Today people are discovering or rediscovering the great authors of the past. Walter Scott is one of them, a most famous one and not only in Scotland. In France, for example, a new translation of his books is under way, in the prestigious “Bibliothèque de la Pleiade”, each novel being translated, introduced, and annotated by a French university scholar. Henri Suhamy (Université Paris X-Nanterre), who has devoted much of his time to the study of Shakespeare, is also a great admirer of Sir Walter Scott. In 1993, he published a very interesting and lively biography of the author of the Waverley novels under the title of Sir Walter Scott . In Scotland, let us mention the 30-volume set of the Waverley novels, based on manuscripts, which has just been published by the Edinburgh University.
We’re not experts in Walter Scott’s books but we’ve already read, with great interest and much pleasure, some of the Waverley novels, the Chronicles of the Canongate and a few pages of Scott’s poetry. During his life and for a long time after his death (1832), Sir Walter Scott, who is generally considered as the inventor of the historical novel, has been much admired and read all over the world, especially in France where Victor Hugo, Balzac, Alexandre Dumas were among his most fervent admirers.
As many other people, we do like very much the moving story of Sir Walter and Abbotsford, his “Dalilah” as he used to call it and which he had built ‘by the sweat of his brow’ or should we say of his pen… Having been lucky to visit Abbotsford at its best, we would be very sad to learn that this touching place of pilgrimage would not be preserved for the future generations.
Such was the thought that suddenly occurred to me on opening The Abbotsford Trust’s letter entitled ‘Save Abbotsford’… the phrase struck me as lightning !
To defend Abbotsford is to defend the memory of its master! In such a case, I could not have found a better advocate than H.V. Morton, the famous travel writer I’m widely quoting in this post. HV Morton toured Scotland in the 1920s and 30s, driving a Bullnose Morris, from south to north and east to west, and he wrote two unforgettable books about his travels : In Search of Scotland (1929) and In Scotland Again (1933). Not only did he know the art of travelling but he had also become a master in the art of telling stories, with emotion, humour and much erudition. These two books are among our favourites and we’ve used them largely when preparing our trips to Scotland.
But let us begin with the beginning! The journey is starting not far from Abbotsford… in front of the Eildon Hills, a very beautiful landscape and a favourite place of Sir Walter. It’s not just the house that should be preserved but the whole area around it !
As you go through this haunted country, now so peaceful, where the gaunt outline of the peel towers rises up from field or wood, you may see in imagination a solitary horseman, the presiding genius of this Borderland, reining in his horse to gaze round him with eyes which see more of Scotland than any man has ever seen – Walter Scott. (H.V. Morton In Search of Scotland 1929)
In 1929, when H.V. Morton wrote these lines, nearly a century had already passed since “the genius of the Borderland” had crossed the ultime frontier. Today, we still imagine Sir Walter riding the country on his favourite horse, or walking the path to the Eildon Hills with one or two of his cherished dogs on his heels… he will be there forever…
Facing the Eildon Hills on Bemersyde is ‘Sir Walter’s View’. It is perhaps the loveliest view on the Border. Here Scott used to drive in his carriage and sit silently for half an hour gazing over the land whose people he loved and whose legends were in his blood.
And I thought that this perhaps was the greatest tribute ever paid to a writer by one of his own people. Scott was no mere author. He was a Border chief and a prince of ballad-singers; and something of his quality found its way into the hearts of men who worked around him with scythe and spade.
It was evening when I stood there. The sun was sinking above Melrose, and the smoke from the distant farms lay in the air and drifted in thin banks to lie over the waters of the Tweed. It was so still that I heard dogs barking far down in the valley ; and as the sun sank the grey mists grew denser between the hills, outlining the valleys and lying like grey veils in the hollow places.
And I met an old man returning from work. I talked to him. His mind was full of a recent fishing competition in the Tweed, and he talked freely about baskets of ‘troot’. Gradually I led him to Scott, and found, as I had imagined, that he had never read a line of him! He told me the story of ‘Sir Walter’s’ funeral, how the long line of carriages was held up on Bemersyde because Scott’s carriage horses, drawing the hearse, stopped at the view he loved so well and stood patiently there for half an hour, as they had done so often.
‘Aye, he was a graund man!’ said the old fellow who had never read a line of Scott! (H.V. Morton In Search of Scotland 1929)
Sir Walter and his native place definitely belong to our collective imaginary and as such it must be preserved !
Now, let’s go a little further, following the Tweed up to the ford of the Abbot…
Abbotsford is a many-turreted mansion standing among trees and built on rising ground which slopes gently to the Tweed. It looks as though it has been composed by the author of Ivanhoe.
As you skirt the high walls that surround it and observe its towers, its air of having descended from Border keep and baronial castle, it would appear only right that a herald should ride to the sound of trumpets and inquire your status in Debrett. (H.V. Morton In Search of Scotland 1929)
Just try to imagine we too are sitting aboard a little boat, drifting on the river Tweed, in front of Abbotsford…I’m not sure the house can be seen today as clearly as on this old photo. The vegetation must be thicker but the house is quite recognizable. Let us hope it will remain as such for a long long time…
Whether you like or not its architecture, you can hardly remain indifferent to Abbotsford. Each time we’ve visited it, the doors closed behind us, at exactly 5 o’clock, except in 2000 when we fell upon Dame Maxwell-Scott in person and she very kindly let us stay a little longer in the house! So reluctant are we to leave, with our insatiable curiosity about the place and its master, that we always are the last visitors to depart. In 2006, we met Michael, the very friendly and learned man who used to welcome and advise the visitors at the entry of Abbotsford. We instantly got on well with him and he spontaneously lent us an exemplary of Walter Scott’s Journal as a guidebook to visit the house
Both of us finally bought an exemplary of The Journal and, I can tell you, the pages of our big volumes (more than 900) are falling apart for having been opened so often.
Whatever our country, age or literary tastes, the very name of Walter Scott, like that of Shakespeare, Victor Hugo or Balzac, is likely to ring a bell. Most of us will probably find hard to discover where this ringing comes from… but we’re speaking of ‘The Wizard of the North’ , aren’t we ?
Anyway, visiting Abbotsford makes us feel like reading the books which have been written there, in this incredible place, this “conundrum” as Sir Walter qualified it!
I left Abbotsford with the firm determination to re-read some of the books with which Scott repaid the debt, writes H.V. Morton… for we must not forget that, here, Sir Walter wrote himself to death. One of his main reasons was to save Abbotsford!
Certainly the best way to make a good idea of an author is first to read his books and those which have been written about him, hence the interest of good bibliographies. One of the biggest volumes in my library happens to be Sir Walter Scott A Bibliographical History 1796-1832 (more than 1,000 pages). “Read, read, read” the teachers kept saying at the literary course in the University of Montaigne, in Bordeaux. But, of course, if we are lucky enough to be able to visit the place where an author has lived and worked, it’s still better. For Walter Scott’s admirers it is a pilgrimage to go to Abbotsford and for those who hardly knew him before going there (which was our case in 2000), it is certainly an encouragement to read the books of the master of such a place !
Every room of Abbotsford holds something of a presence so strong that even one who imagined that his interest in Scott evaporated at school must feel the awakening of an old loyalty. (H.V. Morton In Search of Scotland 1929)
Sir Walter must be let to haunt the rooms of Abbotsford forever, in a quiet environment, as if he had never ceased to be there, writing, reading or simply enjoying life with his family and dogs…
Before leaving Abbotsford, let us sit down one moment, listening to the murmur of the Tweed…
Maybe the wind will tell us a poem written by Sir Walter…
A bientôt. Mairiuna