19th March, Matthew Withey, Former Curator of Abbotsford: the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution Lecture


The most iconic image of Sir Walter Scott is in his study, dog at his feet, at home in Abbotsford, but another has him as a baby being lifted god-like by nymphs out of the Tweed. Reality was somewhat different as childhood meant Edinburgh's College Wynd, where he was brought up the son of a lawyer and a form of polio left him lame in one leg.

However on being sent to his grandparents' home near Smailholm Tower he began to learn the tales of the Borders, and in 1799 was appointed Sheriff of Selkirk with a requirement to reside there for at least three months in the year. Resident at first in Ashiestiel, in 1811 he bought Cartleyhole Farm, renaming it Abbotsford in recognition of the Tweed crossing nearby that was used at one time by monks from Melrose Abbey, to "build myself a bower". His first architect unfortunately dropped dead two years later, but he brought in an English firm to replace the farmstead with an entrance modelled on Linlithgow Palace and plan an extension that would give him a place for both family and work.

Just a year after Scott's death in 1832, Abbotsford was opened as a visitor attraction. His son died without issue in 1847, but the House passed through a daughter whose husband commissioned an extension by William Burn into the Hope-Scott family. With the commitment that they showed to its development, there was little wonder that a myth grew about the Tweed having had to be diverted!

Visitors included US Presidents Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S Grant, and an American party was brought there by Thomas Cook in 1873. The House to Mary Monica Hope-Scott, chatelaine from 1870 to 1920, and the sense of Scott's spirit being imbued into the stonework dates from this time. Remarkably the line continued unbroken, and the legacy thus stayed intact until sisters Patricia and Jean Hope-Scott died in 1996 and 2004.

Postcards recall the coming of the motor car and the promotion of Abbotsford as a destination by the London and North Eastern Railway whose station at Abbotsford Ferry lasted until 1931. Successive descendants tried to move with the times while keeping the House's atmosphere. On Jean's death other branches of the family were sought and Andrew Douglas-Home sounded out the National Trust for Scotland, but it was decided that Abbotsford did not belong in their wider portfolio and Jason Dyer was brought in as chief executive, raising to date £11.68M but as yet there is a £2.4M shortfall on the £3M requirement for an endowment. LVN Architects created a visitor centre, shop and restaurant sitting low in the landscape of the House, which is now Grade A-listed and the plan is to convert the Hope Scott Wing into a hotel. Under the chairmanship of Lord Sanderson of Bowden supported by the Duke of Buccleuch the Trustees inevitably discarded some ideas, but an audio-guide has proved popular and the family collections have been inventorised. A sculpture by Claire Barclay has proved a talking-point and the restaurant soon generated much-needed income, but the shop turned out to be less successful, being too generic, so is being rethought to make it more distinctive.

Roof timbers were renewed and both electrics and plumbing overhauled, but the stonework proved in good condition. HM the Queen opened the refurbished House on 4 July 2013.

The ambience retains its shabby-chic lived-in look, with Scott's bust prominent in the study, the Byron Urn reinstated I the library and the armoury tastefully restored with its Celtic sword. The dining room which had not joined the public tour until the 1960s has been lightened up, and an opportunity exists for sponsors to "save a shield" on the ceiling.

The Business Plan aims to convert the previous £100k annual loss into a self-sustaining breakeven position by 2015, and a strategic vision looks ahead to 2023. Heritage Lottery funding requires deployment of key staff including a learning engagement officer, and an events programme of music and poetry aims to make Abbotsford a hub of the arts as it was in Scott's day. A curatorial plan applies modern museum standards while acknowledging doubts as to the claims made for the origin of certain items. The hotel is due to open this year, and the development of the library is taking account of the proportion owned by the Faculty of Advocates. Jason Dyer has moved to become Development Director, and the next focus will be on the garden
. The Borders Railway is due to open in September 2015 to Tweedbank, a mile from Abbotsford.