Photo Credit Bob Lawson
Melrose Abbey is one of the most magnificent examples of mediaeval architecture in the UK. For 13 centuries Christian worship – beginning with St Aidan in AD 640 (at Old Melrose) – has been offered in the parish of Melrose. The beautiful rose-coloured stone, sparkles in the sun and the dramatic Gothic architecture gives ample scope for great photographs, even for the amateur photographer. Beyond the attraction of the abbey itself, there is a good museum – The Commendators House (16th century) – the buried heart of King Robert the Bruce and, as some speculate the remains of Michael Scot, the philosopher and “wizard.” Historic Scotland
provide an excellent free audio guide that brings to life the Abbey. There are also many interpretation boards around the Abbey.
The Abbey is the starting point for St Cuthbert’s Way
, a 100km (62.5miles) cross border walking route, linking Melrose in the Scottish Borders, where St. Cuthbert started his religious life in 650AD, with Holy Island off the Northumberland Coast, his eventual resting place and his original pilgrimage shrine.
First Cistercian Monastery in Scotland
Melrose Abbey founded in 1136 by King David I was the first Cistercian Abbey in Scotland. An earlier monastery had been founded by St Aidan at Old Melrose (about 2 miles away) and David wanted to build the new abbey on the same site but the monks complained the soil lacked fertility, and so a new site was chosen at Little Fordel (now known as Melrose). The church was dedicated to St. Mary on 28 July 1146 and became the mother church of the order in Scotland. The monastery had 100 monks (excluding the abbot and dignitaries). The last abbot was James Stewart, the illegitimate son of King James V, who died in 1559. David I endowed the abbey with the lands of Melrose, Eildon and fishing rights on the River Tweed and many other powerful people also endowed it handsomely. Some were buried here such as King Alexander II (died 1249) and the heart of King Robert the Bruce (died 1329), whose body was interred at Dunfermline Abbey.
For 450 years Abbey life continued, supported by the wool trade and farming, until the protestant Reformation of 1560. Twenty years before the Reformation there were 130 monks at Melrose, but when Henry VIII had the abbey torched and destroyed once again in 1544, Melrose never recovered. The last abbot died in 1559 and by the Reformation in 1560 only 13 monks were pensioned off. The lands were either seized by the crown under the Dissolution of the Monasteries, or divided amongst the nobles. The Scotts of Buccleuch fell heir to a large portion of the Abbey lands. The Abbey ceased to function, and its carvings were smashed by a Protestant mob during the Scottish Civil War (following the deposition of Mary Queen of Scots). The last monk, Dan Jo Watson, died around 1590. In 1610, a portion of the Abbey’s church was converted into a parish church for Melrose which was used until 1810 when a new church was erected. This excellent piece from the Melrose Town
website by Dr Bill Lonie delves more deeply into the turbulent life of Melrose Abbey
300 barrels of ale, and 18 hogsheads of wine
In the 12th century the monks forged ahead implementing new farming techniques and marketing Melrose wool throughout the great trading ports of northern Europe. Their economic success and the attraction of their austere spirituality helped to spread the ideas of the Cistercian Order. In times of famine their agricultural success was especially useful. According to the Scotichronicon, the Abbot of Melrose, Waltheof (step son of David I), miraculously fed 4,000 peasants who were camped around the Abbey for three months during the famine of 1148, sparing nothing to aid the starving. The Abbey was wealthy as the accounts from 1542 record
£1758 in money, 14 chalders, 9 bolls of wheat, 56 chal. 5 bolls of barley, 78 chal. 13 bolls of meal, 44 chal. 10 bolls of oats, 84 capons, 620 poultry, 105 stone of butter, 8 chal. of salt, 340 loads of peats, and 500 carriages;” besides 60 bolls of corn, 300 barrels (48 m3) of ale, and 18 hogsheads of wine, for the service of the mass: a large quantity for the entertainment of strangers; £4,000 for the care of the sick; and £400 to the barber.
A bagpipe playing pig
The Abbey is built in the form of St. John’s cross. Much of the principal tower is now in ruins but there are many superb windows – the main one at the east end appears to be more recent than the others and is ornamented with statues. The immense beauty and quality of the stone carving decorating Melrose Abbey, is seldom equalled. Highlights of the interior include the ornate stone vaulting over the presbytery, the elegant piers and the window tracery, in particular the carved stone separating the glass. The exterior of the Abbey is decorated with some fascinating sculpture including demons and hobgoblins, lute-playing angels, cooks with ladles, and of course the famous bagpipe-playing pig. Little remains standing of the two great cloisters that lay to the north and west of the abbey church, but their ground plans are largely complete. Various objects were recovered during clearance work in the 20th century and are on display in the Commendators House – cooking pots, portable urinals and floor tiles and a precious fragment of the shrine of St Waltheof, the second abbot.
A town slowly grew up around the Abbey. Due to its proximity to the border, Melrose and the abbey frequently suffered at the hands of invading English armies. In 1322 the town was attacked by the army of Edward II and much of the Abbey was destroyed. It was rebuilt by in 1326 Robert the Bruce only to be burned again in 1385 by the army of Richard II of England, as he forced the army of Robert II of Scotland back to Edinburgh. Richard II did make a grant to the abbey in 1389, to compensate for the damage done by his army. It was rebuilt over a period of about 100 years—construction was still unfinished when James IV visited in 1504. In 1322 Edward II desecrated and burnt the Abbey. In 1544, as English armies raged across Scotland in an effort to force the Scots to allow the infant Mary, Queen of Scots to marry the son of Henry VIII (known as the Rough Wooing), the Abbey was again badly damaged and was never fully repaired. This led to its decline as a working monastery. The Abbey withstood one final assault by Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War – some of its walls still show the marks of cannon fire. Its beauty today is best expressed in these lines from Sir Walter Scott
If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight,
When buttress and buttress alternately
Seemed framed of ebony and ivory;
And home returning, soothly swear,
Was never scene so sad and fair.
The heart of Robert the Bruce
The Abbey is the burial place of Robert the Bruce’s heart, which is marked with a commemorative carved stone plaque:
A noble hart may have nane ease gif freedom failye.
John Barbour, The Bruce
After his death his heart was sent on crusade to the Holyland, accompanied by ‘Good Sir James Douglas’. Sir James and his crusaders, confronted by a huge army of Moors whilst travelling through Spain, gallantly charged into battle, throwing the Bruce’s heart before him and shouting “lead on brave heart, I’ll follow thee.” The heart was disovered the next day amongst the slain bodies by another Scottish Knight, who brought it back to Melrose Abbey, where it was buried.
In 1996 an archaeological excavation at the Abbey, unearthed a conical lead container with an engraved copper plaque that read
The enclosed leaden casket containing a heart was found beneath Chapter House floor, March 1921, by His Majesty’s Office of Works.
Although the casket was not opened, it is believed to contain the heart of Robert I, as there are no records of anyone else’s heart being buried at Melrose. The casket was reburied at Melrose Abbey on 22 June 1998, and a plinth unveiled which covers the burial site of the casket.
How to find Melrose Abbey
Grid reference: NT 548341.
The Abbey is very prominent in Melrose so you won’t be able to miss it.
Postcode: TD6 9LG
There is a paying car park just opposite the Abbey and during peak seasons it can get very busy (it’s also where all the tour buses park). Free alternative parking is available on street and in the other car parks in Melrose.