DRYBURGH ABBEY, a noble edifice now in ruins, is situated about four miles from Melrose, on the north bank of the Tweed, in the most delightful part of the vale of that river, famed as it is for beauty along its whole extent. The abbey, overgrown with ivy, and adorned with flowers, stands amidst the gloom of wood, on a verdant level, above high banks of red earth which confine the course of the river, whose rapid stream here makes a bold sweep around the park and mains-farm of Dryburgh, in its passage onwards. Mr. George Smith, architect, states that the ruins are so overgrown with luxuriant foliage, that he found great difficulty in taking accurate measurements of them. “Everywhere you behold the usurpation of nature over art. In one roofless apartment a fine spruce and holly are to be seen flourishing in the rubbish; in others, the walls are completely covered with ivy; and, even on the top of some of the arches, trees have sprung up to a considerable growth, and these, clustering with the aspiring pinnacles, add character to the Gothic pile. These aged trees on the summit of the walls are the surest records we have of the antiquity of its destruction.”
The structure was originally cruciform, divided in the breadth into three parts by two colonnaded arcades. The cross or transepts and choir have all been short; a part of the north transept which is still standing, called St. Mary’s aisle, is a beautiful specimen of early Gothic work. Perhaps the most striking feature in the remains is a fine Norman arch, which was originally the western doorway. Its enrichments are in the style of the 12th century, and little affected by time. The monastery is a complete ruin. Nothing is entire but the chapter-house, St. Modan’s chapel, and the adjoining passages. The chapter-house is 47 feet long, 23 broad, and 20 in height. At the east end there are five pointed windows; the western extremity contains a circular-headed centre-window, with a smaller one on either side. The hall is adorned with a row of intersected arches. Mr. Smith concludes his description with the following remarks:- “From a minute inspection of the ruins, we are led to believe that there are portions of the work of a much earlier date. The arch was the distinctive feature of al structures of the middle ages, as the column was of those of classic antiquity; and among these ruins we observe no fewer than four distinct styles of arches, – namely, the massive Roman arch with its square sides; the imposing deep-splayed Saxon; the pillared and intersected Norman; and last, the early English pointed arch. These differ not only in design, but in the quality of the materials and in the execution. The chapter-house and abbot’s parlour, with the contiguous domestic dwellings of the monks, we consider of much greater antiquity than the church.” These structures were built of a hard pinkish-coloured sand-stone, and exhibit a remarkable diversity in their levels. Near the ruins still flourishes a fine tree which there is good reason to suppose was planted seven centuries ago.
The late Earl of Buchan was devotedly attached to this place. At a short distance from the abbey he constructed an elegant wire suspension-bridge over the Tweed, 260 feet in length, and 4 feet 7 inches between the rails, which was recently blown down. His lordship also erected on his grounds here an Ionic temple, with a statue of Apollo in the inside, and a bust of the bard of ‘The Seasons’ surmounting the dome. He also raised a colossal statue of Sir William Wallace, on the summit of a steep and thickly-planted hill; which was placed on its pedestal September 22, 1814, the anniversary of the victory at Stirling bridge, in 1297. “It occupies so eminent a situation,” says Mr. Chambers, “that Wallace frowning towards England, is visible even from Berwick, a distance of more than 30 miles.” The statue is 21½ feet high, and is formed of red sandstone, painted white. It was designed by Mr. John Smith, sculptor, from a supposed authentic portrait, which was purchased in France by the father of the late Sir Philip Ainslie of Pilton. The hero is represented in the ancient Scottish dress and armour, with a shield hanging from his left hand, and leaning lightly on his spear with his right. Upon a tablet below there is an appropriate inscription.
Sir Walter Scott, in the ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border,’ gives an interesting account of the Nun of Dryburgh, – an unfortunate female wanderer, who took up her abode, about eighty years ago, in a vault amongst the ruins of this abbey, which during the day she never quitted. It was supposed from an account she gave of a spirit who used to arrange her habitation, at night, during her absence in search of food or charity at the residences of gentlemen in the neighbourhood, that the vault was haunted; and it is still, on this account, regarded with terror by many among the lower orders. She never could be prevailed upon to relate to her friends the reason why she adopted so singular a course of life; “but it was believed,” says Sir Walter, “that it was occasioned by a vow that during the absence of a man to whom she was attached, she would never look upon the sun. Her lover never returned. He fell during the civil war of 1745-6, and she never more beheld the light of day.”
It has been conjectured, that the name Dryburgh takes its derivation from the Celtic Darach-bruach, – ‘the Bank of the grove of oaks.’ Some vestiges of Pagan worship have been found on the Bass hill, – an eminence in its vicinity, – among which was an instrument used for killing the victims in sacrifice. In the early part of the 6th century a monastery was founded here by St. Modan; but it is supposed that after his death the community was transferred to Melrose. Mr. Morton observes, that it “was probably destroyed by the ferocious Saxon invaders under Ida, the flame-bearer, who landed on the coast of Yorkshire, in 547, and after subduing Northumberland, added this part of Scotland to his dominions by his victory over the Scoto-Britons at Cattraeth.” Part of the original monastery is supposed to remain in the sub-structure of the existing ruins.
The present structure was founded by Hugh de Morville, Lord of Lauderdale, and Constable of Scotland, about 1150. According to the Chronicle of Melros, Beatrix de Beauchamp, wife of De Morville, obtained a charter of confirmation for the new foundation, from David I.; and the cemetery was consecrated on St Martin’s day, 1150, “that no demons might haunt it;” but the community did not come to reside here until the 13th of December, 1152. The monks were Premonstratensians, from Alnwick. tradition says, that the English, under Edward II., in their retreat in 1322, provoked by the imprudent triumph of the monks in ringing the church-bells at their departure, returned and burnt the abbey in revenge. King Robert the Bruce contributed liberally towards its repair, but it has been doubted whether it ever was fully restored to its original magnificence. Certain flagrant disorders, which occurred here in the 14th century, drew down the severe censure of Pope Gregory XI. upon the inmates. Many of the abbots of Dryburgh were persons of high rank and consequence. James Stewart, who was abbot in 1545, occasionally exchanged the cowl for the helmet. Having united his retainers with those of some neighbouring nobles, they boldly determined on making a raid on the English border, and crossing the Tweed, burned the village of Horncliffe in Northumberland; but the garrisons of Norham and Berwick attacked and drove them across the border with considerable loss, before they could effect much more damage. In the same year Dryburgh abbey was destined again to be laid in ruins; being plundered and burnt by an English force under the Earl of Hertford. The market-town of Dryburgh has been previously destroyed by the troops of Sir George Bowes. The last head of this house – the lands and revenues of which were annexed to the Crown in 1587 – was David Erskine, natural son of Lord Erskine, who is described as “ane exceeding modest, honest, and shamefast man.” The abbey and its demesnes were granted by James VI. of Scotland to Henry Erskine, Lord Cardross; second son of John, Earl of Mar, the Lord -treasurer, and Mary, daughter of Esme Stewart, Duke of Lennox, – the direct ancestor of David Stewart Erskine, Earl of Buchan. The estate of Dryburgh-proper lies in the parish of Mertoun, in Berwickshire.