As Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire, Scott needed to spend part of the year in easy reach of the courtroom in Selkirk, so he spent legal terms in Edinburgh and legal vacations in the country. For a few years, he rented a house at Ashestiel, but in 1811 he bought his own ‘mountain farm’, as he described it, ‘on a bare haugh and bleak bank by the side of the Tweed’.
It was called Newarthaugh on the deeds but was Cartleyhole (and sometimes ‘Clarty Hole’) to local people. He immediately renamed it Abbotsford, after the ford across the Tweed below the house used in former times by the monks of Melrose Abbey.
Scott was in such a hurry to turn his bare bank into a paradise that he was already planting trees before taking full possession in May 1811. The existing farmhouse was small for a man with four children. Nevertheless, Scott’s first priority was not to enlarge the house but to acquire more land from his neighbours. With money flowing in from his poetry and early novels, he was able to expand the estate from 110 acres to 1400 within a few years. At the same time, he made small improvements to the house, with no plan for the creation of what can be seen today. The initial intention was to keep the Cartleyhole farmhouse and add a few rooms to give his family more space.
Rambling, whimsical and picturesque were expressions he used at different times to describe the building and they very much fit the process, too. He filled in the courtyard to the west of the farmhouse with a Study, a Dining Room, an Armoury (which he referred to as his ‘Boudoir’) and a conservatory, yet many changes were swept away by later stages of building. The stables which he built still survive, but not the conservatory, kitchen, laundry or spare rooms housed in a building across the courtyard.
The stones speak both of triumph and disaster
Sir Walter Scott
As the money continued to pour in from his writing, Scott began planning the addition of the library, a development that would lead to the house that can be seen today. The old farmhouse was demolished to make room for a large rectangular building housing an Entrance Hall, a new Study, a Library and a Drawing Room. John Smith of Darnick, a local stonemason, was eventually hired as the principal builder and Scott again acted as his own clerk of works as the cottage was pulled.
Several professional architects, craftsmen, dilettante designers and friends contributed ideas and sketches. These included the architect Edward Blore, the cabinet-maker George Bullock and Scott’s friends, the artist James Skene and the actor Daniel Terry. But the principal architect was William Atkinson, who was later responsible for the remodelling of Chequers in Buckinghamshire. The interiors were decorated by David Ramsay Hay of Edinburgh, who went on to redecorate the Palace of Holyroodhouse for Queen Victoria.
After Scott’s death, his descendants continued living in and making changes to parts of the house, most notably Charlotte and John Hope Scott adding the Hope Scott Wing and chapel. The family continued to live in the wing until 2004, having kept the historic rooms of the house open to the public since early 1833 – five months after Scott’s death