Melrose Abbey

An Introduction

The story of Melrose Abbey extends back to sometime before 650AD, though its origins are at a place now known as Old Melrose (called Mailros at the time) which stands in a loop of the River Tweed, some two and a half miles east of the present day monastery. It was here that St Aidan of Lindisfarne established a monastery, to which he brought monks from St Columba’s monastery on Iona. The most notable monk to emerge from this original monastery was one St Cuthbert, who would later be appointed as Prior of Lindisfarne in England. St Cuthbert was descended of old Gaelic/Northumbrian stock, but was born in Scotland; despite going on to become a legendary and prominent figure throughout northern England sometime after.

The abbey at Mailros, or Old Melrose, was destroyed by the hero Kenneth Mac Alpin, King of the Scots, in 839. As one last act of his reign, he had ordered the destruction of Mailros. Though this act leaves one to wonder as to what offence the abbey had given, to cause a Christian king reason to attack; most likely, like at the sacking of Dunbar and several other areas of ancient Northumbria, Eldunum near Mailros was still a Centre of political/monastic Northumbrian resistance to the encroaching domination of the native Northern/ Southern Picts, as well as the Gaels of Dal Riada, and so; although a place of Christian worship, those who worshipped within were still enemy to the burgeoning Scottish race, and were thus quite rightly put to sword and flame.

The campaigns of annexation likely continued on for nearly 150 years afterwards, until the battle of Carham in 1018, wherein a stunning defeat for the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria had resulted in the pushing back of the Anglo-Scottish border down across the Cheviot Hills, roughly, to where it lies today; Anglo-Saxon influence in the area all but eradicated when the Scottish Kingdom swiftly subsumed that tiny south-eastern corner of what would become Scotland. Yet despite such destruction, there is still some evidence to suggest that the site was, in an ironic twist, used at later stages as a place of retreat in such times as war and hardship, and it is possible that a small church even continued to be in use there for centuries after the original monastery’s destruction.

The Birth of Scotland’s Greatest Abbey

Melrose Abbey in 1800 when part of the abbey was still in use as the parish church
Melrose Abbey in 1800 when part of the abbey was still in use as the parish church

It was King David I, who had actually founded Scotland’s first Cistercian monastery on the site we know today, Melrose Abbey, in 1136. And at one time, Melrose had the largest flock of sheep of any of the religious houses in the country; some fifteen thousand by 1370; the wool produced even being sold as far afield as the Low Countries and Italy. Now, being so close to the border, and owning around 22,000 acres of land in the Borders and elsewhere, Melrose was to suffer greatly at the hands of countless English armies during much of the Middle Ages; as a center of commerce, and therefore wealth, the abbey was a natural target for invading armies, with Melrose being sacked on at least four occasions; at one point, even being largely destroyed by Richard II’s English army in 1385.

However, despite its often bloody existence, it was rebuilt entirely by the mid-1380s, and was then used as an abbey continuously until the Protestant Reformation of 1560. After which, religion in Scotland was fundamentally changed, and the Abbey was then under the administration of lay Commendators. Instead of the monks being able to administer the revenue generated by the Abbey as they saw fit, the money was put to other uses by the Commendators. But, despite their ill treatment, the existing monks were allowed to stay on, and right up until the last of their order died in 1590. Shortly after this, the Abbey had become all but abandoned, and so much so, that many a villager was reported to have begun using its fine stone as a source of building material for the nearby town.

Melrose Abbey south Transpet postcard ca. 1870's-80's
Melrose Abbey south Transept postcard ca. 1870’s-80’s

The surviving remains of the church as seen today, are of the early 1400’s, and are of an elegance unsurpassed in all of Scotland, incorporating graceful architecture and ethereal design, to arguably stands as Britain’s finest example of monastic architecture from the late 1300’s; with many a peculiarity and quirk abounding within its exquisite form; somewhat mirroring the renowned Scottish sense of humor; including, perhaps, its most sought after and best known resident: the Bagpiping Melrose pig.

early 20th centuary photo of bagpiping Melrose pig
The earliest evidence in Scotland for the bagpipe in a recognizable form is through the carvings on medieval church buildings like the one above.

Heart of the Abbey

Originally, the Abbey building would have been a magnificent one indeed; richly decorated using lime washes, both inside and out, and with a multitude of saintly statues located in the now vacant niches, which would have been similarly painted. This would truly have been a shining beacon in the surrounding countryside. Fortunately however, the remains of a few of those statues do in fact remain, and can still be seen today, especially above the east window, though all is much a shadow of its former self.

A truly fascinating place; Melrose Abbey is filled with myths and history; from the turbulent periods through which it survived, to the mysteries of those who lie there, and by its sweeping architectural splendor; and all of which is woven together by Sir Walter Scott’s gentle hand in such a way as to capture the magic of that serene ruin in poignant, yet rustic fashion. Ghosts and legends are interspersed among the remains of Kings and wizards, and all to wait eternity amid derelict magnificence. Below, are just a few of those myths and legends.

An interior view of the abbey, 1835
An interior view of the abbey, 1835

A Stake through the Heart

The following is a tale from the mid-1100’s, and goes as such: Some time ago, it was said, there had been a priest who, during his life, had spent most of his time chasing worldly pleasures, whilst neglecting his religious duties in favor of such sins. His love for dogs and hunting had even earned him the name of “Hundeprest” or “Dog Priest”. Upon his death, he was then buried in Melrose Abbey. And for a time, all was quiet after his internment, when suddenly; he had begun to leave his grave at night, to stalk the nearby nunnery in search of blood. But, when he found that the monks who were at first aware of his presence, were in fact not frightened by his appearance in the least, he thus so emboldened, that he had then went to visit the bedchamber of his former mistress. This Lady was, however, utterly terrified by these nightly visits from her undead suitor, and so sought out the help of his mortal colleagues.

Four of the monks then resolved to guard the grave of the priest for several nights following; praying, fasting and even challenging the ghoul to rise and confront them. Yet, nothing happened, and so three of them then decided to return back inside the Abbey, leaving only one monk to stay at the graveside. As soon as the other monks had left, the dead priest rose out of his grave; clawing across the soil as it dragged its swollen trunk from the coffin. The young monk, startled yet resolute, swiftly struck off the ghoul’s head with his axe, upon which the body of the priest quickly retreated back into its grave, with its head tumbling in before the brave monk could seize it. The other monks had now returned, drawn toward the brief sound of a scuffle, and together they were able to pry open the grave, wherein they discovered the slain monster with “a great quantity of gore” still running from its neck. The corpse of the vampire was quickly dragged outside of the Abbey’s walls, and then cast into a great roaring fire, after which, its ashes were said to have been lifted into the night, and scattered over the Lammermuir Hills by the wind.

Today, there have even been reports from some, of a group of wandering monks who are glimpsed moving steadily throughout the abbey grounds. Perhaps, even now, those brave monks still patrol the Abbey’s grounds to protect the locals from the vampire, whose wraith is also said to be encountered.

Currier & Ives (American, 1834-1907)
Currier & Ives (American, 1834-1907)

The Heart of Madness

To full convey the legend that was Sir Michael Scot, would be an impossible task for I, and would surely never fit into any one post either, nevertheless; there have been a few sightings which are believed to link the ‘Scottish Wizard‘, whose fame not only earned him a place in Dante’s Inferno, but Cornelius Agrippa’s: De occulta philosophie, as well; with that of the wondrous Melrose Abbey. The connection is short, though nonetheless:

He is reported to haunt only his own grave, and it is thought that he does so, drawn there time and again, by his book of wizardry for which he has long since lost, but which was said to have been buried somewhere within the abbey grounds “on a night of woe and dread

The Wizard of the North” is also credited variously with being Scotland’s first scientist, alchemist, sorcerer and astronomer; in life, he was rumored to have practiced black magic, and of having been possessed of a deep understanding of the wider black arts in general. He could even fly, it was noted; which would explain nicely how he was also single-highhandedly responsible for building Hadrian’s Wall.

That other there, his flanks extremely spare,
was Michael Scot, a man who certainly
knew how the game of magic fraud was played.” – Dante’s Inferno.

sir michael Scot
Tomb of Sir Michael Scot

The Heart of a King

And lastly, the heart of the Bruce is thought to have been buried in the church grounds after having been brought back from crusades, along with the bones of Sir James Douglas and the other Scottish Knights who had accompanied the latter. An excavation had subsequently unearthed a conical lead container in 1921, and which bore an engraved copper plaque that read “The enclosed leaden casket containing a heart was found beneath Chapter House floor, March 1921, by His Majesty’s Office of Works.” And so, with no other records of anyone else’s heart having been buried at Melrose Abbey, that invaluable casket, coupled with the existing legend, seem to corroborate one another in the absence of solid fact. Yet some would argue that no King should have his heart buried anywhere other than beneath the altar of a church; it is only his heart, however, which was buried there, with his earthly remains already interred within Dunfermline Abbey in a sublime marble tomb.

Bruce heart
The Bruce Heart’s Burial Marker

In The End

As mentioned above, the final attack on the Abbey came in 1545, when the Earl of Hertford bombarded the site with cannon. Hertford was carrying out the orders of Henry VIII of England, who had wanted Queen Mary to marry his son, Prince Edward, and thus secure himself sovereignty over the Scots. After that fateful attack had taken its toll, the Abbey, now crippled, was never again rebuilt to its former beauty. A fat, petulant tyrant destroying something more beautiful, precious, and worthwhile than anything his ilk could ever hope to conceive, and all on a whim.

If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright. Go visit it by the pale moonlight-‘ Sir Walter Scott: Melrose Abbey.

Melrose Abbey engraving of interior view of west window with figures. Titled ' Melrose Abbey. Drawn by D. Roberts, engraved by T. Jeavons.'
Melrose Abbey engraving of interior view of west window with figures. Titled: ‘ Melrose Abbey. Drawn by D. Roberts, engraved by T. Jeavons.’

Thankfully, having outlived the tyrant who would have reduced it to a pile of rubble; and whilst his bones turn to dust in his grave; Melrose yet stands, and continues to inspire.

Cinead MacAlpin.