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Issue 84 - Soutra Aisle

Scotland Magazine Issue 84
December 2015

 

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Soutra Aisle

Scotland's first fever hospice

Follow the western flank of Soutra Hill, just off the A68, and the B6368 winds upwards onto a plateau where it bypasses the remains of an unassuming but strategically placed aisle of a church. The B6368 forms part of what was long ago known as Dere Street, the principal road leading from England into Scotland.

Dere Street was used by the Romans between AD78 and AD211, and ran from York in England crossing the River Teviot and River Tweed and terminating at Cramond on the Firth of Forth. The Gododdin, the ancient Brittonic occupants of north east Britannia, passed this way in the 6th Century, as did the armies of Edward I of England eight centuries later.

Connecting greater Scotland to the important abbeys of the Borders region, Dere Street became a significant byway for pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. In 1164, close to the half way point between Jedburgh and Edinburgh, a group of Augustinian monks, at the request of King Malcolm IV, created the Church and House of the Holy Trinity as a place of rest and healing.

Speculation surrounds Malcolm's endorsement of the project but it has to be considered that he suffered from poor health and died at the age of 24. Moreover, mediaeval Scotland was ravaged by a range of plagues, one of which was leprosy.

The hospice at Soutra, reputed to be the largest in Europe, was therefore both inspired and innovatory. Medicinal herbs unearthed during recent excavations have included hemlock, black henbane, and cloves and opium poppy imported from overseas.

Financed by the surrounding monastic estates and a string of wealthy patrons, the House of the Holy Trinity thrived until the 15th Century. Its remote location on Soutra Hill kept a reassuring distance between the sick and the nearest settlements. However, in 1460, Stephen Fleming, the Master of the Hospital, was rightly or wrongly accused of corruption. Church lands were confiscated by the Crown and an alternative treatment centre, Trinity College Hospital, established below the city walls of Edinburgh.

Soutra Aisle is all that remains of the Church of Holy Trinity, much of its fabric employed to build the dykes of the surrounding grazing land. The vault was latterly being used as the burial place of the Pringles of Soutra, now dispersed. Under the auspices of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, there is a small interpretation enclosure nearby.