I almost didn’t visit Abbotsford, but I’m SO glad I did because it turned out to be the most amazing author’s house I’ve ever visited! With a limited number of days in Edinburgh, and so much to see, I considered staying in the city for my last day because it would be easier. I wouldn’t have to worry about waking up early to catch a morning train, or hope it got me to my destination in time for a timed ticket entrance. However, after spending the previous day learning all about the author Sir Walter Scott, and knowing I was only an hour by train from his former home, which is now a museum dedicated to Scotland’s favorite author, I made up my mind to go.
I’m slightly ashamed to admit here that part of my hesitance was also due to the fact that I was traveling solo. Directions and transportation are not my strong suit so there’s always a chance I could end up at the very opposite end of the train line than I meant to. And it’s never quite as fun for me to visit cool places without having someone to turn to and say, “ISN’T THIS COOL?!?” But Abbotsford had been on my travel bucket list for a loooong time and I really did want to go, so I mustered my courage.
Getting from Edinburgh to Abbotsford
A visit to Abbotsford required a little preparation the night before. The Abbotsford website suggested purchasing your ticket online ahead of time because entrance to the house is 15 people at a time for each timed entry. While I could have decided the next morning to wake up and take whatever train I could make and hope I could get into Abbotsford during one of the timed entrances, I didn’t want to leave it all to chance. Instead, I checked train times, Abbotsford shuttle times, and house entrance times and finally purchased tickets for the first train of the morning so that I could make it to Abbotsford via their station shuttle in time for one of the first entrance times of the day. With train tickets and museum entrance tickets queued up for the morning, I set an early alarm.
- One should always visit attractions as early in the day as possible because the crowds are usually thinner in the morning.
- Save entrance ticket PDFs in your Google Drive and then use the Google Drive app on your phone to set the PDFs to “available offline”. This way you can pull them up when you need them on the go.)
ScotRail: Waverley to Tweedbank
The next morning, with hot tea in hand acquired from the Starbucks next to my hotel, and a pastry in my bag, I walked to Waverley Station (named after Sir Walter Scott’s book Waverley!). I needed to take the ScotRail train from Waverley to Tweedbank. I wasn’t sure if the ScotRail train is named so because it runs out towards Sir Walter Scott’s home or if it’s just named after Scotland, but either way, it made it easy to remember which train to look for! I found the train with the ScotRail name printed on the cars without too much trouble and boarded. Tweedbank is the last station on the line, so luckily I didn’t have any fear of missing my station and ending up in the wrong place today.
I was only going an hour by train outside the city, but as the train left the Edinburgh outskirts and the view changed to lush green hills full of grazing sheep, I felt ages away from the city! I noted that the landscape in Scotland is much more mountainous than the rolling Dales I’d left in England before arriving in Edinburgh.
The only part of this journey I was unsure about was catching the Abbotsford shuttle that runs between the house and the Tweedbank station, though it only runs on certain days and I was lucky today was one of those days! If the train ran on time, I’d be able to catch a shuttle shortly after my arrival at Tweedbank. Otherwise I’d either have to wait a half hour for the next one or walk the mile to the house. I’d made sure to select a ticket for my timed entry to the house that gave me enough time to walk if I missed the shuttle.
Luckily, when I got off the train at the Tweedbank station, the little white van with “Abbotsford” printed on the side was waiting just at the end of the platform! This station was just a single platform with a ticket office off to one side that didn’t look very open. I’d read online that due to train strikes, many outlying station offices would be closed and it was best to purchase tickets online. Good thing I’d taken that advice!
From the small number of people who had disembarked the train, I was the only one approaching the shuttle van. The elderly gentleman seated in the driver’s seat hopped out and opened the side door for me. The shuttle is free, but there’s a donation box if you want to throw a pound or two in to keep the service running.
As we took off, I hoped the empty van meant I’d also have the house museum to myself. As the van drove the mile route to the museum, I was glad I’d been able to take the shuttle. Based on what I could see from the window, it looked like the walking path would have taken me next to these busy roads. Soon the shuttle pulled up in a parking lot surrounded by tall hedges. The house was nowhere in sight! Neither was the visitor center, which I’d read you’re supposed to check in at first. The shuttle driver explained I’d have to follow the nearby path around the hedge and it would take me to the visitor center. Before he departed he also advised that if I wanted to eat lunch in the cafe, I should make a reservation before I go tour the house. Looking around at the empty van, and fairly empty parking lot, I wondered if by lunch time this place would fill up.
The Visitor Center
The Abbotsford website said visitors should arrive with spare time before their timed entrance to the house so as to have time to explore the displays in the visitor center. Happily, as the train had run on time and I’d caught the shuttle, I had that extra time needed before my entrance time! So I checked in at the front desk with my e-ticket and then was directed towards the display rooms which would provide background information on not just Scott’s writing career, but his home life- at least that which happened in the home I would shortly be entering, where he spent the last ten years of his life.
One display case contained an outfit worn by Scott. I presumed it had come from a closet somewhere in his house and was now here on a mannequin behind glass in a building that had been built on his property to let people into his home… I started realizing how weird this is… the desire to go into a writer’s personal home… But then I learned that Abbotsford is one of the earliest writers’ homes to be open to the public in the UK. In fact, it was opened during Scott’s lifetime and it featured in an 1820’s Scotland tourist guide!!
I learned that here at Abbotsford, Scott and his wife had raised four kids in a loving home, and all the children had married well, “assuring the future of his line.” I assumed Scott’s family had all been tolerant individuals to put up with tourists wandering the first floor of their home while the family kept to the upstairs during visiting hours. Scott’s descendants later built an extension onto the home so that they could live next door to the museum rather than above it. Today, however, the last surviving family member has moved out of the attached house. The good news is though, that the house is now a luxury accommodation for groups of up to 16 people!
As for Scott’s writing, according to one display, “Scott revolutionized the novel, establishing it as the dominant literary form.” And this museum reiterated what I’d already learned about his book Waverley while exploring Edinburgh. Scott’s novel had changed the public’s perception of Scotland from “wild and dangerous” to one of “wilderness and romance” and increased tourism throughout the country. That’s quite a legacy!
One more fascinating fact, that I had actually learned while visiting the Jane Austen House with the Enchanted Book Club group tour, but found printed in one of the display cases here too, is that the old, pretty leather and cloth bound book sets we see today that come from the time of Austen and Scott, were actually sold with simple paste-board covers! It was assumed that the purchaser would rebind the books in a leather or cloth of their choice! So that’s why the original copies of Waverley here looked different than the ones at the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh!
I had been taking my time studying the displays as I was the only one there, but at five minutes until my appointed house entry time, I exited the visitor center through the gift shop and found myself on the walking path that led to the house. Or, more accurately, towards a tall brick wall.
Scott’s “Conundrum Castle”
I came to a corner of a tall brick wall, and with no signage to indicate which direction the front door might be in, I decided to proceed straight. Luckily I chose correctly and soon came to the end of the wall, turned a corner, and in front of me beheld a castle! I gasped. I’d seen it in photos, but I was somehow still surprised at just how big and grand this place looked from the front drive! After picking my jaw up off the ground, I realized that I’d just been walking on the outside of a beautiful walled garden attached to the side of the castle.
The combined landscaping of the front yard with the castle and the garden just took my breath away. This place was magnificent! I was SO GLAD I had come! I was almost sad to go inside because I so badly wanted to go into the garden. The sun had just peeked from behind some clouds for the first time in two days and I fervently hoped it would still be out when I got done touring the house.
There were a few museum patrons enjoying the grounds, but I was still very much alone upon entering the house, so I hoped it would stay that way. At the door I was met by a docent who handed me an audio guide and headphones and asked which tour I’d like. When I looked confused, she explained that there’s the basic audio tour by a curator, or there’s one done by an actor playing Sir Walter Scott leading you around his home. I asked which one she’d suggest and she smiled and hit the button for the actor-led tour. So I stood in Scott’s foyer gazing at the decor on the walls in awe and listening to him welcome me into his home. Unfortunately, as I did so, that’s when a bus-load of visitors entered the museum! I could see I wouldn’t be alone in the house, but I hung back in the foyer letting the majority of the visitors get one or two rooms ahead of me so as not to be in the thick of the crowd.
From the foyer I stepped into a small-ish room with a large wooden desk in the middle of the room with a sturdy looking chair behind it. The walls were lined with full bookcases, and what’s more, a staircase in one corner led up to a second story gallery also filled with full bookcases! This I guessed was Scott’s library and study. Besides the books, it had a great view out the window of the front garden. I would be soooo happy if I had a room like this at home! I pressed the audio tour button to find out from Scott (well, actor “Scott”) that this was just his study where he worked and kept his favorite books. The rest of his collection was in the library next door.
Curious now, I stepped through the other door of the study into a very large, long room, and this one too had floor to ceiling bookcases lining all the walls, except where the windows were! Again, I gaped. Every time I turned around here at Abbotsford I was met with stunning views! Both inside and out! And as if the library itself wasn’t enough, from the windows I could see the sides of the castle, more manicured shrubs, a field down to the edge of a river that runs through the backyard, and rolling green hills beyond! I wasn’t sure where I wanted to look! The view, or the bookcases!
I pressed play on my audio tour gadget as I gazed around and Scott informed me that this room was actually not just his library, but his entertaining room as well. Due to needing the space for his book collection, there wasn’t a dining room or a living room or a ballroom. This room had to serve all purposes. Can you even imagine coming for an evening party at the Scott residence and getting to socialize in the famous writers’ library?!? I didn’t want to leave this room!
The Chinese Drawing Room
The next rooms were not as grand in size, but each lovely in their own way. The “Chinese Drawing Room” off the library was just big enough to be used as the breakfast room, with a table in the middle of the room. Two harps (though without strings) stood by the door and calming music played in the room. And the room had obviously gotten its name from the beautiful Chinese wallpaper. “Scott” informed me that the wallpaper was his wife’s choice.
Scott’s Armory/Sitting Room
Scott preferred the decor of the next room, which was really more of a hallway between the breakfast room and the dining room. This was the Armory. All sorts of swords and guns and weaponry filled the room. “Scott” said he used this as his sitting room, and also that this room was possibly haunted.
The last of the rooms open to the public is the dining room. The long table that filled the room was set with China that had images of Abbotsford on each piece.
After observing that it was kind of a cozy room, I learned from the audio tour that Scott’s great-great-grandson had actually re-done the interiors of Abbotsford! When Scott lived here, the house had been darker due to the dark wood of the architecture. It would have had a hunting lodge feel. Today the walls and ceiling had a light whitish paint that brightened up the room considerably.
I wandered toward the bay window that held a similar view to that of the library. Standing here, I learned that Scott passed away in this room in a camp bed September 21, 1832. He had become too weak to get upstairs to the bedroom, so a bed had been set here where he could enjoy the view of the River Tweed.
There were a couple of smaller unfurnished rooms that contained information boards about the future of the house and Scott’s original papers. The top floor of the house may be opened to visitors some day but has not yet been refurbished with period furniture. Unfortunately, as of yet, no sources have been found that show how the upstairs bedrooms looked during Scott’s time. I also read that there are rooms full of boxes of Scott’s still unprocessed papers. So who knows what Archivists will find in the future as they go through the collection!
And then I was back at the front door. I wanted to go around again to linger in the library, but I also wanted to see the garden, and wander down to the river. I just couldn’t believe how one place could have SO MANY STUNNING PLACES! Would anybody notice if I just moved into the castle and never left??
After returning my audio guide, I exited the house and headed into the walled garden. I was surprised at how many flowers were still blooming even though it was October.
I imagine this garden is even more stunning during the summer, but even in October it was beautiful and smelled so good! I made for a bench near the far wall where I could sit and just look back at the garden with the castle’s towers rising up beyond the wall on the other side. I wondered if Scott came out here to read and write on occasion. I certainly would if I lived here.
I had a copy of Waverley in my bag and considered pulling it out and staying a while to read here, but by this time gray clouds had rolled in overhead and it was kind of chilly, it was October after all. So instead I decided to find the path that would take me down to the river’s edge I saw from the windows inside the house. I retraced my steps out of the garden and around the outside of the wall to the corner where I’d continued straight to the house instead of turning. Now I realized had I turned, I would have ended up at the river! So now I took the path that would take me around to the back of the castle and on down to the River Tweed.
At the river’s edge I found a log bench situated under the canopy of a tree. From here I looked back uphill at the castle. It was so big! Scott had called this his “Conundrum Castle” and from here, I thought it fit. From the outside you can’t tell that the house/castle contains different apartments. It all looks like one big residence. Though I do think it’s funny that the castle that we see today is twice as big as the one Scott would have seen during his lifetime, so perhaps it’s even more of a conundrum now than it was when he picked the nickname.
I was really at a loss for words here at Abbotsford. Every view was more stunning than the next. I just kept murmuring “Incredible!” every time I turned around. I was SO glad I had come. Abbotsford is now my favorite authors’ home that I’ve visited.
I’d left the crowd of tourists behind. Here at the back of the house I was all alone. It was so peaceful. It didn’t seem the members of the tour group who had entered the house with me were roaming the grounds. I supposed they didn’t have time to make it this far. I was happy I hadn’t come here on a group tour with a time constraint. My only constraint was making the last shuttle back to the train station if I stayed all afternoon. Just as I was considering strolling the path along the river to enjoy the grounds, rain began to sprinkle. So instead of continuing, I decided to head back to the visitor center. I thought perhaps I’d have tea in the cafe and see if the rain let up in a little while. I wasn’t ready to leave and it was about tea time anyway.
The cafe is on the second floor above the gift shop and exhibit room. I hadn’t made a lunch reservation as the shuttle driver suggested, so I hoped that perhaps a cup of tea and maybe a scone wouldn’t be too much to ask. It seems here too I had only just arrived before a large group. When I asked for a table for one and cream tea I was told a large group was imminently arriving but my server would do her best to get my order in before the group arrived.
Although it took longer than I thought it should for one scone and small pot of tea to arrive, I was content to sit here by the large windows that looked back towards Scott’s castle. I pulled out my journal and jotted down some notes, meanwhile watching the day turn misty outside. Eventually my cream tea came and I couldn’t think of a better view for tea time than this one of Abbotsford, even with the current weather. Unfortunately by the time I finished my cream tea it was raining properly so I wasn’t very inspired to return to the river’s edge to continue walking the grounds.
I decided to call it a day and head back to the train, but first I stopped in the giftshop. I wanted to get myself a little souvenir that would remind me that I can do hard things, which sometimes includes traveling solo. And to remind myself that the rewards of accomplishing the thing are often greater than expected. Visiting Abbotsford was one of my favorite experiences to date and to think I almost hadn’t visited because I didn’t think it’d be fun alone!
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