HawthorndenHawthornden Castle (Source)

Hawthornden Castle is situated on the north bank of the River North Esk in Midlothian. It consists of a ruined 15th-century castle with an attached house built in 1638 by the poet Sir William Drummond of Hawthornden. Part of the castle is now made available by its current owners as a private retreat for writers. Harriet Beecher Stowe visited Hawthornden on April 27, 1853. As she describes in Volume I of Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands:

It is about seven miles out from Edinburgh. It is a most romantic spot, on the banks of the River Esk, now the seat of Mr. James Walker Drummond. Scott has sung in the ballad of the Gray Brother,—

Sweet are the paths, O, passing sweet,
By Esk’s fair streams that run,
O’er airy steep, through copse-woods deep,
Impervious to the sun.
Who knows not Melville’s beechy grove,
And Roslin’s rocky glen,
Dalkeith, which all the virtues love,
And classic Hawthornden?

“Melville’s beechy grove” is an allusion to the grounds of Lord Melville, through which we drove on our way. The beech trees here are magnificent; fully equal to any trees of the sort which I have seen in our American forests, and they were in full leaf. They do not grow so high, but have more breadth and a wider sweep of branches; on the whole they are well worthy of a place in song.

Sir Walter Scott wrote “The Grey Brother,” while he was living in the nearby town of Lasswade (he lived in Lasswade Cottage from 1798 to 1804).

Returning to Stowe in Sunny Memories:

I know in my childhood I often used to wish that I could live in a ruined castle; and this Hawthornden would be the very beau ideal of one as a romantic dwelling-place. It is an old castellated house, perched on the airy verge of a precipice, directly over the beautiful River Esk, looking down one of the most romantic glens in Scotland. Part of it is in ruins, and, hung with wreaths of ivy, it seems to stand just to look picturesque. The house itself, with its quaint, high gables, and gray, antique walls, appears old enough to take you back to the times of William Wallace. It is situated within an hour’s walk of Roslin Castle and Chapel, one of the most beautiful and poetic architectural remains in Scotland.

Our drive to the place was charming. It was a showery day; but every few moments the sun blinked out, smiling through the falling rain, and making the wet leaves glitter, and the raindrops wink at each other in the most sociable manner possible. Arrived at the house, our friend, Miss S——, took us into a beautiful parlor overhanging the glen, each window of which commanded a picture better than was ever made on canvas.

Stowe next describes the man-made caves located in the cliffs beneath the castle:

We had a little chat with Lady Drummond, and then we went down to examine the caverns,—for there are caverns under the house, with long galleries and passages running from them through the rocks, some way down the river. Several apartments are hollowed out here in the rock on which the house is founded, which they told us belonged to Bruce; the tradition being, that he was hidden here for some months. There was his bed room, dining room, sitting room, and a very curious apartment where the walls were all honeycombed into little partitions, which they called his library, these little partitions being his book shelves. There are small loophole windows in these apartments, where you can look up and down the glen, and enjoy a magnificent prospect. For my part, I thought if I were Bruce, sitting there with a book in my lap, listening to the gentle brawl of the Esk, looking up and down the glen, watching the shaking raindrops on the oaks, the birches and beeches, I should have thought that was better than fighting, and that my pleasant little cave was as good an arbor on the Hill Difficulty as ever mortal man enjoyed.

There is a ponderous old two-handed sword kept here, said to have belonged to Sir William Wallace. It is considerably shorter than it was originally, but, resting on its point, it reached to the chin of a good six foot gentleman of our party. The handle is made of the horn of a sea-horse, (if you know what that is,) and has a heavy iron ball at the end. It must altogether have weighed some ten or twelve pounds. Think of a man hewing away on men with this!

There is a well in this cavern, down which we were directed to look and observe a hole in the side; this we were told was the entrance to another set of caverns and chambers under those in which we were, and to passages which extended down and opened out into the valley. In the olden days the approach to these caverns was not through the house, but through the side of a deep well sunk in the court yard, which communicates through a subterranean passage with this well. Those seeking entrance were let down by a windlass into the well in the court yard, and drawn up by a windlass into this cavern. There was no such accommodation at present, but we were told some enterprising tourists had explored the lower caverns. Pleasant kind of times those old days must have been, when houses had to be built like a rabbit burrow, with all these accommodations for concealment and escape.

After exploring the caverns we came up into the parlors again, and Miss S. showed me a Scottish album, in which were all sorts of sketches, memorials, autographs, and other such matters. What interested me more, she was making a collection of Scottish ballads, words and tunes. I told her that I had noticed, since I had been in Scotland, that the young ladies seemed to take very little interest in the national Scotch airs, and were all devoted to Italian; moreover, that the Scotch ballads and memories, which so interested me, seemed to have very little interest for people generally in Scotland. Miss S. was warm enough in her zeal to make up a considerable account, and so we got on well together.

While we were sitting, chatting, two young ladies came in, who had walked up the glen despite the showery day. They were protected by good, substantial outer garments, of a kind of shag or plush, and so did not fear the rain.

Roslin ChapelRoslin Chapel, depicted in Vol. IV of Billings’ Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland, a book owned by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Stowe was only able to get a distant view of two famous landmarks: Roslin Chapel and Roslin Castle. The Chapel has had an increase in visits by tourists in recent years, after it was a featured location in The Da Vinci Code novel and film.

I wanted to walk down to Roslin Castle, but the party told me there would not be time this afternoon, as we should have to return at a certain hour. I should not have been reconciled to this, had not another excursion been proposed for the purpose of exploring Roslin.

However, I determined to go a little way down the glen, and get a distant view of it, and my fair friends, the young ladies, offered to accompany me; so off we started down the winding paths, which were cut among the banks overhanging the Esk. The ground was starred over with patches of pale-yellow primroses, and for the first time I saw the heather, spreading over rocks and matting itself around the roots of trees. My companions, to whom it was the commonest thing in the world, could hardly appreciate the delight which I felt in looking at it; it was not in flower; I believe it does not blossom till some time in July or August. We have often seen it in greenhouses, and it is so hardy that it is singular it will not grow wild in America.

We walked, ran, and scrambled to an eminence which commanded a view of Roslin Chapel, the only view, I fear, which will ever gladden my eyes, for the promised expedition to it dissolved itself into mist. . . . .

I am increasingly sorry that I was beguiled out of my personal examination of this chapel, since I have seen the plates of it in my Baronial Sketches. It is the rival of Melrose, but more elaborate; in fact, it is a perfect cataract of architectural vivacity and ingenuity, as defiant of any rules of criticism and art as the leaf-embowered arcades and arches of our American forest cathedrals. . . . .

The castle was now distinctly visible; it stands on an insulated rock, two hundred and twenty yards from the chapel. It has under it a set of excavations and caverns almost equally curious with those of Hawthornden; there are still some tolerably preserved rooms in it, and Mrs. W. informed me that they had once rented these rooms for a summer residence. What a delightful idea!

William_DrummondWilliam Drummond of Hawthornden

Stowe returned to the house, where she learned more about the poet who had built its more modern section in 1638:

When we came back to the house, and after taking coffee in the drawing room, Miss S. took me over the interior, a most delightful place, full of all sorts of out-of-the-way snuggeries, and comfortable corners, and poetic irregularities. There she showed me a picture of one of the early ancestors of the family, the poet Drummond, hanging in a room, which tradition has assigned to him. It represents a man with a dark, Spanish-looking face, with the broad Elizabethan ruff, earnest, melancholy eyes, and an air half cavalier, half poet, bringing to mind the chivalrous, graceful, fastidious bard, accomplished scholar, and courtier of his time, the devout believer in the divine right of kings, and of the immunities and privileges of the upper class generally. This Drummond, it seems, was early engaged to a fair young lady, whose death rendered his beautiful retreat of Hawthornden insupportable to him, and of course, like other persons of romance, he sought refuge in foreign travel, went abroad, and remained eight years. Afterwards he came back, married, and lived here for some time.

Among other traditions of the place, it is said that Ben Jonson once walked all the way from London to visit the poet in this retreat; and a tree is still shown on the grounds under which they are said to have met. It seems that Ben’s habits were rather too noisy and convivial to meet altogether the taste of his fastidious and aristocratic host; and so he had his own thoughts of him, which, being written down in a diary, were published by some indiscreet executor, after they were both dead.

We were shown an old, original edition of the poems. I must confess I never read them. Since I have seen the material the poet and novelist has on this ground, all I wonder at is, that there have not been a thousand poets to one. I should have thought they would have been as plenty as the mavis and merle, and sprouting out every where, like the primroses and heather bells.

Our American literature is unfortunate in this respect—that our nation never had any childhood, our day never had any dawn; so we have very little traditionary lore to work over.

Another literary figure who, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, made her home in Hartford, Connecticut, was the poet, Lydia Huntley Sigourney. She described her own impressions of Hawthornden in verse:

Though Scotia hath a thousand scenes
To strike the traveller’s eye,
Clear-bosomed lakes, and leaping streams,
And mountains bleak and high;
Yet when he seeks his native clime
And ingle-side again,
’T would be a pity, had he missed
To visit Hawthornden.

Down, down, precipitous and rude,
The rocks abruptly go,
While through their deep and narrow gorge
Foams on the Esk below;
Yet though it plunges strong and bold,
Its murmurs meet the ear,
Like fretful childhood’s weak complaint,
Half smothered in its fear.

There ’s plenty, in my own dear land,
Of cave and wild cascade,
And all my early years were spent
In such romantic glade;
And I could featly climb the cliff,
Or forest roam and fen;
But I ’ve been puzzled here among
These rocks of Hawthornden.

Here, too, are labyrinthine paths
To caverns dark and low,
Wherein, they say, King Robert Bruce
Found refuge from his foe;
And still amid their relics old
His stalwart sword they keep,
Which telleth tales of cloven heads
And gashes dire and deep;

While sculptured in the yielding stone
Full many a niche they show,
Where erst his library he stored
(The guide-boy told us so).
Slight need had he of books, I trow,
Mid hordes of savage men,
And precious little time to read
At leaguered Hawthornden.

Loud pealing from those caverns drear,
In old disastrous times,
The Covenanters’ nightly hymn
Upraised its startling chimes;
Here too they stoutly stood at bay,
Or frowning sped along,
To meet the high-born cavalier
In conflict fierce and strong.

And here ’s the hawthorn-broidered nook,
Where Drummond, not in vain,
Awaited his inspiring muse,
And wooed her dulcet strain.
And there ’s the oak, beneath whose shade
He welcomed tuneful Ben,
And still the memory of their words
Is nursed in Hawthornden.