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Article published 29/07/2022

2022 was Scotland’s Year of Stories. It spotlighted, celebrated and promoted the wealth of stories inspired by, written, or created in Scotland. Each month we heard from people with a passion for stories and got an insight into their work.

We spoke to Kirsty Archer-Thompson, Collections and Interpretation Manager with The Abbotsford Trust. She told us about her role and the influence of Sir Walter Scott on Scottish literature and culture.

Kirsty Archer-Thompson, Collections and Interpretation Manager
Kirsty Archer-Thompson, Collections and Interpretation Manager
Image credit The Abbotsford Trust

Can you tell us about what your job involves?

I have worked at Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott, for eight years now as Collections and Interpretation Manager. One of the things I relish most about my post is its variety; I lead on the conservation and protection of our historic buildings, gardens and estate, and manage, curate and care for the Scott family collection and archive, but I am also responsible for our visitor interpretation and heritage storytelling across the site, ensuring that everything that we do is infused with the ‘Scott spirit’ that is unique to Abbotsford.

As we emerge from a very turbulent period of world events, the calls on my time are increasingly creative to help support developmental aspirations within the organisation as we look at new ways of doing things, design new experiences for our visitors and unearth extraordinary stories to tell. It is my role to answer those key questions - what, why and how we deliver immersive, emotive, and memorable experiences for everyone who chooses to visit us so that they can benefit from the legacy that we care for, an aim at the heart of our charitable mission. Abbotsford was conceived of as an homage to the past, but also as an innovative and state of the art home and we want to continue that spirit of innovation wherever possible.  

Often in the organisation I am referred to as ‘the voice of Scott’, which is always slightly alarming for a thirty-something woman, though I haven’t yet dressed up as the ‘Wizard of the North’! Give it time….    

What impact do you think Sir Walter Scott has had in terms of Scotland’s literature and culture?

Scott is considered the most famous historical novelist in the history of British literature, but he was pioneering in so many other ways. His cultural legacy is, quite genuinely, monumental. You only have to gaze at the huge monument on Princes Street, the second largest dedicated to a writer anywhere in the world, to have some sense of what his passing meant to society at large.

His influence and legacy is so wide-ranging that it’s actually become part of the cultural furniture, if you like, and the extent to which Scott’s literature and his contributions to architecture, arboriculture, historical study, philology and tourism have helped shape the Scotland of today can sometimes go unnoticed or undervalued. The names of Abbotsford and Waverley have travelled the world, christening countless streets, houses and businesses, and the Oxford English dictionary considers Scott the third most influential contributor of words and phrases to the English language after the Bible and the plays of William Shakespeare.   

Can you tell us about the visitor experience at Abbotsford – what can people expect to see, learn and enjoy?

Call me biased, but there is nowhere quite like Abbotsford! To the casual observer it might seem like another Scottish castle, another stately home, but it is actually far more intriguing than that. Abbotsford was purpose built and furnished as a writer’s home and the objects and library you see in its rooms are laid out as they were during Scott’s record-breaking writing career so that visitors can understand how he used them to fuel his imagination. Unlike so many other country estates, Abbotsford is a storyteller’s home built on the proceeds of books. I often describe it as a three-dimensional storyboard and a memory palace, and I love reading Scott’s work and spotting a sneaky cameo appearance from an item I know to be in his museum collection!

Scott loved to show visitors around his home and tell them stories about its contents, and that is exactly what we continue to do today. During your visit you can enjoy an audio tour delivered by the character of Walter Scott where some of these amazing links are brought to life. You can also explore some of the most beautiful walled gardens in Scotland and a wooded estate on the banks of the Tweed, all whilst walking a path network laid out in Scott’s day to aid mindfulness and banish writer’s block. Those concepts sound very familiar, don’t they?!

Interior of Abbotsford House
Interior of Abbotsford House
Image credit VisitScotland / PRImaging

How has the 250th anniversary of the birth of Sir Walter Scott been celebrated and are there more events in plan?

We are delighted that Walter Scott’s 250th anniversary has been celebrated by over 50 organisations around Scotland with links to his life and legacy, from talks and parades to performances, artistic projects, and educational initiatives. And we’re not quite done yet – we aim to conclude the celebrations in August 2022, 200 years on from Scott’s organisation of George IV’s State Visit to Scotland, perhaps one of the most astonishing feats of event management in Scotland’s history! From 12th-14th August Abbotsford will be hosting ScottFest, a celebration of Scott’s role in bringing 600 years of history to life, in a fun-filled festival of living history, re-enactment, music and dance with something for all ages.

Why do you think stories are so important?

Stories are how we make sense of the world and our place in it. They root us to the land and are inextricably bound up in our concepts of identity and belonging. Scott was very attuned to the delicate yet powerful relationship between storytelling and identity and he made it his mission to collect and preserve the ballads - or folk songs - of the Border region before they passed out of all memory. Scott also had the wisdom to appreciate that history itself is a story so often written from the perspective of the victor, and that many forgotten or subjugated souls fall through the gaps along the way.  

What do you enjoy most about your job? 

Two things, if I can be cheeky! Firstly, I love the creativity. I am not just curating or leading on conservation, I’m also generating creative ideas and concepts to move Abbotsford forwards in all kinds of exciting ways. I’ve inherited a very arty streak from both of my parents, and I find it very easy and enjoyable to visualise, script and storyboard ideas.  

Beyond that, I love that I am caring for the historical legacy of someone that I genuinely feel I would have loved to spend time with. The more you get to know Scott through all the amazing source material at our fingertips, the more I admire his integrity, generosity, innovation, and attitude. That makes my social conscience sleep very easy indeed! 

Can you tell us about any new projects you’re working on?

Over the last few months, I have been helping to storyboard an exciting new experience in our woodland inspired by Scott’s incredible passion and expertise in the realm of folklore and the supernatural. Opening this autumn, ‘Witch Corner’, named after an area of Scott’s library containing over 250 books on the subject of witchcraft, magic and demonology, will spirit visitors of all ages on a journey to another realm where not everything is as it seems…

What else are you looking forward to in Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022?

With such a vibrant heritage and arts programme still to come it is hard to choose just one thing, but I have to say that - as a medievalist - I am desperate to see the Book of Deer return to Scotland. I’m thrilled for the team at Aberdeen Art Gallery (and indeed the people of the north-east) that it is finally happening!   

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