When I went on a writing retreat last November, I hadn’t realised we would be staying within walking distance of Melrose Abbey. We went out for a walk on the Sunday morning and discovered it and, of course, I didn’t have my Historic Scotland membership card on me. Thankfully, the kind lady behind the desk was able to look up my details and let me in!
Although the abbey is now ruined it is still well worth a visit and you are still able to climb the tower. When you look out from one of the viewpoints on the tower, you can see a pig playing the bagpipes as one of the gargoyles — not something I have seen before!
The most notable presence in the Abbey, however, has to be the resting place of the heart of King Robert the Bruce. In 1921 a casket was found buried on the site which did, indeed, appear to be a human heart and this was confirmed in the 1990s. As there are no other records of human hearts being buried here, it may well be that of Scotland’s most famous king. It has now been reburied under a carved stone.
The abbey was founded in 1136 at the request of King David I by a Cistercian order of monks from Rievaulx. There had been an earlier abbey nearby, founded in the mid 8th century, but the site had been changed due to the availability of better farming land near the present site.
It was attacked by English armies many times over the centuries and rebuilt almost as many, until in the mid-16th century repeated attacks by the English attempted to force the Scots to marry the infant queen Mary to Henry VIIIs son, damaged the abbey to a point where rebuilding was not considered worthwhile. The last abbot (Queen Mary’s illegitimate half-brother, James Stuart) died in 1559 and the last monk in 1590.
Part of the building continued in use from 1618 as a Church of Scotland parish church until 1810. From 1822, Sir Walter Scott, who lived nearby at Abbotsford, was involved with substantial work to help preserve what was left of the ruins and then in 1918 the abbey passed into the ownership of the state and is now cared for by Historic Environment Scotland.
Is there a ruined building near you that has a history worth researching? Find out some initial information about that place and then go and visit in person. As you walk around, pay attention to all your senses and make notes about what you see, hear, smell and feel. Find somewhere to sit quietly for a while or go to a particular place that makes you feel more connected to the past. Try to imagine what the place looked like when it was first built or last used. Mentally rebuild it and make some notes about how someone in the past would have seen and experienced it. Use this to retell a historical event that happened there, or invent an incident and set in in that place.