Plate XLVII., Melrose Abbey, pp.94-95.

[Scotland Illustrated Contents]


MELROSE ABBEY – as an establishment for Cistercian monks – was founded by David I. in 1136. Its site is a piece of level meadow, immediately north-east of the town, and about a quarter of a mile south of the Tweed. The original edifice is said to have been completed in ten years, but was either wholly or partially destroyed by fire in 1322, and must have been greatly inferior in magnificence to its successor. What now remains of the re-edificed structure exhibits a style of architecture ascertained to belong to a later age than that of David, and gives distinct indications of having been in an unfinished state at the Reformation, – appearances of rough temporary closings-up of design, with a view to subsequent resumption and completion. While the nucleus of the building was constructed at one effort, under the reign and patronage of Robert Bruce, and aided, perhaps, by some preserved and renovated portion of the original erection of David I., the entire edifice, in the extension of its parts, and in the immense profusion of its architectural decorations, seems to have been the progressive work of upwards of two centuries, extending from 1326 till the Reformation. The Cistercians were noted for their industrious habits, and their patronage and practice of such departments of the fine arts and practical science as were known in the Middle ages; and, in common with all the monastic tribes, they regarded the embellishing of ecclesiastical edifices up to a degree as high as their scientific and financial resources could produce, as pre-eminently and even meritoriously a work of piety. The vast magnificence of the Abbey, with its innumerable architectural adjuncts and sculptured adornings, seems thus to have been the result of a constant, untiring, and ambitious effort of the resident monks, powerful in their skill, their numbers, their leisure, and their enthusiasm, and both instigated and aided by the munificent benefactions which made continual additions to their originally princely revenues, and testified the applause of a dark but pompous age for the sumptuousness of the dress thrown around the fane of religious pageants. The architecture is the richest Gothic, combining the best features of its gracefulness and elaboration, and everywhere showing a delicacy of touch, and a boldness of execution, which evince the perfection of the style. The material, while soft enough to admit great nicety of chiselling, possesses such power of resistance to the weather that even the most minute ornaments retain nearly as much sharpness of edge or integrity of feature as when they were fresh from the chisel. The Abbey, though inferior in proportions to many works of its class, and only about half the dimensions of York minster, is the most beautiful of all the ecclesiastical structures which seem ever to have been reared in Scotland.

Though the Abbey was regularly noticed in topographical works, and figured boldly in history, and lifted up its alluringly attractive form before the eye of every traveller along the Tweed, it excited so little attention, previous to the present century, as to be coolly abandoned to the rough dilapidations of persons who estimated its sculptured stones at the vulgar quarry-price of building material! Much care has, in recent times, been used, at the expense of the proprietor, to strengthen its walls, slate the remaining part of the roof, and furnish various other means of conservation; and it has its reward in a promise that the pile will yet long stand to give practical lessons in majestic architectural beauty. The place incidentally owes nearly all its modern fame to ‘the mighty Minstrel,’ whose princely earthly domicile at Abbotsford on the west, and his low last resting-place in Dryburgh on the east, compete with it in challenging the notice of the tourist. Sir Walter’s adoption of it and the town, as the St. Mary’s and the Kennaquahair of his tales of ‘The Monastery’ and ‘The Abbot,’ brought it boldly before the gaze of the myriad admirers of the national novels of Scotland; and his well-known personal enthusiasm in making it his chief and favourite retreat from study, and in passing successive hours in scanning over, for the five hundredth time, its labyrinth of graces, drew towards it the wondering eye of the judiciously imitative crowds who looked to him as a master of taste. But what first roused attention to it, and kept up the vibration in every subsequent thrill of interest in its attractions, was the masterly description of it which corruscated upon the world in the publication of ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel.’ Two extracts, though already familiar to many a reader, may be acceptable as vivid pictures of the most remarkable parts of the pile, and fine specimens of the enchanting power of the painter. The one describes the beautifully fretted and sculptured stone-roof of the east end of the chancel:

“The darkened roof rose high aloof
On pillars lofty and light and small;
The keystone that locked each ribbed aisle
Was fleur-de-lys or a quatre-feuille;
The corbells were carved grotesque and grim;
And the pillars, with cluster’d shafts so trim,
With base and with capital flourish’d around,
Seem’d bundles of lances which garlands had bound.”

The other passage describes the surpassingly elegant and beautiful eastern window:

“The moon, on the east oriel shone,
Through slender shafts of shapely stone
By foliaged tracery combined:
Thou would’st have thought some fairy’s hand
‘Twixt poplars straight the osier wand
In many a freakish knot had twin’d;
Then framed a spell, when the work was done,
And changed the willow-wreaths to stone.”