Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 8.

Removal to Abbotsford, and Life There.

In May, 1812, Scott having now at last obtained the salary of the Clerkship of Session, the work of which he had for more than five years discharged without pay, indulged himself in realizing his favourite dream of buying a “mountain farm” at Abbotsford — five miles lower down the Tweed than his cottage at Ashestiel, which was now again claimed by the family of Russell — and migrated thither with his household goods. The children long remembered the leave-taking as one of pure grief, for the villagers were much attached both to Scott and to his wife, who had made herself greatly beloved by her untiring goodness to the sick among her poor neighbours. But Scott himself describes the migration as a scene in which their neighbours found no small share of amusement. “Our flitting and removal from Ashestiel baffled all description; we had twenty-five cartloads of the veriest trash in nature, besides dogs, pigs, ponies, poultry, cows, calves, bare-headed wenches, and bare-breeched boys.”1

To another friend Scott wrote that the neighbours had “been much delighted with the procession of my furniture, in which old swords, bows, targets, and lances, made a very conspicuous show. A family of turkeys was accommodated within the helmet of some preux chevalier of ancient border fame; and the very cows, for aught I know, were bearing banners and muskets. I assure your ladyship that this caravan attended by a dozen of ragged rosy peasant children, carrying fishing-rods and spears, and leading ponies, greyhounds, and spaniels, would, as it crossed the Tweed, have furnished no bad subject for the pencil, and really reminded me of one of the gipsy groups of Callot upon their march.”2

The place thus bought for 4000l. — half of which, according to Scott’s bad and sanguine habit, was borrowed from his brother, and half raised on the security of a poem at the moment of sale wholly unwritten, and not completed even when he removed to Abbotsford —“Rokeby”— became only too much of an idol for the rest of Scott’s life. Mr. Lockhart admits that before the crash came he had invested 29,000l. in the purchase of land alone. But at this time only the kernel of the subsequent estate was bought, in the shape of a hundred acres or rather more, part of which ran along the shores of the Tweed —“a beautiful river flowing broad and bright over a bed of milk-white pebbles, unless here and there where it darkened into a deep pool, overhung as yet only by birches and alders.” There was also a poor farm-house, a staring barn, and a pond so dirty that it had hitherto given the name of “Clarty Hole” to the place itself. Scott renamed the place from the adjoining ford which was just above the confluence of the Gala with the Tweed. He chose the name of Abbotsford because the land had formerly all belonged to the Abbots of Melrose — the ruin of whose beautiful abbey was visible from many parts of the little property. On the other side of the river the old British barrier called “the Catrail” was full in view. As yet the place was not planted — the only effort made in this direction by its former owner, Dr. Douglas, having been a long narrow stripe of firs, which Scott used to compare to a black hair-comb, and which gave the name of “The Doctor’s Redding–Kame” to the stretch of woods of which it is still the central line. Such was the place which he made it the too great delight of the remainder of his life to increase and beautify, by spending on it a good deal more than he had earned, and that too in times when he should have earned a good deal more than he ought to have thought even for a moment of spending. The cottage grew to a mansion, and the mansion to a castle. The farm by the Tweed made him long for a farm by the Cauldshiel’s loch, and the farm by the Cauldshiel’s loch for Thomas the Rhymer’s Glen; and as, at every step in the ladder, his means of buying were really increasing — though they were so cruelly discounted and forestalled by this growing land-hunger — Scott never realized into what troubles he was carefully running himself.

Of his life at Abbotsford at a later period when his building was greatly enlarged, and his children grown up, we have a brilliant picture from the pen of Mr. Lockhart. And though it does not belong to his first years at Abbotsford, I cannot do better than include it here as conveying probably better than anything I could elsewhere find, the charm of that ideal life which lured Scott on from one project to another in that scheme of castle-building, in relation to which he confused so dangerously the world of dreams with the harder world of wages, capital, interest, and rent.

“I remember saying to William Allan one morning, as the whole party mustered before the porch after breakfast, ‘A faithful sketch of what you at this moment see would be more interesting a hundred years hence than the grandest so-called historical picture that you will ever exhibit in Somerset House;’ and my friend agreed with me so cordially that I often wondered afterwards he had not attempted to realize the suggestion. The subject ought, however, to have been treated conjointly by him (or Wilkie) and Edwin Landseer.

“It was a clear, bright September morning, with a sharpness in the air that doubled the animating influence of the sunshine, and all was in readiness for a grand coursing match on Newark Hill. The only guest who had chalked out other sport for himself was the staunchest of anglers, Mr. Rose; but he too was there on his shelty, armed with his salmon-rod and landing-net, and attended by his humorous squire, Hinves, and Charlie Purdie, a brother of Tom, in those days the most celebrated fisherman of the district. This little group of Waltonians, bound for Lord Somerville’s preserve, remained lounging about to witness the start of the main cavalcade. Sir Walter, mounted on Sybil, was marshalling the order of procession with a huge hunting-whip; and among a dozen frolicsome youths and maidens, who seemed disposed to laugh at all discipline, appeared, each on horseback, each as eager as the youngest sportsman in the troop, Sir Humphry Davy, Dr. Wollaston, and the patriarch of Scottish belles lettres, Henry Mackenzie. The Man of Feeling, however, was persuaded with some difficulty to resign his steed for the present to his faithful negro follower, and to join Lady Scott in the sociable, until we should reach the ground of our battue. Laidlaw, on a long-tailed, wiry Highlander, yclept Hoddin Grey, which carried him nimbly and stoutly, although his feet almost touched the ground as he sat, was the adjutant. But the most picturesque figure was the illustrious inventor of the safety-lamp. He had come for his favourite sport of angling, and had been practising it successfully with Rose, his travelling-companion, for two or three days preceding this, but he had not prepared for coursing fields, and had left Charlie Purdie’s troop for Sir Walter’s on a sudden thought; and his fisherman’s costume — a brown hat with flexible brim, surrounded with line upon line, and innumerable fly-hooks, jack-boots worthy of a Dutch smuggler, and a fustian surtout dabbled with the blood of salmon — made a fine contrast with the smart jackets, white cord breeches, and well-polished jockey-boots of the less distinguished cavaliers about him. Dr. Wollaston was in black, and, with his noble, serene dignity of countenance, might have passed for a sporting archbishop. Mr. Mackenzie, at this time in the seventy-sixth year of his age, with a white hat turned up with green, green spectacles, green jacket, and long brown leather gaiters buttoned upon his nether anatomy, wore a dog-whistle round his neck, and had all over the air of as resolute a devotee as the gay captain of Huntly Burn. Tom Purdie and his subalterns had preceded us by a few hours with all the greyhounds that could be collected at Abbotsford, Darnick, and Melrose; but the giant Maida had remained as his master’s orderly, and now gambolled about Sibyl Grey, barking for mere joy, like a spaniel puppy.

“The order of march had been all settled, and the sociable was just getting under weigh, when the Lady Anne broke from the line, screaming with laughter, and exclaimed, ‘Papa! papa! I know you could never think of going without your pet.’ Scott looked round, and I rather think there was a blush as well as a smile upon his face, when he perceived a little black pig frisking about his pony, and evidently a self-elected addition to the party of the day. He tried to look stern, and cracked his whip at the creature, but was in a moment obliged to join in the general cheers. Poor piggy soon found a strap round his neck, and was dragged into the background. Scott, watching the retreat, repeated with mock pathos the first verse of an old pastoral song:—

“What will I do gin my hoggie die?

My joy, my pride, my hoggie!

My only beast, I had nae mae,

And wow! but I was vogie!”

The cheers were redoubled, and the squadron moved on. This pig had taken, nobody could tell how, a most sentimental attachment to Scott, and was constantly urging its pretension to be admitted a regular member of his tail, along with the greyhounds and terriers; but indeed I remember him suffering another summer under the same sort of pertinacity on the part of an affectionate hen. I leave the explanation for philosophers; but such were the facts. I have too much respect for the vulgarly calumniated donkey to name him in the same category of pets with the pig and the hen; but a year or two after this time, my wife used to drive a couple of these animals in a little garden chair, and whenever her father appeared at the door of our cottage, we were sure to see Hannah More and Lady Morgan (as Anne Scott had wickedly christened them) trotting from their pasture to lay their noses over the paling, and, as Washington Irving says of the old white-haired hedger with the Parisian snuff-box, ‘to have a pleasant crack wi’ the laird.’"3

Carlyle, in his criticism on Scott — a criticism which will hardly, I think, stand the test of criticism in its turn, so greatly does he overdo the reaction against the first excessive appreciation of his genius — adds a contribution of his own to this charming idyll, in reference to the natural fascination which Scott seemed to exert over almost all dumb creatures. A little Blenheim cocker, “one of the smallest, beautifullest, and tiniest of lapdogs,” with which Carlyle was well acquainted, and which was also one of the shyest of dogs, that would crouch towards his mistress and draw back “with angry timidity” if any one did but look at him admiringly, once met in the street “a tall, singular, busy-looking man,” who halted by. The dog ran towards him and began “fawning, frisking, licking at his feet;” and every time he saw Sir Walter afterwards, in Edinburgh, he repeated his demonstration of delight. Thus discriminating was this fastidious Blenheim cocker even in the busy streets of Edinburgh.

And Scott’s attraction for dumb animals was only a lesser form of his attraction for all who were in any way dependent on him, especially his own servants and labourers. The story of his demeanour towards them is one of the most touching ever written. “Sir Walter speaks to every man as if they were blood-relations” was the common formula in which this demeanour was described. Take this illustration. There was a little hunchbacked tailor, named William Goodfellow, living on his property (but who at Abbotsford was termed Robin Goodfellow). This tailor was employed to make the curtains for the new library, and had been very proud of his work, but fell ill soon afterwards, and Sir Walter was unremitting in his attention to him. “I can never forget,” says Mr. Lockhart, “the evening on which the poor tailor died. When Scott entered the hovel, he found everything silent, and inferred from the looks of the good women in attendance that the patient had fallen asleep, and that they feared his sleep was the final one. He murmured some syllables of kind regret: at the sound of his voice the dying tailor unclosed his eyes, and eagerly and wistfully sat up, clasping his hands with an expression of rapturous gratefulness and devotion that, in the midst of deformity, disease, pain, and wretchedness, was at once beautiful and sublime. He cried with a loud voice, ‘The Lord bless and reward you!’ and expired with the effort.”4 Still more striking is the account of his relation with Tom Purdie, the wide-mouthed, under-sized, broad-shouldered, square-made, thin-flanked woodsman, so well known afterwards by all Scott’s friends as he waited for his master in his green shooting-jacket, white hat, and drab trousers. Scott first made Tom Purdie’s acquaintance in his capacity as judge, the man being brought before him for poaching, at the time that Scott was living at Ashestiel. Tom gave so touching an account of his circumstances — work scarce — wife and children in want — grouse abundant — and his account of himself was so fresh and even humorous, that Scott let him off the penalty, and made him his shepherd. He discharged these duties so faithfully that he came to be his master’s forester and factotum, and indeed one of his best friends, though a little disposed to tyrannize over Scott in his own fashion. A visitor describes him as unpacking a box of new importations for his master “as if he had been sorting some toys for a restless child.” But after Sir Walter had lost the bodily strength requisite for riding, and was too melancholy for ordinary conversation, Tom Purdie’s shoulder was his great stay in wandering through his woods, for with him he felt that he might either speak or be silent at his pleasure. “What a blessing there is,” Scott wrote in his diary at that time, “in a fellow like Tom, whom no familiarity can spoil, whom you may scold and praise and joke with, knowing the quality of the man is unalterable in his love and reverence to his master.” After Scott’s failure, Mr. Lockhart writes: “Before I leave this period, I must note how greatly I admired the manner in which all his dependents appeared to have met the reverse of his fortunes — a reverse which inferred very considerable alteration in the circumstances of every one of them. The butler, instead of being the easy chief of a large establishment, was now doing half the work of the house at probably half his former wages. Old Peter, who had been for five and twenty years a dignified coachman, was now ploughman in ordinary, only putting his horses to the carriage upon high and rare occasions; and so on with all the rest that remained of the ancient train. And all, to my view, seemed happier than they had ever done before.”5 The illustration of this true confidence between Scott and his servants and labourers might be extended to almost any length.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, iv. 6.

2 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, iv. 3.

3 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, vi. 238 — 242.

4 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, vii. 218.

5 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ix. 170.

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