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Issue 59 - 10 Best Scottish Abbeys To Visit

Scotland Magazine Issue 59
October 2011


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10 Best Scottish Abbeys To Visit

Keith Fergus gives us 10 great religious sites to visit

Sweetheart Abbey
New Abbey, Galloway
Sweetheart Abbey dominates the quiet village of New Abbey, its great sandstone edifice towering over the houses of the village. In 1273 Lady Devorgilla, who was one of the most powerful women of her time, her connections extended to the Church of Rome, resolved to build an abbey in memory of her late husband John Balliol who had died in 1269 leaving her grief-stricken. She lavished funds on the abbey’s construction using red sandstone, which was unusual as the predominant rock of the immediate area is granite. Lady Devorgilla had Balliol’s heart embalmed and placed in an ivory casket, which she kept with her when traveling, and after her death in 1290 her husband’s heart was buried with her. The monks renamed the abbey Dulce Cor, Sweetheart Abbey.

Dundrennan Abbey
Dundrennan, Galloway
Although not certain it seems Dundrennan Abbey was founded in 1142 by Fergus, Lord of Galloway, who ruled Galloway at that time. Apparently it was built by 13 monks and 10 laybrothers and took 50 years to complete, with both Romanesque and Gothic styles common in the incredible stonework. It was built for Cistercian Monks and due to Dundrennan Abbey being set amongst fertile lands, and only a mile or so from the sea it was a busy place, trading with Europe with additional income being garnered from orchards, mills, and fishing. Dundrennan Abbey was also where, on the 15th of May 1568, Mary Queen of Scots spent her last night on Scottish soil before crossing the Solway Firth to Workington, imprisonment and eventual execution.

Kilwinning Abbey
Kilwinning, Ayrshire
The Ayrshire town of Kilwinning is named after St Winnin, who settled here in AD715, and it is thought the town’s original name was Sanctoun, ‘town of the saint’. Kilwinning’s splendid abbey was established between 1140 and 1191 for Tironensian Monks by Hugh de Morville, a Norman Knight who also founded Dryburgh Abbey. For the next few centuries Kilwinning Abbey was a magnificent and affluent monastery but its downfall began around 1559 when it was attacked while its last abbot, Gavin Hamilton, was killed at Restalrig in 1571. During the next 30 years the abbey was dismantled with the stone used for building the likes of a new parish church. The original south transept still stands today although the present 103 foot clock tower was built in 1815 at a cost of £2000.

Crossraguel Abbey
Maybole, Ayrshire
Standing on the outskirts of the village of Maybole Crossraguel Abbey has been fantastically well preserved particularly as it was founded almost 800 years ago in 1240 by Duncan, 1st Earl of Carrick. Named after Cross of Rhiaghail, an early Christian Cross, which stood nearby, a small chapel was initially built and this was replaced in the late 13th century by an abbey church with much of it having to be rebuilt during the 14th century after the Wars of Independence. Today a visit to Crossraguel Abbey provides a fascinating experience, particularly a climb to the top of the gatehouse, which dates from around 1530, and grants a superb view across the whole abbey.

Dryburgh Abbey
St Boswells, Scottish Borders
Surrounded on three sides by the gorgeous River Tweed, Dryburgh Abbey stands in a wonderful, peaceful location and is possibly the finest of the four Border Abbey’s, the others being Kelso, Jedburgh and Melrose. Hugh de Morville was the main landowner here in the 12th century and established Dryburgh Abbey in 1150, with the Premonstratensian Monks settling here from Alnwick Abbey in Northumberland – a monument to de Morville stands in the Abbey grounds. Like many abbeys of the time it was destroyed in the 1320s (by Edward II and his army) and again in 1385 but Dryburgh was rebuilt over the next century in even grander style. The elegance and style of the architecture can still be seem today in the striking Presbytery and the Chapter House. Also buried here are Sir Walter Scott and Field Marshall Earl Haig.

Paisley Abbey
Paisley, Renfrewshire
Unusually, for the abbey’s listed, Paisley Abbey today is in full working order especially as it will be celebrating its 950th anniversary in 2013. A church has stood on the site since the 6th Century when St Mirin established a Celtic Church here around the same time. But it was Walter Fitzalan, a local landowner and High Steward of Scotland (he married the daughter of Robert the Bruce and his descendents founded the Stewart dynasty) who signed a charter for the founding of a Clunaic Priory. In 1245, the priory was raised to the status of an abbey, answerable only to the pope in Rome and it became incredibly wealthy and influential. This influence also extended to Paisley Abbey becoming a great centre of learning and, it is believed, the monks of Paisley Abbey educated William Wallace, the renowned Scottish freedom fighter and patriot.

Dunfermline Abbey
Dunfermline, Fife
Dunfermline Abbey has 1300 years of history behind it as, in around 800AD, a Celtic church was founded. However, it was the marriage of King Malcolm III and Queen Margaret at a Dunfermline church in 1070 that provided Dunfermline with great providence and Margaret subsequently formed a religious community here with Benedictine Monks of Canterbury. Following Margaret’s death in 1093 her son, David I, wishing to provide a fitting tribute to the woman who would eventually become St Margaret, established a priory with it finally receiving Abbey status in 1150. The original nave still stands today although with the Wars of Independence and the Reformation Dunfermline Abbey was destroyed several times with the Abbey Church we see today being built in 1821. Dunfermline Abbey is also famous for the likes of Queen Margaret, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce having being buried in the Abbey grounds.

Cambuskenneth Abbey
Sitting in the shadow of its more illustrious neighbours of the Wallace Monument and Stirling Castle, Cambuskenneth Abbey also sits near to the River Forth. Very little remains of Cambuskenneth Abbey with the Bell Tower still standing in magnificent condition whilst the remains and foundations of several parts of the abbey are still visible providing an excellent depiction of what Cambuskenneth would have looked like in its heyday. Its history stretches back to 1140 when King David I invited Augustinian monks to establish an abbey here and in the next 100 years, due to its Royal Patronage with Stirling Castle, garnered huge wealth and influence. The Abbey grounds also contain the tomb of James III and his Queen, Margaret of Denmark.

Iona Abbey
Iona, Argyll & Bute
Looking across the crystal clear waters of the Sound of Iona to the ruggedness of the Ross of Mull Iona Abbey welcomes thousands of visitors from around the world every year. This isn’t because of the pristine sands of Iona’s stunning beaches or the breathtaking scenery but the fact that Iona Abbey was, at one time, one of the most important religious communities in Europe and its history is fascinating. St Columba founded a religious community here in AD563 while St Columba’s biographer, Adomnan, was abbot here from 679 to 704. Due to the abbey’s importance Viking Raiders ransacked it on four separate occasions, burning the original wooden monastery and killing the monks who lived and worked there. The Reformation was no kinder, particularly the disappearance of 357 stone crosses.

Arbroath Abbey
Arbroath, Angus
Arbroath Abbey is probably best known for the Declaration of Arbroath, which was drafted by Bernard, Abbot of Arbroath. The Declaration of Arbroath became one of the most important and influential documents in Scotland’s history particularly the significance of the line “…. for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” Arbroath Abbey was founded in 1178 by William I (better known as William the Lion) for the Tironesian Monks of Kelso and he was buried at Arbroath, under the high alter, in 1214.
Arbroath Abbey is still incredibly impressive today with many of the walls and rooms intact giving a wonderful impression of how the abbey would have functioned 600-700 years ago. There is also a fantastic visitor centre detailing Arbroath Abbey’s place in Scotland’s remarkable history.

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