Scotland is famous for its craggy old castles and palace ruins, but some of its grandest ruins are relatively ignored by the tourist crowds. The Borders Abbeys are stunningly romantic old dames that are bathed in history and rich layers of legend as I discovered when I headed south and down through the centuries to check them out for myself.
The abbeys started to be founded during the reign of David I of Scotland. He invited a quartet of monastic orders to set up shop in the Borders, in large part to demonstrate to England that his power and kingdom stretched into the southeast of Scotland. The results were impressive as these stunning abbeys and their orders became powerful in their own right.
Once the grandest of these magnificent ecclesiastical gems, Kelso Abbey, lies in a strategic spot overlooking the confluence of the Tweed and Teviot rivers. The abbey sadly was hammered as the fighting between Scotland and England raged. Despite this I found its striking Romanesque design still shines through right in the heart of Kelso. Walking amidst the towers and transepts that were part of the unusual double-cross design I conjured up images of the mysterious Benedictine monks who once committed to spending the rest of their lives here.
Jedburgh Abbey also suffered from centuries of attacks (the most telling in 1297, when it was savaged by the English in revenge for William Wallace’s famous victory at Stirling) the abbey was pillaged and wrecked by the English as retribution. Yet again its majesty is still a reminder of King David I’s grand vision. Built on the site of an early church that dates way back to the 700s the abbey was once heavily fortified and today it still strikingly guards the approaches to Jedburgh. The visitor centre here makes it a good rainy day option with a short audiovisual tour and unusual artefacts such as the stunning ivory Jedburgh Comb, which is over a 1,000 years old.
Sir Walter Scott was a big fan of the Borders Abbeys and they inspired his work too, especially Dryburgh Abbey. Indeed the great writer lies in a surprisingly understated grave here. The abbey itself sits serenely in woodland on the banks of the River Tweed, its striking ruins providing an insight into the cloistered life of a monk. I found Dryburgh the least ostentatious of the quartet and it is still a supremely relaxed place to while away a few hours. The abbey was practically burned to the ground by English troops in 1322 and then again by Richard II’s forces in 1385.
Perhaps the grandest ruins of all are Melrose Abbey. This stunning old dame rises up between the town centre and the Tweed and it takes little imagination to appreciate its former grandeur. It is an abbey inexorably woven into Scottish history too given its Robert the Bruce connections. Perhaps Scotland’s greatest ever warrior’s heart is interred here. Spending the best part of an afternoon just soaking up its epic design and dreaming off through the centuries here was a fittingly dramatic end to a trip around a quartet of remarkable abbeys that are every bit as impressive and dramatic as Scotland’s more renowned ruined castles and palaces.