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John Morrison and
|Morrison's somewhat disjointed and rambling 'Reminiscences'
give no clear indication of the circumstances leading to his
making a plan of Scott's Abbotsford estate. Scott's invitation
('You must', said Sir Walter, 'make me a survey and plan of
Abbotsford.') is presented as the inspiration of a moment.
'I will begin', Morrison claims to have replied, 'in the first
place and make you a proper waterfall in the Rhymer's Glen'.
Having persuading Scott of the disadvantages of 'the present
formal affair', Morrison was permitted to have 'the largest
and most rugged stones tumbled to the narrowest pass in the
glen, and [...] the chinks stopped with moss; so that the water
fell irregular, and was forced to wander and find its way round
the rock'. Scott was 'much pleased', exclaiming, 'Here is the
hand of the painter!'
on the thumbnail for a full-size engraving of J.M.W. Turner's
sketch of Rhymer's Glen
Morrison is, in fact, highly critical throughout
of the layout of both the estate and house of Abbotsford. 'I was
often at a loss',
he writes, 'to reconcile Sir Walter Scott’s descriptions
of scenery, which were excellent, to his practical taste, which
was not always in good keeping; for, after all, Abbotsford is a
strange jumble. If he had searched all over his property, he could
not have built on a less interesting spot. The public road from
Melrose to Selkirk passes within fifty yards of the front of his
house, and is on a level with the chimney tops.' He seriously advised
Scott, before building his garden walls, to 'lift or remove the
whole to a more eligible situation, and, being built of hewn stone,
the affair could be easily done'. Scott was greatly in need too
of Morrison's advice on tree-planting, for 'he was too much given
to plant in stripes or belts'. As for the interior of the house,
it was 'certainly not in good taste’.
would often join Morrison while he was engaged in surveying the
estate, 'leaning on his favourite, Tam Purdy [i.e. Purdie],
and tell me tales connected with the spot I might be surveying'.
These often provoked Morrison, a self-proclaimed 'Whig and Cameronian',
to express political views that differed radically from Scott's
own. One such exchange was sparked by Scott's procurement of the
door to Edinburgh's Old Tolbooth Prison (the 'Heart of Midlothian',
see right) for use as the gateway leading from his house to the
'grim aspect' gave Morrison a 'disagreeable feeling' to think 'how
many of our noble martyrs and patriots' had passed through it 'never
to return, but to the scaffold and death'. 'But many a traitor',
replied Scott, 'has passed also to receive his doom!' 'Yes', countered
Morrison, 'your friend, Montrose, passed through it.' 'Noble martyr!',
Scott 'with great emotion'. Morrison comments that they
'entertained very different sentiments respecting the character
of Montrose', a hero to Tories and Jacobites and an oppressive
turncoat to the Covenanters.
likewise records several similar exchanges concerning Montrose's
descendent and fellow scourge of the Covenanters, John
Graham of Claverhouse, the 'Great Dundee' to Scott and 'Bloody
Clavers' to Morrison. Morrison recalls examining Williams's portrait
of Claverhouse in Scott's study (see right) and observing that
depiction of Claverhouse in Scott's Old
Mortality as one whom 'painters would love to limn and
ladies to look on' could not have been based on the painting. The
artist has portrayed him 'with red hair, a squint, and 'with an
unnatural length between the nose and chin', which 'well accords'
with the eye-witness description that Morrison's father had from
an elderly friend: 'His arms were long, and reached to his knees,
his red or frizzly, and his look altogether diabolical.' 'Your
father and his acquaintance were Whigs, and drew a distorted picture.'
'The painter there', said Morrison, 'has done the same.'
The contradiction into which Morrison falls here -- does the painting
of Claverhouse 'accord well' with his father's friend's description,
or is it 'distorted' -- is typical of his highly entertaining but
less than reliable 'Reminiscences'. Similarly, the twice-made claim
that Scott's written descriptions were 'excellent' in contract
to his 'practical sense' does not tally with the mockery of Scott's
eulogies of St Mary's Loch and of other Border landscapes that
leave Morrison cold.
One suspects too that Morrison somewhat puffs up his role in his
political debates with Scott. He recalls Scott's proposal to raise
a volunteer regiment to put down civil unrest in 1819. Invited
to become its engineer, Morrison proclaims: 'That depends on circumstances:
I will, if I think you are in the right; if not, I will be of the
other party. I am a Whig and Cameronian.' Yet, in a letter of December
20, 1819, to his factor William Laidlaw (a close friend of Morrison),
Scott confidently announces, ‘Morrison volunteers as our
engineer' (The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, VI: 66). Scott,
of course, may be indulging in wishful thinking, but it is as likely
that Morrison fashions himself a rather more heroic and principled
role in his 'Reminiscences' than he fulfilled in real life.
Their political differences, however openly expressed, do not
appear to have stood in the way of the friendship between Scott
and Morrison. Morrison, in all events, commends his care for his
employees and 'attention to the lower orders' which 'ill-accorded
with his political principles'. As an example, he cites Scott's
refusal to have the old public footpaths over his lands closed
up as the
offered to do.
A letter from Morrison to Scott, dated 20 June 1820, reveals that
he made two versions of his plan of the Abbotsford estate.
The sheet of paper used for his first attempt was not large enough
to incorporate land purchased in the course of Morrison's preparation
of the plan. He had thus been forced to affix an additional sheet
to it. Morrison announces that he is preparing a neater
and more durable copy on a larger sheet forScott's personal use,
but suggests that the original would be adequate for the purposes
of Scott's factor William Laidlaw and wood-forester Tom Purdie.
It seems likely that it is the first version that Corson acquired.
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Last updated: 05-Nov-2004
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