Thursday, 10 July 2014

A day out from Edinburgh: Melrose Abbey

Melrose nestles beneath the Eildon Hills, barely 20 minutes from Jedburgh and an hour from Edinburgh. It is one of the most magnificent of the Borders abbeys,

The grassy fields are grazed by large flocks of sheep, just as they were in mediaeval times. Indeed, sheep made the fortunes of Melrose Abbey as they did elsewhere. The abbey we see now was built by the Cistercians who had come here in 1136, great sheep farmers and wool merchants.

However, before the Cistercians arrived, an earlier monastery had existed a few miles away. St Aidan of Lindisfarne had settled in the seventh century bringing monks from Iona. St Cuthbert was also associated with this early monastic establishment before leaving to become prior of Lindisfarne. However this simple monastery was destroyed by the Scots. The abbey which replaced it was a far grander building.

The Cistercians had come to Melrose from Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, at the invitation of King David I. The peacefulness of the abbey's setting belies the turbulence of its history. It endured two and a half centuries of attack and counterattack as the English and Scots armies swept back and forth. Edward I, Edward II and Richard II brought their English armies and sacked the Borders abbeys. King Robert the Bruce helped to rebuild the abbey at Melrose at the beginning of the fourteenth century and instructed that his heart should be buried there, as it was in 1331.

The monks spent the next two centuries rebuilding their abbey, decorating its soaring walls and arches with beautifully detailed and witty carvings. I have added a slideshow of some of the most wonderful of these sculptures to the side pane to the right of this post.

Angels sit side by side with devils, and even, as in the carving on the right, with a bagpipe-playing pig.

Many of the windows still survive, their delicate tracery silhouetted against the sky.

Side chapels still have their elaborate priestly piscinae (hand-washing bowls). Memorials to the great families which built them extend the lengths of the walls.

Some of the multi-coloured floor tiles have been rescued and can be seen in the nearby museum.

The light must have played across the designs and warmed the rich red sandstone of the walls.

Whereas the south of the site is full of tombstones, the north still contains the remains of the cloisters and domestic buildings.

Stand back and let your gaze rise high upon the walls. There you will see precious details lovingly carved by stonemasons who may not even have minded very much whether they would ever be seen.

However, monasteries weren't otherworldly places. Cross the grass to the Commendator's House, now a museum, and you can see the down-to-earth artefacts which were part and parcel of everyday monastic life.

Here, for instance, are the monk's urinals, essential equipment in freezing dormitories, as well as their pots and pans.

Pairs of scissors and even spectacles have been rescued by archaeologists from the great drains which run across the site.

And when you have feasted your eyes on the glories which are Melrose, make your way to the town square. The small market town which grew up around the abbey and long survived it is now a pleasant place for afternoon tea, or a place to buy riding hats and jodhpurs.

It all seems a far cry from the Borders reivers, the burning of villages and the stealing of cattle. It seems even further from the monastic plainsong which once must have resonated within the bounds.Nothing could seem more peaceful.

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