There is something magical, and mystical, about Melrose Abbey. Robert the Bruce clearly agreed; he chose it as the final resting place for his heart. After spending several hours wandering the magnificent ruin I, too, was ready to leave a piece of my heart in this unique setting, whose proximity to England and association with kings has given it a special place in Scotland’s history.
David I founded Melrose Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery in Scotland, in 1136, as a demonstration of his piety as well as his power over this hotly-contested territory. The Abbey’s location on the border with England sent a strong message about the wealth, power and worldliness of the Scottish king.
The Cistercian monks came from Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, their great northern English missionary base, drawn by the Abbey’s close associations with St Aiden and St Cuthbert.
Monastic life continued at Melrose for the next 450 years – and was eventful, to say the least. Its location put it on the front line of conflict with England during the later Middle Ages. Attacks by Edwards I and II between 1300 and 1322 required major repairs and a horrendous attack by Richard II in 1385 led to Melrose being burnt to the ground.
Strangely, Richard himself paid for the Abbey to be rebuilt straightaway – whether because he now viewed southern Scotland as conquered, or due to a guilty conscience, is left to the visitor to decide. The War of the Rough Wooing, 60 years later, would cause further damage, alas.
Despite its many afflictions, Melrose was viewed as a highly desirable final resting place and powerful people endowed the Abbey richly. Alexander II was among the privileged people to be buried here, after he died campaigning against the Norse.
Only a fraction of the Abbey remains; the present building of rose-coloured stone dates almost entirely to the post-1385 rebuilding. It is well worth listening to the audio recording included in the ticket entry price as you walk around the ruins; it explains in absorbing detail what each ruin represents. The monks’ choir and transepts are still intact, as is the presbytery at the east end, where the high altar once stood.
A number of objects have been excavated from the abbey, including cooking pots, portable urinals, floor tiles and a fragment of the shrine of St Waltheof, the second abbot. These are displayed in the Commendator’s House, built in the late 1500s.
The exterior of the Abbey is equally fascinating, decorated with what’s described as “some of the most fascinating sculpture found on any medieval church building. I spotted demons and hobgoblins, cooks with ladles, lute-playing angels – and, pleasingly, the famous bagpipe-playing pig.
Footnote: the town of Melrose itself is well worth a visit. Packed with independent boutiques and teashops it is a shopper’s delight – even more so because it never gets too busy. Don’t forget to visit lovely Harmony Garden while you’re here, home to all sorts of events including the annual Borders Book Festival that Claire, Adam and I so enjoyed.