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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.