AbbotsfordAbbotsford as depicted in Morris’s County Seats (A Series of Picturesque Views of Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. V, 1880)

On April 26, 1853, Harriet Beecher Stowe visited Melrose in the Scottish Borders. Her husband, Calvin Stowe, and her brother, Charles Beecher, did not accompany her as they were not yet back from a trip to Glasgow, where the previous day they had spoken at a temperance meeting. Melrose is famous for Melrose Abbey, considered to be one of the most beautiful monastic ruins in Great Britain. Near Melrose is Abbotsford, the home of poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott. Harriet describes her arrival at Melrose in Letter VIII of Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands:

It was one of those soft, showery, April days, misty and mystical, now weeping and now shining, that we found ourselves whirled by the cars through this enchanted ground of Scotland. Almost every name we heard spoken along the railroad, every stream we passed, every point we looked at, recalled some line of Walter Scott’s poetry, or some event of history. The thought that he was gone forever, whose genius had given the charm to all, seemed to settle itself down like a melancholy mist. To how little purpose seemed the few, short years of his life, compared with the capabilities of such a soul! Brilliant as his success had been, how was it passed like a dream! It seemed sad to think that he had not only passed away himself, but that almost the whole family and friendly circle had passed with him—not a son left to bear his name!

. . . . “Melrose!” said the loud voice of the conductor; and starting, I looked up and saw quite a flourishing village, in the midst of which rose the old, gray, mouldering walls of the abbey. Now, this was somewhat of a disappointment to me. I had been somehow expecting to find the building standing alone in the middle of a great heath, far from all abodes of men, and with no companions more hilarious than the owls. However, it was no use complaining; the fact was, there was a village, and what was more, a hotel, and to this hotel we were to go to get a guide for the places we were to visit; for it was understood that we were to “do” Melrose, Dryburgh, and Abbotsford, all in one day. There was no time for sentiment; it was a business affair, that must be looked in the face promptly, if we meant to get through. Ejaculations and quotations of poetry could, of course, be thrown in, as William, of Deloraine pattered his prayers, while riding.

Sir William Deloraine appears in Sir Walter Scott’s poem, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” Stowe also mentions Thomas the Rhymer, subject of a famous ballad, which was later expanded by Sir Walter Scott.

The next thing was to hire a coachman to take us, in the rain,—for the mist had now swelled into a rain,—through the whole appropriate round. I stood by and heard names which I had never heard before, except in song, brought into view in their commercial relations; so much for Abbotsford; and so much for Dryburgh; and then, if we would like to throw in Thomas the Rhymer’s Tower, why, that would be something extra.

“Thomas the Rhymer?” said one of the party, not exactly posted up. “Was he any thing remarkable? Well, is it worth while to go to his tower? It will cost something extra, and take more time.”

Weighed in such a sacrilegious balance, Thomas was found wanting, of course: the idea of driving three or four miles farther to see an old tower, supposed to have belonged to a man who is supposed to have existed and to have been carried off by a supposititious Queen of the Fairies into Elfland, was too absurd for reasonable people; in fact, I made believe myself that I did not care much about it, particularly as the landlady remarked, that if we did not get home by five o’clock “the chops might be spoiled.”

As we all were packed into a tight coach, the rain still pouring, I began to wish mute Nature would not be quite so energetic in distilling her tears. A few sprinkling showers, or a graceful wreath of mist, might be all very well; but a steady, driving rain, that obliged us to shut up the carriage windows, and coated them with mist so that we could not look out, why, I say it is enough to put out the fire of sentiment in any heart. We might as well have been rolled up in a bundle and carried through the country, for all the seeing it was possible to do under such circumstances. It, therefore, should be stated, that we did keep bravely up in our poetic zeal, which kindly Mrs. W. also reënforced, by distributing certain very delicate sandwiches to support the outer man.

The group visited Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott. Designed in a fanciful style that would later be called Scottish baronial, the house has been said to reflect, “almost as no other place, the mind, enthusiasms and preoccupations of the man who built it.” Still an important tourist attraction, the house was recently closed for two years (2011-2013) while undergoing a £12 million restoration program. It was reopened last summer by the Queen herself.

Stowe described the arrival at Abbotsford:

At length, the coach stopped at the entrance of Abbotsford grounds, where there was a cottage, out of which, due notice being given, came a trim, little old woman in a black gown, with pattens on; she put up her umbrella, and we all put up ours; the rain poured harder than ever as we went dripping up the gravel walk, looking much, I inly fancied, like a set of discomforted fowls fleeing to covert. We entered the great court yard, surrounded with a high wall, into which were built sundry fragments of curious architecture that happened to please the poet’s fancy.

I had at the moment, spite of the rain, very vividly in my mind Washington Irving’s graceful account of his visit to Abbotsford while this house was yet building, and the picture which he has given of Walter Scott sitting before his door, humorously descanting on various fragments of sculpture, which lay scattered about, and which he intended to immortalize by incorporating into his new dwelling.

Irving’s meeting with Scott at Abbottsford took place in 1817. As Irving himself described it:

Late in the evening of August 29, 1817, I arrived at the ancient little border town of Selkirk, where I put up for the night. I had come down from Edinburgh, partly to visit Melrose Abbey and its vicinity, but chiefly to get sight of the “mighty minstrel of the north.” I had a letter of introduction to him from Thomas Campbell, the poet, and had reason to think, from the interest he had taken in some of my earlier scribblings, that a visit from me would not be deemed an intrusion.

On the following morning, after an early breakfast, I set off in a postchaise for the Abbey. On the way thither I stopped at the gate of Abbotsford, and sent the postilion to the house with the letter of introduction and my card, on which I had written that I was on my way to the ruins of Melrose Abbey, and wished to know whether it would be agreeable to Mr. Scott (he had not yet been made a Baronet) to receive a visit from me in the course of the morning.

While the postilion was on his errand, I had time to survey the mansion. It stood some short distance below the road, on the side of a hill sweeping down to the Tweed; and was as yet but a snug gentleman’s cottage, with something rural and picturesque in its appearance. The whole front was overrun with evergreens, and immediately above the portal was a great pair of elk horns, branching out from beneath the foliage, and giving the cottage the look of a hunting lodge. The huge baronial pile, to which this modest mansion in a manner gave birth was just emerging into existence; part of the walls, surrounded by scaffolding, already had risen to the height of the cottage, and the courtyard in front was encumbered by masses of hewn stone.

. . . . In a little while the “lord of the castle” himself made his appearance. I knew him at once by the descriptions I had read and heard, and the likenesses that had been published of him. He was tall, and of a large and powerful frame. His dress was simple, and almost rustic. An old green 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. By his side jogged along a large iron-gray stag-hound of most grave demeanor, who took no part in the clamor of the canine rabble, but seemed to consider himself bound, for the dignity of the house, to give me a courteous reception.

Before Scott had reached the gate he called out in a hearty tone, welcoming me to Abbotsford, and asking news of Campbell. Arrived at the door of the chaise, he grasped me warmly by the hand: “Come, drive down, drive down to the house,” said he, “ye’re just in time for breakfast, and afterward ye shall see all the wonders of the Abbey.”


It is interesting to note that Irving’s own home, Sunnyside, which is located in Terrytown, New York, is also an individualistic residence reflecting the personality of its builder. Returning to Stowe’s account, as she visited Abbotsford 36 years after Irving:

Viewed as a mere speculation, or, for aught I know, as an architectural effort, this building may, perhaps, be counted as a mistake and a failure. I observe, that it is quite customary to speak of it, among some, as a pity that he ever undertook it. But viewed as a development of his inner life, as a working out in wood and stone of favorite fancies and cherished ideas, the building has to me a deep interest. The gentle-hearted poet delighted himself in it; this house was his stone and wood poem, as irregular, perhaps, and as contrary to any established rule, as his Lay of the Last Minstrel, but still wild and poetic. The building has this interest, that it was throughout his own conception, thought, and choice; that he expressed himself in every stone that was laid, and made it a kind of shrine, into which he wove all his treasures of antiquity, and where he imitated, from the beautiful, old, mouldering ruins of Scotland, the parts that had touched him most deeply.

The walls of one room were of carved oak from the Dunfermline Abbey; the ceiling of another imitated from Roslin Castle; here a fireplace was wrought in the image of a favorite niche in Melrose; and there the ancient pulpit of Erskine was wrought into a wall. To him, doubtless, every object in the house was suggestive of poetic fancies; every carving and bit of tracery had its history, and was as truly an expression of something in the poet’s mind as a verse of his poetry.

A building wrought out in this way, and growing up like a bank of coral, may very possibly violate all the proprieties of criticism; it may possibly, too, violate one’s ideas of mere housewifery utility; but by none of these rules ought such a building to be judged. We should look at it rather as the poet’s endeavor to render outward and visible the dream land of his thoughts, and to create for himself a refuge from the cold, dull realities of life, in an architectural romance.

AbbotsfordAbbotsford (source: Wikimedia / by: Otter, Creative Commons)

Harriet Beecher Stowe would eventually build her own “architectural romance,” in the form of her first house in Hartford, called Oakholm. Unfortunately she eventually had to move out of Oakholm, which does not survive today. Compared to other places she visits in Sunny Memories, Stowe’s description of Sir Walter Scott’s home is more extensive and detailed. She writes, “we passed through the porchway, adorned with petrified stags’ horns, into the long entrance hall of the mansion,” where she admired “the fireplace, designed from a niche in Melrose Abbey, also in this room, and a choice bit of sculpture it is,” and noted that “the spaces between the windows were decorated with pieces of armor, crossed swords, and stags’ horns, each one of which doubtless had its history.” Next came the Drawing Room and then the Library. As she describes:

Bust of Sir Walter Scott in th... Digital ID: 3937729. New York Public Library

We went into his library; a magnificent room, on which, I suppose, the poet’s fancy had expended itself more than any other. The roof is of carved oak, after models from Roslin Castle. Here, in a niche, is a marble bust of Scott, as we understood a present from Chantrey to the poet; it was one of the best and most animated representations of him I ever saw, and very much superior to the one under the monument in Edinburgh. On expressing my idea to this effect, I found I had struck upon a favorite notion of the good woman who showed us the establishment; she seemed to be an ancient servant of the house, and appeared to entertain a regard for the old laird scarcely less than idolatry. One reason why this statue is superior is, that it represents his noble forehead, which the Edinburgh one suffers to be concealed by falling hair: to cover such a forehead seems scarcely less than a libel.

The whole air of this room is fanciful and picturesque in the extreme. The walls are entirely filled with the bookcases, there being about twenty thousand volumes. A small room opens from the library, which was Scott’s own private study. His writing table stood in the centre, with his inkstand on it, and before it a large, plain, black leather arm chair.

In spite of the picturesqueness, Stowe was left with an impression of coldness:

One seemed to see in all this arrangement how snug, and cozy, and comfortable the poet had thus ensconced himself, to give himself up to his beloved labors and his poetic dreams. But there was a cold and desolate air of order and adjustment about it which reminds one of the precise and chilling arrangements of a room from which has just been carried out a corpse; all is silent and deserted.

The house is at present the property of Scott’s only surviving daughter, whose husband has assumed the name of Scott. We could not learn from our informant whether any of the family was in the house. We saw only the rooms which are shown to visitors, and a coldness, like that of death, seemed to strike to my heart from their chilly solitude.

As we went out of the house we passed another company of tourists coming in, to whom we heard our guide commencing the same recitation, “this is,” and “this is,” &c., just as she had done to us.

Abbotsford InteriorAbbotsford (source: Wikimedia / by: Christian Bickel, Creative Commons)

One wonders what Stowe would have thought of the fact that her own home (her second, after Oakholm) in Hartford is now a museum, as is the house of her neighbor, Mark Twain.

One thing about the house and grounds had disappointed me; there was not one view from a single window I saw that was worth any thing, in point of beauty; why a poet, with an eye for the beautiful, could have located a house in such an indifferent spot, on an estate where so many beautiful sites were at his command, I could not imagine.

As to the external appearance of Abbotsford, it is as irregular as can well be imagined. There are gables, and pinnacles, and spires, and balconies, and buttresses any where and every where, without rhyme or reason; for wherever the poet wanted a balcony, he had it; or wherever he had a fragment of carved stone, or a bit of historic tracery, to put in, he made a shrine for it forthwith, without asking leave of any rules. This I take to be one of the main advantages of Gothic architecture; it is a most catholic and tolerant system, and any kind of eccentricity may find refuge beneath its mantle.

When Stowe came to build Oakholm, it was also in the Gothic style. Harriet was not able to appreciate the grounds, as she noted: “The grounds, I was told, are full of beautiful paths and seats, favorite walks and lounges of the poet; but the obdurate pertinacity of the rain compelled us to choose the very shortest path possible to the carriage.”