To quote the Encyclopaedia Britannica:-
“Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet, (born August 15, 1771, Edinburgh, Scotland – died September 21, 1832, Abbotsford, Roxburgh, Scotland), Scottish novelist, poet, historian, and biographer who is often considered both the inventor and the greatest practitioner of the historical novel.”
So why do I know so little about Scott?
I confess I have only read one of his books (Ivanhoe).
I suspect that was because I’d had a girlish crush on Roger Moore, who played the Eponymous hero in a long-ago TV series.
Scott’s Scottish tales use a lot of old Scots dialect, which can be baffling (nay, impenetrable) to many readers.
But that’s changed and now I know more about Scott
A couple of weeks back, I came pretty close to the man himself. Well, to his tomb. And his books.
We were returning from holiday and stopped off at Dryburgh Abbey Hotel to break our long journey home. An impressive house, but more of that anon.
Dryburgh Abbey was literally on our doorstep
They are impressive. Soaring arches and beautiful carvings. Sadly, part of the ruins were closed for safety work but we still had a pretty good impression of the size and splendour of the original buildings.
Is it any wonder Scott wanted to be buried here?
A successful historical novelist? Absolutely!
Let’s face it. Sir Walter Scott enjoyed a level of success as a historical novelist that the rest of us can only dream of. He began his career as a barrister, writing poetry in his spare time but later turned to novel writing. “Byron beat me,” he declared, as his reason for the change of direction.
His historical adventure stories revived an interest in Scottish culture. He was also instrumental in recovering the Honours of Scotland, a crown, sword and sceptre that had been hidden away in Edinburgh Castle for more than a century. This resulted in his being put in charge of arrangements for George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822. There’s a great piece on the Georgian Era Blog about the visit if you want to read more.
I am sure none of this was detrimental to his book sales!
His enormous popularity made him a wealthy man. He already owned a small “mountain farm beside the Tweed” as he called it. Some locals referred to it as “Clarty Hole”. I think that means dirty, or filthy, in Scots language!
Scott lost no time in renaming it Abbotsford, after the nearby river crossing that had once been used by the monks of Melrose Abbey. With his new found wealth, between 1817 and 1825, he rebuilt Abbotsford into a mansion.
Then disaster struck…
In 1825, Scott’s publishing house collapsed and he was left with enormous debts. His wife died the same year, adding to his woes.
Scott worked furiously and paid off his debts, but it took a great toll on his health. He died in 1832 and was buried in Dryburgh Abbey.
Why Dryburgh Abbey?
Scott is descended from two Borders families. One of them, the Haliburtons of Newmains, took over the north transept of the abbey church as their burial ground. In 1700 the abbey lands belonged to Thomas Haliburton, Scott’s great-grandfather. But for an extravagant grand-uncle who became bankrupt and had to part with the property, it would have descended to Sir Walter by inheritance.
“We have nothing left of Dryburgh,” he said, “but the right of stretching our bones there.”
And finally to the house…
In the 18th century it was owned by Robert Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan. He was a close friend and an admirer of Scott. Not surprising, perhaps, when they shared such an interest in history. The earl founded the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, although he soon fell out with them and quit. Even Scott admitted he was, er, rather strange…
In later years the earl became increasingly eccentric, a trait which tended to obscure his talents, as Sir Walter Scott noted.
After the earl’s death in 1829, when he was put into the family burial ground at Dryburgh, his head was laid the wrong way. Which, said Sir Walter Scott, was little matter, as it had never been quite right in his lifetime.
The earl spent much of his time at Dryburgh improving the grounds, which include part of the Abbey grounds. He also erected the nearby statue of William Wallace.
Scott joined the earl in the burial ground at Dryburgh just three years later. Today the burial place holds the tombs of Sir Walter Scott, his wife Charlotte and his son, Walter. It also has the remains of his son-in-law and biographer, John Gibson, and nearby is the grave of Earl Marshal Haig, buried here in 1928.
In 1929 the Dryburgh Abbey House was purchased by the splendidly named Scottish Motor Traction Company which opened it as a Tourist Hotel in 1932. The house has changed hands several times since then but in 2007 it passed to the Wallace family, who now own and manage it.
Today it is impossible to miss its links with Sir Walter Scott. At least if you are a writer.
Images and paintings abound, and the hotel is very proud of its full set of The Waverley Novels, one of the special Dryburgh editions that were published between 1892 and 1894.
It was such a pleasure to unlock the cabinet and see these originals for myself. What I particularly liked was the illustrations and also the fact that these books have a glossary in the back of them, explaining the more obscure Scots words and phrases!
And for those who enjoy a little ghostly encounter…
Nothing to do with Scott, but I am sure he would approve….
A 16th century woman at the house fell in love with a monk. They began a secret love affair but when the Abbot found out, the monk was sentenced to death and hanged in view of her house.
The woman was so upset she threw herself off the nearby bridge into the River Tweed, where she drowned. But her spirit haunts the bridge and she has been sighted in the hotel itself as a grey lady. She is seen most frequently during times of change at the hotel, such as when renovation work is being carried out.
So, there you have it
I hope you have enjoyed this little day-trip into Scott-land. I started with a quote so I shall leave you with another one. This time from the man himself. Since he was a man who made his fortune, lost everything but then recovered, he should know what he is talking about.
“For success, attitude is equally as important as ability.”
Happy reading (and writing)