‘Ivanhoe’ and ‘Rob Roy’ built and in which he raised his family. It is also the house which, sadly, acted as a millstone around Scott’s neck, saddling him with unimaginable debt.
We opted to take the ‘Advanced’ headphones tour, in which ‘Sir Walter Scott’ himself guides you through the most significant rooms in Abbotsford. This proved to be a great choice; it’s a convincing performance and brings both the home and its inhabitants to life.
First stop: the Study. This, I think, was my favourite room – although, for reasons which were about to become clear, it was Sir Walter Scott’s least-favourite. Snug and book-lined, with a desk and a fittingly-creaky leather armchair overlooking beautiful lawns, you would think this an idyllic location for a writer. In Scott’s case, however, he was writing not for pleasure but in a desperate race to pay off the massive debt he had accrued following the collapse of his printer and his publisher during the national recession of 1826. Scott worked in this room seven days a week, surrounded by priceless possessions such as a writing cabinet made from the wood of a salvaged galleon of the 1588 Spanish Armada.
When stuck for inspiration, Scott would wander next door into the room that was his lifelong pride and joy: his Library. This erudite lawyer, poet, historian, politician and author collected books on a diverse range of subjects and I could have spent days in here, browsing the shelves. It’s an atmospheric and elegant space, presided over by a large portrait of Walter Scott Junior, whose father often used this room for entertaining. To this day, the books remain entirely Scott’s – nothing has been added or removed, and the books’ rarity and value make this the most important and complete writer’s library in the world.
From here, we meandered into the Drawing Room, without a doubt the most beautiful room in Abbotsford. This was Sir Walter’s wife, Charlotte’s, favourite room; she chose its décor, including the stunning oriental wallpaper and antique ebony chairs that you can see in my photo below.
Having passed through the Armoury, with its collection of modern and ancient guns, we arrived in the last room open to the public: the Dining Room. As already noted, the Scotts loved to entertain and in this airy & spacious room they hosted parties of up to 30 people. The Wordsworths, Henry Irving, Benjamin Disraeli, J.W.M. Turner and Wilkie Collins all dined here and enjoyed the lovely views of rolling hillsides and the River Tweed.
Poignantly, this is also the room in which Scott would end his days. Having lost Charlotte to illness in 1826, Scott, himself in bad health, set out on a recuperative trip to Italy in 1831. Sadly, the exertions of travelling further damaged his health and Scott suffered a near-fatal stroke. By the time he returned home, in 1832, he was terminally ill. Back in the house that he loved so much, Scott set up a camp bed in the Dining Room, determined to drink in those cherished views. He died peacefully just a few weeks later.
I can see why Scott felt so happy at Abbotsford. Stately building this may be, but it also feels very much like a family home – and a much loved one, at that. As a “tourist destination” (dreadful phrase, I know) I can’t praise it highly enough. Every aspect of your visit is well thought-out, from the friendly welcome upon arrival, to the guided tour, to the museum crammed with fascinating artefacts from Scott’s life, to the delicious and locally-sourced food served in Ochiltree’s: visiting Abbotsford is an entertaining, informative and memorable day out.