“There are narrations, from which it is inferred that Dryburgh was originally a place of Druidical worship; its name is supposed to come from the Celtic ‘Darach-Bruach’ or ‘the bank of the sacred grove of oaks,’ the settlement of the Druids.” The Gentleman’s Magazine, October 1832
Some of the places I visit make me wonder whether the feeling of deep stillness existed before they were built, or whether it came about because of the devotion and serenity of the people who lived there afterwards.
Dryburgh Abbey is one of those places.
The first Christian worship at Dryburgh may have taken place around 600 AD, when a missionary called St Modan – or some of his followers – chose a loop in the River Tweed for the location of a simple church. However, no physical evidence of this has yet been found.
It was down to Hugh de Moreville in 1150 to make the next step, when he invited a group of Premonstratensian monks to settle by the river. De Moreville was a local landowner and a friend of David I; in later life he became a novice at the Abbey, and died there in 1162.
In the course of my abbey wanderings I’ve come across Augustinians, Cistercians, Culdees, Tironesians, Valliscaulians… but I’d never even heard of the Premonstratensians. The name comes from Prémontré in Northern France, which is where the order originated. The Premonstratensians are an order of white-robed canons, and by the 12th century they had six Scottish houses including Whithorn in Galloway. The monks who came to Dryburgh were from Alnwick Abbey in Northumberland.
The work of building an abbey and its attendant church was a huge and long-lasting task, and it seems to have taken the best part of a century. The result was magnificent, but unfortunately it was only about 70 years before trouble came knocking at the door.
Edward II and his Scottish campaign
In 1314 Robert the Bruce had trounced the English at Bannockburn, but in 1322 Edward II mounted a comeback and advanced across the border with a force of over 20,000 men. The Bruce outwitted him again, withdrawing his own troops further north and laying waste to the countryside in their wake, making sure that the English army either halted or starved.
His tactics worked, and the weakened soldiers began to file back across the border country. At Scottish churches and priories the order was given to ring the bells and declare the good news to the countryside… but unfortunately for Dryburgh, the command came just a little too soon. When the peals reached the offended ears of the retreating English, some of them made a swift detour and burned the abbey down.
Robert the Bruce made a generous contribution towards the abbey’s repair; but, far from being a one-off event, the attack seemed to set a precedent for future centuries. The abbey was burnt again in 1385, 1461 and 1523, meaning that it must have been in an almost continuous state of re-building. That ‘protective’ loop in the river was obviously no deterrent at all.
“Upon Friday the vii of November… Sir Geo. Bowes and his company, Sir Brian Layton and his company, Harry Ewry, Liell Gray, porter, and the garrison of Barweck; John Carre, captain of Wark, and his company, Thomas Beamond, Geo. Sowlby, Launcelot Carlton and their companies, to the number of vii hundred men, rode into Scotland, upon the water of Tweede, to a town called Drybrough, with an abbay in the same… and they burnt the same town and Abbay, savying the church… and they tarried so long at the said burnynge and spoilage, that it was Satterday at viii of the cloke at nycht or they com home.” Account by Lord Eure quoted in the Cotton Manuscripts, via The Gentleman’s Magazine, Oct 1832
If the church survived the raids it was no match for the Reformation, and by 1560 it stood in ruins. Life wasn’t quite extinct, however: records show that there were still two plucky canons in residence in 1584. Mercifully, they were allowed to continue their lives at Dryburgh in peace.
David Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan, acquired the Abbey in 1786, and dedicated much of his life to preserving the ruins. With the Victorians’ passion for Gothic romance and crumbling splendour, it isn’t hard to see why Sir Walter Scott chose Dryburgh as his last resting place. He is buried in the north transept of the church, otherwise known as St Mary’s Aisle, alongside Earl Haig of Bemersyde and members of the Haliburton family. Above this transept, in former centuries, would have been the choristers’ gallery.
The funeral of Sir Walter Scott – 26th September 1832
“It was late in the day ere we reached Dryburgh. Some accident, it was observed, had caused the hearse to halt for several minutes on the summit of the hill at Bemerside – exactly where a prospect of remarkable richness opens, and where Sir Walter had always been accustomed to rein up his horse. The day was dark and lowering, and the wind high.”
John Gibson Lockhart – Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott
At first glance the church feels strangely fragmented because parts of it have disappeared altogether, but once you have worked out where the altar was the rest falls into place. The living quarters have fared better, and it’s possible to wander in and out of the dormitory, library, cloister, warming house and refectory.
“The refectory, or great dining-room of the Monks… occupied the whole front of the Abbey facing the south: it was 100 feet long by 30 broad, and about 60 high; the two gable ends are still perfectly entire – in the west one is the beautiful radiated window, it is a complete circle, about 12 feet in diameter – it is said the small circle in the centre represents the Saviour, and the 12 spokes proceeding from the centre to the radius represent the 12 Apostles.” ‘Annals and Antiquities of Dryburgh and other places on the Tweed’ by Sir David Erskine, 1836
The Chapter House
“The cloister retains its feeling of privileged enclosure. Its highlight is the 13th century chapter house, which still has precious painted wall-plaster surviving, and a wonderful acoustic.” Historic Scotland
Of all the narrow, winding stairs I have climbed (and there have been a few), the one at Dryburgh has the best ‘surprise factor’, because it leaves you literally stranded in mid-air, protected only by an iron rail, looking dizzily down on the ruins and seemingly at arm’s length from the tops of the tall trees in the park.
“…this Abbey was repeatedly visited by the ancient Kings of Scotland; David I and James II are known to have passed many days here…”
‘Annals and Antiquities of Dryburgh and other places on the Tweed’ by Sir David Erskine
THE TREES OF DRYBURGH ABBEY
Before you even glimpse the sandstone ruins, the path through the grounds leads you past some huge trees, giants by Scottish standards at least, including a Wellingtonia and a blue-green cedar that was laden with cones. I am beginning to think that time slows down around very large and very old trees – on a warm afternoon, their coolness and shade made me feel as if I was stepping into a pool.
The Dryburgh Yew
Believed to have been planted by the monks of Dryburgh in 1136, this veteran is well on its way to being 900 years old. In 1837 its girth measured 12 feet, and in 1890 it was 14’3”; I cannot find a more recent statistic, but the tree is still in vibrant health. I always despair when I try to photograph yew trees: they seem to have no beginning and no end, no defined edges and no recognisable shape. It’s almost as if they are embracing the infinite in every possible way!
Harp of the North, farewell! The hills grow dark,
On purple peaks a deeper shade descending;
In twilight copse the glow-worm lights her spark,
The deer, half-seen, are to the covert wending.
Resume thy wizard elm! the fountain lending,
And the wild breeze, thy wilder minstrelsy;
Thy numbers sweet with nature’s vespers blending,
With distant echo from the fold and lea,
And herd-boy’s evening pipe, and hum of housing bee.
Sir Walter Scott
More information on visiting Dryburgh Abbey can be found at Historic Scotland.
- Historic Scotland
- Undiscovered Scotland
- The Heritage Trail
- The Order of Prémontré
- ‘Annals and Antiquities of Dryburgh and other places on the Tweed‘ by Sir David Erskine
- ‘Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott‘ by John Gibson Lockhart
- The Gentleman’s Magazine, Oct 1832
- The Ancient Yew Group
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf
More medieval abbeys in the Borders and south-west Scotland: