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Conundrum Castle

Sir Walter Scott's "Conundrum Castle"

One of the most famous houses in the world, Abbotsford reflects the mind,
enthusiasms and preoccupations of the man who built it.

BY JIM GILCHRIST

In what is now a service corridor deep below the oldest part of the extravagant fusion of Gothic and Scots Baronial architecture that is Abbotsford, a transparent panel set in the floor reveals a deep, stone-lined well. It was almost certainly the well of the Tweedside farmhouse of Cartleyhole -- known to irreverent 19th-century locals as "Clarty Hole," "clarty" being a rich old Scots word for dirty or mucky.

In 1811, the 40-year-old lawyer, poet and novelist Walter Scott, on his way to becoming an author of international renown, but also Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire in the Scottish Border country, bought this relatively unprepossessing spot, renaming it Abbotsford after the monks who traditionally forded the River Tweed there. Over the next decade or two, driven by antiquarian fervour, Scott transformed the humble farmhouse near Melrose into a fantastical pile of turrets and crow-stepped gables, which would become one of the best-known houses in the world.

Over the years following Scott's death in 1832, Abbotsford became a literary shrine, visited by kings, presidents and celebrities, but by the early years of the 21st century visitor numbers had declined worryingly and the house's future was uncertain. Today, however, following a two-year closure, during which an £11.24-million refurbishment (about $19.1 million) was carried out and a state-of-the-art visitor centre established nearby, Abbotsford seems set to face the future with confidence.

Scott fondly called it his "Conundrum Castle" or his "flibbertigibbet of a house." Some flibbertigibbet, you might think, as you step into this extraordinary and hugely personal residence and find yourself immersed in the world of a compulsive collector who had the means and the imagination to create the wonderfully idiosyncratic treasure trove that is Abbotsford. The tone is set by the entrance hall's elaborate oak panelling, some of it taken from the pews of ancient Dunfermline Abbey; the great stone fireplace was carved by John Smith from the nearby village of Darnick, the master builder who carried out much of the work at Abbotsford (its grate is said to have belonged to Archbishop Sharp, murdered by Covenanters by 1679). Painted glass windows shed pastel light, which glows gently on ancient armour and painted heraldic shields denoting Scott's ancestry.

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2014 issue of Scottish Life.

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