The Scottish Borders was a magnet for monks in medieval times – truly men on a mission. In a region with ancient Christian traditions and lured by the promise of royal patronage they set up four mighty monastic institutions at Melrose, Jedburgh, Drybrough and Kelso.
At a time when talk of independence is shaping a serious agenda, Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders could well have a symbolic part to play in Scotland’s future.
It was here in 1998 that Donald Dewar, then Secretary of State for Scotland and soon to become First Minister in a new devolved Scottish Parliament, presided over a burial.
For the third and we presume the last time, the mummified heart of Robert the Bruce, who had led Scotland to independence in the 1300’s, was laid to rest beneath a simple sandstone marker on the lawn outside the Chapter House at Melrose Abbey. It bears the legend – ‘The Brus – a noble hart may have nane if freedom fail.’
On his deathbed the Bruce had asked that his heart should be carried to the Holy Land.
James Douglas (Black Douglas) has set off for the crusades with the embalmed heart and but was killed while fighting the Moors of Granda in 1330. The heart was returned to Scotland and buried in Melrose Abbey, then run by an order of Cistercian monks.
It was uneathed by archeologists from Historic Scotland in 1996. Inside the casket they found another containing a note from contemporaries dating back to 1921. It read: ‘the enclosed leaden casket was unearthed containing a heart. Found under the Chapel House floor in March 1921.’
The story is just one charper in a fascinating history of this famous Scottish Borders abbey founded in 1136 with the Royal patronage of King David 1.
It was the first Cistercian abbey in Scotland. The Melrose monks, being Cistercians or white monks were founded in 1098 AD at Cîteaux, near Dijon in Burgundy, by a group of Benedictine monks who believed in manual labour and self sufficiency.
In the 12th century, around Melrose, they forged ahead implementing new farming techniques and marketing Melrose wool throughout the great trading ports across northern Europe. Their economic success and the attraction of their austere spirituality helped to spread the Cistercian Order throughout Christendom.
Due to its proximity to the border, Melrose frequently suffered at the hands of invading English armies. In 1322 Edward II desecrated and burnt the abbey. It was rebuilt and endowed by King Robert the Bruce in 1326 only to be destroyed again in 1385 when Richard II of England once more set the abbey ablaze.
Henry VIII had the abbey torched and destroyed once again in 1544 and Melrose never recovered.
Picture by kind permission of Historc Scotland