If the stones forming the Scottish Border abbeys could speak …
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… they would certainly have some remarkable stories to tell. Built as centers of learning and piety during the 12th century, the four principal abbeys of the Scottish Borders—Dryburgh, Jedburgh, Kelso and Melrose—were also intended to impress visitors from England, showing that the Scots were capable of fine building projects.
The Abbeys were founded by several religious orders, often with the patronage of King David I of Scotland. Building on such a scale was a costly business, and such was the amount of money David spent on religious houses that he was known as “the sair (sore) saint.”
The abbey churches, the focal point of each abbey, were cruciform. At the east end was the presbytery, which included the high altar, dedicated to a particular saint. On either side of the presbytery, the transepts form the arms of the cross, while the nave, the stem of the cross, was where lay people worshipped.
The layouts of the ancillary buildings vary from abbey to abbey, but the way of life in each was remarkably similar. At the center of any abbey complex was the cloister, an open area with a covered walkway around it, surrounded by imposing buildings. The cloister was used as a processional route by the canons during important services, and the open space was used for reading, writing and contemplation.
Much of routine life revolved around daily worship, but abbey life was generally spartan. Only the warming room was heated, for instance, where the monks or canons were allowed a brief respite from the cold before they returned to work. At Dryburgh, the daily routine started at 1 a.m. and finished at 8 p.m. This involved celebrating Mass and regular prayers, both private and for the abbey’s founder, relatives and other benefactors, while the remaining time was spent in the cloister. They survived on two frugal meals a day.
All too often, the abbeys found themselves at the center of unwanted attention, particularly during the Wars of Independence and other periods when tensions were high between England and Scotland. Although all of the abbeys were attacked, Dryburgh suffered worst following King Edward II’s unsuccessful invasion of 1322. English troops, hearing the bells rung in celebration of victory, were said to have gone out of their way to take revenge.
There were regular cross border intrusions by both sides after the Wars of Independence, but some of the greatest damage to the abbeys occurred during the period known as “the rough wooing,” when Henry VIII of England tried to “encourage” the Scots to marry Princess Mary to his son Edward.
The Scottish Reformation in 1560 saw the abbeys go into terminal decline. Generally, the canons were allowed to continue living in the buildings, although many joined the reformed church. As a way of life, however, the abbeys were finished and when the canons died out, so effectively did the abbeys. By 1580 only four canons remained at Dryburgh and by 1600 it was noted “all the convent thairoff now deceissit.” Following the Reformation, Jedburgh, Melrose and Kelso abbeys continued as parish churches before the ravages of time finally overcame them and replacement buildings were erected.
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Despite the passage of almost 1,000 years, enough of these beautiful abbeys remain to give visitors an appreciation for the craftsmanship, styles of architecture and quality of the original buildings, and to follow the lifestyle of the inhabitants.
First of the four abbeys, Kelso was founded by David before he ascended the throne in 1124. Initially based near Selkirk, the Tironsian monks later moved to Kelso, possibly because David had a favorite royal residence at nearby Roxburgh. It became one of the largest and wealthiest religious houses. Unfortunately little remains today, although what does survive is testament to the building’s quality. James III was crowned at Kelso after his father’s death by a bursting cannon during the siege of Roxburgh in 1460.
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Melrose Abbey, founded 1136, was another of Scotland’s wealthiest religious houses. There had been a settlement of Celtic monks at Old Melrose, some 2 miles east of the present site, possibly as early as 650. At the invitation of David I, the Cistercians set up an abbey there, and later moved to the present site.
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The second abbot of Melrose, David’s stepson Waltheof, was renowned for performing miracles, and when his tomb was opened in 1170 and again 1206, his body was found to be intact. In 1240 some small bones were removed as relics and remains of his shrine are on display in the commendator’s house.
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Melrose Abbey has a close connection with the Wars of Independence—as the site where King Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried. The body of Bruce, who died in 1329, was buried in Dunfermline Abbey. After having been taken on a Crusade to fulfill a vow the Bruce made, however, his heart was buried here in 1331. A lead canister in the area formerly occupied by the chapter house reputedly contains the Bruce’s heart, but in keeping with his status, more likely it would have been buried beneath the main altar—as King Alexander II was after his death in 1249.
Founded by Augustinians in 1138, the Jedburgh abbey church is one of the most complete in Britain. King Alexander III married Yolande de Dreux here in 1285. A ghostly figure is said to have appeared during the service, a portent of the king’s death. His death the following year sparked the succession crisis that encouraged Edward I of England to interfere in Scottish affairs, and led to the Wars of Independence.
Dryburgh Abbey, perhaps the most attractive abbey, was a Premonstratensian community founded around 1150, although much of what survives today dates from the 13th century. It never had the wealth or influence of its sister abbeys, but its location, away from any of the centers of population, mean that even today it captures the calm and spiritual element of medieval religious life.
The almost-intact north transept houses the graves of novelist Sir Walter Scott and Field Marshall Earl Douglas Haig, a still controversial World War I leader. Other well-preserved parts of the Abbey include the parlor, chapter house and warming room.
The Premonstratensians were a silent order; the parlor was the only part of the abbey where conversation was permitted. Next door was the chapter house, where the canons met each day to receive their instructions and to confess their misdemeanors. Discipline was extremely strict and offences could include hoarding personal possessions.
Punishments generally involved beatings, fasting or being excluded from communal activities. While we know something of the abbey’s senior figures, we know little of the canons—other than a Brother Marcus, who was suspended in 1320 for punching the abbot. Sadly, we don’t know what caused the disagreement and as ever, the stones aren’t saying!
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For information regarding the Border
Abbeys, including opening times, see www.historic-scotland.gov.uk.
Traveling by car from Edinburgh, take the A720 south and then the A68. From Glasgow take M8 towards Edinburgh and the A720.
A direct bus service is available from both Glasgow and Edinburgh to Melrose. Wonderfully, the railway is being rebuilt and a service is expected to be available sometime in 2015.