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    March 2019
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    Melrose Abbey: an Architectural Gem in the Scottish Borders

    Melrose Abbey © 2006 Scotiana

    Melrose Abbey is a religious, historical and architectural landmark in Scotland, one you must not miss when you visit the Scottish Borders, together with the three other very beautiful  Border abbeys : Dryburgh, Jedburgh and Kelso. They are in ruins but we love them all,  especially Melrose and Dryburgh where Sir Walter Scott is buried with other members of his family. The town of Melrose is situated at the foot of the Eildon Hills, in the heart of Sir Walter Scott’s country, not far from Abbotsford, Selkirk and of course the famous Scott’s View from where you can get a splendid panoramic view of the local landscape, with the Eildon Hills in the background.  ‘Melrose’  means ‘the bare peninsula’  and it refers to the original site of a former monastery founded, as recorded by the Venerable Bede,  by Saint Aidan in the 7th century, about two miles of Melrose Abbey, in a bend of the river Tweed.

    Turner Melrose Abbey: Moonlight water-colour commissioned c 1822 by Walter Fawkes to illustrate poems by Walter Scott

    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!

    (Walter Scott – The Lay of the Last Minstrel – Canto II – I)

    No wonder Walter Scott loved Melrose Abbey so much.  Here, amidst its beautiful ruins, he used to come and sit meditating, drawing inspiration from the romantic atmosphere of the place. We visited the Abbey several times, which gave us the opportunity to know it better and to feel how its atmosphere can change dramatically under different skies.

    Melrose Abbey © 2000 Scotiana

    They sate them down on a marble stone,
    (A Scottish monarch slept below;)

    (Walter Scott – The Lay of the Last Minstrel – Canto II 12)

    Under a blue skye, as a moving testimony to its past splendour, the old Abbey proudly stand with its pinky tones, amidst very ancient graves scattered all over a thick carpet of green grass.  Light and shade create effects like in a theatre. Here, a ray of sunlight suddenly falls on a name, there it reveals a carving, a statue, or the delicacy of the stone tracery.

    The view will be quite different if you find yourself on the north side of the Abbey walking among the ruins of the two cloisters or on the south side where, while wandering among the graves, you can admire what remains of the magnificent south transept, with its gothic window ornamented with very fine stone tracery.

    If you don’t fear heights, you can climb up to the top of the abbey, not only to see things from above and have a panoramic view of the whole area but also to have a closer look at the many statues, gargoyles and carvings which can hardly be seen from the ground.

    Melrose Abbey roof "pig playing bagpipes" carving © 2006 Scotiana

    Some of them are very intriguing like that of a green man which reminded us of those seen at the Rosslyn Chapel or quite incongruous and comical like that of a pig playing… bagpipes! We’ve been said it was playing bagpipes, for with only what is left of the instrument we would not have guessed!

    Melrose Abbey © 2006 Scotiana

    When the weather is bad it is very chilly here and you quicken your pace through the dark and empty buildings of the abbey, looking for improbable shelters and losing yourself in the gloomy stone labyrinth while the wind, like a malicious spirit, roams about the place, blowing from empty gothic windows to dilapidated arcades and round massive pillars, while its lamenting voice seems to be carrying echoes of the past and the rain is gurgling down through the gaping mouths of grimacing gargoyles.

    Melrose Abbey © 2006 Scotiana

    As you can’t expect to find any comfort in the gloomy churchyard you’d better hurry to the nearby Abbey’s shop where you can  enjoy a hot cup of tea or coffee while looking at the books and souvenirs displayed there or, still better, to the Commendator’s House which serves as a museum. You’ll probably be drenched to the skin before reaching it for you’ll have to walk across the soaked grass carpet of the great cloister, the foundations of the monks’ ruined kitchen and refectory and another big field where you can admire, under the rain 😉 the monastery ingenious drain system.

    Melrose Abbey Museum © 2006 Scotiana

    The museum is well worth a visit for it is full of very interesting objects found on the site of the old abbey. Thanks to the genial work of Historic Scotland* they are given a second life here. Each object displayed is very well documented and replaced in its original context. Thanks to a number of lively figurines we learn how the monks lived here. Quite fascinating! Melrose Abbey is full of history and mystery…

    In one of my favourite old books, The Glory of Scotland by J.J. Bell, a Scottish author and journalist,  I’ve found a very interesting page about Melrose Abbey history.  So, let us read it :

    Sir Walter Scott, as plain ‘Mister,’ was a sheriff of the Shire  [Selkirkshire] – a monument to his memory stands in front of the Court House – but his heart was over at Melrose, and we are going there now, a short run through lovely country. The name suggests a fragrance, though it probably means ‘blunt’ or ‘bare promontory.’ Centuries before the noble Abbey was even a thought, there was a little monastery two miles east of the site. Founded by St Aidan, it stood on a peninsula in the Tweed, and was called Melrose. So fair is this situation that when the Wordsworths were there, in 1803, Dorothy wished the famous ruins might have been transported thither. When in 1136 David I founded a new abbey at Little Fordell, he transferred to it the old name from the peninsular monastery, then extinct, and so Little Fordell became Melrose. Yet the ruins we see to-day are not those of David’s abbey, which, thanks to invaders from the South, was in fragments by 1300; they are those of a reconstructed abbey begun in 1326, under the practical encouragement of King Robert the Bruce. One must admire the spirit of the old monks, as well as that of the fighting men. Like people living in an earthquake area, while yet they wept over the wreckage of their homes they were planning to raise new and finer ones in the same perilous places. But earthquakes could hardly have done more damage than, for example, the Earl of Hertford in 1545. Within a fortnight his armies in the Borders destroyed four abbeys, sixteen castles and towers, five market towns, and 243 villages. It was then that Melrose suffered for the last time. Generals Evers and Layton burned it. There is an ironic end to their story. The day after the burning, their army was badly beaten on Ancrum Moor, a few miles away, and both were slain. And, a little later, their bodies found Christian burial at the Abbey, under its still warm walls.
    Constructed in the decorated and perpendicular styles of Gothic, the Abbey in its good days must have been a glorious spectacle. Even its remnant gives the impression not only of rich magnificence, but of delicate grace. We can still form pictures of its pristine splendour from an inspection of the nave, choir, transepts, cloisters, and chapter house; of its infinite beauty from the sculptured figures, canopies, and pinnacles of the buttresses, and the exquisite traceries of the windows. It is no wonder that every year thousands of people come to look at Melrose Abbey, the most precious jewel of the Borders; no wonder that Scott, who loved its every gleam and gloom, was inspired to tell the world about it. I have doubt as to whether ‘poetical quotations’ are welcome in a book like this, but so illuminating are these lines of Scott’s that I am asking you to read them – slowly :

    Through slender shafts of shapely stone,
    By foliaged tracery combined;
    Thou wouldst have thought some fairy’s hand
    ‘Twixt poplars straight the ozier wand,
    In many a freakish know, had twined;
    Then framed a spell, when the work was done,
    And changed the willow-wreaths to stone.

    That is the wonder of Melrose Abbey in a thought.

    (The Glory of Scotland – J.J. Bell – 1932)

    Melrose Abbey Historic Scotland Museum French Mason John Morrow figurine © 2006 Scotiana

    As I’m always eager to discover new links between Scotland and France, I was particularly happy to discover that a French mason had contributed to the building of Melrose Abbey and that he had even designed one of the most beautiful parts of the Abbey, the magnificent south transept. His name is John Morrow and I’ve learned that he had also contributed  to much building work throughout southern Scotland at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries. In the museum, a stone carved head of a bearded man is supposed to be a self-portrait of the mason.  By way of signature, John Morrow also left  a quotation engraved on a stone  in gothic letters. The original stone, which is displayed in the museum, has badly weathered and is hardly readable but there is a beautiful facsimile of it in the abbey church. It reads : ‘John Morrow sometimes called was I and born in Paris certainly and had in keeping all the mason work of St Andrews, the High Kirk of Glasgow, Melrose and Paisley, of Nithsdale and Galloway. I pray to God and Mary both and sweet St John to keep this holy church from harm’ – has he prayed loud enough, I wonder ! –  the quotation ends beautifully on these words: ‘As the compass goes evenly about, so truth and loyalty shall do without doubt.’

    Melrose Abbey Historic Scotland Museum French mason John Morrow's quotation © 2006 Scotiana

    We could not leave Melrose Abbey without a little pilgrimage to a most sacred place … the place where a leaden casket supposed to be containing King Robert the  Bruce’s heart has been interred in 1997, or I should say ‘re-interred’ for it had already been here for a long time.

    The King’s body is buried (without his heart) at Dumfermline Abbey. The abbey is grandiose and the tomb sumptuous there but here, at Melrose, there is only a simple carved stone to commemorate Robert I with, on it, a motto (from the Bruce)  which reads: “A noble hart may have nane ease gif freedom failye”.

    Melrose Abbey Robert Bruce's Heart casket © 2006 Scotiana

    In 2000 and 2001, when we visited Melrose Abbey the weather was very fine and in 2006 it was rainy and  wintry. How we’d like to visit Melrose in winter now, just to experience such feelings as described by H. V. Morton at the very  end of his second book In Scotland Again (1933) : ‘Never shall I forget those frosty morning walks, the red sunrise over Melrose, the headstones rising from white grass, the sharp morning air into which man and beast breathed a little mist of steam, and all day long from dawn until dusk the world alight, as with a million little stars, with the robin’s plaintive song.’

    Looking forward to hearing the robin’s winter song at Melrose, I wish you ‘une bonne lecture’.

    A bientôt. Mairiuna

    *Historic Scotland was created as an agency in 1991 and was attached to the Scottish Executive Education Department, which embraces all aspects of the cultural heritage, in May 1999. As part of the Scottish Government, Historic Scotland is directly accountable to the Scottish Ministers for safeguarding the nation’s built heritage, and promoting its understanding and enjoyment.

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    1 comment to Melrose Abbey: an Architectural Gem in the Scottish Borders

    • Hope Glidden

      Dear Allie, not sure if I did this correctly or not, When You go to Scotland,and I know You will…….You must see Melrose Abbey……John MORROW designed it… Great & Your Great Great Uncle George Morrow was a Magician & a (Mason)…….. If I live long enough I MUST go there……Aunt Hope…

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