The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD is enthroned as King forever.
The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.
– Psalm 29: 10-11
The kind of peace and solitude offered at abbeys like the ones at Melrose and Dryburgh is one most of us can only dream about today. If we do get a time to reflect, it is usually short-lived and sandwiched between periods of business, stress, and hurry. Imagine a lifestyle that made self-reflection and meditation an integral part of daily life. Imagine a lifestyle free from distracting screens, wires, plugs, cell phones, and TVs. Imagine never having to buy food from a supermarket. This is the life of the monks of the abbey, dedicated wholly to God and His service.
The original church was built in the 12th century but largely destroyed by English armies invading Scotland during and after the Wars of Independence in the 14th century. The abbey was rebuilt over the old one on a bigger scale. The nave was the center of the monastery, where worship, services, and choir performances took place. Several aisle chapels lined the sides of the nave, and two transepts on either side of the main altar housed additional altars for monks to offer up private prayers for the souls of their patrons. The chapter house was the main meeting place, where monks met daily to hear a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict and discuss important business matters.
Outside, living quarters housed the monks. The cloister is a large, rectangular space within the abbey cultivated by monks as a garden. Depending on the abbey, you would also find a cemetery, tanning beds, a drainage system, and a commendator’s house.
It is hard to imagine how the abbey would have looked. If it is magnificent as a ruin, imagine what it would have looked like in its heyday. Artist conceptions found in books are a useful way to see how things would have appeared. Some abbeys play monastic chant music which emanates throughout the abbey, giving you an audible sense of what the monks would have heard centuries ago.
Something that sets Melrose Abbey apart from other abbeys is the fact that Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried here. Bruce was Scotland’s king following the Wars of Independence and the heroic struggles of William Wallace.
About a half hour’s journey from Melrose is Dryburgh. While Melrose Abbey now has a thriving town built up around it, Dryburgh sits largely secluded and is able to offer to visitors the same serenity it would have offered the contemplative life of a medieval monk. The abbey sits near the Tweed River, the richest river in the Scottish borders. The order who settled in this idyllic spot in 1150 came from Northumberland at the invitation of Hugh de Moreville, the king’s constable. Like other abbeys, it too suffered destruction from marauding English armies, fires, and a brutal attack in 1544 from which the monastery never recovered. Today, it is in the care of Historic Scotland. Thousands of visitors each year come to marvel at its romantic ruins and surrounding beauty.
Dryburgh Abbey is also the final resting place of Sir Walter Scott and his wife. Scott is author of such classic novels as Ivanhoe, Waverley, Rob Roy, and The Bride of Lammermoor. Scott, whose home is in nearby Abbotsford, had great influence on literature, establishing the historical genre of novel. His novels were popular and often sold out within a few weeks of being released.
For a time of quite reflection and a glimpse into the colorful history of Scotland and its people, the abbeys of Scotland are unparalleled.