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Issue 38 - Religious wonders of the south west

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 38
April 2008


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Religious wonders of the south west

John Hannavy explores historic churches, abbeys and cathedrals in Scotland's south west.

After exploring the north east of Scotland last issue, this group of churches, abbeys, priories and friaries are all to be found in the south west, in the lush countryside of Dumfries and Galloway, an area now known to have been the location of some of the country’s earliest Christian settlements.

This was a dangerous place to live in medieval times – being so close to England, and therefore being raided so often during the turbulent wars – that the area’s many fine medieval buildings all suffered considerably.

So much of the area’s medieval heritage is still underground, that archaeological digs are a common sight, especially at Whithorn, where new information on the earliest years of religion in Scotland is being gleaned with every new excavation.

It was probably in the early years of the fifth century that St Ninian arrived in Galloway and established his first bishopric at Whithorn. The earliest traces of Christianity in this part of Scotland can be seen in inscriptions on two stones dating from that period which were rediscovered in the 19th century being used as gateposts, and are now in the glass-fronted porch of the chapel Kirkmadrine – a Victorian burial chapel in mock-Romanesque style built on medieval foundations. A third inscribed stone from the period survives at Whithorn.

The remains of Whithorn Cathedral Priory today comprise the shell of the simple nave of the medieval church, and the foundations of the monastic ranges, all in an austere style which belies the power and importance of the bishops and medieval canons who lived there for generations.

The canons belonged to the Premonstratensian order, who, although they lived in a monastery, were actually priests rather than monks. They arrived at Whithorn about 1175. That the 12th century nave survives is all down to the fact that, after the Reformation in 1560, it was converted for use by the Reformed Church. The east end of the church has all but disappeared above the level of the crypt.

But while Whithorn and Kirkmadrine are, arguably, the most important historically, the most beautiful religious sites in the area are undoubtedly the ruins of the three magnificent Cistercian Abbeys – Glenluce, Dundrennan and Sweetheart.

The most spectacular of the three today – due to its glowing red sandstone construction – is undoubtedly Sweetheart Abbey. It was originally known as New Abbey as it was the last of the three Cistercian abbeys to be established, and is the name used by the village today.

‘Dulce Cor’ (latin for ‘Sweetheart’) was founded by Devorgilla de Balliol, in memory of her husband John de Balliol who had died in 1268. Twenty four years later, Devorgilla’s son, also John, would ascend to the Scottish throne and reign for four years until his forced abdication after the English defeated the Scots at Dunbar in 1296.

Of Devorgilla’s great abbey, only the shell of the church survives, but what a majestic ruin it is – undoubtedly the most beautiful and dramatic medieval church in Scotland. Almost all it needs to restore it to its medieval glory is a roof.

Sweetheart was initially built and occupied by a group of monks from nearby Dundrennan Abbey, which had been established at least a century earlier by monks who had travelled to south west Scotland from the great Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire. But the only substantive remains are the transepts of the huge abbey church – remarkably standing on the east side almost to their full height – and the west face of the Chapter House. What remains, however, tells us enough to know that this abbey, when complete, would have been a fine example of late Romanesque and early Gothic architecture.

Glenluce, another daughter-house of Dundrennan, but this time founded in the late 12th century, has fared even worse.

Finest amongst the remains is the 15th century Chapter House, where the monks met to conduct the abbey’s business, both secular and religious.

Built of the same red sandstone as Sweetheart, and only a few miles from it, stand the remains of Lincluden College, one of Scotland’s many ‘Collegiate Churches’ – although the site had originally been occupied by a group of Benedictine nuns in the 12th century. After the nuns were expelled – apparently allowing their convent to fall into disrepair due to their ‘sloth and neglect’ a chapter of priests was established on the site, and the beautiful ruins all date from their occupation. Seeing this place bathed in warm sunlight is wonderful, and inside the richness of the architecture is obvious – nowhere more so than in the ornate tomb of Princess Margaret, daughter of King Robert III.

There was once a fourth abbey in Galloway – at Tongland – but it has all but disappeared. Only a rebuilt doorway in the 18th century Old Parish Church, and a few scattered fragments of medieval carved stonework, mark where this monastery of Premonstratensian Canons once stood.

And remains of one medieval friary still survive – in the delightful little town of Kirkcudbright. Greyfriars Church in Kirkcudbright was originally built in the late 1400s, but the surviving remains date from the following century.