18 Oct 2010

The broken splendour of Arbroath Abbey

Arbroath Abbey is a field of massive stone shards, rusted dominos that rest together like old men who have known each other for more years than any of them can remember.

At one time the abbey was one of the most impressive buildings in medieval Scotland, 90 metres long with a trio of towers meant to inspire awe and reverence.

Today the grave of the abbey’s founder, William the Lion, lies exposed among the ruins of the nave, the carved words “King of Scots” flecked with fresh grass clippings.
But the gaze will always be drawn towards what it finds most beautiful, stopping there to help the imagination rebuild what time has torn away.

At Arbroath it is what the locals call “The Round O,” a large circular window in the gable of the south transept. At one time light would have poured through stained glass, and even today the afternoon sun seems to target the orb, producing a lighthouse-like glow through the empty eye.
For those with a love of doors, you may stare longingly at the one on the other side of the south transept.

With its hinges and handle still intact but its stairway long gone, this door in the sky looks like something from a fairy tale.

If we could just climb up to open it, perhaps a mysterious rush would fill our ears and we would find ourselves in 1233, listening to the murmured echoes of the monks preparing for services in the sacristy.
The sacristy is the only part of the church which remains roofed. It is closed to the public, but it is said to have some of the best acoustics of any building in Scotland.

The guest house and the abbot’s house are squat and sturdy, having survived much of the deterioration suffered by the bulk of the abbey.

Inside the guest house is a copy of the Declaration of Arbroath, when the Pope was asked in 1320 to recognize Scotland’s independence from England and to acknowledge Robert the Bruce as the King of Scotland.

Push a button on an interactive exhibition and a sombre voice will fill the room with readings from the famous document.
“As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

A short repose in the graveyard is necessary before any visit to the abbey can be considered complete.

Tall trees nestle against high stone walls, buffering external noise and filtering in a sweeping calm through the gravestones. Walk the rows searching for names and dates, tributes to lost love or the stamp-like skull and crossbones that seems to say “death was here.”
One special gravestone has been taken inside the abbey’s modern visitor centre, where it is protected from the elements and perched on a wall at eye level. On the left, an old woman leaning on her stick, and on the right, Death holding an arrow or “sting.” (1 Corinthians 15:55 “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”)
Even in the bright sunlight, no church or abbey that I have visited has made me feel as sad as Arbroath. Only because I know how beautiful it would have been, once upon a time.

I yearned for the walls to reappear, to grow out of the ground, perfectly carved stones clicking together. I wanted to see long shadows forming over the gravestone slab of William the Lion, blanketing him in cool calm, an offer of long, nourishing rest.

However a gentle smile reappears when I cast my mind back to the Round O and the strange trick of the light through its invisible lens. Glowing hot and vibrant as it always has, as if it has never realized it is broken.

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