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Issue 26 - Worth exploring

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 26
April 2006


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Worth exploring

This issue Charles Douglas visits Newbattle Abbey, in Midlothian

Some years ago, I visited the late 12th Marquess of Lothian at Ferniehirst Castle, his home at Jedburgh, close to the Scottish border.

On the walls of this ancient family keep, which he and his wife were in the process of restoring, I noticed some paintings and was told that they had originated from Newbattle Abbey, near Dalkeith.

Newbattle Abbey, now transformed into a further education college, had been the principle residence of the Kerr family, who became marquesses of Lothian, from the 16th century. When it was inherited by the 11th Marquess in 1937, the death duties which accompanied his inheritance were so crippling that he decided to make over the Newbattle estate to the nation.

However, he stipulated that the abbey should be used as a college to provide opportunities for those who had hitherto not been able to fulfill their potential.

And that, possibly, explains why this gem of a place has been largely overlooked in Scotland’s country house trail. What is not generally known is that visitors are welcome to come and have a look around, providing they notify the staff in advance. Believe me, it is well worth the effort.

Located a mile (1.5 km) south of Dalkeith in Midlothian, the mansionhouse we see today dates from the 16th century, but occupies the site of the 12th century abbey. Founded by King David I of Scotland for the Cistercian order around 1140, its monks were at the centre of a thriving commercial enterprise, which included coal-mining, salt production (at Prestonpans on the East Lothian Coast), and sheep-farming.

Inevitably, however, it came under constant attack from the English during the Scottish Wars of Independence which rambled on from 1296 until around 1540.

Then came the Reformation when Mark Kerr, the last Abbot of Newbattle, cannily made a timely conversion to Protestantism, enabling him to retain the lands around the abbey. Playing the politics of the day, his son, also Mark, became Lord Newbattle in 1596 and Earl of Lothian in 1606. It was he who first built a house on the site.

In the centuries that followed, this house was extensively modified and rebuilt by a succession of Scotland’s great architects: John Mylne in 1650, William Burn in 1836, and David Bryce in 1858. Today, at the end of a fine sweep of drive, Newbattle Abbey looks more Victorian mansion than medieval monastery, but then that is part of its fascination. Within there are surprising discoveries to be made.

The drawing room, for example, decorated by Thomas Bonnar c.1870, is considered to be one of Scotland’s greatest rooms and has recently been fully refurbished at a cost of £120,000. The door is a replica of one in the Doge’s palace in Venice. The ceiling features images of cupids, shields and flowers against a background of clouds. The walls are stencilled in gold. The red Templeton- Axminster chenille carpet was one of the largest single pieces of weaving ever produced by the famous Templeton factory in Glasgow.

The replacement was copied in Poland, there no longer being a loom big enough to do so in Scotland.

Also notable is the 19th century chapel, originally the old abbey kitchens. Excavations in the late 19th century unearthed a great chimney with an oven on one side. The original floor of the kitchen consisted of thick tiles, with a fine glaze of enamels of various colours.

At the time, the 9th Marquess of Lothian ordered his Clerk of Works to lay down a wooden floor with pieces of wood from the estate – yew, oak, maple, laburnum, plane, walnut, elm, larch and pear – to correspond to the shape of the original tiles.

The floor took two years to complete and incorporates 13,226 pieces. Occupying the place of the chimney today is an alabaster altar above which hangs a copy of Botticelli’s Madonna and Child.

It is widely held, although no documentation exists to confirm this, that Mary Queen of Scots was baptised at Newbattle. Above the font are engravings of the Royal Arms of Scotland; those of Mary de Guise, Mary’s mother; her step-grandmother, Queen Madeleine, and her grandmother; Margaret Tudor. In addition, there are those of the 1st Earl of Dalhousie, who lived nearby, and James Haswell, Abbot of Newbattle at the time of Queen Mary’s baptism.

In 1588, the Spanish Armada, consisting of 130 ships, invaded the English coastline. It was a disaster for Spain.

Bad weather drove the unfortunate galleons up the west coast of England and Scotland, and many of them were wrecked. On board the commander’s galleon was the Spanish treasure chest, holding silver and jewels and the fleet’s wages.

It was taken ashore at Fair Isle shortly before the ship sank, and Scottish fishermen transported the survivors and their possessions to Anstruther in Fife. Safely landed, the commander and senior officers were taken to Newbattle and eventually allowed to return to Spain.

However, the Spanish treasure chest remained at Newbattle, where it can be seen today.

In the entrance hall is a statue of a young girl known as Shy, designed in 1878 by Count Gleichen (Prince Victor of Hohenlohe Langenburgh); nearby there is an imposing water organ, formerly powered by water from the River Esk which runs through the estate. It was built by Elliot of London and originally installed in the drawing room for the visit of King George IV in 1822.

Other treasures to be inspected include the two Ninevah Tablets which came from the collection of King Ashurbanipal (c668-626BC). These were found by Lord Schomberg Henry Kerr in 1856 among the ruins of Ninevah, now in Iraq, and feature the heads of Assyrian kings Throughout the abbey, despite many of its rooms being turned over to classrooms, you are constantly aware of the long-ago past, not least from the paintings which line the corridors. Everywhere is open and spacious, and the windows frame views of the elegant lawns, notably the well cared for Italianate garden to the rear.

The Newbattle Abbey College Arts and Social Science Award is a one year full-time two semester residential course. It is designed for adult learners and covers information technology, sociology, communications, creative writing, literature, psychology, history, ecology and politics. Students need to be 20 years of age or over, with few or no qualifications. International enquiries are welcomed.

He was a remarkable man, the 11th Marquess of Lothian, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster during the United Kingdom’s National Government from 1931 to 1932, and British ambassador to Washington in 1939. When he gifted this former Cistercian monastery to the people of Scotland, he wanted those who had never had an education to benefit. Among those who turned this to great affect were the Scottish poets Edwin Muir, a principal of the college, and George Mackay Brown, an early student.

Seventy years later, the college continues to operate with the same principles, but although the college receives public funding, it still needs to raise funds by other means. In keeping with all such properties, therefore, it has become a popular venue for conferences, social occasions and weddings.

The abbey holds a civil marriage license, and couples have the options of taking their vows in the crypt, in the Edwin Muir room, by the bridge over the River South Esk, or in the Italian garden. There is plenty of space, and the administrator welcomes enquiries.

Newbattle Abbey College,
Newbattle Road,
EH22 3LL.
Tel: +44 (0)131 663 1921
Email: office@newbattleabbey

Web Site: