The Wonder of Melrose Abbey

by Keith Savage · 9 comments

Melrose Abbey, Melrose, Scotland

Last week I wrote one of my unabashedly florid Picture This posts about Melrose Abbey, but the abbey deserves a more complete survey as it is perhaps the finest abbey ruin in all of Scotland. Few ruins can rival the completeness of the remaining structure and evoke the grandeur of what it must have looked like during the height of Melrose Abbey’s power. The simple fact is that this is the big daddy of them all, the primary draw of visitors to the Scottish Borders, and I’m happy to say it delivers. Does it ever. Each footstep upon the emerald turf crushes history from the ground, and the wind whistling over the Eildon Hills weaves it into a cloak of wonder draped over the abbey’s impressive shoulders. Read on, dear reader, for Melrose Abbey is one of Scotland’s architectural marvels.

The Melrose Abbey we see today was not the first religious structure in the region. This part of the Borders was a religious power as far back as 635 AD, when King Oswald of Northumbria and Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne, later to be St. Aidan, founded Mailros Monastery a couple miles east of the current abbey with monks from Iona. The derivation of the name Mailros likely comes from the Cymric, meaning “meadow peninsula,” an apt description for the site of the old monastery which had been previously cultivated by Romano-British based in the fort of Trimontium (whose ruins lie among the Eildon Hills). Only the religious elite of this lost past were able to record the events of the day, and it this appetite for Dark Ages history that compels me to religious sites around Scotland.

Five hundred years passed between the original founding of Mailros Monastery and the initial building of Melrose Abbey, and the details of that time are scant. Kings ascended to thrones after dynastic battles while plague struck the land, and here and there the names of famous monks like Cuthbert appear in the telling. St. Aidan’s monastery fell into ruin in 839 at the hands of Kenneth Mac Alpin, who is usually recognized as the first king of Scotland, and his band of Scots. To our modern minds it is a wonderfully vacant era ripe for imagination (and novels!).

In 1136, King David I requested the Cistercian monks from Rievaulx Abbey in north Yorkshire to build an abbey in Melrose. The king wanted the abbey built upon the previous monastery, but the monks of Rievaulx bargained for the current placement citing their need for arable farmland nearby. The monks of Rievaulx, like most monks, were an industrious lot and spent the next 50 years constructing Melrose Abbey.

The April day is sunny and blustery when I descend the narrow street to the abbey. There is some unsightly scaffolding on the eastern facade, but the maintenance of the abbey trumps my search for photographic perfection. I’m no expert on abbey architecture, though the words come readily enough: Apse, nave, refectory, cloister, presbytery, and on and on. Suffice to say that blushed Melrose Abbey, with its arches and columns and carvings, seems to be one of mankind’s proper contributions to the Earth. It is a thing of beauty because it gleams not at the expense of its provenance. It is raw stone worked into wondrous form, the shell now of a golem of prayer.

I walk between the headstones dotting the wide, eastern cemetery and work my way counter-clockwise around the abbey. I take out the audio guide earbuds and put on some music and turn it off promptly. Melrose Abbey is a place where you should listen to the wind singing through the stones. It’s mid-day, so the light is not perfect for photos, but then neither is my new camera able to capture the magnificence of Melrose Abbey’s edifice, whatever the weather. The eye alone has such grace.

Eventually I stroll through the nave leading to the church, the western wall gone but for the foundation stones. The east wall, however, is a run of of red pillars connected by pointed arches, and it does not take much imagination to visualize the nave in its complete and glorious form. It took less than 200 years for the English to destroy the abbey – the 14th century was full of cross-border strife (see Braveheart) – and it was burned down again in 1385. The church I entered mostly dates from the 15th century following 100 years of reconstruction.

It’s hard to describe the scale of Melrose Abbey from within the church. Perhaps the loss of the roof makes it feel larger, as if the pillars once rose into the clouds, and I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been even greater (though less practical, of course) if it had been designed without a roof altogether. Why block out the heavens when reaching them is the focus of one’s life? While the roof of the abbey church is gone, there are still delicate stone arches that leap from wall to wall, passing, still, the test of time. Many of the chapels off the main church retain their ceilings, and it is here that the observant visitor will find many beautiful and evocative carvings of the Cistercian monks.

Beyond the immense spectacle of the church and nave lie the foundations of out buildings like the chapter house, dining hall, wash place, warming room, and lay brothers’ cloister. Monks were not allowed to live outside the monastery’s walls, but I think the lives of monks in this period are overly sterilized by modern description. They did devote the majority of their waking hours to prayer, but they also engaged in physical labor, brewed (and drank) beer, and carried around pisspots. I kid you not, that word is on one of the signs describing unearthed artifacts. While the religiosity is not for me, there is a certain allure to seeking a simpler existence and shutting out the complexity of day-to-day life.

Melrose Abbey’s working life, of course, came to an end with the Reformation around 1560. By this time the abbey was deteriorating, and the last resident monk of Melrose Abbey died in 1590. Nearly a thousand years of history on or near this spot, and then 500 more of fading memory.

Melrose Abbey is a lovely place, a monument to the will of mankind that demands no adherence of faith to enjoy the echo of its grandeur. In the church, when the Scottish wind blows as it always does, listen close. Listen close.

Disclosure: Historic Scotland provided me with complimentary entry to Melrose Abbey. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.

Kalli DeschampsNo Gravatar May 21, 2015 at 9:05 AM

What amazing, beautiful ruins and so well photographed. I’m afraid my visit to Scotland many years ago was brief and limited. How I would have loved to see and feel the history of this unusual ruin. Thank you for sharing.

Milena YordanovaNo Gravatar January 19, 2015 at 3:33 AM

The abbey looks so beautiful and the photos are stunning! I hope one day I will have the chance to visit Melrose Abbey.

Jackie JonesNo Gravatar January 2, 2015 at 3:00 AM

Very well written article with beautiful pics. Very impressive.

CalebNo Gravatar December 22, 2014 at 2:48 PM

Absolutely beautiful. I can only imagine the feeling when observing this in person.

KenNo Gravatar December 17, 2014 at 7:18 PM

Beautiful. Belief in the divine may be difficult for us but it isn’t difficult to feel the longing for what we cannot see or understand. The sense of history and of devotion to the ineffable fill these places and tug at our empirical souls even now.

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