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Dryburgh Abbey

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

This edition is copyright © The Editors of the Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-2016.

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Dryburgh Abbey, a noble monastic ruin in Merton parish, SW Berwickshire, 1¼ mile E of Newtown St Boswell's station, and 4¾ miles ESE of Melrose, or 6 by way of Bemersyde Hill. It stands, 200 feet above sea-level, in the midst of a low green haugh, that, measuring 3¾ by 21/3 furlongs, is sheltered northward by a woody hill (588 feet), and on the other three sides is washed by a horseshoe bend of 'chiming Tweed,' whose right or opposite bank is steep and copse-clad-beyond it the triple Eildons (1385 feet). The haugh itself is an orchard, dedicated by 'David, Earl of Buchan, to his most excellent Parents;' and the ruins, of reddishbrown sandstone, hewn from the quarry of Dryburgh, are so overgrown with foliage that 'everywhere you behold the usurpation of nature over art. In one roofless apartment a fine spruce and holly are to be seen flourishing in the rubbish; in others, the walls are completely covered with ivy; and, even on the top of some of the. arches, trees have sprung up to a considerable growth, and, clustering with the aspiring pinnacles, add character to the Gothic pile. These aged trees on the summit of the walls are the surest records we have of the antiquity of its destruction' (Monastic Annals of Teviotdale). The site is uneven, the chapterhouse standing ten steps below, and the church ten steps above, the cloisters, which, grassy and open now, were 93 feet square. To the N of them stood the church; to the S the refectory (100 x 30 feet), with beautiful W rose-window of twelve lights; and to the E, the abbot's parlour, library (23 x 23 feet), dormitory (45 x 23 feet), chapter-house (47 x 23 feet; 20 high), St Modan's chapel or sacristy (24 x 13 feet), etc. All the conventual buildings are in the Transition style from Romanesque to First Pointed; and the most perfect of them all is the chapter-house, which still retains its barrel - vaulted roof and arched sedilia along its eastern wall, whilst a double circle on the floor marks, it is said, the founder's sepulchre. Nearly opposite this chapter-house is a goodly yew-tree, as old as, if not older than, the abbey. The church was cruciform, and comprised a six-bayed nave (98 x 55 feet), a shallow transept (75 x 20 feet) with eastern aisles, and a two-bayed choir with a presbytery beyond, in place of a lady chapel-the whole building measuring 190 feet from end to end. Transept and choir are First Pointed in style; but the nave, restored in the first half of the 14th century, is altogether Second Pointed. 'Are' and 'is,' we say, though little remains of this great monument of former piety save the nave's western gable, the gable of the S transept with its large and fine five-light window, and St Mary's Aisle-a fragment of choir and N transept, containing the tombs of the Haigs of Bemersyde, of the Erskines, and of Sir Walter and Sir Walter's kinsfolk. St Mary's Aisle, whereof wrote Alexander Smith, that 'when the swollen Tweed raves as it sweeps, red and broad, round the ruins of Dryburgh, yon think of him who rests there- the magician asleep in the lap of legends old, the sorcerer buried in the heart of the land he has made enchanted.'

The eleventh Earl of Buchan, we are told by Allan Cunningham, waited on Lady Scott in 1819, when the illustrious author of Waverley was brought nigh to the grave by a grievous illness, and begged her to intercede with her husband to do him the honour of being buried in Dryburgh. 'The place,' said the Earl, 'is very beautiful, -just such a place as the poet loves; and as he has a fine taste that way, he is sure of being gratified with my offer.' Scott, it is said, good-humouredly promised to give Lord Buchan the refusal, since he seemed so solicitous. The peer himself, however, was buried in Dryburgh three years before the bard. The last resting-place of Sir Walter Scott is a small spot of ground in an area formed by four pillars, in one of the ruined aisles that belonged to his boasted forbears- the Haliburtons of Merton, an ancient baronial family, of which Sir Walter's paternal grandmother was a member, and of which Sir Walter himself was the lineal representative. On a side wall is the following inscription:-'Sub hoc tumulo jacet Joannes Haliburtonus, Baro de Mertoun, vir religione et virtute clarus, qui obiit 17 die Augusti, 1640. 'Beneath there is a coat-of-arms. On the back wall the later history of the spot is expressed on a tablet as follows:-'Hunc locum sepulturæ DSeneschallus Buchaniæ Comes Gualtero, Thomæ et Roberto Scott, Haliburtoni nepotibus, concessit, 1791; ' -that is to say, the Earl of Buchan granted this place of sepulture in 1791, to Walter, Thomas, and Robert Scott, descendants of the Laird of Haliburton. The persons indicated were the father and uncles of Sir Walter. The second of these uncles, however, and his own wife, were the only members of his family there interred before him. Lady Scott was buried there in May 1826; Sir Walter himself on 26 Sept. 1832; his son, Colonel Sir Walter Scott, in Feb. 1847; and John Gibson Lockhart, ` his son-in-law, biographer, and friend, ' in Nov. 1854. So small is the space that the body of ` the mighty minstrel ' had to be laid in a direction north and south, instead of eastward, facing the Advent dawn.

'So there, in solemn solitude,
In that sequester'd spot
Lies mingling with its kindred clay
The dust of Walter Scott !
Ah ! where is now the flashing eye
That kindled up at Flodden field,
That saw, in fancy. onsets fierce,
And clashing spear and shield, -

'The eager and untiring step,
That urged the search for Border lore,
To make old Scotland's heroes known
On every peopled shore,-
The wondrous spell that summon'd up
The charging squadrons fierce and fast,
And garnished every cottage wall
With pictures of the past,-

'The graphic pen that drew at once
The traits alike so truly shown
In Bertram's faithful pedagogue,
And haughty Marmion,-
The hand that equally could paint,
And give to each proportion fair,
The stern, the wild Meg Merrilies,
And lovely Lady Clare,-

'The glowing dreams of bright romance
That teeming filled his ample brow,-
Where is his daring. chivalry,
where are his visions now?
The open hand, the generous heart
That joy'd to soothe a neighbour's pains?
Naught, naught, we see, save grass and weeds
And solemn silence reigns.

'The flashing eye is dimm'd for aye;
The stalwart limb is stiff and cold;
No longer pours his trumpet-note
To wake the jousts of old.
The generous heart, the open hand,
The ruddy cheek, the silver hair,
Are mouldering in the silent dust-
Ali, all is lonely there !'

The same eleventh Earl of Buchan was devotedly attached to Dryburgh. At a short distance from the abbey he constructed, in 1817, an elegant wire suspension-bridge over the Tweed, 260 feet in length, and 4 feet 7 inches between the rails, which was blown down about 1850. His Lordship also erected on his grounds here an Ionic temple, with a statue of Apollo in the inside, and a bust of the bard of The Seasons surmounting the dome. He raised, too, a colossal statue of Sir William Wallace on the summit of a steep and thickly-planted hill; which, placed on its pedestal 22 Sept. 1814, the anniversary of the victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297, was the first Wallace monument in Scotland. 'It occupies so eminent a situation,' says Mr Chambers, 'that- Wallace, frowning towards England, is visible even from Berwick, a distance of more than 30 miles.' The statue is 21½ feet high, and is formed of red sandstone, painted white. It was designed by Mr John Smith, a self-taught sculptor, from a supposed authentic portrait, which was purchased in France by the father of the late Sir Philip Ainslie of Pilton. The hero is represented in the ancient Scottish dress and armour, with a shield hanging from his left hand, and leaning lightly on his spear with his right. A tablet below bears an appropriate inscription.

Burns visited the ruins on 10 May 1787, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy on 20 Sept. 1803; and Sir Walter Scott, in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, gives an interesting account of one who actually dwelt amongst them-the Nun of Dryburgh. This was a poor wanderer, who took up her abode, about the middle of last century, in a vault which during the day she never quitted. It was supposed, from an account she gave of a spirit who used to arrange her habitation at night, during her absence in search of food or charity at the residences of gentlemen in the neighbourhood, that the vault was haunted; and it was long, on this account, regarded with terror by the country folk. She never could be prevailed upon to relate to her friends the reason why she adopted so singular a course of life. 'But it was believed,' says Sir Walter, 'that it was occasioned by a vow that, during the absence of a man to whom she was attached, she would never look upon the sun. Her lover never returned. He fell during the civil war of 1745.6, and she never more beheld the light of day.'

The name Dryburgh has been derived by followers of Stukely from the Celtic darach-bruach, 'bank of the grove of oaks;' and vestiges, we are told, of Pagan worship have been found in the Bass Hill, a neighbouring eminence, among which was an instrument used for killing the victims in sacrifice. St Modan, a champion of the Roman party, came hither from Ireland in the first half of the 8th century; but it is something worse than guesswork to suppose, with Mr Morton, that he founded a monastery which ` was probably destroyed by the ferocious Saxon invaders under Ida, the flame-bearer, who landed on the coast of Yorkshire in 547, and, after subduing Northumberland, added this part of Scotland to his dominions by his victory over the Scoto-Britons at Cattraeth.' St Mary's Abbey was founded by Hugh de Morville, Lord of Landerdale and Constable of Scotland, in 1150.* According to the Chronicle of Melrose, Beatrix de Beauchamp, wife of De Morville, obtained a charter of confirmation for the new foundation from David I.; and the cemetery was consecrated on St Martin's Day, 1150, 'that no demons might haunt it;' but the community did not come into residence till 13 Dec. 1152. The monks or canons regular (to give them their proper title)were Premonstratensians from Alnwick; and their garb was a coarse black cassock, covered by a white woollen cope, 'in imitation of the angels of heaven, who are clothed in white garments,' hence their familiar designation-White Friars. Tradition says, that the English, under Edward II., in their retreat in 1322, provoked by the imprudent triumph of the monks in ringing the church bells at their departure, returned and burned the abbey in revenge. Bower, however, as Dr Hill Burton remarks, 'cannot be quite correct in saying that Dryburgh was entirely reduced to powder, since part of the building yet remaining is of older date than the invasion.' King Robert the Bruce contributed liberally towards its repair; but it has been doubted whether it ever was fully restored to its original magnificence. Certain flagrant disorders, which occurred here in the latter half of the 14th century, drew down the severe censure of Pope Gregory XI. upon the inmates. An alumnus of Dryburgh about this period has been claimed in the 'Philosophicall Strode,' to whom and the 'moral Gower' Chancer inscribed his Troilus and Cresseide; nay, Chaucer himself is said to have paid a visit to Dryburgh. Alas ! the claim is ruthlessly demolished by Dr Hill Burton in Billings' Antiquities. Within 20 miles of the Border, the abbey was ever exposed to hostile assaults; and we hear of its burning by Richard II. in 1385, by Sir Robert Bowes and Sir Bryan Latoun in 1544, and again by the Earl of Hertford in 1545, in which last year, some months before, James Stewart, the abbot commendator, had with other chieftains crossed the Tweed into Northumberland, and burned the village of Horncliffe, but by the garrisons of Norham and Berwick had been attacked and driven back with heavy loss, before he could effect more damage. This same James Stewart was, through a natural daughter, the ancestor of the Rev. Henry Erskine of Chirnside (1624-96) and his two sons, the founders of the Secession, Ebenezer (1680-1754) and Ralph (1685-1752). Of these Henry and Ebenezer were both of them born at Dryburgh, and the former is buried here.

Annexed to the Crown in 1587, the lands of Dryburgh were by a charter of 1604 granted to John Erskine, Earl of Mar, and erected into the lordship and barony of Cardross. From the Earl's great-grandson, Henry, third Lord Cardross, they passed by purchase in 1682 to Sir Patrick Scott, younger of Ancrum, in 1700 to Thomas Haliburton of Newmains, in 1767 to Lieut. -Col. Charles Tod, and finally in 1786 to David Stewart Erskine, eleventh Earl of Buchan. Their present holder is his great-great-grandson, George Oswald Harry Erskine Biber-Erskine, Esq. (b. 1858; suc. 1870), who owns 359 acres in the shire, valued at £977 per annum. His seat, called Dryburgh Abbey, adjoins the ruins, as also does Dryburgh House. The latter, a Scottish Baronial edifice, enlarged by Messrs Peddie & Kinnear in 1877, was for some time the residence of the Right Hon. Charles Baillie, Lord Jerviswoode (1804-79).—Ord. Sur., sh. 25,1865. See James Morton's -Monatic Annals of Teviotdale (Edinb. 1832); Sir D. Erskine's Annals and Antiquities of -Dryburgh (Kelso, 1836); J. Spottiswoode's -Liber S. Marie de -Dryburgh (Bannatyne Club, Edinb., 1847); -Dryburgh Abbey: its Monks and its -Lords (3d ed., Lond., 1864); vol. ii., p. 321, of the Rev. J. F. Gordon's Monasticon (Glasg. 1868); and Jas. F. Hunnewell's Lands of Scott (Edinb. 1871).

* On p. 166 of his History and Poetry of the Scottish Border (1878), Prof. Veitch remarks that 'Dryburgh was founded a little later [than 1136] by Hugh de Morville. who succeeded his father in 1159, and died in 1162. Some hold that morville was implicated in the murder of Thomas à Becket. if so. the founding and rich endowment of Dryburgh was probably an expiation for this early deed of his life.' But, surely, Becket was murdered in 1170.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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