On a short trip to the (Scottish) Borders this weekend to visit friends, we spent a sunny – sunny! – morning exploring the wonderful ruins of Jedburgh Abbey. We have visited before, but this was the first time that our boys were old enough to appreciate it. Through a child’s eyes, monastic ruins look neither poignant nor numinous: they are fun.
One of several great monasteries founded by King David I of Scotland during the flowering of religious patronage in the twelfth century, Jedburgh was a house of Augustinian Canons; priests who went out to serve in the community while maintaining a monastic routine. They were never left to enjoy a contemplative life for long, however. Jedburgh is only ten miles or so from the English border. This puts it firmly in the ‘Debatable Lands’ which were fought over for centuries, with the Scots invading the English lands to pillage and burn, the English doing the same in reverse, and the Scots borderers – when there was nothing better to do – pillaging and reiving from each other. The wealthy abbeys of the Borders suffered accordingly. Parts of Jedburgh Abbey were destroyed during the Scots Wars of Independence at the start of the fourteenth century. Further raids followed during the fifteenth century and a sustained English attack in 1523 destroyed more of it, but its final demise came via the book rather than the sword: the Reformation of 1560 swept away all trace of Catholicism in Scotland, turning what remained of any monasteries into parish churches. Of the great medieval abbey of Jedburgh, only the skeleton survives today, ‘bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’.
However, any poignancy was completely lost on the boys, as I say. Crumbled walls make great climbing frames; hidden staircases make splendid ambush spots. Not only that, but the little visitor centre at the entrance to the abbey has a room full of dressing up clothes. Younger son homed in on a dashing doublet and hose and was soon haring around the walls ‘being a nobleman’, looking for baddies to attack and ladies (or failing that, mummy) whom he could wow with a sweep of his velvet cap. Elder son, who is a more retiring soul, donned a russet habit and felted wool cowl, and drifted off through the ruins like a ghostly novice. He certainly caused a few tourists to do a double take.
With its warm pink stone, unexpected vistas and colourful history, Jedburgh Abbey is a wonderful place to visit, if ever you should find yourself lucky enough to be in the Borders.
Another of David I’s foundations, in this case on what is now the English side of the border, features in Now, THIS is a castle. And there are further beautiful medieval ruins to be found in Of Merovingians and macaroons.