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If you travel from England to Scotland, you will cross the River Tweed (which also gives its name to the cloth) which runs across the famous border. Right along its banks, you will find a number of quaint little towns and hamlets, and tucked away in a green, romantic glen, the manor house of Abbottsford. This was once the home of famous Scots novelist, poet and historian, Sir Walter Scott.
Of course, Scott requires no introduction even in Pakistan, where many of us have read his classic, historical fiction—mostly in our teens, when tales of gallant knights and fair damsels, bold clansmen and punctilious aristocrats most appealed to our fancy! Ivanhoe, the Waverley novels and such works are unparalleled for their splendid narrative, painstaking research and historical accuracy and realism. Some of Scott’s poems, especially the popular ballads collected by him in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802) are also gems of romance and beauty; and there is one particular favourite that we were often made to memorize for school recitations and declamations i.e. Young Lochinvar, which indeed in a way enshrines the energy, idealism and sheer glory of Youth in its brash cadences:
“O, Young Lochinvar is come out of the West,
Through all the wide border his steed is the best;
And save his good broadsword he weapons had none,
He rode all unarmed, and he rode all alone;
So faithful in love, so dauntless in war,
There never was a knight like the young Lochinvar”
Reminds one of the popular Punjabi folk ballad, the heroic Var, in its style.
It is commonly said, and widely believed, that Walter Scott, born in Edinburgh in 1771, in a strict Calvinist household, and trained to the prosaic career of a solicitor, yearned somehow to ‘recapture’ the chivalry and grace of an earlier, ‘braver age’; and Abbottsford was, in this respect, not only a house or property, but the ‘concrete symbol’ of his longing, his plaything and the middle-aged ‘folly’ of a man in search of a long-lost dream.
In 1812 Scott purchased an old farm-house and its surrounding acres by the Tweed and moved there, with family, servants, bag and baggage, renaming this place ‘Abbotsford’. Scott had definite plans for enlarging the house which, due to many reasons, could not be carried out until 1818 when he began to lay out its landscapes and fairytale gardens, adorning the house with turrets and the grounds with ‘ruined’ towers and all the Romantic idealistic symbols of a sentimental epoch. In 1822, the old farm building was almost entirely demolished and the present, breathtakingly glorious manor buildings rose to replace it.
A passionate collector of historic relics, Scott adorned his dream house with an impressive array of arms and armour, including some (supposedly) very famous items—Rob Roy’s gun and a sword reputed to have once belonged to the Marquis of Montrose, as well as other stuff. In addition, he furnished his library with over 9000 rare volumes and manuscripts, constructed a private chapel, stables and kennels where he bred his famous Scottish Deerhounds, an ancient native breed of the region that had nearly died out.
Unfortunately, ‘Scott’s Folly’ proved to be entirely injudicious and expensive and by 1826, he found himself in deep financial troubles as a consequence of lavishing so much love and attention upon the estate. In the same year, the publishing company of Ballantyne and Constable, his partners, collapsed dramatically; and Scott found himself in disastrous straits, his entire fortune swallowed up in this crash.
For the rest of his life, he struggled heroically to salvage Abbotsford, and to earn enough by his writings and publications to redeem the losses of his creditors, who, ironically enough, were finally paid off in full from the proceeds of the sale of his copyrights—after his death in September 1832, from ‘utter collapse’.
As far as Walter Scott was concerned, his story did not perhaps end ‘happily ever after’. He paid dearly for his most fantastic dream and purchased his enduring monument with his life.
Today, Abbotsford is a place of popular pilgrimage and its Lord and Master still seems to haunt its corridors in knightly company…
From the weekly ‘Pulse ‘magazine Islamabad, May 15th-21st issue, 1990