The Loves, Lives & Phantoms of Scotland’s Abbeys

Image: Brian Bailey
Image: Brian Bailey

By Elizabeth McQuillan
Sweetheart Abbey
New Abbey, Dumfriesshire

When, in 1228, Lord John Balliol died, his devoted wife could not bear to be parted from the love of her life.

Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway was a true lady of Royal Scottish blood – being one of the heiresses of the Royal House of Dunkeld. Her love and devotion to her husband resulted in her having his heart embalmed and placed within a small ivory casket. This she carried with her everywhere. At meal times an extra portion was served and placed next to the casket.

As a testament to her love of God and her husband, she founded the Cistercian abbey of Dulce Cor (Latin for ‘Sweet Heart’) in 1273. This beautiful ecclesiastical building, just south of Dumfries, was designed and built with her Italian master-mason, Macolo, and the first Abbot.

The red sandstone church was planned in the shape of a cross and divided into four different areas, with a bell tower sitting centrally.

The Abbey had to countenance the Wars of Independence and the Reformation, with much destroyed, but the church remains almost entire.

When Lady Dervorgilla died, she was laid to rest in front of the abbey church’s high altar, clutching her husband’s heart to her bosom. A stone effigy of Lady Dervorgilla lies over her resting place in the south transept, depicting her gently cradling the casket.

As the poet Andrew of Wyntoun noted:
A better lady than she was nane
In al the Ile of Mare Brettane
She was well pleasant of bewté
Men suld love her for her bounté

The spectral figure of a woman in a long grey skirt has been seen slowly climbing the stairs of Sweetheart Abbey.

Image: Anne Burgess
Image: Anne Burgess

Arbroath Abbey,

This was founded in 1178 by order by King William the Lion. It was left in the care of the monks of the Tironensian Benedictine order from Kelso, who were afforded unusual privileges.

This included the income from 24 parishes, land in every royal burgh, fisheries, salt pans, ferries and of course Arbroath itself. The monks were permitted to set up a burgh, hold a market and to build a harbour.

However, Arbroath Abbey takes its place within Scottish history due to the fact that it was here, in 1320, the Scottish Declaration of Independence (otherwise known as the Declaration of Arbroath) was signed by Scotland’s nobility.

“For, so long as a hundred remain alive, we will never in any degree be subject to the dominion of the English. Since not for glory, riches or honours do we fight, but for freedom alone, which no man loses but with his life.”

The Declaration was addressed to the Pope who had given his support to Edward II, and excommunicated Robert the Bruce. The nobles explained how the Bruce had rescued the country from a dreadful situation and for this they would support him. On the document itself, 19 seals now remain of what might have been 50 originally

Interestingly, the Stone of Destiny – which was used for centuries for the coronation of Scottish monarchs – also found its way to this Abbey. Pillaged from Scotland and placed in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey since 1296, a group of Scottish students stole it back and left it on the altar at Arbroath Abbey in 1951.

Strange Phenomenon Investigations note on their website that they detected a fragrant smell coming from one particular area within the Abbey, and were witness to a number of (unspecified) strange phenomena.

Dryburgh Abbey

Image: oosp
Image: oosp

St Boswells, Scottish Borders

Sitting majestically on the banks on the River Tweed, the medieval ruins of Dryburgh Abbey exude an ecclesiastical atmosphere. Everything is hushed, shaded and somehow even without a roof or the trappings of religion it retains a monastic feel.

Dryburgh Abbey was founded in the 12th century by the monks of the Premonstratensian Order, also known as ‘White Canons’, originally derived from St Norbert in Prémontré, in north-eastern France. The buildings endured an eventful life given the proximity to the English border.

The buildings were destroyed by fire on three occasions in 1322, 1385 and finally in 1544, and it was ravaged by war on four occasions. However, as well as the fine masonry, some plasterwork and paintwork in the chapter house date back to the Abbey’s inception.

It is the last resting place of Sir Walter Scott and Earl Haig, the World War 1 Field Marshal.

The Grey Lady of Dryburgh is a well-known ghost associated with the Abbey. In the 16th century, a young lady from the great house next to the Abbey (where a hotel now stands) met and fell in love with one of the monks living a devout life.

There clandestine relationship broke all the rules and, upon discovery of the illicit affair, the monk was brutally dealt with. He was hanged in full view of his lover. Distraught, the young woman ran to the nearby bridge and threw herself into the Tweed wishing to join her lover in death.

Having committed suicide she could not be buried on sacred ground and so her spirit was shackled to earthly realms. She roams the earth unable to be reunited with her love. The Grey Lady is often seen walking upon the bridge or within the grounds of the hotel, where her home once stood.

Image: Iain Gregg
Image: Iain Gregg

Dundrennan Abbey

Mary, Queen of Scots spent her last night on Scottish soil at Dundrennan Abbey. She stayed here on the night of 15th May 1568, arriving with an escort having been defeated at the Battle of Langside.

From the Abbey she sent a letter ahead to her cousin, Elizabeth, seeking her assistance. After some quiet contemplation Mary left the following day from the foot of the Abbey Burn, sailing across the Solway and fleeing to England.

There imprisonment, and finally execution, awaited.

Founded in 1142 by King David I, possibly in alliance with Lord Fergus of Galloway, the first colony of monks were likely Cistercian, and from <a rel=nofollow href=””> Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire.

Compared to the other Scottish Abbeys, Dundrennan looks very austere due to the use of local freestone ashlar, which is very grey and lacks the rich tones of sandstone. Little remains of any height within the ruin, but there are some fine masonry sculptures, including that of a murdered monk in the chapter house. The foundations and pillars depict an impressive structure with archways, aisles and a tower.

The abbey church remained in use as a parish kirk until the mid 17th century and was finally taken into care by the State in 1842. Stone quarried from the ruin was used to build the village of Dundrennan.

Dundrennan Abbey does not appear to boast any ghostly apparitions or shenanigans.

Image: Ben Gamble
Image: Ben Gamble

Melrose Abbey,
Scottish Borders

The original site of the Abbey was a few miles down the River Tweed. Founded by St Aidan in about A.D. 660, it’s first prior was St Boisil who was succeeded by St Cuthbert, the apostle of the Borders, and he lived there until 664 when he became prior of Lindesfarne.

Later, when St Cuthbert died, it became one of his resting places before his body was taken to the spot where Durham Cathedral was founded. In 1131, David I, King of Scots, encouraged the Cistercian monks who had been sent by Bernard of Clairvaux from France to found a new abbey on the present site below the Eildon Hills.

They were observers of St Benedict’s Rule, which follows an ethos of prayer and hard labour. The long day of service began in the early hours of the morning, and continued to the early evening. Between the services were periods of spiritual and manual work, all of which were supported by a vegetarian diet. Life expectancy was poor.

Richard II ordered the Abbey burned following a Scottish raid that riled him, and the Abbey had to be rebuilt in the 14th century, with the resulting lavish and ornate masonry. Notably the Abbey has a stone carving of a bagpipe-playing pig.

Following the Crusades, Robert the Bruce’s heart was buried at Melrose Abbey, which is marked with a commemorative carved stone.

Many sightings of spectral monks have been recorded at Melrose Abbey, most especially one Michael Scott who was said to have dabbled Black Magic and tends to haunt his own grave.