“My heart clings to the place I have created.”
In 1811 Sir Walter Scott purchased a small farm on the banks of the Tweed River in the Borders area of Scotland. It was a part of the country he knew well – he’d stayed there often as a child, had worked there as a lawyer, had collected the local ballads and tales of folk lore and published them. He had a home in Edinburgh, but he wanted a country property as well.
The farm he bought was far from grand, but over the next years Scott grew obsessed with renovating and enlarging. First he built a small house which he called Abbotsford, but there were so many additions to that house that it eventually became a mansion. It is in the Scottish Baronial style and has wonderful turrets, gables, arches, curving stairways, and is filled with curiosities.
You approach the house from the road up above. The visitor stops first at the award-winning new Visitors’ Centre, which has displays about Scott’s life, writings and influence, a shop and café. Then you stroll down through the lovely grounds, finally approaching the house. In the grounds are a small chapel which can also be visited and it is possible to take a path down the various grassy terraces behind the house to reach the river, where there are woodland paths and beautiful views.
Scott was especially interested in tree planting, and there are many ancient and lovely trees to admire. In his woodland estate today there are Scots pines, sycamores, oaks, maples and beech trees. He loved to walk around his property, admiring and planning:
“After breakfast I went out, the day being delightful—warm, yet cooled with a gentle breeze, all around delicious; the rich luxuriant green refreshing to the eye, soft to the tread, and perfume to the smell. Wandered about and looked at my plantations.”
Scott was an intriguing mix of antiquarian and modern – in his house he displayed ancient relics, yet had the latest in lighting, plumbing and gadgets. The gardens have a similar mix – he mixed the useful with the picturesque, the old and the new. His conservatory is Gothic in style, but had the latest designs in roofing and heating. He tried unsuccessfully to establish ‘hot walls’ so that he could grow plants not suited to the cold Scottish climate – he spent masses, but had no worthwhile results.
There are three walled gardens and the first is known as the South Court. Here Scott erected cloister arches, battlemented corner turrets, and filled the niches with antique stone panels. Trellises of creeping ivy were trained over the tops of the structures to give them a dilapidated, picturesque appearance. The South Court is also where one finds the grand entrance to Abbotsford – Scott had many famous visitors who arrived through the portcullis gate, including Wordsworth, Byron and Washington Irving (Irving’s home in New York state still has ivy growing upon it which came from a cutting he was given at Abbotsford).
There is a pretty walkway with a pergola covered in roses and honeysuckle, and there are beds of roses and hollyhocks. The original planting of this part of the garden was influenced by the great landscape designers of the age, Humphry Repton and John Nash. They favoured less formal plantings, blurring the lines dividing house from garden and favouring relaxed and natural schemes for flowers. However, in the Victorian era Scott’s granddaughter Charlotte changed the design into a more conventional Victorian one, with the lawns and flower beds that the visitor sees today.
The next enclosed garden is the Morris Garden, so called because of the fascinating stone sculpture of Mr Morris (a character in Scott’s novel, Rob Roy) which stands in pride of place in this sunken garden. The area is enclosed on three sides by stone walls and still has the sense of being a retreat, which is what Scott wanted it to be. There are two yew trees on either side of the gateway which were probably planted by the author himself. He did plant vines there too, but they have not survived. He also had geraniums, fuchsias, mignonette, pyracantha, variegated ivy and cotoneasters and his plans are followed in the Morris Garden today.
The last of the walled gardens is the kitchen garden. Scott was closely involved in the layout. It is a sloping site, facing south-west. Box hedges and paths divide the area into quadrants, then flower plantings border the individual areas where crops and fruit are grown. He loved to be able to offer exotic fruit and vegetables to his many guests, and these were grown here in abundance.
Sir Walter Scott may not have been a hands-on gardener – he could afford to pay others to do the weeding and digging. However, he was knowledgeable and his library holds books on horticulture. He employed gardeners from the estate of his friend the Duke of Buccleuch whose gardens were noted for their productivity and innovations.
Sir Walter Scott became very sick while away on a cruise (a journey paid for by the British government, so highly was he regarded) and his one thought was to get home to his beloved Abbotsford. He made it, and died in the dining room which gave him a view out over his estate, with his favourite view of the Tweed. Were he to return today to his beloved home, he would still find much that is familiar – the gardeners working there today plant flowers he’d have known and try to follow his original plans as much as possible. It is a glorious place to visit, with romantic beauty everywhere – why not try and fit in a visit to Abbotsford in 2015?
“Nothing is more the child of art than a garden.”
Sir Walter Scott
[Many thanks to The Abbotsford Trust and also tour participant Malvina Yock for their permission to use these photos]