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Kelso Abbey: a Magnificent Medieval Marvel

This week we conclude our three-part series of historic Borders Abbeys with a visit to Kelso Abbey. Our canine adventurers- Finn and Sawyer- also return to help us with our ‘explore and discover’ mission. So, join us as we learn about the one of Scotland’s richest medieval abbeys.

As this is our final article in the series, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to read our articles on Melrose and Jedburgh Abbeys. Before I get into more of the history of Kelso Abbey, I would like to acknowledge that my two main sources were from Historic Scotland (as is always the case whenever I write on a site that is in their care) and Kelso Connections. The latter is a group of organisations- Kelso Heritage Society, Kelso Library, Kelso and District Amenity Society and Kelso Laddies Association- who have come together to create a fabulous website with invaluable information. Therefore, after reading our article, we highly recommend you check out their website to learn more about this beautiful town in the Scottish Borders.

A Brief History

Of the three abbeys in this series, Kelso was the first to be founded, and held the distinction of being the largest and richest. As outlined in our Jedburgh Abbey article, King David I was active in a renewal and reforms of the Church. Part of that involved bringing different monastic orders to Scotland- including the Cistercians at Melrose and the Augustinians at Jedburgh.

St Benedict with his followers (Image: Public Domain)

While David was still a prince, he invited a group of monks from Tiron (Tironensians) in Northern France to settle in Selkirk in 1113. By the time he was King, he decided to have those monks move closer to his castle at Roxburgh and they re-settled in Kelso founding the Abbey there in 1128.

According to Kelso Connections, the Tironensian Monastic Order was founded by St Bernard de Abbeville who had left his monastery. His new monastic order focused on “austerity and hard work”. Tironensian monks wore grey habits and strictly followed the Rule of St Benedict. Meaning they would most likely have spent most of their day in religious services and prayer (although there is speculation by historians that this strict adherence to day-long prayers may have relaxed over the centuries).

The Historic Scotland illustration below provides an artist’s reconstruction of what the entire Kelso Abbey complex might have appeared in medieval times and helps us get a general layout of the church. Built in the Romanesque-style, they further outline that, what was architecturally special and distinct about Kelso Abbey was that the church “was built to a twin-towered, double-crossed plan unparalleled in the rest of the kingdom”.

Unfortunately for Kelso Abbey, its proximity to the border with England meant that it was subject to continual sieges over the year including the Wars of Independence in the 1300s and the ‘Rough Wooing’ in the mid-1500s (when Henry VIII of England invaded Scotland to try to forcefully push for an arranged marriage between Mary, Queen of Scots and his son, Prince Edward). This led to a great deal of destruction and damage to the Abbey. The end of monastic life at Kelso came in 1560 when the Scottish Reformation outlawed Catholicism.

In the 1600s, one of the more horrendous events to take place at Kelso Abbey were the witchcraft trials. At this time, according to Kelso Connections, the Kirk (Church) was situated in the Abbey and had insisted on overseeing the prosecutions. Therefore, “ill treatment was ordered, supervised and in some instances carried out by Kirk ministers”. This was certainly a darker part of Scottish history.

Kelso Abbey Today

Unfortunately, extraordinarily little remains of Kelso Abbey with just fragments of the church still standing. We often advocate for the power of imagination and we will need to use a bit of that to help with our exploration of the Abbey church ruins.

The ruins whisper clues to us about the church’s former glory. As you can see in the picture below, only half of the west door of the church remains (you can see the left side of the doorway's arch). However, sections of the west tower have survived including its crossing, north, and south transepts.

We enter the church through the west door ‘entrance’. Our first stop just inside is the Galilee Porch which was the processional vestibule to the church. The ruins of the west tower’s south transept are hauntingly beautiful. Unfortunately, the gate was locked preventing access into the south transept. However, you can still see the strong and sturdy Romanesque architecture as well as some gravestones from the Roxburghe family.

If we turn around, we head into the ruins of the west tower’s north transept. The north door (pictured on the left below) was the entrance to the church for lay people. Pictured below right is an Historic Scotland drawing illustrating where the lay people worshipped.

The façade of the north transept is the most intact as you can see in the picture below.

As mentioned earlier, Kelso Abbey was, at the time, the richest of all the abbeys in the Scottish Borders. Much of the wealth the Abbey accrued, was due to the donations by the kings, nobles, and lay people alike. Some of this wealth can still be seen on the details of the ornate stonework.

Looking up from the crossing into the ruins of the west tower.

Walking out of the west tower into what would have once been the nave, looking back we have beautiful views of the west tower crossing and the north transept.

Pictured below, are views of the west tower and the outer wall of its south transept. There are also two arches that come out from the west tower. Those are all that is left of the nave and would have been part of its south aisle.

While later a parish cemetery, this area and its surroundings would have originally been part of the cloister. An account from John Duncan, a priest who visited the Abbey in 1517, can help us better imagine the land in its heyday. His description (which is now housed in the Vatican Archives) is best when read in his own words,

The cloister, or home of the monks, is on the south and is also joined to the church; it is spacious and square in shape, and is partly covered with lead and partly unroofed through the fury and impiety of enemies. In the cloister there is, on the one side, the chapter-house and the dormitory and on the other two refectories, a greater and lesser. The cloister has a wide court round which are many houses and lodgings ; there is also a guest-quarters common to both English and Scots. There are granaries and other places where merchants and the neighbours store their corn, wares and goods and keep them safe from enemies. There is also an orchard and a beautiful garden. (Kelso Connections)

The only surviving upstanding part of the cloister buildings is an outer parlour that was unfortunately locked behind a gate.

We finish our tour with an area that was not part of the original Kelso Abbey. Next to the Abbey ruins is the ‘Roxburghe Aisle’ which was added in the early 1900s as the burial vault for the Dukes of Roxburghe. The beautiful Scottish sandstone gleams in the sun and the newer architecture is a sharp contrast to the Abbey ruins. The end of the Aisle reveals an exquisite stained-glass window.

If you visit the Scottish Borders, we highly recommend a visit to the town of Kelso. It is a beautiful town that is filled with character, history, and charm. While you are there, be sure to stop by Kelso Abbey. It is usually open daily, year-round; entry is free, and you can just walk in when the gates are open. Be sure to check Historic Scotland’s website for the hours the gates are open (which varies depending on the time of year).

I hope you have enjoyed our three-part series on historic abbeys of the Scottish Borders. Scotland is full of history, and archaeologically speaking, it has some real jewels from the medieval period. As such, you can be reassured that we will have plenty more articles on this period in the future.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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