THE Town of Kelso is situated in the parish of the same name, in Roxburghshire, on the north bank of the river Tweed, opposite its junction with the Teviot, about twenty-three miles from Berwick, where that river flows into the sea. Its name is evidently derived from Chalkheugh, the name of a remarkable cliff overhanging the Tweed, on the summit of which part of the town is built. This cliff is so called from its containing veins of gypsum, and other calcareous earth, which were visible in its sides before the year 1810, when the river, in its impetuous floods, threatening to undermine it, it was cut down into terraces and sloping gardens, and defended from the stream by a strong wall. This etymology may be distinctly traced in the various forms in which the name appears in ancient records, where it is written Kalkhow, Kelquou, Calco, Calchou, Calcheowe, and Kellesowe. The earliest mention of it is at the time of the founding of its monastery, in 1128, when it appears, from the charter of the royal founder, that there was then a church called “the church of the blessed Virgin Mary, on the bank of the river Tuede, in the place which is called Calkou.”
The beauty of this town and its environs has always been justly admired. The confluence of two broad and rapid rivers, hanging woods, rocks, and verdant declivities, ancient ruins, elegant modern buildings, distant hills and mountains, form a diversified and lovely scene, in which the works of man serve to heighten and embellish the most comely features of nature.
The most striking object in Kelso is the ruined church of the abbey, which is a noble specimen of the solid and majestic style of architecture, called the Saxon or early Norman. It is described by Pennant as “built in the form of a Greek cross,” in which all the four limbs are of equal length; but this is a mistake, into which that intelligent writer appears to have fallen from his neglecting to observe, that, contrary to the general practice, the head of this cross, which is of the usual form, is turned toward the west, so that the eastern limb, of which only two arches are now standing, had, when entire, the longer dimensions commonly given in the Latin cross, to its opposite part. This, though a singular, was doubtless an economical, plan of construction, by which a large and spacious choir was obtained for the celebration of divine worship, without the necessity of extending the nave, used chiefly for pompous ceremonies and processions; to a proportionate length, and at a much greater expense.
The Scottish reformers are guiltless of stirring up the multitude to the demolition of this church; for, being occupied as a place of defence by the town’s people during the Earl of Hertford’s invasion, in 1545, it was destroyed by the enemy, sixteen years before “the lords of the secreit counsaill maid ane act, that all places and monumentis of idolatry sould be destroyed.” From the state of the ruin, it may be inferred, that the cannon employed in battering it down were directed against it from the north-east. The two arches already mentioned, with their superstructure, are all that remain of the choir. They spring from massive Saxon piers, having slender circular half-pillars attached to three sides of the same; and these have moulded capitals, forming imposts for the springing of the arches. These two arches are in the south side of the choir next the cross, and support a part of the wall which upheld the main roof. Within the thickness of the wall are two galleries, one over the other, open to the interior by an arcade of small round arches, springing from slender stone shafts. Narrow passages within the thickness of the walls, communicating with these galleries, and with the stairs and other avenues, run round the whole building at different heights, opening at intervals to the interior. the choir had two side-aisles, with two rows of strong piers, or columns, supporting the arches and their superstructure. The transept and western division of the church have no side-aisles. The walls of the north and south transept are still nearly entire; and more than half of the western part, or head of the cross, also remains, containing a segment of a most magnificent archway, enriched with a profusion of grotesque carvings, which, though much worn away and defaced, still display considerable elegance, both of design and execution. The north entrance remains entire; and the numerous mouldings of its deep arch exhibit the dancette or zigzag, the billet, and other decorations of the Saxon style. The walls, both within and without, are adorned with a course of blank semicircular arches, interlaced with each other, and some of them richly, and some sparingly, relieved with ornaments. Over the intersection of the cross in the centre of the building, rose a lofty square tower, or lantern, upon four spacious arches, in the pointed style, with six windows in each of its sides, and open galleries within. Only the south and west sides remain, which are the grandest and the most striking parts of the ruin. At each of the exterior angles of the cross, the building projects a little, and forms a square tower, which contains a narrow winding stair, and finishes in a round turret at the top, except at the north angle of the west end of the fabric, which terminates in an octagonal turret. The corresponding south-west angle is demolished. There is no appearance of buttresses in any part of the building, the walls of Saxon edifices being constructed with such strength and solidity as not to require supports of this kind. The windows, which are numerous, are almost all long, narrow, and circular headed, without any appearance of tracery. One in front of the north transept forms a complete circle, and two in each side of the central tower are quatrefoils, set in circles.
It is recorded, that, on the night after the disastrous battle of Flodden, which was September 9, 1513, Andrew Ker of Ferniherst, commonly called Dand Ker, an active and powerful adherent of the Lord Home, one of the greatest noblemen in Scotland at that time, broke into the abbey of Kelso, and, having turned the superior out of doors, forcibly kept possession of it. This violence must have been perpetrated in behalf of his brother Thomas, the next abbot. The abbey being at that time held in commendam, might perhaps have been considered as in some measure open to the pretensions of candidates; and the disorders of the government likely to ensue upon the death of the king, who was slain in the battle, might tempt this warlike chieftain to commit an act of usurpation, which, perhaps, he was afterwards able to maintain, although not without difficulty, as it appears, that, in August 1515, the abbot of Kelso, and other friends of Lord Home, were imprisoned at Dunfermline by the Duke of Albany, then regent of Scotland. It is certain that Bishop Stewart, when employed in negotiating with England in 1515 and 1516, still enjoyed the title, if not the revenues, of commendator of Kelso abbey, and probably did so until the event of his death, in 1518.
Upon the death of the abbot James Stewart, in 1558, Mary of Lorraine, the dowager queen-regent, gave the commendatorship of both Kelso and Melrose to her brother, Cardinal Guise, who had not yet reaped any advantage from this preferment, when, upon the establishment of the reformed religion, in 1559, the revenues and property of the monasteries were taken possession of by the Lords of the Congregation, in the name of the Crown. The spiritual office of abbot must have virtually ceased when the Roman Catholic form of religion was abolished, and its worship and ceremonies were forbidden as idolatrous; yet the title still continued, for a long time, to be used as a temporal distinction, to designate such persons as were charged with the management of the confiscated property of the abbeys, or had obtained grants of them from the Crown. One of the Kers of Cesford enjoyed the title of abbot of Kelso not long after the Reformation.
The lands and possessions of Kelso abbey were finally conferred upon Sir Robert Ker of Cesford, one of the bravest and most active men of his time, who, by his talents, courage, and vigilance, in the office of warden of the east marches, had obtained great favour at court, and was created a peer in 1599, with the title of Lord Roxburgh. On the third of August, 1602, he obtained a charter granting the lands of Haliden to him and his heirs for ever. On the 5th of the same month, he had a like grant of the town of Kelso. These and the other estates of the monastery, except the patronage of twenty of the churches belonging to it, which he gave up to the king in 1639, are still enjoyed by his descendant, the Duke of Roxburgh.
The shattered remains of the monastery are said to have been greatly dilapidated by the blind frenzy of the bigoted populace in 1580. It was probably after this period that certain buildings, in a clumsy and barbarous style of masonry, were constructed on the ruins of the ancient church. A Protestant place of worship being wanted for the parish, a low, gloomy vault was thrown over the transept for this purpose, forming a dark, cavern-like retreat, which must have appeared a dismal contrast to those, if any were yet alive, who had seen the lofty elegance and grandeur of the original edifice. Over the outer prison, and communicated by a door with a smaller vaulted chamber, called the inner prison, built in the head of the cross over another vault, which formed a kind of wing, or aisle, to the parish-church, and had a corresponding opposite wing erected in the ruins of the choir. It may be conjectured that other parts of the ruins were demolished to furnish materials for the construction of those tasteless additions; by which much of the beauty of the ancient structure was hidden and disfigured. It continued to be used as the parish-church till 1771, when, one Sunday during divine service, a fragment of cement happening to fall from the roof, the congregation, which was crowded, believing that the vault over their heads was giving way, hurried out, impressed with such terror and consternation, that, though the alarm proved false, they could never afterwards be brought to assemble in the old church, which from that time remained deserted; their fears having been long kept alive by the remembrance of an ancient prophecy attributed to Thomas of Ercildoune, otherwise called True Thomas, or the Rymer, “which bore that this kirk should fall when at the fullest.”
The ruins were partly disencumbered of the rude modern masonry by the good taste of William, Duke of Roxburgh, in 1805. His successor, the late kind-hearted and liberal Duke James, caused the remaining encumbrances to be cleared away in 1816. By this means, not only the beauties of the fabric were disclosed to view, but the useful, though unpleasant, discovery was made, that some of its parts were verging to decay, and threatening to fall. To prevent so great a misfortune, the noblemen and gentlemen of the county met together in January, 1823, and employed an architect to survey the ruin; upon whose recommendation the decayed parts were strengthened and repaired, the crevices filed up, and the top of the walls covered with a coating of Roman cement.