Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 7.

First Country Homes.

So completely was Scott by nature an out-of-doors man that he cannot be adequately known either through his poems or through his friends, without also knowing his external surroundings and occupations. His first country home was the cottage at Lasswade, on the Esk, about six miles from Edinburgh, which he took in 1798, a few months after his marriage, and retained till 1804. It was a pretty little cottage, in the beautification of which Scott felt great pride, and where he exercised himself in the small beginnings of those tastes for altering and planting which grew so rapidly upon him, and at last enticed him into castle-building and tree-culture on a dangerous, not to say, ruinous scale. One of Scott’s intimate friends, the master of Rokeby, by whose house and neighbourhood the poem of that name was suggested, Mr. Morritt, walked along the Esk in 1808 with Scott four years after he had left it, and was taken out of his way to see it. “I have been bringing you,” he said, “where there is little enough to be seen, only that Scotch cottage, but though not worth looking at, I could not pass it. It was our first country house when newly married, and many a contrivance it had to make it comfortable. I made a dining-table for it with my own hands. Look at these two miserable willow-trees on either side the gate into the enclosure; they are tied together at the top to be an arch, and a cross made of two sticks over them is not yet decayed. To be sure it is not much of a lion to show a stranger; but I wanted to see it again myself, for I assure you that after I had constructed it, mamma (Mrs. Scott) and I both of us thought it so fine, we turned out to see it by moonlight, and walked backwards from it to the cottage-door, in admiration of our own magnificence and its picturesque effect.” It was here at Lasswade that he bought the phaeton, which was the first wheeled carriage that ever penetrated to Liddesdale, a feat which it accomplished in the first August of this century.

When Scott left the cottage at Lasswade in 1804, it was to take up his country residence in Selkirkshire, of which he had now been made sheriff, in a beautiful little house belonging to his cousin, Major–General Sir James Russell, and known to all the readers of Scott’s poetry as the Ashestiel of the Marmion introductions. The Glenkinnon brook dashes in a deep ravine through the grounds to join the Tweed; behind the house rise the hills which divide the Tweed from the Yarrow; and an easy ride took Scott into the scenery of the Yarrow. The description of Ashestiel, and the brook which runs through it, in the introduction to the first canto of Marmion is indeed one of the finest specimens of Scott’s descriptive poetry:—

“November’s sky is chill and drear,

November’s leaf is red and sear;

Late, gazing down the steepy linn,

That hems our little garden in,

Low in its dark and narrow glen,

You scarce the rivulet might ken,

So thick the tangled greenwood grew,

So feeble trill’d the streamlet through;

Now, murmuring hoarse, and frequent seen,

Through bush and briar no longer green,

An angry brook, it sweeps the glade,

Brawls over rock and wild cascade,

And, foaming brown with doubled speed,

Hurries its waters to the Tweed.”

Selkirk was his nearest town, and that was seven miles from Ashestiel; and even his nearest neighbour was at Yair, a few miles off lower down the Tweed — Yair of which he wrote in another of the introductions to Marmion:—

“From Yair, which hills so closely bind

Scarce can the Tweed his passage find,

Though much he fret, and chafe, and toil,

Till all his eddying currents boil.”

At Ashestiel it was one of his greatest delights to look after his relative’s woods, and to dream of planting and thinning woods of his own, a dream only too amply realized. It was here that a new kitchen-range was sunk for some time in the ford, which was so swollen by a storm in 1805 that the horse and cart that brought it were themselves with difficulty rescued from the waters. And it was here that Scott first entered on that active life of literary labour in close conjunction with an equally active life of rural sport, which gained him a well-justified reputation as the hardest worker and the heartiest player in the kingdom. At Lasswade Scott’s work had been done at night; but serious headaches made him change his habit at Ashestiel, and rise steadily at five, lighting his own fire in winter. “Arrayed in his shooting-jacket, or whatever dress he meant to use till dinner-time, he was seated at his desk by six o’clock, all his papers arranged before him in the most accurate order, and his books of reference marshalled around him on the floor, while at least one favourite dog lay watching his eye, just beyond the line of circumvallation. Thus, by the time the family assembled for breakfast, between nine and ten, he had done enough, in his own language, ‘to break the neck of the day’s work.’ After breakfast a couple of hours more were given to his solitary tasks, and by noon he was, as he used to say, his ‘own man.’ When the weather was bad, he would labour incessantly all the morning; but the general rule was to be out and on horseback by one o’clock at the latest; while, if any more distant excursion had been proposed overnight, he was ready to start on it by ten; his occasional rainy days of unintermitted study, forming, as he said, a fund in his favour, out of which he was entitled to draw for accommodation whenever the sun shone with special brightness.” In his earlier days none of his horses liked to be fed except by their master. When Brown Adam was saddled, and the stable-door opened, the horse would trot round to the leaping-on stone of his own accord, to be mounted, and was quite intractable under any one but Scott. Scott’s life might well be fairly divided — just as history is divided into reigns — by the succession of his horses and dogs. The reigns of Captain, Lieutenant, Brown Adam, Daisy, divide at least the period up to Waterloo; while the reigns of Sybil Grey, and the Covenanter, or Douce Davie, divide the period of Scott’s declining years. During the brilliant period of the earlier novels we hear less of Scott’s horses; but of his deerhounds there is an unbroken succession. Camp, Maida (the “Bevis” of Woodstock), and Nimrod, reigned successively between Sir Walter’s marriage and his death. It was Camp on whose death he relinquished a dinner invitation previously accepted, on the ground that the death of “an old friend” rendered him unwilling to dine out; Maida to whom he erected a marble monument, and Nimrod of whom he spoke so affectingly as too good a dog for his diminished fortunes during his absence in Italy on the last hopeless journey.

Scott’s amusements at Ashestiel, besides riding, in which he was fearless to rashness, and coursing, which was the chief form of sporting in the neighbourhood, comprehended “burning the water,” as salmon-spearing by torchlight was called, in the course of which he got many a ducking. Mr. Skene gives an amusing picture of their excursions together from Ashestiel among the hills, he himself followed by a lanky Savoyard, and Scott by a portly Scotch butler — both servants alike highly sensitive as to their personal dignity — on horses which neither of the attendants could sit well. “Scott’s heavy lumbering buffetier had provided himself against the mountain storms with a huge cloak, which, when the cavalcade was at gallop, streamed at full stretch from his shoulders, and kept flapping in the other’s face, who, having more than enough to do in preserving his own equilibrium, could not think of attempting at any time to control the pace of his steed, and had no relief but fuming and pesting at the sacré manteau, in language happily unintelligible to its wearer. Now and then some ditch or turf-fence rendered it indispensable to adventure on a leap, and no farce could have been more amusing than the display of politeness which then occurred between these worthy equestrians, each courteously declining in favour of his friend the honour of the first experiment, the horses fretting impatient beneath them, and the dogs clamouring encouragement.”1 Such was Scott’s order of life at Ashestiel, where he remained from 1804 to 1812. As to his literary work here, it was enormous.

Besides finishing The Lay of the Last Minstrel, writing Marmion, The Lady of the Lake, part of The Bridal of Triermain, and part of Rokeby, and writing reviews, he wrote a Life of Dryden, and edited his works anew with some care, in eighteen volumes, edited Somers’s Collection of Tracts, in thirteen volumes, quarto, Sir Ralph Sadler’s Life, Letters, and State Papers, in three volumes, quarto, Miss Seward’s Life and Poetical Works, The Secret History of the Court of James I., in two volumes, Strutt’s Queenhoo Hall, in four volumes, 12mo., and various other single volumes, and began his heavy work on the edition of Swift. This was the literary work of eight years, during which he had the duties of his Sheriffship, and, after he gave up his practice as a barrister, the duties of his Deputy Clerkship of Session to discharge regularly. The editing of Dryden alone would have seemed to most men of leisure a pretty full occupation for these eight years, and though I do not know that Scott edited with the anxious care with which that sort of work is often now prepared, that he went into all the arguments for a doubtful reading with the pains that Mr. Dyce spent on the various readings of Shakespeare, or that Mr. Spedding spent on a various reading of Bacon, yet Scott did his work in a steady, workmanlike manner, which satisfied the most fastidious critics of that day, and he was never, I believe, charged with hurrying or scamping it. His biographies of Swift and Dryden are plain solid pieces of work — not exactly the works of art which biographies have been made in our day — not comparable to Carlyle’s studies of Cromwell or Frederick, or, in point of art, even to the life of John Sterling, but still sensible and interesting, sound in judgment, and animated in style.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ii. 268–9.

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