Researching Today: Melrose Abbey

As I research a sequence of hiking scenes today, I find myself in the midst of some of Scotland's great and picturesque medieval ruins.
Castle Campbell
There's Castle Campbell, high in the Ochil Hills between the Burn of Care and the Burn of Sorrow, and once called Castle Gloom. How much more evocative can you get? If you have ten minutes, take a virtual walk through Dollar Glen and up to the castle now!

There is simply no choice but to write a scene--any scene!--in such a setting! Whether that will be today, I don't know, because there are so many wonderful sites that might work better for the underlying themes in the scene.

I moved on to abbeys, in particular, those along the "Four Abbeys Cycle Route," a ride I fully intend to make some day. There's Jedburgh, in the haunts of the great James Douglas, Bruce's close friend and loyal knight. It's tempting to set a scene here, as Douglas appears in Book 2 of the Trilogy. There's Dryburgh, secluded on ten acres in a loop of the River Tweed, and Kelso, known as one of the grandest.

But for sheer picturesque beauty and mystique, Melrose stands out. It is no wonder it has been lauded by several poets, including Walter Scott, in The Lay of the Last Minstrel:

If thou would'st view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight;

For the gay beams of lightsome day
Gild, but to flout, the ruins grey.
When the broken arches are black in night,

And each shafted oriel glimmers white;
When the cold light's uncertain shower
Streams on the ruin'd central tower;
When buttress and buttress, alternately,

Seem framed of ebon and ivory;
When silver edges the imagery,
And the scrolls that teach thee to live and die;
When distant Tweed is heard to rave,
And the owlet to hoot o'er the dead man's grave,

Then go--but go alone the while--
Then view St. David's ruin'd pile;
And, home returning, soothly swear,
Was never scene so sad and fair!

and further in the poem:

Spreading herbs, and flowerets bright,

Glisten'd with the dew of night;
Nor herb, nor floweret, glisten'd there,
But was carved in the cloister-arches as fair.

The monk gazed long on the lovely moon,
Then into the night he looked forth;
And red and bright the streamers light
Were dancing in the glowing north.

Melrose is widely considered the most beautiful of religious houses in all of the United Kingdom, noted particularly for its Gothic architecture and its many detailed carvings of saints, gargoyles, plants, and dragons. Notable among the sculptures is the bagpipe playing pig.

Like all ancient churches, it is built in the shape of a cross, facing east and west. It features 50 windows, more than 50 buttresses, and a number of side chapels, many containing tombs. On one of its stairways, is carved the motto of the town of Melrose: "Be halde to ye hende." Meaning, Keep in mind, the end, your salvation.

At the request of David I of Scotland, so renowned for his piety that he was sometimes called St. David, the Cistercian monks founded this beautiful abbey in 1136. They selected the site, two miles west of a former monastery on the River Tweed, preferring the better farm there, over the site of the former monastery. Early records, recorded in the Melrose Chronicle, show grants of land to the abbey by Roger de Skelbrooke of Grennan, about 1193; and grants of Maybole and Beath to the Abbey by Duncan, Earl of Carrick. Other lands came from Raderic mac Gillescop and his wife Christina (daughter of Roger de Skelbrooke), and from Walter Campania in the mid-1200's.

The town of Melrose grew up around the abbey. Through the years, the English attacked both town and abbey. In 1322, 8 years after the Blue Bells Trilogy begins, Edward II destroyed much of the abbey. Robert the Bruce rebuilt. Richard II attacked in 1384, while driving Robert II of Scotland and his army back to Edinburgh. It took more than a hundred years to rebuild, and in fact was still not finished in 1504 when James IV visited.

Barely completed, it was once again attacked by Sir Ralph Evers during the "Rough Wooing" of 1544, in which Henry VIII demanded, rather forcefully, the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, as his son's bride. The English, this time, vented special rage upon the tombs of the Douglases, some of whom are buried there. The following year, in 1545, the English were back, under the Earl of Hertford, to wreak more damage.

Melrose Abbey was never completely repaired after this, and it declined as a working monastery. Its last abbot died in 1559, and its last monk some 31 years later in 1590. Not quite content, the English assaulted one last time, under Oliver Cromwell, in the mid-1600's.

Although it was disestablished in 1609, it was partially re-roofed and continued, even in its semi-ruined state, to be used as a parish church from 1618 until 1810. For years, nearby residents used the church as a quarry to build their own homes, further destroying its former grandeur.

Bruce's Association with Melrose

The Bruce seems to have had a place in his heart for Melrose. (A little historical humor, as there is now a place in Melrose for his heart, but I suppose one logically follows from the other.) On March 11, 1302, the 27-year-old Bruce wrote to 'the anxious monks of Melrose Abbey' that, despite being called to his Carrick army in previous years, he was now 'troubled in conscience' and thus promised never again to do so, 'unless the common army of the whole realm is raised for its defense.' (An echo, perhaps, of his own father granting certain freedoms to the men of Melrose Abbey in 1285?)

Around March of 1309, he made a royal grant of the lands of Eksdale to the abbey.

In 1316, in the wake of his success against the English at Bannockburn, Bruce maintained especially close ties to Melrose Abbey. He signed a charter there on June 8 of that year; 20 days later, from Kilwinning, he granted letters patent to Melrose. On October 6, it was the Abbot of Melrose who was given safe-conduct to England, presumably to deliver Bruce's own guarantees of safe-conduct for English negotiators to come north. Those negotiators arrived at Jedburgh on November 21, and on that same day, once again from Melrose, Bruce signed a writ to James Douglas.

In 1322, Edward II pushed all the way to the gates of Edinburgh. However, frustrated at the Scots' harassment of his army (imagine that!), he retreated, attacking Scottish abbeys on the way. The men of Melrose fought back, resulting in the English killing Melrose's Prior William Peebles and three invalids (what a glorious victory) and going on to descrate, loot and seriously damage the abbey.

In January 1326, Bruce granted the abbey a hundred pounds per year to serve each monk "The King's Dish" each day, a supplement to the standard rations. The money was to come from Berwick, Edinburgh, and Haddington; James Douglas was charged with enforcing the payment, and as soon as August, had to do so, threatening the sheriff of Berwick with a 10 pound fine. Several months later, Bruce gave 2,000 sterling, the equivalent of $50,000 today, to Melrose for repairs. Those repairs are credited with making the abbey so particularly beautiful, as Gothic architecture was at that time at its height.

In his last written requests as he lay dying at Cardross, on May 13, 1329, Bruce asked that his heart be buried at Melrose Abbey. Does his request have anything to do with the fact that his own father was buried at Holm Coultram, a daughter house of Melrose, in England? After Bruce's death, as per another request, Bruce's heart made a brief trip to Spain to fight the Crusades, embalmed in a silver casket. On its return, it was buried at Melrose as requested.

The abbey became the burial place of many important figures. An 1890 guidebookto Melrose Abbey, by J. Wass, lists William Douglas, "The Dark Knight of Liddesdale," and hero of Otterburn and Chevy Chase and many of his descendants; Alexander II and his queen Johanna; many of the Karr family; and the heart of Robert the Bruce, on its recovery from the Crusades, to which James Douglas carried it.

Among the most interesting stories of the dead at Melrose Abbey is that of Michael Scot, "The Scottish Wizard." His life straddled the 12th and 13th Centuries, and some believe he retired in old age to Melrose, and is buried there. claims this is authenticated, while other sites call it conjecture and put forth other places as his retirement and burial. Nonetheless, it is said that in 1812, roughly 600 years after his death, his stone coffin was found in the aisle of Melrose's south chancel.

Got Ghosts?

Like all good ruins, Melrose is home to a few ethereal presences. Michael Scott is reputed to be one of them. Many people report a chill in the air near his grave. A group of ghostly monks likes to walk the grounds, while another, unnamed figure 'slides' through the ruins like a snake, close to the ground.
A fourth story tells of a vampire. gives a fairly detailed account, calling this an 'actual vampire,' and reporting that the case was chronicled by William of Newburgh, author of Historia rerum Anglicarum, in the 1100's. It is worth noting that William of Newburgh comes down through history with the reputation of a 'careful historian,' and that he reports his case on the authority of 'reputable' clerics who experienced the events firsthand. The story is also recounted in Stories of the Border Marches, by John Lang.

These reputable clerics tell of a priest of Melrose who neglected his vows for frivolous activity. Other sources state more forcefully that he was given to all manner of sin and vices, and called Hundeprest, Dog Priest, for his love of hunting on horseback with a pack of hounds at his heels. On his death, he rose from his grave and made several attempts at entering the cloister. Failing this, he wandered the countryside, entering the home of a woman to whom he had been chaplain. Apparently not caring for her dead chaplain's nighttime visits, she reported him to the abbey.

Several of the monks sat watch by his grave. Most of them went to warm themselves by a fire, leaving only one witness to the nightly rising. This monk struck the dead--or not so dead--with a battle axe and forced him back into the grave. When the other monks returned, the earth appeared undisturbed. They dug up the corpse to find it marked with the wounds of a battle axe, in accord with the monk's story, and the coffin full of blood. They burned the body and scattered the ashes over the Lammermuir Hills, but the story of the undead priest, and many say his presence, too, remain at Melrose.

The rumors of vampirism and other crimes are often linked back either to Michael Scott or to the delinquent priest, and the sliding presence is said to possibly be a manifestation of the evil spirits left behind by one or the other of them.


Melrose Abbey stands today as a top attraction in the Borders region of Scotland, including the ruins, the old cemetery, and the Commendator’s House Museum, containing a variety of medieval objects. If you're interested in learning more about it, there is a fascinating and detailed guidebook from the 1800's available online.

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