With our canine adventurers, Finn and Sawyer, still by our side, we continue our three-part series of Abbeys in the Scottish Borders; our second instalment highlights our visit to Jedburgh Abbey. If you haven’t already, we recommend that you read our first article in the series on Melrose Abbey, and then head back here to continue your journey. That way you will have better context for the comparisons between the abbeys.
Jedburgh Abbey is in the former royal burgh of Jedburgh- often identified as the ‘jewel of the Scottish Borders’. The Abbey is one of the historic highlights in the area and is a must-visit site. Of course, there are other wonderful attractions in Jedburgh, but we will return to those in future posts.
Like Melrose Abbey, Jedburgh Abbey was founded by King David I (1124-1153). According to Historic Scotland, along with his tutor, Bishop John of Glasgow, David I was responsible for a renewal of the Scottish church. With a Cistercian Order at Melrose, they brought an Augustinian Order to Jedburgh 1138. It’s important to point out that there was a Christian establishment on the site since the 9th century and this most likely contributed to David I and Bishop John choosing the location.
The founding Augustinian brethren at Jedburgh were probably from Beauvais, France. Their order was named after St Augustine of Hippo and was formally recognised in 1059. They differ from the Cistercians in that they were canons regular not monks. This means that they lived according to a Rule (a set of instructions or precepts). St Augustine’s Rule drew upon the ideas of humility, community, abstinence, and prayer at set times throughout the day. While their life was essentially monastic in nature, it wasn’t quite as strict as it was for monks, and they could leave the Abbey.
As was the case for Melrose Abbey, Jedburgh Abbey is under the care of Historic Scotland. They have done a fantastic job at maintaining the site as well as undertaking important archaeological work that has contributed to our knowledge of the Abbey and grounds. Be sure to take the time to explore the Visitor Centre as they have some interesting artefacts on display that were found during their archaeological digs.
There is also a model of the entire Abbey complex and how it would have looked around the year 1510.
Most of the area pictured below (as seen from a viewing area inside the Visitor Centre) was excavated by archaeologists in 1984 revealing the ruins of an extensive network of buildings.
Stepping outside of the Centre onto the raised walkway, the stunning views continue. We’ll make our way up the stairs and explore a bit as we head to the Abbey church.
Like Melrose Abbey, the chapter house at Jedburgh Abbey was the most important building after the church. Situated next to the church, the chapter house (ruins pictured below) is where the canons would meet each day to hear from the Rule of St Augustine or discuss important business. Important senior officials were also buried within the chapter house as was evidenced by graves found during the 1984 excavations.
Next to these ruins is the magnificent Abbey church- “among the most complete in the country”. We'll enter the church through the east processional door.
Jedburgh Abbey Church
The surviving church architecture is simply stunning. Historic Scotland highlights how it changed over the years as work began in 1138 and continued into the 1200s. Therefore, it has some of the finest examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture in all of Scotland.
Medieval churches were laid out in the shape of a cross with the east end being the most important as this is where the high altar was housed in the presbytery. This part of Jedburgh Abbey church was built first.
If you look at the lower sections of the church, you see how it features the 12th century Romanesque-style of architecture characterised by round-headed arches. Higher up you can see where it changes to the 13th century Gothic-style with delicate, pointed arches.
One of the highlights of the Abbey church is the Lothian Aisle situated in the north transept (one of the arms of the cross). According to Historic Scotland, the Ker family adopted it as their burial place. They were the ancestors of the present owners, the marquises of Lothian. Extensive conservation work was done in the aisle in 2001. Let’s head inside for a closer look.
Stepping through the unassuming wooden door, you enter a room filled with beautiful tombs and memorials that date from 1524 to the present. The Ker family walled off this section of the church in the late 17th century, and there is an incredible stillness that instantly instills reverence among visitors.
The room is dominated by an exquisite life-size effigy of William Schomberg Robert, 8th Marquis of Lothian who died in 1870.
As we exit the Lothian Aisle, we head to the nave (the shaft of the cross). Work on this section began in 1180- after the east end was built. This was the only part of the Abbey open to lay people and it is where they worshipped. It is amazing how much has survived and you can really get a feel of the grandeur it once commanded.
The nave is characterised by a ‘light and airy’ elegant appearance which contrasts with the earlier, Romanesque architecture at the east end that stressed ‘strength and solidity’.
The west front’s architecture features an exquisitely carved doorway with three niches above that would have once held statues. High above, you can see the frame of a lovely rose window.
Before we continue out to the grounds, please scroll through the photos below (by clicking on the black arrows) to enjoy more of Jedburgh Abbey Church:
Abbey Cloister & Grounds
While I’ve enjoyed our time exploring some of the highlights of the church, let’s head back outside and explore a bit of the cloister and grounds.
The cloister would have been a rectangular area surrounded by buildings and lined with a covered walkway along the perimeter. According to Historic Scotland, it was used as a “processional route during important services, and on an everyday bases as a space for reading, writing and contemplation”.
The central part of the cloister most likely had a garden and Historic Scotland has laid out a late-medieval garden once again. Sitting on the bench, it isn’t hard to imagine the canons wearing their black habits (as a result they were called the ‘black canons’), tending to the garden or sitting quietly in devout contemplation.
Heading further down into the west and south ranges, the expansive ruins reveal an area that would have been quite busy. This area is where the canons encountered the outside world. Historic Scotland discusses how the west range had an outside parlour where the canons could meet with their families.
On the south side of the cloister was the canons’ dining hall (refectory). They would eat once a day in the winter and twice a day in the summer. Furthermore, they would eat in silence while one of the brothers would read from a religious text. Interestingly, the canons would use a form of sign language to communicate with each other.
To the south of the south range, is an undercroft that signage indicates dates to the 13th century. Archaeologists think that it might have formed part of the abbot’s lodging as it would have once been an impressive building. According to Historic Scotland, “the abbot was both the spiritual leader of the abbey and an important political figure. He provided religious leadership, business advice and administrative services to the, often illiterate, nobility”.
In 1560, after the Reformation, only a few canons remained and could stay at the Abbey as long as they embraced the reformed religion. The site carried on as a parish church into the 1800s.
Visiting Jedburgh Abbey
That concludes our brief virtual tour of Jedburgh Abbey. As we covered just a fraction of the site, we highly recommend that you visit in-person. Be sure to check out Historic Scotland’s website for Jedburgh Abbey so that you can get the most up-to-date information to best plan your visit.
Don’t forget to join Finn and Sawyer next week as we conclude our three-part series on abbeys of the Scottish Borders with a visit to Kelso Abbey. One of the easiest ways to ensure that you receive our Scotland travel articles once they are published, is by subscribing to our blog.
Until next time- Explore & Discover!