Border Abbeys of Scotland

The borders of Scotland are a complicated place. Crossing the country between Carlisle and Newcastle is Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient system of stone fortifications built by the Romans to mark the northern border of their British holdings.


The Ruins of Corbridge, a Roman town associated with Hadrian's Wall.

Further north still, and less well-known, lies the Antonine Wall. Made of earth, rather than stone, the Antonine Wall cinched Scotland in a line running from the Firth of Forth to the Clyde. Today, it is best seen near Falkirk, in Scotland, where a boat-lift and canal run underneath the site at Roughcastle.

Falkirk Wheel

The Falkirk Wheel, a rotating boatlift, leads to the elevated canal. The waterway runs beneath the Antonine wall (along the hillside).

Trapped between these two Roman frontiers is a liminal space known as the Borders. Scotland and England have wrangled over them for centuries, stealing cattle, mounting counter-raids, and storming castles. The area saw prosperity, as well as danger, however, and today preserve a wonderful collection of mediaeval abbeys.



The imposing Gothic shell of Melrose.

The first abbey is the abbey of Melrose, founded in 1136 under the sponsorship of David I. The first chapter of the Cistercians in Scotland, the abbey controlled a rich and abundant countryside, growing rich of the wool trade. This wealth can be seen in the dramatic Gothic architecture of the building and in the wonderful details of the decoration. Perhaps most famous is a gargoyle depicting a bagpipe-playing pig, one of the first pictorial representations of the instrument (another early image, of an angel playing a bagpipe, can be found in nearby Rosslyn Chapel.)
Bagpipe Playing Pig

The Pig with the Bagpipes, Melrose.

The abbey is also rumoured to hold the heart of Scottish hero Robert the Bruce, and captured the imagination of the later Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott.


Barely a few miles away lies the second abbey of Dryburgh. More modest in scale, Dryburgh sits along the banks of the River Tweed in the quiet surrounds of a Victorian park. Once ransacked by the armies of the English King Edward II, the abbey now houses Sir Walter Scott’s remains.


The rounded arches of Dryburgh Abbey.


A little further south lies Jedburgh, a foundation on the scale of Melrose that looks magisterially down upon the modern town. Established in the 12th century, the abbey suffered from the constant raids that animated the borders, leading to a hodge-podge of Romanesque and Gothic styles.


The silhouette of Jedburgh Abbey.

Today, the site benefits from a well-curated museum which houses, among other things, the famous ‘Jedburgh Comb’. Made of bone and inscribed with a pattern of beasts, the comb was found on the remains of a man who was probably murdered. His violent end recalls the greater turmoil experienced time and again throughout the region. Despite this turbulent history, however, Jedburgh today is a relaxing place and even boasts a reconstructed monastic garden.


The last of the border abbeys is also the least-well preserved, since all that remains of Kelso is the great western entrance. The first to be founded, (by David I in 1128), Kelso retains the Romanesque traits that the other abbeys lost over successive renovations.


The towering west end of Kelso Abbey

This style is known for the rounded window-tops and arches and its heavy stonework, and was brought to Scotland through contacts with Anglo-Norman England. At the time it was established, relations between the royal houses of Scotland and England were close, and the founding of such abbeys demonstrated Scotland’s participation in wider European culture. Economic powerhouses, these abbeys also connected Scotland to the trade routes in commodities–like wool–and the luxuries–wine for the church services, beeswax candles–that knit the mediaeval West together.


4 thoughts on “Border Abbeys of Scotland

  1. Pingback: Royal Dunfermline: History and Heritage « mediaevalmusings

  2. Pingback: Seascapes and Settlers: Scotland’s East Lothians « mediaevalmusings

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