By Dr. Jean Barclay

Walter Scott was born in 1771 in Edinburgh.  After schooling at the Royal High School, he became a lawyer, was called to the bar and eventually became a Chief Clerk to the Court of Session and Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire.  Scott was not enthusiastic about his legal work but when he began writing poetry from the late 1790s, and later his famous novels, he felt he had found his true metier.  Although he published his first novel ‘Waverley’ anonymously in 1814, he was widely known as the author and in 1815 he was invited to dine in London with the George, the Prince Regent, who wanted to meet ‘the author of Waverley’ (1).

Edinburgh in the later 18th century had been a hub of the Enlightenment, an ‘Age of Reason’, with a scientific outlook, rational ideas on religion and society and burgeoning industrialisation, as well as growing political unrest in the wake of the French Revolution.  Perhaps as a reaction, Romanticism blossomed in the early 19th century and affected poetry, novels, dress and even buildings, where there was a looking back to a chivalrous and romantic past (2).

Sir Walter Scott was a disciple of Romanticism.  In about 1816, Scott, his legal friends Adam Ferguson and William Adam, and six other gentlemen, formed the Blair-Adam Club in order to pursue their interest in antiquities and places of historical interest.  They would meet at weekends for local jaunts to historical sites and for a week in June for visits further afield. Scott regularly attended these meetings, visiting in this way many Scottish scenes of ancient celebrity, gaining ideas for his novels along the way (3).

Symbolism of Scotland’s romantic past became important and in 1817 the Prince Regent issued a Royal Warrant granting Scott and others permission to search for the Crown Jewels or the ‘Honours of Scotland’, which had been missing for 100 years. Amid great publicity and celebration, they were found in a large locked box in Edinburgh Castle. A grateful Prince Regent granted Scott the title of baronet and in March 1820 he received the baronetcy in London becoming Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet (4).

Sketch of Abbotsford in 1812, the farmhouse before extension
Abbotsford in 1812, the farmhouse before extension

Scott’s work with the Court of Session kept him in Edinburgh much of the year but as Sheriff-depute for Selkirkshire he resided in the country with his wife Charlotte and their four children during the summer to be on hand for official county business. From 1804 he rented an old house by the Tweed, but in 1811 he bought a nearby farm situated between Melrose and Galashiels. He called the place Abbotsford and in the early 1820s was busy extending the original farmhouse into a large mansion, Abbotsford House, which, in keeping with the spirit of the age, was to be in the Scottish baronial style (5). 

In the summer of 1821 Scott visited Dunfermline and had been taken by the pulpit and its surrounding woodwork in the Old Kirk, which had been the nave of the original Abbey of Dunfermline (6).  The Old Nave would soon become redundant as a New Abbey Church had been built to its east. The last service in the Old Kirk was held on the 23rd September 1821 and the first in the New Church on the 30th.  On September 27th the Council Minutes (signed by David Mitchell, bailie) record that ‘The Council authorise the Magistrates to dispose of all the seats in the Old Church belonging to the Town in such a way as they may think to the best advantage of the Community’ (7).

Apart from the seats, the woodwork admired by Sir Walter included the carved oak pulpit (still known as Ralph Erskine’s pulpit) which was fixed to the central northern pillar in the church and bore the inscription ‘who is sufficient for these things’ and a probable date of 1634.  The royal gallery sat almost opposite between two columns on the south side with the gallery of the Marquis of Tweeddale to its west (8).

At Abbotsford, with the building work well underway, Scott was on the look-out for items of an ancient nature for the house and garden, particularly old carved stones and woodwork and quaint pieces of furniture.  In the spring of 1822 he received some old stones from the Cross in Edinburgh which had been erected in 1614 and taken down in 1756 (9).  He also received a ‘curious chair’ and in thanking the donor he wrote that ‘It is quite invaluable to me who am filling up an addition to my house in the country with things of that antique nature (10).

Photo of the exterior of Abbotsford
Abbotsford House today

Scott’s work at Abbotsford was interrupted in the summer of 1822 by the visit to Edinburgh of George IV. Edinburgh City Council, apparently at the request of the new King, asked Scott to head a committee to make the necessary arrangements.  This gave Scott the chance to indulge his romantic nature and the visit, which lasted from the 14th to 29th of August, included balls, banquets, ceremonies and extravagant parades, with pipe bands and the Honours of Scotland borne aloft (11). Incidentally, the Dunfermline Burgh Council wrote to the King suggesting that he also visit their town, which was ‘for several centuries the place of Birth, Residence, and Interment of many of your Majesty’s illustrious ancestors’ with the ruins of the Palace, Abbey and Cathedral to add interest, but although a civil reply was received no visit was forthcoming (12).      

Once the King’s visit was over, Scott focussed on the interior of his house. The carved woodwork in the Old Kirk of Dunfermline was just the sort of thing he wanted and, in his history of Dunfermline, Rev. Peter Chalmers states that in 1822, soon after a visit to the town, Sir Walter wrote a letter of request to the heritors (local landowners) who unanimously resolved to make a present to him of the pulpit and the royal gallery in the old nave. At Abbotsford, wrote Chalmers ‘it will doubtless be long and carefully preserved, among the other memorials of the ecclesiastical and chivalrous antiquities of our country’ (13).  The Minutes of a Heritors Meeting of 14th June 1822 record that ‘The Meeting appoint a committee to get the Old Church cleared of stone and rubbish’ and ‘are of opinion that the front of the Royal Gallery and the Pulpit of the Old Church ought to be removed forthwith and they unanimously agree to make an offer of the pulpit to Sir Walter Scott Baronet gratis’ (14).

Photo of the Entrance Hall
The Entrance Hall

In the Minutes of the Society of Antiquaries for 1901 there is a slightly different version of events. An Edinburgh lady, Miss Elizabeth Anne Maclaurin (1816-1900) bequeathed some historical items to the Society, one of which was a letter from Sir Walter Scott to her father Peter Maclaurin, WS.

In a letter accompanying her gifts, Miss Maclaurin wrote that ‘During the Autumn of 1822, my father, the late Mr. Peter Maclaurin, paid a visit to an old and valued friend, the late Mr. David Mitchell, accountant in the Bank of Scotland, Dunfermline. Both being keen antiquaries, they were talking of the oak-work which had recently been removed from the old Abbey Church of Dunfermline as, after the opening of the New Abbey Church, the old one was no longer used as a place of worship, but simply as a vestibule to the New Church, and it was dismantled of all the old oak ornamentations.  My father felt sure that the old carved oak work which was lying there, piled up in heaps, would be a very acceptable gift to Sir Walter Scott, who was then fitting up Abbotsford, and he particularly requested Mr. Mitchell, who was one of the Bailies, and in fact the leading man in the Town Council, to get for him the pulpit and whatever other portions of the wainscotting the Magistrates of Dunfermline had it in their power to bestow. On returning home, my father called on Sir Walter Scott, who was quite delighted with the offer of the old oak-work. Mr. Mitchell handsomely redeemed his promise to my father by securing all the Town Council could give, and furnished him besides with valuable information as to how he could get possession of the ‘King’s Gallery’ which, being the property of the Crown, could only be obtained by applying to the Barons of the Exchequer.  It is almost needless to add that the application to the Barons was successful, and that instead of one, as he had at first expected, Sir Walter received six cartloads of the carved oak of the Old Abbey Church to fit up the baronial hall at Abbotsford’.

On October 12th 1822 Sir Walter wrote ‘Dear Mr. Maclaurin, I beg you will accept my best thanks for all the trouble you have had about the pulpit. I will send a cart in for it next week, and intend to employ it in lining a little Gothick cabinet or boudoir in this place.  The Chief Baron will be here in two days. I will try to touch him up for the Gallery also. I am much indebted to Mr. Mitchell for the pains he has bestowed to gratify my hobby-horse. I remain, dear Mr.Maclaurin, your obliged humble servant, Walter Scott’ (15).

However he obtained them, Scott was delighted with his acquisitions from Dunfermline and in a letter of October 12th 1822 to Daniel Terry he writes: ‘I have had three grand hawls since I wrote to you: the Pulpit, Repentance Stool, King’s Seat, and God knows how much of carved wainscot from the Kirk of Dunfermline – enough to coat the hall to a height of seven feet, supposing it boarded above for hanging guns, old portraits, intermixed with armour, etc.  It will be a superb entrance gallery’. The other two ‘hawls’ were ‘24 pieces of splendid Chinese wallpaper’ for the drawing room and two bedrooms and ‘a quantity of what is called Jamaica cedar wood, enough for fitting up the drawing room and the library including the presses, shelves etc’ (16).

Photo of side table made from Dunfermline Abbey Pulpit
Side table made from the Dunfermline Abbey Pulpit

On January 3rd 1823, Sir Walter wrote cheerfully to his friend James Skene ‘My house is finished in the shell and looks like a Temple of Solomon, not that I insinuate any comparison between the founders’ and on April 5th 1823 he wrote to Lord Montagu in London that that ‘My romance of a house is now so far advanced that the drawing room and the bedroom story will be habitable in summer. The hall (‘an it please your Lordship) will require more cooking and so will the library as both are to have handsome ceilings – said hall is to be lined with the ancient carved oak belonging to the pulpit and state pews in the ancient church of Dunfermline.  I contrived to get the whole not forgetting the repentance- stool which of all other seats is most appropriate to the use of a family builder’ (17).   

Eventually the entrance hall, which measured 40 feet by 20 feet was panelled with the dark oak panelling from Dunfermline Kirk, while Erskine’s pulpit and the precentor’s desk were made into two semi-circular presses or side tables. Abbotsford House was finally completed in 1824 but Sir Walter Scott only lived a further eight years to enjoy his ‘romance of a house’. Abbotsford, however, survives today in all its glory and thousands of visitors still admire the imposing entrance hall ornamented with beautiful and ancient relics from the Old Kirk of  Dunfermline.

Photo of the second side table
The second side table


I am grateful for the help of the staff of the reading room at the Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries, the staff of the National Museum of Scotland and Jeff Sanders of the Society of Antiquaries, Edinburgh.

Thanks also to Gifford Lind and Robin Thompson for additional photographs.

1. Scott (‘the Great Unknown’) did not publicly reveal his authorship of the novels until 1827, possibly because prose tended to be rated lower than poetry among people of learning and refinement.

2.  For the background to these times see the on-line account by Michael Penman ‘Bruce’s Bones: Reputations, Politics and Identities in Nineteenth-Century Scotland’.

3. The Club was named after Blairadam, the seat of William Adam (of the family of architects), a few miles north-east of Dunfermline.  Lockhart, J. G, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott (Memoirs), London, 1914.  Lockhart was Scott’s son-in-law.

4. Memoirs, op. cit. and other sources.

5. Ibid. Scott named Abbotsford after the crossing on the Tweed used by the abbot and monks of Melrose Abbey.

6. Scott probably visited Dunfermline on the occasion of his being made a free burgess of the town on June 13 1821.

7. Dunfermline Burgh Minutes, Sept. 27 1821, National Records of Scotland (NRS) B20/13/17.

8.  Chalmers, Peter, Historical and Statistical Account of the Town and Parish of Dunfermline, Volume 1, 1844, pp. 121-2.  The quotation is from 2 Corinthians, 2.16.

9. The stones of the old cross had been obtained by Walter Ross, and erected into a tower called ‘Ross’s Folly’ at his home on the water of Leith. The stones, which included several carved heads of the kings of Scotland, were obtained for Scott by the artist, Henry Raeburn.  Grierson, Herbert (ed), Letters of Sir Walter Scott (Letters), London 1932-7, Vol. 7, May 8th 1822.  For a description of the old cross of Edinburgh and Ross’s Folly see Chambers, Robert (ed) The Gazeteer of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1836, p. 329.  

10. Letter to Joseph Train in Letters, May 26 1822.

11. Scott more or less ran the show with Major-General David Stewart of Garth keeping him right on the Highland aspects.  The visit was generally seen as a success but some frowned on the overdone ‘tartan and bagpipes’ aspects and the stout King in a short tartan kilt and tights. Details taken from the exhibition ‘Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland’ at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

12. Dunfermline Burgh Minutes, August 10 1822, NRS, op. cit.. It is interesting that in their invitation to the King the Council did not make special mention of Robert-the-Bruce – unearthed in Dunfermline as recently as 1818 – among the ‘illustrious ancestors’ but this may be because he had been an enemy of the English crown. 

13. Chalmers, op. cit.

14. The heritors or their representatives at the meeting were Sir Charles Halkett of Pitfirrane, Dr. Robertson Barclay of Keavil, James Hunt, Esq. of Pittencrieff, John McClean, factor to the Earl of Elgin, David Black, Esq, factor for Miss Madox Blackwood of Pitreavie, and Mr. H. Bardner for Mr. Wellwood of Garvock.  Also present were Bailies Scotland and Kerr for the Burgh of Dunfermline and Dean of Guild David Mitchell for the Guildry, NRS, HR159/3/309.

15. ‘Proceedings of the Society’ 1901, pp. 428-430, the Society of Antiquaries, Edinburgh. David Mitchell was present at the heritors’ meeting which gifted the items from the nave to Scott (see above).

Miss Maclaurin’s mother also obtained for Abbotsford an antique cradle grate that had belonged to Archbishop Sharp.  In return for the help of the Maclaurins, Scott sent them the eight volumes of his Poetical Works and these were also gifted by Miss Maclaurin to the Society.

It is not entirely clear what Sir Walter obtained from the Old Kirk but Chalmers claims that as well as the pulpit he received the front of the gallery of the Marquis of Tweeddale. As the front of the ‘King’s Seat’ was retained and is now erected in the New Abbey Church, this seems likely.  Whether it was the gallery front or the precentor’s desk that was made into a press or table along with the pulpit is not clear. 

16. Letters, op. cit, Vol. 7, Oct. 12 1822. Daniel Terry was a famous actor whose repertoire included characters based on works by Walter Scott, and he was also a trained architect who advised Scott on the work at Abbotsford.

17.  Letters, op. cit, Vol. 7, April 5 1823.