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Melrose Abbey: Home to ‘Beasts, Saints, and Sinners’

Join us- including our canine adventurers Finn and Sawyer- as we begin our three-part series on historic abbeys in the Scottish Borders. Our first stop is to one of Scotland’s most powerful medieval abbeys- Melrose Abbey.

A Brief History

Nestled among the lush, fertile lands of the Tweed Valley, Melrose Abbey was a Cistercian monastery that was established by David I in 1136. Cistercian monasticism was established in France at the end of the 11th century. The order was focused on austere living conditions with the monks’ daily activities mostly consisting of prayer, work (e.g. raising sheep to sell their wool which was their primary source of income), and church activities.

Considering their focus on austerity, it probably doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that the original 12th century church was quite modest. However, as we’ve discussed in past blog articles, like other locations in Scotland, Melrose Abbey also suffered a great deal from attacks by the English during the Wars of Independence. Most of the Abbey was ransacked and ruined in the 1300s by invading English forces sent by Richard II. Therefore, much of what we see of Melrose Abbey’s architecture today (more on that shortly) came about from the rebuild done around 1400.

The church was part of an extensive network of buildings on the grounds at Melrose Abbey. The picture below shows an Historic Scotland informational board that gives an artist’s drawing of what Melrose Abbey would have most likely looked like around 1500. This illustrates how the monks lived a life of solitude away from the outside world.

In 1560, the Protestant Reformation officially abolished Catholic worship in Scotland. The last monk, John Watson, died in 1590. However, the church stayed in use as a parish church until 1810.

Exemplary Medieval Architecture

Melrose Abbey is now in the care of Historic Scotland who work to maintain and preserve the surviving medieval architecture and structures. They describe the Church at Melrose as the “abbey’s spiritual heart”. Walking around the church, hints of its former grandeur surround you. The only remnants of the original 12th century church are the bases of the former columns of the ‘Galilee Porch’ (which you can see pictured below before you enter the now roofless nave section of the church).

Standing in the nave, I try to envisage the aisle chapels that would have gone the entire length of the church. Their gothic arched windows would have once held exquisite stained glass. Now, those same windows beautifully frame the rolling Scottish hills.

At the east end of the nave survives an amazing ceiling boss carved with the head of Christ.

What I find particularly fascinating is the European influence found in the flowing designs of the south transept. This can be attributed to the French master-mason, John Morrow. According to Historic Scotland, little is known about the individual craftsmen who worked on the post-1385 rebuild. That is why the plaque that discusses John Morrow is particularly important.

The plaque reads: “John Morrow sometimes called was I and born in Paris certainly and had in keeping all the mason work of St Andrews, the high kirk of Glasgow, Melrose, Paisley, of Nithsdale and Galloway. I pray to God and Mary both and sweet St John to keep this holy church from harm”. The plaque pictured in the south transept is a replica and the original inscription is on display in the Commendator’s House.

The most important part of the medieval church was the presbytery (always at the easternmost end) where the high altar was housed. Historic Scotland points out how “builders of later-medieval churches tended to ‘build-in’ furnishings in stone, and it is this which has secured their survival”. We can see this in the pictures below. Just below the presbytery’s east window are two wall cupboards. Historic Scotland points out that these very well could have held holy relics which would have been a focus for those coming to Melrose Abbey on pilgrimage. In the south wall of the presbytery, you can still see the double piscina (basin) where the priest could wash his hands.

Whenever you are on an ‘explore and discover’ mission, be sure to remember to always look up. Doing so in the presbytery reveals a stone vault with intricate carvings and designs. Speaking of elaborate carvings, the exterior of the church holds quite a collection. So, let’s head outside and see what treasures can be found on the grounds.

‘Beasts, Saints, & Sinners’

As we head out the door of the south transept, we come to a graveyard. This was the final resting place of the monks and later a parish burial ground. Historic Scotland aptly describes how the “exterior of the church at Melrose was lavishly carved with beasts, saints, and sinners”. They further explain that many of the carvings are missing, but what survives is one of the best collections of medieval carvings in Scotland.

The carvings are an interesting mix of religious saints, martyrs, kings, queens, and even craftsmen. There are also various animals (real and mythological) as "medieval people believed that animals were created by God to instruct humanity". Therefore, there are carvings of dragons and even a bagpipe playing pig! Navigate through the photos below (by clicking on the black arrows) to further appreciate the beauty of Melrose Abbey’s exterior:

The ‘Real’ Braveheart

We often talk about how it’s the people who make the places, and this holds true for Melrose Abbey. So far, we’ve discussed a bit about those who lived at the Abbey, but what about those buried there? Well, there just so happens to be a fascinating story about one of the most iconic men in all Scottish history and his connection to Melrose Abbey- King Robert the Bruce.

Around 1316, King Robert was based at Melrose as he was trying to fight off the English. Unfortunately, Edward II ransacked the abbey in 1322. Robert the Bruce helped to fund its rebuilding work. However, King Robert’s connection to Melrose Abbey does not end there.

The legend goes that, shortly before he died, Robert the Bruce asked his longtime friend, James ‘the Black’ Douglas, to bring his heart on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Unfortunately, James got sidetracked along the way when he stopped to help Spain’s Alfonso XI in their war against the Moors. It is said that James threw the casket with Robert the Bruce’s heart ahead of him before he joined the battlefield and said, ‘Lead on brave heart, I’ll follow thee’.

Robert the Bruce’s body was buried at Dunfermline Abbey, but the legend states that his heart was buried at Melrose Abbey upon his request. Having one’s heart buried was common practice at the time. The story gets quite interesting, as excavations in 1921 revealed a captivating find- a mummified heart in a lead container. Unfortunately, no identifying indicators were found. Was this Robert the Bruce’s heart? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but I like to think so.

Visiting Melrose Abbey

I hope you have enjoyed our virtual trip to Melrose Abbey. If you are interested in visiting, head over to their Historic Environment Scotland website for the most up-to-date information.

As I mentioned in the introduction to this post, this is the first instalment of our three-part series on historic abbeys in the Scottish Borders. Therefore, please be sure to be on the lookout for the second instalment next week. We will visit Jedburgh Abbey which has some of the most beautiful Romanesque and Gothic architecture in all of Scotland. If you are interested in learning more about other Scottish abbeys, please check out our previous articles on Dryburgh Abbey (also in the Scottish Borders) and Inchcolm Island and Abbey.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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