I’d stopped off for a bite of lunch in the Scottish Border town of Melrose. It was a cloudy, cool day, and as I warmed up over some homemade tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, the Appalachian sounds of Dolly Parton’s voice drifted through the small tea shop. I can’t quite remember the particular song, but it must have been part of a compilation of her greatest hits as more songs followed. Not exactly the music I thought I’d hear in Scotland, but it seemed to work for some reason.
I finished up my lunch and headed to the counter to pay, still not noticing the sign that very plainly stated that credit cards were only accepted on purchases of ten pounds or more. Even in the pricey UK, my spartan lunch didn’t make that threshold, so I found myself in a stare down with the young man behind the counter who very politely informed me there was an ATM just down the street.
Thinking I’d make things simpler and secure a snack for later, I asked him to just add in a scone, thinking this would get me to the payment threshold. Two scones later, I finally was able to pay and proceeded out of the tea shop with two fresh scones wrapped in a napkin (even at ten pounds, you don’t get a bag apparently). Problem solved and now I was off across the street to the magnificent ruins before me.
Melrose itself is a tiny border town, but the abbey at its heart is massive, even in ruin. Entering the abbey grounds, I couldn’t help but be thankful for the gloomy, moody weather because it served as the perfect backdrop for my visit. Nearby in the 7th century, monks from Iona originally founded Meilros – predecessor of Melrose. The current site has been home to an abbey since the 12th century.
Being in the borderlands between England and Scotland, you are always at the mercy of marauding armies from England. As a result, the first structure was destroyed in the 14th century. This was replaced by a new Gothic structure that survived for over two hundred years and is the core of the abbey in ruin today. By the time Henry VIII’s torches arrived in the 16th century, the abbey had established itself. Innovative farming techniques and a successful wool trade had allowed the abbey to expand to housing 130 monks. It became a victim of Henry’s “rough wooing” of Mary, Queen of Scots and was mostly destroyed. A visit by Oliver Cromwell about a hundred years later, finished off the abbey and left it permanently in ruins.
Walking down what is left of the main aisle, which once ran almost the full length of an American football field, I looked above at the soaring arches and tried to imagine what must have been. In places, broken arches are separated by the sky, longingly reaching for each other in what is destined to be a fruitless effort. Skeletal windows soar above, fifty feet in some cases, providing the perfect frame for the green hills beyond, as they no longer hold panes. Remnants of the massive stone columns that once held the ceiling aloft, now reach towards the heavens, their purpose lost to waves of senseless destruction.
Over five hundred souls lie at rest in and around the abbey. Among them are kings of Scotland, bishops, dukes, earls, chamberlains, the inventor of the kaleidoscope and perhaps even a wizard. Some even believe an actual vampire is buried here as well. Known as the Hunderprest (“Dog Priest”), he was apparently a chaplain to a local lady in the 12th century who took a liking to all kinds of sin and vice. He received his nickname because of his propensity to race around the countryside on horseback, hunting with a pack of dogs. After his death, it is said it took an exorcism to rid the town of his maniacal presence. The story has been told and retold over the centuries, most likely to dissuade any thoughts of straying from the faith.
Perhaps the most famous resident isn’t a person at all, but a shriveled relic in a silver casket. Upon his death, King Robert the Bruce, regretted that he never made it to the Holy Land. As a result, he asked that his heart be removed and taken on crusade. Evidence exists that his men took him at his word. Removing his heart and placing it in a silver casket, Sir James Douglas wore the casket around his neck on his journey east. Unfortunately he never made it further than Spain, where he was ambushed. As the enemy bore down, Douglas supposedly ran into battle with the heart out in front of him, yelling: “Lead on brave heart, I’ll follow thee!” Douglas was cut down but luckily, another knight, Sir Simon Locard, survived and returned to Scotland with the heart. It was interred at Melrose per the Bruce’s instructions.
Although most of the original monastic buildings are now in ruin, remnants of their outline are preserved all around the grounds. They give a good idea of how expansive this site was during its prime. Sitting on a bench in the middle of the ruins is very quiet these days, especially when rain threatens and the crowds stay away. It is hard to believe how alive it must have been once – back when the monks bustled around in their white habits, tending to their crops and daily devotions. The town clustered near the abbey’s south entrance full of people. Horses hooves tramping across muddy roads, snorting as they pass by. Light and the promise of warmth emitting from a tavern as the door opens to admit weary travelers.
The earthly smell of the surrounding countryside fills my nose and I am lost in the past until the sound of a passing car brings me back to the present. I stand, gather my things, and head for the exit, but not without one last look over my shoulder. Graceful even in ruin, Melrose sits…waiting for the next traveler to stop, just as it has for hundreds of years.
The comfort in that notion makes me smile as I turn and continue on my way.
All photos by the author.