Some Thoughts on the Glories of Melrose
I spent some pleasant hours in Melrose in the Scottish Borders with family and friends last weekend, under clear and clement (though cold, initially) skies as England was being busily drenched by Atlantic rains. I had never been before, and was greatly impressed by it, and it set me thinking on a number of historical themes.
It came as a surprise to some of our party that the town has a Roman museum, and makes much of its Roman history. Our friends are not British, so can be forgiven for thinking – as so many people in England do – that Scotland lay forever outside the Roman Empire, while those with a little more knowledge know that before Hadrian’s wall, between the Tyne and the Solway, the Antonine wall between Forth and Clyde marked the limits of the Empire. The garrison and town of Melrose was situated at an important strategic point – the crossing of the main north-south road – Dere Street – with the biggest river in the region, the Tweed. The garrison was named after the distinctive nearby mountain – Eildon hill, or the Eildon Hills – known to the Romans as Trimontium, a suitably trinitarian name for what would later become an important place of Christian Worship.
A bit about the geography
Melrose itself was originally a couple of miles to the east, where the Tweed loops round to form what the Brythons,i.e. the Welsh-speaking inhabitants of these parts, called the ‘Mail Ros’, the bare peninsula. (If you think that is an inaccurate use of geographical terms, consider that similar landforms have been called islands, such as ‘Dun Holme’ – Hill Island – that is, Durham, on its loop in the River Wear).
We drove to Melrose up the A68, the modern road that more or less follows the line of Dere Street, and there is a noticeable shift of the geography once you pass the border at Carter Bar. Redesdale is full of long, tilting hills, covered in forests planted for timber, and long, tilting moors, dry and windblown. On the Scottish side, you instantly notice different kind of hill, less broad, but steeper, almost angular and irregular in shape – apparently caused by a substratum of volcanic rock. The resulting landscape is distinctively different from that just south, greener, more varied, with old forests, narrower valleys and crisscrossed with small roads and paths. It is also different from the Scottish landscape of popular imagination – heather moors, mountains and lochs and what have you – but no less beautiful for it. It gets an autumn foliage to rival anywhere I’ve seen too… the peninsula is not so bare these days.
Saint Cuthbert is, for reasons I have discussed elsewhere, strongly associated with the north-east of England. But he was born and grew up in Melrose in southern Scotland.It is worth remembering, of course, that in Cuthbert’s day the residents of this part of the island would by no means have considered themselves ‘Scots,’ a word used to describe the Gaelic speaking invaders of the north-west of the country, as well as their brethren in Ireland. In the 7th century, Melrose’s population would have been ‘Anglian’ or perhaps, mixed Anglian and Brythonic, and under the rule – though tenuously, perhaps – of the Bernician kings of Bamburgh. In one sense, however, there was some ‘Scottish’ influence in the town – in the monastery that had been set up under the tutelage of the great Irish monk Saint Aiden, brought to Bernicia by King Oswald, a Gaelic-speaking Anglian who had grown up fostered at the court of the Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata. At Oswald’s request, Aiden set up a monastic community at Lindisfarne modelled on the one at Iona in Dal Riata, that eventually birthed a network of monasteries that would stretch from the Tyne to the Solway and from the Humber to the Forth. Melrose was one of the earliest monasteries and in its day one of the most important, in newly conquered territory, and en route to the Bernicians’ then allies, the Dal Riatans in the North West.
The first abbot of the monastery, taken from Lindisfarne by Aiden, was Saint Eata, the second Saint Boisil, after whom nearby Saint Boswells is named, and the third his protege, the brilliant Saint Cuthbert. Cuthbert was recognised as an able man, and thus brought over to the head abbey on Holy Island, (and for a while later down in Hexham), where his influence was so great he became a kind of totemic figure for the community – and even for the whole of Northumbria (as was, after Bernicia had merged with its southern neighbour Deira). A walking route from Melrose to Holy Island remembers this link.
Though the Christian roots of Melrose go back to the 7th century – though, on the ‘bare peninsula’ now known as Old melrose, it was in the 12th that the current town and abbey was built up.
The abbey was built under the reign of the fascinating Scottish king, David I. He brought up a group of monks and masons from the Cistercian Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, and the building was initially done in a similar style, though later, when relations with the English deteriorated, the lion’s share of the building work was overseen by a French architect, one John Morrow. The building is a great example of the beguiling mix of transcendent beauty and warm humour typical of, say, York Minster. On the apse ceiling, for example, is an intricate octagon pattern with image of the trinity and saints, while between the buttresses on the south side there hangs a smiling pig gargoyle playing the bagpipes.
David had great ambitions for his northern kingdom. During the Anarchy, when would be Monarchs Stephen and Matilda were fighting over the English crown, David extended his kingdom to include the whole of the north-east of England down to the Tees. He was, like his warring brethren to the south, a Norman, and had typically Norman attitudes towards kingship, consolidating and growing his kingdom, developing its towns and cities while patronising the church and the orders. Melrose was again at a crucial crossroads in Scotland, on the main route between the capital and the new territories of his kingdom, and on the river that was its most important trade route, as the Tweed then was.
That is why, they say, David chose Melrose for the Cistercian abbey – but the religious history of the place must have influenced him too. The north-east of England was strongly associated with the society of Cuthbert, who had continued his work at Lindisfarne until the Viking invasion, before resettling his remains at Durham. An abbey at Melrose would inherit the sanctity of the Ionian-Northumbrian heritage of centuries before, but also stress the common culture between those areas long considered part of Scotland and those recently brought in – lands that had been evangelized by Columba, Oswald, Aiden, Eata, Boswell, Cuthbert and Bede and their inheritors..
Severed at the Tweed
David’s extended kingdom wasn’t to be. His capture of the north-east had always been ambiguous – initially to help his ally Matilda in her war against Stephen, it eventually took on a more permanent-looking character. Henry II, Matilda’s son, and the heir to Stephen, promised David he could keep the regions if he supported him – but promptly reneged on his promise when he took power. Northumbria was English again, and Melrose was near the border – a position that would cost it dearly in the coming centuries of Anglo-Scottish warfare.
The abbey actually survived very well – though sometimes badly damaged in battle, it was usually rebuilt, and sometimes better than before. One notable rebuilder was Richard II, who, the guidebook explains, either rebuilt it out of guilt at having damaged a holy building, or to re-emphasise the town’s importance as, briefly, part of England. But though the abbey survived, the area as a whole dwindled in wealth and importance as a result of its border status, not just because it of repeated English incursions and Borderer reiving, but because this fertile valley’s towns were now cut off from their outlet to the sea – for Berwick fell, more often than not, into English hands. The once great trading port became a garrison town, while the once important town of Roxburgh (after which a county is named) dwindled to nothing. Melrose survived, and even sometimes prospered, but was never again as important as it had been under the reign of David.
Reformation and Romanticism
Melrose Abbey has a rather splendid museum- on the north side of the grounds, with a plethora of artefacts from every period of the abbey’s life. On the ground floor, there is a glass case of figures in detailed period outfits, ending in a rather bleak, black-clad fellow called the commendator. This was the man who was in charge of the abbey and its grounds after the Reformation, one of the men who oversaw its despoilation, and profited from the sale of its materials – and who lived in the building which now houses the museum!
The abbey had entered a period of decline before the Reformation, one that had much to do with the intensification of hostilities with the English, under a particularly ruthless king. But it was the Reformation that finished it off for good. Thankfully, the abbey was spared some of the more zealous expressions of Protestentisation – the bagpipe-playing pig was spared the hammers of the iconoclasts.
Though finished as a religious site, the area would continue to inspire devotion. There was a surprisingly short time – as in England – between the dissolution of the monasteries and a certain kind of nostalgia for the time when they had been at the heart of the community, not least because of the beauty that their buildings had left in the landscape. The writer and poet Walter Scott was one who was beguiled by Melrose, its history and its landscape, making his home at nearby Dryburgh.
My friends and I finished our trip to Melrose with a trip up to ‘Scotts View’, where the writer used to walk – and which does indeed present a splendid prospect of the curvingTweed and the Trimontine Eildon Hills – and, on the day we went, a spectacular autumnal landscape. The woods in the picture below, on the north-west side of the Tweed are known as the Gledwoods – after an old Scottish word for the red kite, which used to hover here. Perhaps one day they will re-introduce the bird here, as they have in many other parts of the UK – I would like to see that – and the abbey re-opened too, that would be even better!
The King in the North, Max Adams
The Steel Bonnets, George Macdonald Fraser
Stephen (Penguin Monarchs), Carl Watkins
Tales from the Long Twelfth Century, Richard Huscroft