The Borders Abbeys

The Scottish Borders are home to a number of ruined, yet magnificent Abbeys, which were all founded in the 12th Century. Three of the best known are Jedburgh, Melrose and Dryburgh Abbey. The story of the Border Abbeys is one from building, attacks by the English and rebuilding. But most of all it’s a story of various orders of Monks who represented their order and made the journey from the European continent through England and ended up in the Scottish Borders to live in their holy abbeys and practice their religion.

Christian monasticism is the devotional practice of individuals who live ascetic and typically cloistered lives that are dedicated to Christian worship. It began to develop early in the history of the Christian Church which was the origin of the formation of the monastic orders who lived by a particular religious rule.

Melrose Abbey

The best preserved and best-known abbey is St Mary's Abbey, best known as Melrose Abbey. It is a partly ruined monastery of the Cistercian order in Melrose, Roxburghshire, It was founded in 1136 by Cistercian monks at the request of King David I of Scotland, and was the chief house of that order in the country until the Reformation.

Other buildings in the complex were added over the next 50 years. The abbey was built in the Gothic manner, and in the form of a St. John's Cross. A considerable portion of the abbey is now in ruins. A structure dating from 1590 is maintained as a museum open to the public. The ruins of Melrose are widely considered among the most beautiful of religious houses in the United Kingdom, being especially notable for a wealth of well-preserved figure-sculpture, and its architecture is considered to be some of the finest in Scotland.

Alexander II and other Scottish kings and nobles are buried at the abbey. A lead container believed to hold the embalmed heart of Robert the Bruce was found in 1921 below the Chapter House site; it was found again in a 1998 excavation. This was documented in records of his death. The rest of his body is buried in Dunfermline Abbey. Melrose Abbey is a magnificent ruin on a grand scale, and it was a highly desirable place to be buried.

The abbey is known for its many carved decorative details, including likenesses of saints, dragons, gargoyles and plants. On one of the abbey's stairways is an inscription by John Morow, a master mason, which says, Be halde to ye hende ("Keep in mind, the end, your salvation"). This has become the motto of the town of Melrose.

Being so close to the border, Melrose Abbey suffered at English hands during the Middle Ages. Rebuilt in the 1380s, it was used as an abbey until the Protestant Reformation of 1560. Afterwards, the existing monks were allowed to stay on: the last died in 1590.

Across the gardens visit the Commendator’s House Museum to see a rich collection of medieval objects found in the abbey cloister.

Dryburgh Abbey

Dryburgh Abbey was established in 1150 by an order of Premonstratensian monks. These white-robed monks, who had their religious roots in France and Northumberland, lived a life of simplicity. Set on the bend of the River Tweed, Dryburgh is considered the most evocative monastic ruin in Scotland. Sir Walter Scott is buried here in the North Transept of the Church. The Cloister and Chapter House are extremely well preserved. A spiral staircase leads to the top for a dramatic view of the Sacristy. The peaceful setting of Dryburgh Abbey acted as the ideal secluded spot.

It was burned by English troops in 1322, after which it was restored only to be again burned by Richard II in 1385, but it flourished in the fifteenth century. It was finally destroyed in 1544, briefly to survive until the Scottish Reformation, when it was given to the 2nd Earl of Mar by James VI of Scotland.

Wander around this remarkably complete medieval ruin by the River Tweed to grasp the appeal of monastic life. You can still see plaster and paintwork inside the chapter house dating from when it was built.