Dryburgh Abbey

Dryburgh Abbey sits on the banks of the River Tweed, four miles south east of Melrose and is the most beautiful of all the Border Abbeys. The gothic runs of the Abbey are set in a very peaceful and contemplative, surrounded on 3 sides by the river.   Yew trees and cedars from Lebanon, said to have been planted by knights returning from the Crusade, hide much of the area from view and add to its’ mystery.  The most famous tree is the Dryburgh Yew, a well-proportioned heritage tree said by tradition to have been planted around the time of the foundation of the abbey in the 12th century, 900 years ago.   More recent plantings carried out  by Historic Scotland include maples, sweet chestnut, ash, Himalayan cherry and Dawyck beech.  You will often find you have the place to yourself and you may catch on the wind what sounds like the distant chants of the long gone monks.  But in the summer months you will hear the laughter of wedding and christening parties, over the wall in Dryburgh Abbey Hotel.  If you have time, stop there for refreshments or head for our favourite place Mainstreet Trading in St Boswells.

Photo Credit: Bob Kelpie

Photo Credit: Bob Kelpie

The History

There are narrations, from which it is inferred that Dryburgh was originally a place of Druidical worship;  its name is supposed to come from the Celtic ‘Darach-Bruach’ or ‘the bank of the sacred grove of oaks,’ the settlement of the Druids.
 The Gentleman’s Magazine, October 1832


1150 Hugo de Morville (one of the Normans granted vast estates in the south of Scotland by King David 1) Constable of Sotland and Lord of Lauderdale, brought the Premonstratensian Order (or White Canons) from Alnwick to establish Dryburgh Abbey.  They practiced a stricter form of the rule of St Augustine, alongside some very clever ideas borrowed from the Cistercians. on land management and using the lay brothers to undertake labour intensive work such as farming.  They followed an austere monastic life, but had a duty to pray and teach those outside their walls.  With  only one fireplace in the Abbey to warm them through the long cold and damp Scottish winters, it must have been a very tough existence.

Like Melrose, Dryburgh was burnt to the ground by Edward II of England in 1322 on their way home from a failed invasion of Scotland.  It was repaired, but destroyed again by Richard II in 1385 as he punished the Borders for raids on the north of England.

At the feast of St Laurence Richard II, King of England, sick at heart that the Scots and French were plundering his land so cruelly…assembled a large army and entered Scotland at the age of 19.
He advanced at the midst of his arrogant host, destroying everything on all sides and saving nothing. He burnt to ashes with consuming flames churches devoted to God and monastic sanctuaries, namely Dryburgh, Melrose and Newbattle, and the noble royal town of Edinburgh.
Bower’s Scotichronicon on Richard II’s invasion of 1385.
The abbey was burnt again in 1461, 1523 and 1544, meaning that it must have been in an almost continuous state of re-building.  If the Abbey survived the raids it was no match for the Reformation, and by 1560 it stood in ruins.  Life wasn’t quite extinct, however:  records show that there were still two plucky canons in residence in 1584 but by 1600 they too had died.



It was never a wealthy abbey like Melrose – it had fewer lands and its patrons were not as wealthy.  Through Hugh’s sister Helen, the lands passed to the Lords Of Galloway following the death of Hugh de Morville in 1196 and this diluted further the patronage available to Dryburgh Abbey – The Lords of Galloway supported four Abbeys already (Glenluce, Holyrood, Homcultram and the priory of St Bees).  By 1296 and the abdication of of King John Balliol, the lands had been further subdivided and the patronage diluted.    During the subsequent wars for Scottish independence, the shifting border brought more difficulties for the Abbey.   Dryburgh was finally destroyed in 1544.  during the “rough wooing”.  In 1560 following the Scottish Reformation the Abbey passed to the Erskine family, and in 1604 it was given to the 2nd Earl of Mar by James VI of Scotland


David Erskine

Having served as a source of building material in the centuries following the Reformation, Dryburgh Abbey attained a new role in the late 18th and 19th century as a picturesque folly. David Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan and founder of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, acquired the Abbey in 1786 and dedicated much of his life to preserving it. He integrated the Abbey into a wider landscape design – memorial stones were shifted about, a medieval-style Latin phrase was cut into a wall, busts were placed in the chapter house, shrubs and trees planted, and an obelisk erected as a gesture of commemoration to the Abbey’s founder.

Erskine also commissioned new monuments to the Scottish past. In 1812, he dedicated the newly-built, Neo-Grecian Temple of the Nine Muses to the local Borders poet James Thomson (1700-1748). Two years later, a colossal statue of Sir William Wallace (the first monument  to this Scottish hero) was raised on the hillside overlooking Dryburgh.


19th Century Tourism

Over the years Dryburgh Abbey has welcomed many visitors including: Robert Burns in 1787, Wordsworth and his sister in 1803 and JM Turner in 1832 who painted () the Abbey postcard size, to be engraved as the frontispiece illustration to the Sir Tristrem volume (5) of Sir Walter Scott’s Poetical Works.  Erskine had helped usher in a romantic era of taste with antiquarian interests. Dryburgh became a celebrated destination for a kind of pilgrimage- tourism during the 19th century. Contemporary engravings depict ladies and gentlemen strolling through the lush, ivy-clad ruins of the abbey. Thomas Agar Holland published long poems on the qualities of the landscape in the 1820s (Agar Holland 1826), and tourist guides of the earlier-mid 19th century recommended a visit


A Resting Place 

Despite this much of Dryburgh Abbey has survived and it has some of the best preserved buildings of any monastery Scotland, for example, the Chapterhouse features paintwork that dates back to its construction.  These graceful ruins became the burial place of David Eskrine, 11th Earl of Buchan in 1829, and three years later Sir Walter Scott, who had been persuaded by Erskine to be buried at Dryburgh.  He is buried in the north transept of the church, otherwise known as St Mary’s Aisle.  Nearby lies Field Marshall, Earl Haig of Bemersyde, the controversial first world war commander of British forces and members of the Halliburton family.


How to Get There

Dryburgh Abbey, Dryburgh, St Boswells TD6 0RQ
Tel: 01835 822381
OS NT 59269 32118

At St Boswells turn onto B6404 and travel through the village. Continue on this road for two miles and then turn left onto the B6356 signposted Scott’s View and Earlston. Continue on this road through Clintmains village for a further 1.8 miles until you arrive at the car park.  The road turns sharp left in front of the Dryburgh Abbey Hotel entrance.  There is free parking at the Abbey.

Occasionally the property has to close at short notice due to adverse weather conditions so please check the Historic Environment Scotland closures page for any unexpected site closures or follow closure tweets from @welovehistory using #hsclosure.  Alternatively please call the site before setting off to check it’s open.

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