by Christopher Harvie

House with a View

March 28, 2013 | by Christopher Harvie

In 2008 Angus Calder died in a nursing home within the precincts of Holyrood, Croft an Righ, Edinburgh’s blue-sky Marshalsea. Years earlier we had both agreed with John Buchan that Chrystal Croftangry, protagonist of that autumnal novella, the 1827 ‘Introduction’ to The Chronicles of the Canongate, might have started a new Scott. The burnt-out rake returns to Clydesdale and the family estate to find the old house gone and ‘Castle Treddles’ in its place: 

The house was a large fabric, which pretended to its name of Castle only from the front windows being finished in acute Gothic arches, and each angle graced with a turret about the size of a pepper-box. In every other respect it resembled a large town-house, which, like a fat burgess, had taken a walk to the country on a holiday, and climbed to the top of an eminence to look around it. The bright red colour of the freestone, the size of the building, the formality of its shape, and awkwardness of its position, harmonized as ill with the sweeping Clyde in front, and the bubbling brook which danced down on the right, as the fat civic form, with bushy wig, gold-headed cane, maroon-coloured coat, and mottled silk stockings, would have accorded with the wild and magnificent scenery of Corehouse Linn.

I went up to the house. It was in that state of desertion which is perhaps the most unpleasant to look on, for the place was going to decay without having been inhabited. There were about the mansion none of the slow mouldering touches of time, which communicate to buildings, as to the human frame, a sort of reverence. The disconcerted schemes of the Laird of Castle Treddles had resembled fruit that becomes decayed without ever having ripened. Some windows broken, others patched, others blocked up with deals, gave a disconsolate air to all around, and seemed to say, ‘There Vanity had purposed to fix her seat, but was anticipated by Poverty.’

‘Disconcerted’ went for Abbotsford, obviously. Yet Corehouse has re-emerged in the last few weeks, just as New Abbotsford will be born on the Fourth of July. The multinational Cemex has defied a worsening economy with plans to dig more gravel east of New Lanark, slipping this through Historic Scotland without any discussion of environment or aesthetics. Inside this manoeuvre is a small piece of touristic archaeology, which may be awkward. 

Long roofless, the View House at Bonnington stands above the Falls of Clyde at ‘Cora Linn’. It was built in 1708 by John Car-michael, Earl of Hyndford: a chamber with a door giving on to the falls. Fixed and moving mirrors allowed visitors to experience, without danger, a controlled landscape; they could feel they were within or below the falling water. It was one of two, being followed in 1757 by the Hermitage at Dunkeld, built by the Duke of Atholl above the Falls of the Braan, which, after James MacPherson’s breakthrough in 1761-63, was christened ‘The Hall of Ossian’. 

After 1822 Melrose could claim, besides Scott, that it rivalled Goethe’s Weimar as a centre of optics. Scott’s friend Dr David Brewster of Gattonside, later Principal of Edinburgh University, headed the field. He had patented his kaleidoscope in 1817, changing fragments of glass into decorative order. The principle was the same as that of the View Houses; indeed his wife was one of MacPherson’s four natural children.

Waverley has been seen as material proof of the Union’s success. Or was the novel another sort of ‘View House’: a kaleidoscope pavilion on the grand scale? It coincided with Scott’s move from Ashestiel to Abbotsford: otherwise a depressed farm ‘Clarty Hole’ on the old Galashiels to Melrose road, its ford disused after Lowood Bridge in 1762 carried the highway north of the Tweed. Washington Irving, the American litterateur who visited in 1817 and found treelessness, interrupted only by a rackety industrial village in the valley of Gala Water. 

Irving may have been minded of the bald islands of his father’s Orkney. TC Smout’s environmental research found sheep ate up trees. Upper Ettrick hadn’t been for centuries the forest Scott imagined: the name registered administration, not appearance. Industry and urban development didn’t help, adding pollution, health problems to general wear-and-tear. Abbotsford was awkward, involving detours via minor roads from Mel-rose or the Selkirk-Edinburgh turnpike. Its glory days would be short – from completion of Atkinson’s grand library-drawing room wing in 1824 to Scott going bust in 1826. Heroic melancholy among the saplings, from then on?

Yet as Scott strove against creditors, Benjamin Disraeli turned up and was sent packing. He was too ill in 1829 to see Felix Mendelssohn, whose Fingal’s Cave and Scottish Symphony would set Scotland firmly on its tourist trajectory. His polymath juggling projected the stature of man and country. Before Scott, scenery as toxin was mediated by the small complex buildings mentioned:  ‘Safe Scotland’ as pictures, charm without scariness. They related directly to the Scots heroic; invoking literature and the busy science of optics, making the individual the patron of his own scenic world.

The View House principle fixed on wild beauty (and possible danger) and enabled the spectator to reproduce it around him (or more importantly her): a display to be controlled and altered. A bigger version of the ‘Claude Glass’, it moulded the landscape, viewed through it, into the boskage of Claude Lorrain (1602-80) framing neo-classic paintings of Tuscany or the Campagna, familiar from the Grand Tour.

Scott knew this, as well as his family’s wobbly position on the staircase of Scottish power, and the need for a market. Primitiveness, squalor, rain falling from grey mountains folding into grey cloud impressed Dr Johnson on his ‘Scottish Jaunt’ with James Boswell in autumn 1773. This persisted. Few of the ‘picturesque’ views in William Daniell’s Scotland (1818) show woodland, instead near-surreal mountain and savage-looking sea.

The post-Union Scottish circuit was aristocratic, through policies and castles crammed with continental loot. Calvinism had an uninviting alternative of martyrdom. Introducing his Northern Muse, John Buchan stressed the place’s awful diet and weather, probably drawing too much on middle-class travellers moaning about recurrent ‘little ice-ages’. If you were an aristo, you didn’t encounter this; if a commoner, you wouldn’t record. Abbotsford responded to its still-unformed landscape with its builder’s tastes, words and objects.

Scott’s own career after 1804 was realised between his Edinburgh and Border houses, and depended literally on ‘new’ roads. Edin-burgh to Selkirk was turnpiked in 1764, but travellers often found it easier to splash down the Gala Water. By 1818 he upped the ante: advised on the grand coastal Scotland of Daniell’s acquatints, based on his circumnavigation in late 1814. On the yacht Pharos was the engineer Robert Stevenson, not just a lighthouseman but the Britannica’s expert on road and rail.  Scott was captivated:

I delight in these professional men. They always give you some new lights by the peculiarity of their habits and studies – so different from the people who are rounded and smoothed …

Daniell presented the Clyde’s six steamboats, the latest the seagoing Rob Roy. Such mobile pavilions outdid Scott’s railway efforts.  The 1811 Glasgow and Berwick horse-drawn line that Telford had surveyed, revised by Stevenson in 1812; a further Edin-burgh-Galashiels line, sketched by him in 1821, all unbuilt.

The Soutra turnpike made the point: over the hills, new roads were expensive. Telford’s Dalkeith-Pathhead stage, with its massive Lothian Bridge, was completed in 1831, as Scott died. Its great days lasted only sixteen years before the steam-powered Edinburgh and Hawick Railway breasted the Moorfoots. This was the making of Abbotsford in two respects: tourist trade and geld. James Hope-Scott as heir brought the latter in 1848-53, being Britain’s biggest railway lawyer.

The Abbotsford clan proved short-lived or useless: Charlie and young Walter drank like trout. Scott’s son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart had drive, but alienated people and anyway lived in London. Not long after March 1826 Scott’s fortune followed his wife into the shadows. In politics Robert Dundas was losing power, not just to clever Whigs but to Thomas Chalmers’ theocratic politics. Scott died fraught.

Our own coda is ambiguous. New Abbotsford will be there for Waverley’s 200th birthday. Cemex’s quarry, footprinting Castle Treddles, was signed off in late 2012 despite local objections, by an ‘arms length’ bureaucracy settling the public interest: more materiel for ‘shovel-ready projects’ –  or ‘joabs on the tar’. Along the M74, these enable the labyrinthine Uddingston interchange to route Tescotrucks from Daventry more swiftly to the malls of the West.

The rituals of Naples opera left the dying Scott ‘dog-sick of the whole of it’ though Rossini’s Donna del Lago had in 1819 launched him on Europe’s stages; today its sewage system mysteriously connects to no exit pipes. ‘Joabs on the tar’ is Glasgow’s end-in-itself, its logic in tight political and retail concerns and, as the architect Malcolm Fraser has pointed out, the drive to privatise public space. Earlier frustrated by civic-religious structures inherited from the 19th century, this reasserted itself when the bankers grabbed and ran.

The ‘View House’ was more principle than conceit. It reflected a civility still qualified by nature and climate, religious tensions, an evolving infrastructure, the wrench of industrial change.  Abbotsford made a ‘pavilion’ into an oddly democratic vista, as Angus Calder always argued. Scott’s communal house was confronted by wool-capitalist robber baronial crowning the neighbouring slopes, brandishing private wealth, unconstrained by social sympathy.

Isolation came after 1969 with the Waverley Railway closure: its partial reopening to Tweedbank, now under way, intends to reanimate the Borders. The battle with the bankers over access to ‘Scott’s Countryside’ reprised what he had intuited: that he was only the temporary king of that exfoliating heritage. In an age of extreme and aggressive inequality, Scott is worth study because, like Whitman, he contains multitudes. Waverley is still the book of the people.

From this Issue

In the Wilds of Aberdeen

by Mandy Haggith

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