Here’s an interesting piece of news: Abbotsford — the home of the Scottish novelist, poet and Washington Irving mentor Sir Walter Scott — is receiving a nearly ten million pound makeover, courtesy of Scotland’s Heritage Lottery Fund, to turn it into a major cultural center.
I’m all for it, though I have an admittedly biased angle: Abbotsford was an important place to Washington Irving. In the summer of 1817, Irving — one of American literature’s great gatecrashers and an enormous fan of Scott — presented himself, and a charmingly mooched letter of introduction, unannounced at Scott’s front gate. As he was waiting to see whether he would be received, here came Scott — and Irving never forgot his first glimpse of the Scotsman, shuffling up the hill from Abbotsford:
He was tall, and of a large and powerful frame. His dress was simple, almost rustic. An old shooting coat, with a dog whistle at the buttonhole, brown linen pantaloons, stout shoes that tied at the ankles, and a white hat that had evidently seen service. He came limping up the gravel walk, aiding himself by a stout walking-staff, but moving rapidly and with vigor.
Scott was an admirer of Irving’s first book, A History of New York, and eagerly welcomed the 34-year-old American. Scott was in the midst of yet another round of improvements and renovations to the castle, which he had initially erected as just a small villa in 1812, and Irving — always an early riser — would awaken each morning to find Scott already up and about and shouting orders at his carpenters in his distinctive Scotch burr.
Overt the next few days, Scott hosted Irving at his family table, showed Irving his novel Rob Roy — still only in printers proofs that Scott was reading and correcting — and steered him around the property and surrounding countryside. “Every night I returned with my mind filled with delightful recollections of the day,” Irving wrote, “and every morning I rose with the certainty of new enjoyment.”
And then there’s one of my favorite Irving-Scott moments: caught in a rainstorm one afternoon, Scott wrapped his tartan around himself, then pulled Irving into a thicket to get out of the rain. Motioning for Irving to sit beside him, Scott draped the tartan over Irving’s shoulders, literally taking his young admirer under his wing — a gesture Irving never forgot.
When Irving left Abbotsford three days later, Scott shook his hand warmly. “I will not say farewell, for it is always a painful word,” Scott said. “But I will say, come again . . . come when you please, you will always find Abbotsford open to you, and a hearty welcome.”
“The days thus spent I shall ever look back to as among the very happiest of my life,” Irving wrote later. And when it came time to build his own home, Irving remembered Abbotsford, incorporating small architectural nods to Scott’s home into Sunnyside — but more importantly, Irving remembered his reception at Abbotsford, and would ensure that Sunnyside would always be as warm and welcoming.
I’m glad to hear that Scotland’s Heritage Lottery Fund is bringing this treasure back to its former glory — and I look forward to visiting it. For more information on Abbotsford, click here.