On the borders of eccentricity

28th June 1996 at 01:00
In the first of a summer series on Scottish writers, Jonathan Croall visits the extraordinary home of Sir Walter Scott. Whatever may be said about the house that Sir Walter Scott built for himself in the Scottish borders - and many people from Ruskin onwards have been rude about Abbotsford's architectural style - there's no doubt that the house is an extraordinary creation.

It was 1812 when, already established as a writer, Scott bought a farmhouse and land near Melrose and began to transform it into a grand family home. "What a romance of a house I am making, which is to be neither castle nor abbey (God forbid), but an old Scottish manor house," he wrote.

Despite his urban roots - he was born in Edinburgh, where his father was a solicitor - Scott badly wanted to play the part of the Scottish laird. This ambition, manifest both in the house itself and in the vast collection of objects he accumulated within it, is one for which he has since been much criticised.

For instance, in his recent highly-critical biography, John Sutherland attacks the "pseudo-medieval flummery" of Abbotsford, and argues that its Scots baronial style was later the ruin of many an English suburb.

The building, standing right by the River Tweed, is certainly an eccentric Gothic mixture of battlements, turrets and gable ends. Scott described it as being "in the bravura style or, if you will, what a romance is in poetry or a melodrama in modern theatricals". Perhaps the most bizarre feature is the door from the old Edinburgh Tolbooth prison, built into one wall.

Scott was an obsessive collector: wander through the house and you come across many unexpected items. In the library are Napoleon's pen case and blotting book, recovered after the Battle of Waterloo; a pocket book worked by the heroic Flora Macdonald; a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie's hair; Lord Byron's ring; and a glass tumbler on which Robert Burns scratched some verses.

Those in the armoury and entrance hall are of a more bloodthirsty nature. Among a plethora of swords, spears and pistols hangs Rob Roy's broadsword, dirk and gun, and two swords found on the field of Culloden. There's also a model of the skull of Robert the Bruce.

There are several good portraits around the house, including ones of the writer's father, his French wife and their daughter, his great-grandfather "Beardie" (who would only shave off his beard when Bonnie Prince Charlie returned), and Raeburn's romantic, moody picture of the young Scott.

The study, where Scott wrote the Waverley novels, is lined top to bottom with books and houses his chair and writing desk, the latter made from wood from ships of the Spanish Armada. Round it runs a narrow gallery, with a door leading to Scott's bedroom. At 6am he would creep down to work before the family day began. Later, facing financial ruin, he probably worked himself to death here, having pledged: "My own right hand shall pay my debt."

Scott's fine collection of 9,000 books are all here. His passion for stories and reading were probably fuelled by his childhood polio. There's a poignant reminder of this in the Writers' Museum in Edinburgh, where a collection of Scott memorabilia includes a battered rocking chair with one foot-rest higher than the other.

Further information from Abbotsford, Melrose, Roxburghshire TD6 9BQ. Tel: 01896 752043; The Writers' Museum, Lady Stair's House, Lady Stair's Close, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh. Tel: 0131 529 4901. The Life of Walter Scott by John Sutherland (Blackwell, Pounds 19.99) Next week: JM Barrie in Kirriemuir, Angus

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