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The Border Abbeys

The inspiration for this project comes from the opening lines of the second canto of Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel. The interplay between light and stone, so evident in all of the ruined Abbeys of the Scottish Borders, was clearly not lost on Scott, whose house is nearby at Abbotsford and who was laid to rest in Dryburgh Abbey. His somewhat long narrative poem is credited with bringing the Abbeys and wider Scottish Border landscape and its heritage to the Victorian tourist.

However, I only came to appreciate the full magnificence and grandeur of the ruined Abbeys of the Scottish Borders on visits in June and September of 2019, and I found that taking the time to look at the ruins was both inspirational and moving. Walking through the Aisle Chapels and entering the Monks Choir at Melrose Abbey as the monophonic motets of Gregorian chant echoed through the ruins, thanks to Historic Scotland’s carefully concealed speakers, I found myself overwhelmed by the massiveness of this 12th century Abbey, and equally moved by the sense of loss of the religious communities that had once strived to maintain their grandeur. The Abbeys, founded by David I, stand as monuments to the turbulent medieval history of Scotland: the struggle for nationhood, attacks perpetrated under the orders of the English king, Henry VIII, and the Scottish Reformation that eventually led to their ruin, an open history book of tragedy and struggle that can evoke emotions ranging from exaltation to melancholy.

In this sequence of images, the words are from Scott's poem, the photographs from the ruined Abbeys of Melrose, Jedburgh, Kelso and Dryburgh. The final image, is a view through a romanesque arch at Dryburgh Abbey to Scott's tomb.

If thou would'st view fair Melrose aright, Go visit it by the pale moonlight;
Melrose Abbey
For the gay beams of lightsome day Gild, but to flout, the ruins grey.
Jedburgh Abbey
When the broken arches are black in night, And each shafted oriel glimmers white;
Melrose Abbey
When the cold light's uncertain shower Streams on the ruin'd central tower;
Melrose Abbey
When buttress and buttress, alternately, Seem framed of ebon and ivory;
Jedburgh Abbey
When silver edges the imagery, And the scrolls that teach thee to live and die;
Melrose Abbey
When distant Tweed is heard to rave, And the owlet to hoot o'er the dead man's grave,
Jedburgh Abbey
Then go – but go alone the while – Then view St. David's ruin'd pile;
Kelso Abbey
And, home returning, soothly swear, Was never scene so sad and fair!
Dryburgh Abbey
Created By
Iain Gilmour
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