Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 12.

Distractions and Amusements at Abbotsford.

Between 1814 and the end of 1825, Scott’s literary labour was interrupted only by one serious illness, and hardly interrupted by that — by a few journeys — one to Paris after the battle of Waterloo, and several to London — and by the worry of a constant stream of intrusive visitors. Of his journeys he has left some records; but I cannot say that I think Scott would ever have reached, as a mere observer and recorder, at all the high point which he reached directly his imagination went to work to create a story. That imagination was, indeed, far less subservient to his mere perceptions than to his constructive powers. Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk— the records of his Paris journey after Waterloo — for instance, are not at all above the mark of a good special correspondent. His imagination was less the imagination of insight, than the imagination of one whose mind was a great kaleidoscope of human life and fortunes. But far more interrupting than either illness or travel, was the lion-hunting of which Scott became the object, directly after the publication of the earlier novels. In great measure, no doubt, on account of the mystery as to his authorship, his fame became something oppressive. At one time as many as sixteen parties of visitors applied to see Abbotsford in a single day. Strangers — especially the American travellers of that day, who were much less reticent and more irrepressible than the American travellers of this — would come to him without introductions, facetiously cry out “Prodigious!” in imitation of Dominie Sampson, whatever they were shown, inquire whether the new house was called Tullyveolan or Tillytudlem, cross-examine, with open note-books, as to Scott’s age, and the age of his wife, and appear to be taken quite by surprise when they were bowed out without being asked to dine.1 In those days of high postage Scott’s bill for letters “seldom came under 150l. a year,” and “as to coach parcels, they were a perfect ruination.” On one occasion a mighty package came by post from the United States, for which Scott had to pay five pounds sterling. It contained a MS. play called The Cherokee Lovers, by a young lady of New York, who begged Scott to read and correct it, write a prologue and epilogue, get it put on the stage at Drury Lane, and negotiate with Constable or Murray for the copyright. In about a fortnight another packet not less formidable arrived, charged with a similar postage, which Scott, not grown cautious through experience, recklessly opened; out jumped a duplicate copy of The Cherokee Lovers, with a second letter from the authoress, stating that as the weather had been stormy, and she feared that something might have happened to her former MS., she had thought it prudent to send him a duplicate.2 Of course, when fame reached such a point as this, it became both a worry and a serious waste of money, and what was far more valuable than money, of time, privacy, and tranquillity of mind. And though no man ever bore such worries with the equanimity of Scott, no man ever received less pleasure from the adulation of unknown and often vulgar and ignorant admirers. His real amusements were his trees and his friends. “Planting and pruning trees,” he said, “I could work at from morning to night. There is a sort of self-congratulation, a little tickling self-flattery, in the idea that while you are pleasing and amusing yourself, you are seriously contributing to the future welfare of the country, and that your very acorn may send its future ribs of oak to future victories like Trafalgar,”3— for the day of iron ships was not yet. And again, at a later stage of his planting:—“You can have no idea of the exquisite delight of a planter — he is like a painter laying on his colours — at every moment he sees his effects coming out. There is no art or occupation comparable to this; it is full of past, present, and future enjoyment. I look back to the time when there was not a tree here, only bare heath; I look round and see thousands of trees growing up, all of which, I may say almost each of which, have received my personal attention. I remember, five years ago, looking forward with the most delighted expectation to this very hour, and as each year has passed, the expectation has gone on increasing. I do the same now. I anticipate what this plantation and that one will presently be, if only taken care of, and there is not a spot of which I do not watch the progress. Unlike building, or even painting, or indeed any other kind of pursuit, this has no end, and is never interrupted; but goes on from day to day, and from year to year, with a perpetually augmenting interest. Farming I hate. What have I to do with fattening and killing beasts, or raising corn, only to cut it down, and to wrangle with farmers about prices, and to be constantly at the mercy of the seasons? There can be no such disappointments or annoyances in planting trees.”4 Scott indeed regarded planting as a mode of so moulding the form and colour of the outward world, that nature herself became indebted to him for finer outlines, richer masses of colour, and deeper shadows, as well as for more fertile and sheltered soils. And he was as skilful in producing the last result, as he was in the artistic effects of his planting. In the essay on the planting of waste lands, he mentions a story — drawn from his own experience — of a planter, who having scooped out the lowest part of his land for enclosures, and “planted the wood round them in masses enlarged or contracted as the natural lying of the ground seemed to dictate,” met, six years after these changes, his former tenant on the ground, and said to him, “I suppose, Mr. R—— you will say I have ruined your farm by laying half of it into woodland?” “I should have expected it, sir,” answered Mr. R—— “if you had told me beforehand what you were going to do; but I am now of a very different opinion; and as I am looking for land at present, if you are inclined to take for the remaining sixty acres the same rent which I formerly gave for a hundred and twenty, I will give you an offer to that amount. I consider the benefit of the enclosing, and the complete shelter afforded to the fields, as an advantage which fairly counterbalances the loss of one-half of the land.”5

And Scott was not only thoughtful in his own planting, but induced his neighbours to become so too. So great was their regard for him, that many of them planted their estates as much with reference to the effect which their plantations would have on the view from Abbotsford, as with reference to the effect they would have on the view from their own grounds. Many was the consultation which he and his neighbours, Scott of Gala, for instance, and Mr. Henderson of Eildon Hall, had together on the effect which would be produced on the view from their respective houses, of the planting going on upon the lands of each. The reciprocity of feeling was such that the various proprietors acted more like brothers in this matter, than like the jealous and exclusive creatures which landowners, as such, so often are.

Next to his interest in the management and growth of his own little estate was Scott’s interest in the management and growth of the Duke of Buccleuch’s. To the Duke he looked up as the head of his clan, with something almost more than a feudal attachment, greatly enhanced of course by the personal friendship which he had formed for him in early life as the Earl of Dalkeith. This mixture of feudal and personal feeling towards the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch continued during their lives. Scott was away on a yachting tour to the Shetlands and Orkneys in July and August, 1814, and it was during this absence that the Duchess of Buccleuch died. Scott, who was in no anxiety about her, employed himself in writing an amusing descriptive epistle to the Duke in rough verse, chronicling his voyage, and containing expressions of the profoundest reverence for the goodness and charity of the Duchess, a letter which did not reach its destination till after the Duchess’s death. Scott himself heard of her death by chance when they landed for a few hours on the coast of Ireland; he was quite overpowered by the news, and went to bed only to drop into short nightmare sleeps, and to wake with the dim memory of some heavy weight at his heart. The Duke himself died five years later, leaving a son only thirteen years of age (the present Duke), over whose interests, both as regarded his education and his estates, Scott watched as jealously as if they had been those of his own son. Many were the anxious letters he wrote to Lord Montague as to his “young chief’s” affairs, as he called them, and great his pride in watching the promise of his youth. Nothing can be clearer than that to Scott the feudal principle was something far beyond a name; that he had at least as much pride in his devotion to his chief, as he had in founding a house which he believed would increase the influence — both territorial and personal — of the clan of Scotts. The unaffected reverence which he felt for the Duke, though mingled with warm personal affection, showed that Scott’s feudal feeling had something real and substantial in it, which did not vanish even when it came into close contact with strong personal feelings. This reverence is curiously marked in his letters. He speaks of “the distinction of rank” being ignored by both sides, as of something quite exceptional, but it was never really ignored by him, for though he continued to write to the Duke as an intimate friend, it was with a mingling of awe, very different indeed from that which he ever adopted to Ellis or Erskine. It is necessary to remember this, not only in estimating the strength of the feeling which made him so anxious to become himself the founder of a house within a house — of a new branch of the clan of Scotts — but in estimating the loyalty which Scott always displayed to one of the least respectable of English sovereigns, George IV. — a matter of which I must now say a few words, not only because it led to Scott’s receiving the baronetcy, but because it forms to my mind the most grotesque of all the threads in the lot of this strong and proud man.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, v. 387.

2 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, v. 382.

3 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, iii. 288.

4 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, vii. 287–8.

5 Scott’s Miscellaneous Prose Works, xxi. 22–3.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29