The Rabbie, Robbie and Wally Museum



It says a lot about changing notions of life-expectancy and longevity that, in many of the tributes and obituaries written in the wake of Iain Banks’ death this year, Banks was considered to have died at the ‘comparatively young’ age of 59.  In facts, Banks’ innings was just two years short of that achieved by Sir Walter Scott who, when he passed away in 1832 at the age of 61, was deemed to have reached a reasonable old age.


Meanwhile, Scott at the end of his life seemed positively ancient when compared with the two towering figures of Scottish literature who came immediately before and shortly after him – Robert Burns, who died in 1796 at the age of 37 (from excess, if you believe the unforgiving Presbyterian accounts of his life); and the always-sickly Robert Louis Stevenson, who died in 1894 at the age of 44.  Yes, there was no time for procrastination in that era of Scottish letters – you got your work down on paper as quick as you could, in case the Grim Reaper came knocking soon.


Such melancholy thoughts were inspired by a recent visit I paid to the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, which would be more accurately titled the Three Writers’ Museum, since it deals only with Burns, Scott and Stevenson.  Situated on the Royal Mile in Lady Stair’s Close, which is on the same side as and a little way further up from Deacon Brodie’s Tavern (Deacon Brodie was the outwardly respectable but secretly criminal Edinburgh citizen who may have planted the idea for Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Stevenson’s head), the museum is squeezed into three floors of a narrow corner building whose last private owner was the 5th Earl of Rosebury.  In 1907 the Earl gifted the building to the City of Edinburgh on the understanding that it would be used as a museum.


Don’t go to the museum expecting the latest in interactive displays, animatronics, sound and visual effects.  It’s solidly old-fashioned – you read the information on the panels and look at stuff in display cases, which includes Burns’ writing desk and the swordstick he carried whilst employed as an Excise Officer, Scott’s chess set and his boyhood rocking horse (one foot-rest positioned higher than the other to accommodate his lifelong lameness) and the boots that Stevenson wore during the final days of his life on Samoa.  There’s also an eight-foot-or-so model of the Sir Walter Scott Monument, whose presence there seems a bit pointless when a ten-minute walk will take you to the real thing on Princes Street.


I have to say I like the austere, no-frills manner of the Writers’ Museum, which seemingly hasn’t changed for a century.  Once in a while, it’s nice to encounter a historical museum whose presentation style is rooted almost in the same era that its subjects lived in.


One word of advice, though.  Visit the Writers’ Museum before you visit Deacon Brodie’s Tavern or any of the other picturesque pubs that central Edinburgh has to offer because, with its low doorways and treacherous stone stairs, it’s not a place to negotiate when you’re a bit tipsy.  I cracked my forehead on a stone door-frame coming down from the first to the ground floor and I was entirely sober.  Honest!



Sir Walter stripped



Saying that Sir Walter Scott left a few marks on modern-day Scotland is as much an understatement as saying that the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig left a few dirt-stains on the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.


Through his historical romances like Waverley – novels that were massively popular in their day – Scott conjured up images of Scotland that included rugged mountains, heathery moors and misty lochs, and tribes of plaid-wrapped clansmen who rallied with their claymores to the skirl of bagpipes.  Those images endured and they’re still what many tourists arriving in Scotland expect to find.  And that the real Scotland was long ago supplanted by Scott-land, the fabrication created by Sir Walter’s pen, is something that pisses a lot of Scottish people off.


Today it seems fitting that on Edinburgh’s Princes Street the author’s statue broods at the bottom of the Scott Monument – the tapering, four-legged sandstone structure built in his memory in the 1840s, which cynics have likened to a gothic re-imagining of Thunderbird 3 – while yards away at the corner of Waverley, yes Waverley Bridge, Japanese tourists pose for photos with busking bagpipers.  Meanwhile, up on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, other tourists throng the countless tacky souvenir shops and hand over, in exchange for pieces of tartan kitsch, Scottish banknotes with Scott’s face on them.


From Wikipedia


This wasn’t merely a consequence of Scott’s books.  He also masterminded the royal visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, for which he turned the Scottish capital into a veritable pageant of tartanry.  This was much to the bemusement of the inhabitants of Edinburgh, and of the Scottish Lowlands generally, for whom plaid, claymores, bagpipes and the rest were associated only with the despised and impoverished Highlanders in the north, who in the 18th century had traitorously joined the Jacobite rebellions against the British throne.


However, George IV, who was the first British monarch to visit Scotland in two centuries, embraced Sir Walter’s tartan razzmatazz and showed his approval by donning a kilt and sporran himself when he received dignitaries at Holyrood Palace.  By this time, a lifetime of drunkenness and gluttony had taken its toll on George’s physique, and according to my copy of The A-Z of Hellraisers (an entertaining encyclopaedia of debauchery written by Robert Sellers), “his waistline had expanded to 50 inches and his stomach hung down like a sack of melons.”  So the obese monarch in his kilt, with flesh-coloured tights worn underneath to hide his swollen thighs, must’ve been a sight for sore eyes indeed.  Nonetheless, the huge success of George’s visit, stage-managed by Scott, sealed the fate of Scotland’s identity.  Thereafter, that identity was tartan.


With this debate about how Scott’s portrayal of Scotland became confused with the real thing, which almost makes him out to be an early-19th-century marketing guru who packaged the country, gave it brand recognition and sold it to the world, it’s often forgotten that he was first and foremost a writer.  However, Scott-the-writer (as opposed to Scott-the-marketing-man) is something that’s gradually receded from public consciousness over the years, with fewer and fewer people reading his books.  This is a pity but hardly a surprise.  Very recently I read his novel The Black Dwarf and I could understand how many people would struggle with it – I enjoyed some of it, mostly in its first half, but casual readers nowadays would be defeated by the multitude of arcane references made to Scottish history, geography and folklore, as well as by the Scottish dialect that Scott robustly and unapologetically employs for many of the characters.  It may well be that we’ve all dumbed down and Scott’s prose is just too much for our modern brains to handle, but there you have it.  I can’t see the old boy enjoying a literary revival any time soon.



Meanwhile, in the country that he turned into a giant tourist attraction, Scott has become a tourist attraction himself.  Abbotsford House, the imposing if architecturally unruly mansion house and estate that he gradually built up from 1812 onwards, in the process cramming it with historical memorabilia, has long been a magnet for visitors in the Scottish Borders and recently the place was reopened following a five-year refurbishment.  Present at the reopening, on July 3rd, was the Queen.  Being there was the least she could have done for Scott’s memory, considering the effort he put into popularising her fat Germanic forefather in Scotland nearly 200 years ago.


I hadn’t been to Scott’s old home for 20 years, so a couple of weeks ago I made my way to the new-look Abbotsford (which is always described as being next to postcard-pretty Melrose, although in reality it’s closer to the more rough-and-tumble town of Galashiels).  The estate now has at its entrance a visitor’s centre containing a shop and exhibition area – the centre is flat-roofed and, mercifully, doesn’t protrude into the views from the estate’s majestic gardens – while the interior of the mansion itself seems to have undergone a major clear-out and re-organisation.


From the memories of my visit in 1992, Abbotsford then was a rather dark and cluttered place, but now it feels much more spacious, brighter and generally more attractive, whilst still having plenty of artefacts, fittings and adornments to admire.  On entry you get a headset with a cord and a microphone-like attachment that you point at little terminals located at strategic points through the rooms.  Each terminal triggers a commentary in the headset, given by actor impersonating the hospitable and personable Scott himself, telling you the history of the part of the house you’re standing in.  The last time I was there all the information was written down on copious panels attached to the exhibits – I read the texts and quickly forgot them.  Since my recent visit, much of the information I got from the headset commentaries has actually stayed with me.  Generally, then, I think this Feng shui-style decluttering of the house – Abbotsford stripped – has been a success.


Outside, the gardens are as lovely as ever and I’m glad to report that the stature of Sir Walter’s beloved hound, Maida, still reposes near the entrance door.  (Another statue of Maida snuggles beside him underneath Thunderbird 3, sorry, the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.)



For the record, I like Sir Walter Scott.  I rate some of his books quite highly, although I think Redgauntlet and The Bride of Lammermuir are better than his more famous and acclaimed works Waverley and The Heart of Midlothian.  And I don’t hold the tartan-isation of Scotland against him too much.  It brings visitors and generates money and, anyway, I’ve travelled enough to know that there are plenty of countries that are grateful to have a colourful and well-known national caricature they can peddle to the rest of the world, bolster their tourist industries and fill their pockets with.  To be honest, too, there are a lot worse caricatures to be lumbered with than the mountain-dwelling, tartan-swathed noble-savage one that Scotland has.  Kilts are way cooler than lederhosen.


That said, I think those tartan-tat shops on Edinburgh Royal Mile are a disgrace and truly demean the neighbourhood, which is after all a United Nations World Heritage Site.  Mind you, if Scott was alive today, he’d probably be so incensed that he’d be on the Royal Mile lobbing Molotov cocktails at them.


Finally, I like how Scott, following the ruination he suffered with the collapse of the Ballantyne Press in the mid-1820s, refused to declare himself bankrupt and turned down offers of financial aid.  Instead, he just sat down at his desk, took his pen and started writing his way out of insolvency.


Strange places in the Scottish Borders 3: David Ritchie’s Manor Valley


(c) Benediction Classics


Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 novel The Black Dwarf begins in promisingly atmospheric style.  In 1707 two young men, farmer Hobbie Elliot and the more aristocratic Patrick Earnscliff, are returning home one evening across a desolate moor in the Scottish Borders.  At a spot on the moor reputed to have supernatural associations, they encounter a dwarf, cantankerous in nature and so strange in appearance that they wonder if he might be an apparition or fairy.  Both are curious enough to return there the next day, where they find the dwarf again and discover him in the process of constructing a hut out of the surrounding rocks and stones, having decided for some reason that this wild place is where he’s going to live.  The dwarf, Elshie – Elshender the Recluse as he’ll become formally known – is described thus:


‘His head was of uncommon size, covered with a fell of shaggy hair, partly grizzled with age; his eyebrows, shaggy and prominent, overhung a pair of small dark, piercing eyes, set far back in their sockets, that rolled with a portentous wildness, indicative of a partial insanity…  His body, thick and square, like that of a man of middle size, was mounted upon two large feet; but nature seemed to have forgotten the legs and the thighs, or they were so very short as to be hidden by the dress which he wore.’


Once settled on the moor, Elshie keeps to himself, remains curmudgeonly towards his neighbours, and quickly acquires a reputation for having supernatural powers.  Despite his unsociability, however, he prescribe cures for the various illnesses that local people succumb to – though as he explains to the good-natured Earnscliff (the neighbour he’s most tolerant of), he doesn’t see these deeds as acts of kindness.  Rather, he says, he’s inadvertently causing mischief because, revived and restored, those people are free to create more misery for all around them.  Elshie’s cynicism is borne out when one of the folk he’s cured of illness, the lawless Willie Graeme of Westerburnflat, known too as the Red Reiver, razes Hobbie Elliot’s farmhouse, drives away his livestock and carries off his sweetheart.


And that’s as good as the novel gets, unfortunately.  Thereafter, it becomes bogged down in a sub-plot involving another set of characters living in the district, the weak-willed Richard Vere, Laird of Ellislaw, his virtuous daughter Isabel and the villainous Sir Frederick Langley, who has designs on Isabel.  Vere and Langley are Jacobites conspiring to put James Stuart, the Old Pretender, on the throne with the help of a French invasion fleet.  Elshie, meanwhile, comes to look on Isabel with considerably more kindness than he does other human beings and it’s he, highly improbably, who rescues her from Langley’s clutches.  Scott adds a final and feeble twist about Elshie’s true identity that sadly undoes the uncanny atmosphere he’d managed to build in the book’s opening pages.  Elshie was much more interesting when he was a potential, and grumpy, apparition.


It’s well-known that Scott had a real person in mind when he created the character of Elshie.  Indeed, he says so in the novel’s introduction.  Born in 1740, David Ritichie was ‘the son of a labourer in the slate-quarries of Stobo’ in the Borders county of Peeblesshire.  He was ‘bred a brush-maker at Edinburgh’, but ‘wandered to several places, working at his trade, from all which he was chased by the disagreeable attention which his hideous singularity of form and face attracted wherever he came.’  One particular deformity he had were his feet, which were too misshapen for ordinary shoes and had to be bound in cloth.


Ritchie eventually returned to his home county, where he set about building a cottage ‘upon a patch of wild moorland at the bottom of a bank on the farm of Woodhouse, in the sequestered vale of the small river Manor’.  Ritchie was obviously as stubborn and disdainful of human protocol as the fictional Elshie was.  Although the land belonged to Sir James Naesmith, Ritichie didn’t bother to ask him for planning permission and his cottage was ‘placed there without right or leave asked or given.’  However, Scott recorded that Naesmith, bemused by Ritchie’s audacity, ‘readily sanctioned the harmless encroachment’.  When the cottage was finished, its doorway was only three-and-a-half feet high.


And that was where Ritchie spent the rest of his life.  He cultivated a handsome garden by his cottage and always seemed willing to accept charitable donations and manual help from his neighbours, though out of typical bloody-mindedness he was loathe to thank them for their generosity.  Because of his appearance and reclusiveness, ‘some of the poor and ignorant, as well as all the children, in the neighbourhood, held him to be what is called uncanny.’  Scott himself managed to visit Ritchie – Bow’d Davie as he was known to the locals – in 1797.  He died in 1811.


The Manor Valley, whose entrance is a mile or two west of the town of Peebles, remains one of the most scenic and unspoilt valleys in the Scottish Borders.  A little way into it stands a handsome kirk and David Ritchie’s grave is easily found in the kirkyard – it’s off the right-hand end of the building as you come through the gate and is marked by a prominent headstone that’s possibly taller than its tenant was when he was alive.



Woodhouse Farm is still there, further up the valley – you soon encounter it after you venture along the road signposted for Manorhead.  More modern cottages stand near the farmstead now, ‘at the bottom of a bank’, which might have been the site of Ritchie’s miniature abode.



Unfortunately, on the day that I headed down the Manor Valley to take some photographs to accompany this entry, the weather was dismal and the light had the texture of used dishwater.  Grey and smudgy though they are, however, these pictures should indicate that the place hasn’t changed much since the days when David Ritchie used to tend his garden, terrify the children and look upon his normally-proportioned neighbours with ill-concealed contempt.



Strange places in the Scottish Borders 2: Hermitage Castle


The 20-mile valley of Liddesdale runs south-west through the Scottish Borders, right to the northern edge of England.  Because it offered a passageway into Scotland for English armies, Liddesdale was of huge strategic importance to the two, often-warring countries.  In his book The Steel Bonnets, about the Border Reivers, the brigands who from the 13th to 17th centuries raided homesteads along the English-Scottish frontier, George Macdonald Fraser described it as ‘the bloodiest valley in Britain’.  When the Scots decided to build a fortress in the valley in the 13th century – a move that itself almost sparked a war with England – they erected something that did justice to a territory with such a history of conflict and bloodshed.  Hermitage Castle is about the grimmest and most oppressive castle I’ve come across.



The Hermitage Castle that stands today is actually the second one on the site.  All that remains of the original, timber structure, which was probably built by Sir Nicholas de Soulis, are the big earthwork defences.  Work on the second castle began in 1340, under its then owner Sir Hugh de Dacre.  However, it wasn’t until the time of his successors, William Douglas, the 1st Earl of Douglas, and his illegitimate son, George Douglas, the 1st Earl of Angus – at the time George was regarded as being the product of incest because his mother was the sister-in-law of William’s wife – that the castle acquired the hulking, H-shaped form that greets visitors to modern Liddesdale.


The castle later became the property of Sir Patrick Hepburn, the 1st Earl of Bothwell.  His great-grandson James, the 4th Earl of Bothwell, became Mary Queen of Scots’ third husband after her second husband, the hapless Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was murdered in an assassination plot that involved both gunpowder and strangulation – he suffered the latter when the former failed to blow him to pieces.  Bothwell was implicated in the murder.  In 1566, the year before Darnley’s death, Mary was said to have had ‘a scandalous tryst’ with Bothwell at Hermitage Castle.  He’d been injured in a skirmish with some Reivers and was laid low at Hermitage and Mary, hearing of his wounds, embarked on a frantic 25-mile ride from the town of Jedburgh to be at his side.  The comfort she ended up giving him was allegedly more physical than medicinal or spiritual.  However, research by one of Mary’s biographers, Lady Antonia Fraser, casts doubt on the veracity of this story and it may have been put about by her enemies as a way of blackening her character.


Once the crowns of Scotland and England had been united in 1603 under Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland – James I as he’s known in the English history books – Hermitage Castle lost its territorial importance and by the 18th century it’d become a ruin.  In 1820 the 5th Duke of Buccleugh carried out much-needed repairs to the castle and in 1930 it was handed over to the care of the state.  It is now looked after by Historic Scotland.


When I turned up one day at Hermitage Castle, on my trusty bicycle, the weather was reasonably sunny.  Accordingly, on the southern side of the building, the grass was dry, the ground firm and the air fresh – whereas on the northern side, within its considerable shadow, everything felt cold, damp and dank.  The outer castle walls were cliff-like masses of stone, dark-grey in colour and freckled with pale fungi.  I saw few smears of bird-droppings on those stone blocks, as if the local birdlife sensed a negative vibe emanating from the place and didn’t want to nest there.  Windows appeared in those thick walls only sparsely, were different sizes and were arranged in irregular patterns.  The entrance door, meanwhile, seemed ridiculously small and was dwarfed by the surrounding stone.



Inside the castle, the ground was covered by uneven flagstones in places and by pebbles in others.  Some of the tumbledown interior walls had a fur of moss that was a mixture of lurid colours – yellow, brown, green, orange.  The randomly positioned windows allowed me only the briefest glimpses of the surrounding countryside, while in one corner-tower a gap in the roof made the sky seem remote and unreachable.  There was also a small, deep prison-vault that for its inmates must’ve felt like being in hell itself.  Wherever I went inside, I heard a sinister rustle caused by the current in the nearby burn, the Hermitage Water.



Scribbling in my notebook at the time, I wrote: “Dark, solid, brutal, oppressive.  Like the sort of place Darth Vader would use as a holiday home when he’s in the Borders.”  The allusion may have been cheesy but it seemed appropriate, because there is a Darth Vader-ish feel to Hermitage Castle.



Inevitably, that chronicler – not necessarily an accurate chronicler – of all things old, historical and Scottish, Sir Walter Scott, took an interest in Hermitage Castle in the early 19th century and there was a revival of interest in the stories and folklore attached to the place.  It is said, for example, to be haunted by the ghost of Mary Queen of Scots, and a nearby bog is known as Queen’s Mire because it was here that Mary was supposedly thrown off her horse during her ride back from her tryst with Bothwell.


However, the most famous legend associated with Hermitage Castle concerns William de Soulis, son of the original castle’s founder, Sir Nicolas de Soulis.  According to this legend, he practised the dark arts and employed a creature called Robin Redcap as his familiar.  While the familiars of wizards and witches are usually depicted as black cats, owls, toads and the like, Soulis’ familiar was a truly hideous being.  In his book about the mythical beasts of Scotland Not of this World, Maurice Fleming describes Robin Redcap as ‘a thick-set old man with fierce red eyes, long tangled hair, protruding teeth and fingers like talons.’


Carrying out all manner of terrible and blasphemous deeds, Soulis and Robin Redcap terrorised the surrounding countryside.  However, Soulis’ fate was itself terrible.  In the end his outraged subjects – though some stories say it was a local prophet and mystic, Thomas Learmont of Erceldoun, known more simply as Thomas the Rhymer, using his magical powers – rose against him and boiled him alive in a cauldron of molten lead.  Nothing is known about Robin Redcap’s fate and it’s even claimed he still lurks in Hermitage Castle, unbeknown to those tourists (such as myself) who visit it during its opening season from April to September.


The real William de Soulis confessed to being part of a conspiracy against Robert the Bruce in 1320 and died imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle.  This treachery against Bruce, who is of course the greatest hero in Scottish history, may account for how since then his name has been discredited by folkloric association with black magic and monsters.