Dryburgh AbbeyDryburgh Abbey. flickr: Bert Kaufmann / Creative Commons

After visiting Abbotford, Harriet Beecher Stowe was next taken to see two ruined abbeys, Dryburgh Abbey and Melrose Abbey. She was reminded of Scott’s poem, “The Eve of St. John,” which mentiones both places. Of the poem, she writes that “it is, I think, the most spirited of all his ballads; nothing conceals the transcendent lustre and beauty of these compositions, but the splendor of his other literary productions. Had he never written any thing but these, they would have made him a name as a poet.” She first went to Dryburgh Abbey, where Sir Walter Scott is buried, crossing the River Tweed on a small skiff:

The Tweed is a clear, rippling river, with a white, pebbly bottom, just like our New England mountain streams. After we landed we were to walk to the Abbey. Our feet were damp and cold, and our boatman invited us to his cottage. I found him and all his family warmly interested in the fortunes of Uncle Tom and his friends, and for his sake they received me as a long-expected friend. While I was sitting by the ingleside,—that is, a coal grate,—warming my feet, I fell into conversation with my host. He and his family, I noticed, spoke English more than Scotch; he was an intelligent young man, in appearance and style of mind precisely what you might expect to meet in a cottage in Maine. He and all the household, even the old grandmother, had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and were perfectly familiar with all its details. He told me that it had been universally read in the cottages in the vicinity. I judged from his mode of speaking, that he and his neighbors were in the habit of reading a great deal. I spoke of going to Dryburgh to see the grave of Scott, and inquired if his works were much read by the common people. He said that Scott was not so much a favorite with the people as Burns. . . . .

The cottages of these laboring people, of which there were a whole village along here, are mostly of stone, thatched with straw. This thatch sometimes gets almost entirely grown over with green moss. Thus moss-covered was the roof of the cottage where we stopped, opposite to Dryburgh grounds.

There was about this time one of those weeping pauses in the showery sky, and a kind of thinning and edging away of the clouds, which gave hope that perhaps the sun was going to look out, and give to our persevering researches the countenance of his presence. This was particularly desirable, as the old woman, who came out with her keys to guide us, said she had a cold and a cough: we begged that she would not trouble herself to go with us at all. The fact is, with all respect to nice old women, and the worthy race of guides in general, they are not favorable to poetic meditation. We promised to be very good if she would let us have the key, and lock up all the gates, and bring it back; but no, she was faithfulness itself, and so went coughing along through the dripping and drowned grass to open the gates for us.

Walter Scott GraveBurial Place of Sir Walter Scott at Dryburgh Abbey. geograph: Phil Catterall / Creative Commons

Stowe makes her way to the grave of Sir Walter Scott:

There is a part of the ruin that stands most picturesquely by itself, as if old Time had intended it for a monument. It is the ruin of that part of the chapel called St. Mary’s Aisle; it stands surrounded by luxuriant thickets of pine and other trees, a cluster of beautiful Gothic arches supporting a second tier of smaller and more fanciful ones, one or two of which have that light touch of the Moorish in their form which gives such a singular and poetic effect in many of the old Gothic ruins. Out of these wild arches and windows wave wreaths of ivy, and slender harebells shake their blue pendants, looking in and out of the lattices like little capricious fairies. There are fragments of ruins lying on the ground, and the whole air of the thing is as wild, and dreamlike, and picturesque as the poet’s fanciful heart could have desired.

Underneath these arches he lies beside his wife; around him the representation of the two things he loved most—the wild bloom and beauty of nature, and the architectural memorial of by-gone history and art. Yet there was one thing I felt I would have had otherwise; it seemed to me that the flat stones of the pavement are a weight too heavy and too cold to be laid on the breast of a lover of nature and the beautiful. The green turf, springing with flowers, that lies above a grave, does not seem, to us so hopeless a barrier between us and what was warm and loving; the springing grass and daisies there seem, types and assurances that the mortal beneath shall put on immortality; they come up to us as kind messages from the peaceful dust, to say that it is resting in a certain hope of a glorious resurrection.

Interestingly, another of Hartford, Connecticut’s literary figures also reflected on the final resting place of Sir Walter Scott. Lydia Huntley Sigourney wrote a poem: “Dryburgh Abbey, At the Grave of Sir Walter Scott“:

Thou slumberest with the noble dead
In Dryburgh’s solemn pile,
Amid the peers and warriors bold,
And mitred abbots stern and old,
Who sleep in sculptured aisle;
Where, stained with dust of buried years,
The rude sarcophagus appears
In mould imbedded deep;
And Scotia’s skies with azure gleaming,
Are through the oriel windows streaming,
Where ivied masses creep;
And, touched with symmetry sublime,
The moss-clad towers that mock at time
Their mouldering legends keep.

In Sunny Memories, Stowe continues with her thoughts on Scott’s life and work. Among her musings is the following:

It has often been remarked, that there is no particular moral purpose aimed at by Scott in his writings; he often speaks of it himself in his last days, in a tone of humility. He represents himself as having been employed mostly in the comparatively secondary department of giving innocent amusement. He often expressed, humbly and earnestly, the hope that he had, at least, done no harm; but I am inclined to think, that although moral effect was not primarily his object, yet the influence of his writings and whole existence on earth has been decidedly good.

It is a great thing to have a mind of such power and such influence, whose recognitions of right and wrong, of virtue and vice, were, in most cases, so clear and determined. He never enlists our sympathies in favor of vice, by drawing those seductive pictures, in which it comes so near the shape and form of virtue that the mind is puzzled as to the boundary line. He never makes young ladies feel that they would like to marry corsairs, pirates, or sentimental villains of any description. The most objectionable thing, perhaps, about his influence, is its sympathy with the war spirit. A person Christianly educated can hardly read some of his descriptions in the Lady of the Lake and Marmion without an emotion of disgust, like what is excited by the same things in Homer; and as the world comes more and more under the influence of Christ, it will recede more and more from this kind of literature. . . . .

This is the sum and substance of some conversations held while rambling among these scenes, going in and out of arches, climbing into nooks and through loopholes, picking moss and ivy, and occasionally retreating under the shadow of some arch, while the skies were indulging in a sudden burst of emotion. The poor woman who acted as our guide, ensconcing herself in a dry corner, stood like a literal Patience on a monument, waiting for us to be through; we were sorry for her, but as it was our first and last chance, and she would stay there, we could not help it.

Near by the abbey is a square, modern mansion, belonging to the Earl of Buchan, at present untenanted. There were some black, solemn yew trees there, old enough to have told us a deal of history had they been inclined to speak; as it was, they could only drizzle.

Leaving the ruined abbey, Stowe next encountered a group of locals:

We saw a knot of respectable-looking laboring men at a little distance, conversing in a group, and now and then stealing glances at us; one of them at last approached and inquired if this was Mrs. Stowe, and being answered in the affirmative, they all said heartily, “Madam, ye’re right welcome to Scotland.” The chief speaker, then, after a little conversation, asked our party if we would do him the favor to step into his cottage near by, to take a little refreshment after our ramble; to which we assented with alacrity. He led the way to a neat, stone cottage, with a flower garden before the door, and said to a thrifty, rosy-cheeked woman, who met us, “Well, and what do you think, wife, if I have brought Mrs. Stowe and her party to take a cup of tea with us?”

We were soon seated in a neat, clean kitchen, and our hostess hastened to put the teakettle over the grate, lamenting that she had not known of our coming, that she might have had a fire “ben the house,” meaning by the phrase what we Yankees mean by “in the best room.” We caught a glimpse of the carpet and paper of this room, when the door was opened to bring out a few more chairs.

“Belyve the bairns cam dropping in,”
rosy-cheeked, fresh from school, with satchel and school books, to whom I was introduced as the mother of Topsy and Eva.

“Ah,” said the father, “such a time as we had, when we were reading the book; whiles they were greetin’ and whiles in a rage.”

My host was quite a young-looking man, with the clear blue eye and glowing complexion which one so often meets here; and his wife, with her blooming cheeks, neat dress, and well-kept house, was evidently one of those fully competent

“To gar old claes look amaist as weel as new.”
I inquired the ages of the several children, to which the father answered with about as much chronological accuracy as men generally display in such points of family history. The gude wife, after correcting his figures once or twice, turned away with a somewhat indignant exclamation about men that didn’t know their own bairns’ ages, in which many of us, I presume, could sympathize.

I must not omit to say, that a neighbor of our host had been pressed to come in with us; an intelligent-looking man, about fifty. In the course of conversation, I found that they were both masons by trade, and as the rain had prevented their working, they had met to spend their time in reading. They said they were reading a work on America; and thereat followed a good deal of general conversation on our country. I found that, like many others in this old country, they had a tie to connect them with the new—a son in America.

One of our company, in the course of the conversation, says, “They say in America that the working classes of England and Scotland are not so well off as the slaves.” The man’s eye flashed. “There are many things,” he said, “about the working classes, which are not what they should be; there’s room for a great deal of improvement in our condition, but,” he added with an emphasis, “we are no slaves!” There was a, touch, of the “Scots wha ha’ wi’ Wallace bled” about the man, as he spoke, which made the affirmation quite unnecessary.

“But,” said I, “you think the affairs of the working classes much improved of late years?”

“O, certainly,” said the other; “since the repeal of the corn laws and the passage of the factory bill, and this emigration to America and Australia, affairs have been very much altered.”

We asked them what they could make a day by their trade. It was much less, certainly, than is paid for the same labor in our country; but yet the air of comfort and respectability about the cottage, the well-clothed and well-schooled, intelligent children, spoke well for the result of their labors.

While our conversation was carried on, the teakettle commenced singing most melodiously, and by a mutual system of accommodation, a neat tea table was spread in the midst of us, and we soon found ourselves seated, enjoying some delicious bread and butter, with the garniture of cheese, preserves, and tea. Our host before the meal craved a blessing of Him who had made of one blood all the families of the earth; a beautiful and touching allusion, I thought, between Americans and Scotchmen. Our long ramble in the rain had given us something of an appetite, and we did ample justice to the excellence of the cheer.