Melrose Abbey: Breathtaking Ruins in the Scottish Borders

There are some places that I’ve visited that have left me breathless. Yosemite Valley, full of nature and overwhelming beauty. San Juan Island, with the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve ever seen. New York City, full of life and vitality that you can’t find anywhere else… Melrose Abbey is in a league of its own. Upon first glance, I was completely awestruck by the power of the building it once was. Although now in ruins, it’s still absolutely captivating. As I explored further, I fell completely under the spell of this once magnificent building.

We have started venturing outside of the city whenever the opportunity arises. A few days ago we chose to go on a day trip to the Scottish borders, an area we otherwise would have probably skipped over on our way through to London at the end of our stay. We came here with plans to venture into the Highlands, but with none to really go south. I’m so glad we changed our minds! The borders are gorgeous, full of history and such a wonderful place to visit. We chose to go with Heart of Scotland Tours for this day-trip, and our tour guide John was the most fabulous guide we’ve ever had. He was warm, witty and absolutely charming. I could have followed him anywhere, but since this was just a day tour we sadly had to part ways with him at the end of the day.

You might be asking yourself, “Self, why should I take the time to leave Edinburgh and venture all the way down to Melrose?” Well, I’m here to tell you all the reasons (if the pictures don’t speak for themselves).

Melrose Abbey Front
Your first view of Melrose Abbey as you walk through the entrance center.
Melrose Abbey
The aisle chapels.
Melrose Sandstone
The gorgeous colors of sandstone rocks.

Melrose Abbey is Absolutely Steeped in History

Building of Melrose Abbey began in Roxburghshire in the year 1136 at the request of David I of Scotland. He encouraged the monks from Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire to found the first Cistercian abbey, and subsequent mother church of the order, in Scotland. Part of the abbey was completed by 1146 with the remaining buildings and areas finished over the next 50 years. The abbey, the religious heart of the monk’s community, is a Gothic building that takes the shape of St. John’s cross. A rather imposing building, it contains many impressive windows, including the principal window at the front of the church measuring 57 feet high and 28 feet wide.

Melrose Front Window
From this angle, you can almost get a sense of how large the front window was.
Ceiling Shot
The ceiling of the front of the Chapel. I almost got a crick in my neck from looking at it too long. (Thanks to Ryan for this gorgeous photo!)
Hallway ceiling
Looking up at the ceilings, you suddenly feel quite small.

It was the First Place in Scotland to House Cistercian Monks

The Cistercian Order of monks was founded near Dijon, France in 1098. Their founding fathers, led by St. Robert of Molesme, were dissatisfied with the casual following of the Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict, a book of precepts written by Benedict of Nursia, can be summed up in the motto of pax (peace) and ora et labora (pray and work). The Cistercian monks wished to lead a life strictly following the Rule, full of poverty, manual labor and contemplation. Also known as “White Monks”, they led a simple life full of prayer and hard work in their undyed woolen robes. Their daily activities were highly ritualized; starting at 2am and ending at 8pm, prayers were woven into the daily fabric of life, such as meal times and daily tasks.

The monks at Melrose are well-known for one of the most famous medieval texts, the Melrose Chronicle. Completed by a series of monks, this two-part book contains national and international events as well as monastery events that occurred from 735 – 1270. It is now housed in the British Museum.

Melrose Church
A hall inside the church. Look at the details of the arches!
Melrose Hall Look 2
Another look at the church halls.

Destruction, Intrigue and Famous Burials

Melrose Village
Melrose Village, as view from the top of the church tower.
Melrose Bell
Worn steps leading to a bell. Imagine how many times someone has walked up those steps to ring it!
Melrose Interior from Tower
Looking down on Melrose from the top of the church tower.

Melrose Abbey was built on one of the main roads leading north to Edinburgh, thus making it vulnerable to attacks. Destruction started in 1322, when the town of was attacked and the abbey destroyed by an army under Edward II. After being rebuilt by Robert the Bruce, the abbey was burned by Richard II of England’s army in 1385. The abbey was rebuilt once again over a period of about 100 years.  In 1544, English armies roamed across Scotland in the period known as the “Rough Wooing”. Melrose Abbey was again badly damaged, only this time it was never fully repaired. The damage as well as the Protestant Reformation led to its end as a working monastery. Today it is maintained by Historic Scotland, and visitors can pay a few pounds to enter the grounds and enjoy the abbey for themselves.

There are many Scottish kings and noblemen, including Alexander II, buried at Melrose Abbey. However the most famous inhabitant isn’t a body, but rather a heart. The heart of Robert the Bruce is rumored to lie in Melrose Abbey, while the rest of his body was buried at Dunfermline Abbey. Archaeologists discovered the heart in 1920 but reburied it, not marking the grave. Once again unearthed in 1996, scientists studied it and confirmed it was human tissue and the right vintage for Robert the Bruce. It was once again laid to rest in 1998, following the original wishes of King Robert.

Melrose Abbey
Looking at the Abbey from the burial grounds.
Melrose Abbey Cloister View
Viewing the Abbey from the Cloister side.

A Relaxing Respite

We were lucky enough to spend about an hour exploring the grounds and enjoying our picnic lunch on the grounds. We had a good wander: marveling at the ceilings, contemplating the cemeteries and hiking up the stairs to the very top of the remaining tower to check out the views of the surrounding town. There was a sense of calm about the entire place, which I think was left over from the monks who had called this place home for so long. I felt at peace, as if I could sit and think about nothing for hours. I can’t think of the last time I felt so relaxed.

There were plenty of people walking around with the audio tour, but we didn’t feel the need to join in. There were plenty of signs around the property which gave us all of the background information we craved; we spent the rest of the time just consuming what we could with our eyes and cameras. I’ve never been around a building that had such a presence and I wish I could convey that with words.

Think back to the last time you were surrounded by so much beauty that you just couldn’t take it, or the last time you felt so small in the presence of something (or someplace). Do you remember? I’d love to hear about it! I’ll be back later in the week with another stop on our tour, Roslin Chapel!


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  1. I do remember! It was also an abbey. Tinturn Abbey in Wales! And just like you, I found myself wondering the grandeur of the place when it belonged in its place in history.

    I’m so glad to read you got a crick in your neck! Haha. The ceilings of those ruins are wonders to behold!

    Loved this post.

    Living vicariously through you,

    1. Looking at pictures for Tinturn Abbey online, I can only say WOW. It looks so beautiful! They just don’t make them like that anymore. I hope you took a ton of photos to remember it by. As for the crick in my neck… It still aches a bit 😉

      I’m SO glad you are enjoying the posts!

  2. Oh my! This and your Craigmillar Castle post are so cool! I love the pictures. They’re huge castles! I don’t remember the last time I felt really small like this but I know I felt small when I went to the Redwoods in CA. And in a less dramatic way, I feel small when I go downtown and look up at the tall buildings that have been there for years. 🙂

    1. Oh the Redwoods!! Just seeing them from a distance is enough to make you feel small, let along standing next to one. And when you get to a grove full of them, oh man. I forgot how majestic they are. And don’t knock it, Seattle’s downtown is pretty big and bustling!

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