10 Jun 2010

Melrose Abbey: Carving out a sense of seclusion

Walking along the street towards Melrose Abbey, you can see hints of it over the wall, glimpses of stone through the tree branches. To enter the grounds you must venture through the ticket office, and it is not until you have paid your fare that you can step into the sanctuary and stand before the remnants of the Cistercian monks' “architecture of solitude.”

This is a wonderful moment.

You are greeted by a collection of high rose-stoned arches, mouths on the verge of saying something but frozen before the words can spill. Your own mouth automatically opens in response, emitting one of those little gasps that needs no further explanation. With that, a silent understanding passes between you and this ancient place.
The foundations were first laid for the abbey in 1136 and after 200 years of relative peace it took its first thorough beating by Edward II’s army in 1322. Robert the Bruce supported the abbey’s repair, and it is here that The Bruce’s heart is buried, while his body lies in Dunfermline.

If you have been to other parts of Scotland and seen the magnificent statues dedicated to the man, looking down at the small round plinth that marks the place where his heart now lies is a strangely moving experience.
If you are lucky you will see the abbey on a morning that still has some mist left to burn, as it will be easier to imagine the “white monks” as they were called, moving through the grounds and beneath the high ceilings, their rough undyed woolen habits chafing against cold skin (for they wore nothing else underneath those coarse garments).

With so many hours of the day dedicated to religious discipline, the only way the monks could maintain their order was to include men who could shoulder the bulk of the manual labour. For their efforts the lay brothers were allowed privileges such as more sleep and extra food. When you think of a life that included having to get up “when sleep is sweetest,”* those extra hours of rest (even on a hard, uncomfortable mat) would have been welcome indeed.

However for an order that was dedicated to work and poverty, it is curious to read how the abbey also became one of the most wealthy in the country, thus attracting the wrath of the English during wartime.

When Richard II’s army stormed the Scottish Borders in 1385, they destroyed the abbey. Content with the idea that the people of Scotland’s border country had been well and truly subdued, Richard then turned around and financially supported the abbey’s rebuilding.
Using the warm pinkish sandstone quarried from the nearby Eildon Hills (I think of this tone as “sun burn chic"), the abbey slowly emerged into a medieval masterpiece, its exterior pin cushioned with the kind of extravagant carving that still awes people today.

The guidebook says that the most popular carving is one of a pig playing the bagpipes, but if you are a lover of gargoyles, you would likely rather stand beneath these open-mouthed beauties and wish for a thunderstorm.
After your feet have crunched over the loose gravel below, one dizzying step at a time over worn stone steps will find you high up the bell tower, where the view over the surrounding countryside is nothing short of wondrous.
In 1544 during the War of Rough Wooing, the English set fire to the abbey again, and despite repeated attempts to draw support to return the abbey to its former glory, it was left to crumble. The remaining monks’ numbers slowly withered and the last monk died in 1590.

Not surprisingly, Melrose Abbey is one of the most visited sites in the Scottish Borders. Tour buses can start arriving shortly after opening, so once again an early start it recommended if you wish to capture for yourself some precious pieces of solitude that a brotherhood of monks once tried to render in stone.
*Quote from Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx (1147-67): “Our food is scanty, our garments rough; our drink is from the stream and our sleep is often upon our book. Under our tired limbs there is but a hard mat; when sleep is sweetest we must rise at bell’s bidding…Self will has no place; there is no moment for idleness or dissipation…everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world.”

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