Abbotsford; or, The Day Out

The ‘Books and Borrowing’ team recently had the pleasure of a long-awaited trip to Abbotsford, the former home of Walter Scott on the river Tweed in the Scottish Borders. As I have discussed previously here and here on this blog, Scott has a peculiar importance for the study of library borrowing records between 1750 and 1830, since he achieved a truly remarkable degree of popularity in the final two decades of this period. Visiting Abbotsford, where we were treated to a compelling tour from one of their guides, Joyce, was thus the perfect way for us to get a bit closer to our field of study, and we all thoroughly enjoyed the chance to explore the house and grounds.

The ‘Books and Borrowing’ team striking a pose.

It has long been a commonplace of Scott criticism that the architecture, contents and landscaping of Abbotsford, which the author closely oversaw, represents a materialisation of his literary-historical imagination. Certainly it is impossible not to draw parallels between Scott’s writing and the miscellaneous, antiquarian collection (especially weapons and armour) that in some places entirely covers the walls of the house.

Froissart’s Chronicles – among Edward’s Waverley’s famously ‘desultory’ reading in 1814’s Waverley.

Just as the novels are explicitly, and joyously, patchworks of anecdote and information accrued by Scott, bulging at the seams with ideas and things to exhibit, so the house is a domestic museum spilling over with potential stories, from Rob Roy’s rifle to the iron door from the Old Tolbooth jail in Edinburgh. ‘Books and Borrowing’ postdoc Maxine Branagh writes here that she ‘was struck by the way Scott had created the ideal writing environment around him, not only with the immense library but also with the collections of historical and, at times, mythological objects which must have served as inspiration in his writing’.

The most densely story-laden part of the house is of course the library, which naturally commanded our attention. It was great to see Scott’s books, many of which (by authors such as Thomas Pennant, Alain-René Lesage and Robert Wodrow) are very familiar from library borrowing records in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This was an opportunity to consider not only the way Scott shaped tastes, and society itself, in the nineteenth century, but also his debts to the reading diet our work is helping to reconstruct in new detail.

An image from the Abbotsford library.

Reflecting on the house and especially the library, ‘Books and Borrowing’ lead investigator Katie Halsey writes: ‘One of the things I most enjoyed about our tour of Abbotsford, led by the knowledgeable Joyce, was the anecdotes about the various objects that Scott had collected, and the ways in which he was sometimes duped by canny sellers into believing in sometimes ropey provenances if the story was good enough. His magpie collecting was reflected in the books in the library, and it was rather delightful to see works on necromancy and poltergeists metaphorically rubbing shoulders with works on the latest scientific discoveries, works on agricultural improvement, chapbooks, and fairytales. It was a good reminder of the ways in which libraries reflect not only the currents of their times, but also the personalities of individual collectors and librarians.’

We were quite fortunate with the weather on the day of our visit, and so a number of us managed to explore Scott’s garden as well as the house. PhD candidate Cleo O’Callaghan Yeoman writes that, ‘In addition to the house and its library, Abbotsford boasts some beautiful gardens, including the Italian sunken garden (also known as the “Morris Garden” or the “East Court”), which was cultivated during Scott’s time there. It’s interesting to compare Scott’s own estate developments with contemporary fictional representations of similar “improvements”: in Susan Ferrier’s The Inheritance (1824), for example, “the smooth green bank which sloped gradually down to the river” is in turn “changed into an Italian garden, with hanging terraces and marble foundations”.[1]

All in all, then, this was a special opportunity for us to combine a fun day out with core elements of our research interests. We’re grateful to staff at Abbotsford for their hospitality.

More of the ‘Books and Borrowing’ cast.

[1] Susan Ferrier, The Inheritance, ed. Ronnie Young (Glasgow: Kennedy & Boyd, 2009), 380.