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Issue 40 - The Border Abbeys and other treasures

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 40
August 2008


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The Border Abbeys and other treasures

The medieval abbeys of south-east Scotland are a magnet for visitors, says John Hannavy.

The ruins of Dryburgh Abbey are the romantic setting for the tomb of Scotland’s greatest Victorian novelist, Sir Walter Scott, and attract visitors in their thousands each year just to pay homage to the great writer.

The beautiful setting of the abbey ruins sets Dryburgh apart from the others which make up the four most famous abbeys in Scotland – Melrose, Kelso and Jedburgh – all of which are in towns. Dryburgh, in its lush parklands is much closer in its ambiance to what the monks must have experienced, for they were farmers as well as holy men.

Dryburgh Abbey was founded by Premonstratensian Canons who arrived by the beautiful wooded banks of the Tweed from Alnwick in Northumberland in 1140, and much of what survives today on this huge site dates from the second half of the 12th century and the first half of the 13th. The abbey’s cloisters, and the remains of many of the conventual buildings, are just beautiful.

By the second quarter of the 14th century, the canons were engaged in extensive rebuilding after their abbey was attacked and plundered by the English – which given their English origins must have been irksome.

They were not unique, however – their Cistercian neighbours a few miles away at Melrose suffered a similar fate; a catastrophic attack in 1385 required the almost total rebuilding of the abbey. Melrose, the Cistercians’ first Scottish abbey, can trace its origins back as far as 1136 when it was founded by a charter from King David I, bringing monks from Rievaulx in Yorkshire to the lush farmland by the banks of the Tweed.

Question marks hang over whether or not the nave of the church was ever completed – there was a 13th century nave, and the foundations of the ‘new’ nave are clearly in place, but historians cannot be sure that the rebuilding was ever finished. The choir of the church, where the monks gathered for Mass, was completed, probably by the late 14th or early-to-mid 15th century, and that is what largely survives today.

The fact that the church continued to be used to serve the local community after the Reformation – much of the choir was extensively renovated and structurally altered in the 1620s – saved it from destruction. And it continued to be used as the Parish Church into the early years of the 19th century, before a completely new church was built elsewhere in the town, and Melrose Abbey was abandoned to the advancing forces of nature.

Asimilar story can be found at Jedburgh – where the huge Augustinian Abbey survives in considerable measure on its sloping site above the Jed Water. Much of the late 12th century choir has been lost – but sufficient remains to give an idea of its austere beauty – but the early 13th century nave survives almost intact, complete with its dramatic west end and beautiful rose window high above the entrance.

Jedburgh’s nave survived because the western end of it, like Melrose, became the Parish Church – fulfilling that function until well into the 18th century when the structural soundness of the whole building was brought into question by the collapse of part of the central tower. Luckily for us, the rest has stood the test of time.

Kelso Abbey was also founded by King David I and is the third of our ‘big four’ to be sited by the banks of the Tweed.

The huge abbey church built by the Monks ofTiron was unique in Scotland in having two pairs of transepts, one pair in the usual place beneath the central tower, and the others at the west end. All that survives of this remarkable 12th century double-ended cross structure is the north west transept – surprisingly intact. Almost everything else has gone, the buildings quarried for centuries after. Many a building in the town can trace its stone back to those 12th century masons.

But not all monastic establishments in the Borders were on the vast scale of the four most famous abbeys. A few miles north of Kelso was the tiny Eccles Priory, founded in the 12th century for a convent of Benedictine Nuns. Fragments of the priory survive in and adjacent to the grounds of Eccles House.

Never wealthy, never grand, this was much more typical of the majority of religious houses in medieval Scotland than its illustrious neighbours.

Moving east from Eccles, we come to Coldingham, right on the edge of Scotland, where a religious community was first established, according to Bede, as early as the seventh century. The Benedictines arrived at Coldingham from Durham in the closing years of the 11th century, although why they would choose to move to a location on a disputed border, goodness knows. To make matters more complicated, the monks apparently remained resolutely English and bore allegiance to the English King, while the Prior was Scottish and bore allegiance to the Scottish King. For much of its existence, therefore, the Priory was at the centre of one confrontation or another – whether secular or religious.

By the early years of the 16th century, as a daughter-house of Dunfermline, matters were supposed to be simpler for Coldingham. The Reformation brought the destruction of the priory buildings and most of the once ornate church, again leaving the choir as a parish church, a function the much rebuilt building continues to perform today.

The north and east walls escaped the rebuildings of the 17th and 19th centuries, and still exhibit some of the most beautiful late 12th and early 13th century decorated arcading anywhere in Scotland.

Within this small area of south east Scotland, so much of the country’s history can be explored in these remarkable religious buildings.