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Melrose Town Trail

Melrose Abbey


Melrose Abbey

The Abbey is in the care of Historic Scotland and there is an entrance charge (Please note, the Abbey Car Park is only for the use of visitors to the Abbey). Melrose Abbey was founded around 1136 by King David I and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The Border abbeys were centres of learning, politics, economic and cultural life. Throughout its working life Melrose Abbey was much favoured by royalty.

Melrose Abbey had the largest flock of sheep of any of the religious houses in the country; in the order of 15,000 by 1370. The wool which was produced was sold as far afield as the Low Countries and Italy. In addition, the Abbey owned around 8,900 hectares (22,000 acres) of land in the Borders and elsewhere. As centres of commerce and therefore wealth, abbeys were natural targets for invading armies and Melrose was sacked on at least four occasions.

The heart of King Robert I (The Bruce) is buried in a leaden casket in Melrose Abbey. Widely recognised as the greatest knight in Christendom, Robert I had always wished to take part in a crusade. His wish was fulfilled only after his death, when his embalmed heart was carried in a leaden casket on a crusade by his great friend James Douglas, "Good Sir James". Tradition has it that Douglas hurled the casket at the Moors shouting "Where Bruce leads, Douglas follows". Bruce's heart was brought back to Melrose and buried in the Abbey, the rebuilding of which he had sponsored after a brutal English attack in 1322. On the site of the chapter house you will find a carved stone designed as a result of a public competition held in 1998, to commemorate the re-burial of the King's heart in the Abbey.

Originally, the Abbey building would have been richly decorated using lime washes, both inside and out. The statues of the saints, located in the now vacant niches, would have been similarly painted. This would truly have been a shining beacon in the countryside. You can still see some of the saintly statues, especially above the east window. You should also look out for the bagpipe-playing pig, the ceiling bosses, decorated corbels, the off-centre arches and the inscription carved by the master mason of the Abbey, Jean Moreau, otherwise known as John Morrow. The domestic buildings of the community lay to the north and the precinct of roughly 16 hectares (40 acres) was enclosed by a wall. What you see today are largely the remains of the Abbey Kirk, built in the late 14th to 16th century.

There is a story that the monks of Melrose saved the town from a spectre that had been plaguing the inhabitants for some time. The Vampire of Melrose was, during his lifetime, a chaplain to a lady who lived nearby. The chaplain was fond of all manner of sin and vice. When he died, he paid the price for his wrong doing as his soul could not find peace. The ghastly form stalked the streets at night in search of blood, terrifying the locals. The town's people turned to the church for a solution to their plight and the monks sought to answer their pleas. They prayed, fasted and challenged the ghoul, eventually defeating it. The monster's corpse was thrust into a fire, reducing it to ashes that were then carried by the wind over the Lammermuir Hills to the north.

The final attack on the Abbey came in 1545 when the Earl of Hertford bombarded the site with cannon he had set up, possibly at Gattonside on the northern bank of the River Tweed. Hertford was carrying out the orders of Henry VIII of England who wanted Queen Mary to marry his son - Prince Edward - whereby he would gain sovereignty over the Scots. After that attack, the Abbey was never rebuilt to its former glory.



The Commendator's House

After the Reformation (1560) religion in Scotland was changed fundamentally and the Abbey was under the administration of lay Commendators. Instead of the monks being able to use the funds generated by the Abbey as they saw fit, the money was put to other uses by the Commendators. Starved of their income and no longer allowed to recruit new monks, the religious community died out shortly after 1590. The Abbey became neglected and was used as a source of building material for the town.

The last Commendator was James Douglas and after Douglases resignation in 1608 King James VI granted the Abbey lands to John Ramsey, Viscount Haddington. The Commendator's House is within the Abbey precinct (entry to which is covered by the Abbey entrance fee) and was built in the 15th century as the abbot's quarters. Being a Commendator was a risky business due to the prestige and wealth attached to the job and gunloops were incorporated for defensive purposes. The House contains a small museum with many relics from the Abbey and nearby Trimontium. Looking away from the Abbey you can see the Annay (meaning 'River Island') which were the fields farmed by the monks. During the year of the Second World War (1939-45) the Annay was the site of a prisoner of war camp.

By 1618, part of the nave had been adapted to serve as a parish church by building a rubble wall against the north arcade. After the Reformation, little respect was paid to the building and often cattle and sheep were to be found inside the building. By all accounts, the interior was gloomy, filthy and damp. This church continued in use until the 19th century when construction of the new parish church (12) began in 1808. By then, the Abbey had suffered a great deal of abuse and the Duke of Buccleuch (owner of the Abbey) cleared a large amount of rubbish off the site. Sir Walter Scott was so alarmed at the state of the building that he made direct appeals to the Duke to carry out repairs. Eventually, the Duke allowed Scott to direct his builder to undertake whatever work he saw as necessary to safeguard the building. The first part of the Abbey to be repaired was the east window, where work started in the spring of 1822.

The town owes its existence to the Abbey. As a centre of pilgrimage, houses would have been set up close to the main gate of the precinct for the use of visitors and pilgrims. A separate entrance would have been provided for those living and working within the precinct.

Turn left and enter Priorwood Gardens.

Commendator - a person appointed to administer the Abbey and draw revenue without having to perform religious duties.

nave - the part of the building used by the congregation.


Next: Priorwood Gardens


Melrose Town Trail

Walking in Melrose

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