The glorious gardens at Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford House
Abbotsford, the Scottish Baronial mansion built by Sir Walter Scott between 1811 and 1824, sits in a raised position overlooking the River Tweed between Selkirk and Melrose. Mature oak, beech, birch and hazel run up on the hill behind the house forming the start of Scott’s estate which stretched as far east as the Eildon Hills.
This romantic setting is made all the more interesting when you learn that Scott had a great passion for landscaping – equal to or possibly greater than his passion for writing – and was involved in the choosing and planting of nearly every tree on the 1,500-acre estate.
In a ground-breaking move away from the English Landscape Movement he transformed ‘an unlovely spot’ on a rough hill farm into a picturesque idyll with a trio of courtyard gardens intimately connected with the house.
It was Scott’s involvement with the garden that instantly captivated Pippa Coles, garden heritage development manager for the Abbotsford Trust. ‘The house gardens and woodlands were an integral part of Scott’s vision for the house,’ she explains.
‘He was involved with everything from planting to layout, sculpture and heating systems in the walls. There are many references to the garden in his letters and journals and we have a wonderful archive at Abbotsford of drawings and accounts.’
“There are many references to the garden in Scott’s letters and journals
Abbotsford remained in the possession of the Scott family until the death of Dame Jean Maxwell Scott in 2004. After family consultation, it was agreed that the Abbotsford Trust should be established to safeguard its future.
Leading the way to the south court, where the focal point is the stone fountain rescued from Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross, the market square opposite St Giles Cathedral, Pippa explains: ‘The spirit of Abbotsford was at the heart of the Romantic movement and the design was intimate and intricate.’ Scott sought to pique visitors’ curiosity and encourage them to explore the details.
The surrounding yew topiary reflects the garden’s evolution under Scott’s descendants in the 1850s but his hand is evident in the court walls, in which are set an intriguing display of medieval, Roman and early Indian sculptured panels from around the world.
The arched arcade wall is embellished with a stone-carved botanical frieze that divides the South Court from the East Court and the Morris Garden, and is inspired by the cloisters from Melrose Abbey. Research suggests the sunken, rectangular lawn of the second court was once a flower garden viewed from above through intricate ironwork – no longer surviving – in the arcade.
A flight of stone steps leads through an Italianate rustic arch to the third court, the kitchen garden, which Pippa wants to ‘fill with colour and detail to
shine like a jewel’. Here your eye is drawn through a richly planted double border towards the elegant gothic conservatory with tall windows.
Medieval romance is never far away at Abbotsford: Pippa recently discovered that the conservatory was based on a design for a medieval knight’s tent used on campaigns or for jousting.
Standing at the side of the orangery, Pippa explains Scott’s planting ideas for the area with its alluvial soil. ‘He described a garden that combined plants and vegetables with the ornamental plants screening the vegetables,’ she says. ‘Exciting new plants were being imported at that time and, through his contacts and family connections, Scott had access to many of these.’
In summer the central borders glow with deep pink and mauve phlox, delphinium, alstroemeria, campanula, heuchera, richly coloured hemerocallis, agapanthus and penstemon, while shrub rosa ‘Brother Cadfael’ was chosen for its fragrant, rich pink flowers and for the reddish tones of its stems. Plants are increased by propagating and dividing.
The symmetrical layout of four rectangles and generous perimeter
borders was a Georgian design, which allowed for cultivation for the table. Two spaces are now devoted to rotating vegetables, with a third reserved for soft fruit and asparagus, while long grass surrounds the cherry trees in the fourth rectangle, underplanted with fritillaries.
Splashes of colour come from companion plantings of bee-loving royal blue scabious, orange calendula, giant hyssop agastache ‘black adder’ and fragrant matucana sweet peas. The garden is organic.
‘The garden has great overall structure,’ she says, adding that the rustic yew trellis is reputedly similar to the original. Further structure and height also come from the espaliered apples that back the horizontal path where Pippa has recently introduced some new heritage varieties: ‘Bloody ploughman for the beauty of its red apples, which we use to punctuate the corners, and locally-bred white Melrose.’
Scott originally planted trees, many sourced from the great Scottish ducal estates such as Atholl and Buccleuch, on the land between the house and the River Tweed. The view was later opened up and the land terraced by his granddaughter Charlotte and her husband John Hope Scott.
Recently, a fund released from the EU has enabled the restoration of walks in the woodlands based on Scott’s detailed records. Officially opened in March 2018, the walks, which vary in length, radiate from the visitor centre and include reopened vistas over the River Tweed, revitalising the naturalistic landscape and illuminating features such as the waterfall and woodland glades.
Pippa’s current areas of research include the input of Scott’s head gardener, French-born William Bogie, former assistant to James MacDonald of Dalkeith Palace in Midlothian. ‘Lady Scott was French,’ she confirms, ‘so I wonder if there was a link there.
‘Scott’s interest in the garden is what makes it unique. He was an artist and Abbotsford was part of his project. He imagined the place, wrote about it in his novels, and then he actually built it, and used it for inspiration for the rest of his life.’
“Scott imagined the place, wrote about it in his novels, and then he actually built it
Above: An abundance of perennials in the top border. Left: Plantings of dahlias extend the season.
Above: Evergreen structure comes from yew topiary in the first courtyard directly in front of the house.