Another two days of intensive meetings, and travels around the Borders, including, by good fortune, the chance to attend a VisitScotland reception at Abbotsford. The last time I visited Scott’s birthplace was in the late 60s, when I was only a youngster, but the memory has stayed with me ever since. So I was a bit nervous about seeing the refurbished house—would that sense of a magical, cluttered, treasure chest have been swept away with all the cleaning and restoration? I needn’t have worried. The Abbotsford Trust has pulled off a remarkable feat: creating a world class visitor attraction that nonetheless retains that special sense of Scott’s character. We were reminded of Goethe’s house in Weimar—and Goethe and Scott were mutual admirers—where you feel that at any moment the great man himself, or a member of his family, might come round a corner and greet you.
Scott’s cultural influence world-wide is almost incalculable. If you think only of opera, then every night of the year, someone somewhere in the world will be performing Lucia di Lamermoor. The Internet Movie Database lists 12 adaptations of Ivanhoe alone, between 1913 and 1997, with a further version in development. But it can be a problematic influence. Scott invented historical fiction, and Abbotsford has plenty of evidence of how ready he was to blur the boundaries between fact and myth. A superb 17th century cabinet inlaid in red tortoise-shell, as the campaign chest of Montrose? I don’t think so. But Scott clearly believed it was. As the reporter says at the end of The Man who shot Liberty Valance, ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend’. Scott, I’m sure, would have agreed.
You could also say that Scott virtually invented the heritage industry as we know it today, and so it was fitting that Abbotsford should have been originally opened to the public within a year of his death—the reason why its remarkable contents have remained so intact. It became ‘instant’ heritage, its historicist decoration and its eclectic contents giving it an illusory air of the medieval, aided by plasterwork masquerading as woodcarving, and real wood panelling salvaged from more ancient buildings. You could therefore, if you felt unkind, lay at Scott’s door the blame for such subsequent ersatz concepts as ‘Herriot Country’, ‘Last of the Summer Wine Country’, or even the current popular pursuit of ‘Harry Potter’ locations. Just a month ago I was watching broomstick-flying lessons in Alnwick Castle. The line from that back to Scott may be winding, but it exists.
The irony in all this, is that in the Borders ,history—real history—is so omni-present and so rich and impressive, that it needs no fictional additions to bring it to life. Orkney’s landscape has often been described as a palimpsest* on which all the layers of different eras, from the Stone Age, through the Viking, to the present, can all be read on top of each other. I think the same can be said of much of the Borders. In Kelso, in the space of a hundred yards, I moved from the immense Romanesque grandeur of the Abbey ruins to the Georgian elegance of the Town Hall, a journey in time of six centuries.
It’s impossible to forget or ignore the past in the Borders, and that’s even before you take into account the extraordinary history of the Common Ridings. So many similar traditions in other parts of the UK—from Highland Games to Morris dancing and the Eisteddfod—are largely 19th century revivals, but the oldest of the Border Ridings can claim an unbroken history stretching back for centuries.
Sometimes that weight of history and tradition can lie heavily on the present. It’s no accident that the most archetypal Borders expression is probably ‘It’s aye been’. That can make it difficult for new ideas to take flight. But what those superb buildings—medieval and Georgian—in Kelso, and in so many other Borders towns, made me think is, that ‘it’s not aye been’. There was a time when the Borders was part of a great European network—the architecture of Kelso Abbey can match anything of the same period in France or Germany—and a time when the region was one of the most prosperous in the country. Times changed, and can change again.
1. A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible.
2. An object, place, or area that reflects its history
(The Free Dictionary)