Sir Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh’s Old Town in 1771, but the Scottish Borders – notably Abbotsford House, located just across the River Tweed from Galashiels – became his home and greatest inspiration.
Scott was a great and versatile writer and one of the most successful authors of all time. The Abbotsford website notes: “Scott’s creativity, wit and understanding of human nature remain on display in his works, but it is only through visiting Abbotsford that one can truly understand the man himself.”
During his early years, he lived on his grandfather’s farm at Sandyknowe in Roxburghshire. He later attended the Royal High School in Edinburgh and Edinburgh University, but his heart was in the Scottish Borders.
Abbotsford, one of the most famous houses in the world, was his creation and passion and his home from 1812-1832.
The dominant, central section of the house was built in 1817 after the demolition of the original farmhouse that Scott first purchased in 1811. The taller and grander east wing, to the left of the central section, was added in 1822 following his elevation to the title of Baronet. The west wing – which doubled the overall size of the house – was added in the 1850s by his granddaughter.
Although Scott had many connections to the Borders, including time spent living with his aunt in Kelso, being appointed Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire and later moving to Ashiestiel (near Caddonfoot) with his wife Charlotte from 1804-1812, his ties to Galashiels were especially intimate.
During his lifetime he made many visits to the town – including frequent visits to Old Gala House and to the Leith Bank in Elm Row to meet with his banker George Craig – and, according to ‘The History of the Braw Lads’ Gathering’ (by John Gray and Gordon Keddie, 2015), “built up tremendous friendships with the various Lairds and always took a great interest in the townsfolk themselves.”
Indeed, following receipt of his Baronetcy at the hands of his sovereign George IV, Scott was entertained by the Galashiels Manufacturers Corporation at their Annual Dinner in 1821 which was held in the New Inn in Scott Place (now replaced by the Royal Bank of Scotland in the renamed Bank Street).
Additionally, in the 1800s – in what became an annual parade – the weavers and dyers of the town, with Scott’s piper John of Skye at their head, advanced from Galashiels to meet Scott and his family at the Ford.
Scott’s most prominent friendships included the Laird of Galashiels and James Pringle of Bowland, the ninth Laird of Torwoodlee.
It was through such friendships that Abbotsford became a central feature in the annual Braw Lads’ Gathering.
Today, as was the case at the first Gathering in 1930, the procession ford the Tweed at the Abbots Ford for a small official party to pay their respects to the Scott family and to recognise and celebrate the friendships that had been made between Sir Walter Scott and the people of Galashiels.
Indeed, on their arrival, the President of the Braw Lad’s Gathering knocks on the door of Abbotsford House and the Braw Lad delivers the following message: “(Name of representative), I have the honour to convey to you the greetings of the Burgh of Galashiels in commemoration of the close associations and the kindly feelings that existed between them and your illustrious ancestor Sir Walter Scott.” (credit: ‘The History of the Braw Lads’ Gathering’, 2015).
In addition to Abbotsford House, Sir Walter Scott will be forever linked to the Braw Lad’s Gathering through The Shepherd’s Tartan – one of the oldest tartans still in existence – and his preference for wearing Shepherd Tartan trews.
“…Sir Walter Scott was renowned for wearing Shepherd Tartan trews whilst conducting his business in London, thus making the wearing of checks a fashion craze in society circles which went a great way in encouraging business for the Galashiels mills,” write Gray and Keddie in ‘The History of the Braw Lads’ Gathering’. “It was therefore through Sir Walter Scott wearing this particular check that Galashiels adopted the Shepherd’s Tartan as its official Braw Lad’s colours.”
Sir Walter Scott died on 21 September 1832. A bronze bust and bronze tablet – commissioned by the Abbotsford Scott Fellowship in 1932 for the centenary of Sir Walter Scott’s death and designed by Thomas Clapperton – commemorates his involvement with the town and can be found just off Cornmill Square in Bank St, Galashiels. The base for the bust was created in the famous Sutherland yard (link to Sutherland piece when it’s finished) on Albert Place.
Image credit: Portrait of Sir Walter Scott, courtesy of the Faculty of Advocates Abbotsford Collection Trust.