Melrose Abbey


Site Name Melrose Abbey

Classification Abbey

Canmore ID 55738

Site Number NT53SW 30

NGR NT 54848 34177

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

Ordnance Survey licence number 100020548. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Scottish Borders, The
  • Parish Melrose
  • Former Region Borders
  • Former District Ettrick And Lauderdale
  • Former County Roxburghshire

Treasured Places - HLF funded (31 July 2007)

Founded in 1136 by David I, Melrose was the first Cistercian Abbey in Scotland. Following significant damage to the original stone church by English armies in 1322 and 1385, rebuilding produced one of Scotland's most important medieval buildings. The scale of the structure and quality of stonework can still be seen, although the Abbey is now partly ruinous.

Information from RCAHMS (SC) 31 July 2007

Cruft, K, Dunbar, J and Fawcett, R 2006

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Archaeology Notes

NT53SW 30 54848 34177

See also:

NT53SW 130 Commendator's House

NT53SW 131 Abbey Burial Ground

(NT 5486 3417) Remains of Abbey (NR)

(Cistercian - founded AD 1136) (NAT)

OS 6" map (1967)

The remains of Melrose Abbey, Cistercian, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, founded in 1136 and secularised in 1609. It suffered greatly during English invasions of the Borders, especially in 1322, 1385 and 1545 and from stone robbers after the Reformation, but enough survives to indicate the high quality of its medieval architecture and sculpture and modern excavations have revealed much of the ground plan.

D E Easson 1957

RCAHMS (1956) and Melrose Abbey Official Guide Book (1949) provide a full description. (J S Richardson and M Wood 1949).

Visited by OS (WDJ) 13 February 1957

The remains of Melrose Abbey are in good condition and in the care of the DoE. (J S Richardson and M Wood 1973)

Surveyed at 1:1250.

Visited by OS (TRG) 4 March 1977

NT 547 342 Two trial trenches were opened to the W of the abbey, trench 1 in the garden of Abbey House and trench 2 in the adjacent car park.

Trench 1 Below turf and topsoil were several areas of metalling, comprising sub-angular and rounded pebbles, these are thought to represent a road or courtyard, the patches of different metalling being repairs.

Trench 2 Below tarmac and c1m of levelling material, comprising mostly large rubble, were further areas of cobbling, including several small iron blooms and slag.

The levels of these various areas of metalling were almost identical and, although the evidence is not conclusive, they are thought to represent the same courtyard or road surface. None of these surfaces were excavated.

A Radley 1991.

NT 5486 3417 A large-scale area excavation was undertaken by Kirkdale Archaeology during August and September 1996 to define the area and extent of the chapter house, to the N of the N transept and sacristy. Previous excavation in the 1920s had uncovered elements of masonry foundations belonging to the E range, in which the chapter house was located, and a geophysical survey had revealed possible wall lines beneath the presently grassed area. The excavation revealed a sequence of three successive chapter houses, from the initial 12th-century example, through a 13th-century rebuilding and culminating in the 14th-century building. The latter two saw the extension of the chapter house eastwards, whereas the initial chapter house probably sat within the E range, and extended no further E than the E edge of the N transept of the 12th-century church.

Rebuilding work within the church nave in 1610 may have seen the total clearance of the chapter house remains, since very little masonry evidence was recorded. This is also due, in part, to the lack of deep foundations ? the chapter house was founded on a level platform of redeposited river clay, on shallow founds. Further, the presence of a series of modern land drains had disturbed and truncated the monastic remains considerably. Due to the extreme lack of masonry evidence, the successive plans of the chapter house were defined by the remains of floor deposits and masonry pillar bases, alongside eaves-drip drains to the exterior of the later two buildings. Evidence for an elaborate tiled floor was recovered, and it would appear that the latter two chapter houses were both furnished with such a floor. Tentative evidence for the form and dimensions of the decorated tiled floor relating to the third and final chapter house was also revealed.

In addition, a number of graves were uncovered, relating to all three of the chapter houses. The sequence of burials and floor levels was extremely difficult to perceive, not least due to the fact that later graves had been interred over the robbed-out remains of earlier inhumations. The Chronica de Mailros reveals that a number of burials were relocated from the W to the E end of the chapter house in 1240. Most of the graves had been disturbed, either by the 1921 excavation or previously, and the human remains were poorly preserved. No skeletal material was removed.

Of much public interest (but of less archaeological significance) was the find of a lead cylinder, containing a medieval, cone-shaped lead casket. Originally uncovered in 1921, this was thought to be the casket containing the heart of King Robert I, whose dying wish was that his heart be taken on Crusade, and thence returned to Scotland, to be buried at Melrose. It is likely that the heart was moved from a more suitable location (at the high altar) to the chapter house during the substantial rebuilding works of the 14th century.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland.

G Ewart and A Dunn 1996

NT 5486 3417 A watching brief was undertaken by Kirkdale Archaeology at Melrose Abbey during the laying of electricity cables in November 1995. Extensive archaeological material was uncovered in the small area affected, possibly including the great abbey drain, and a post-monastic building. All features were sealed by a series of road deposits, the earliest relating to access to the brewery.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland.

G Ewart and D Murray 1996

NT 548 341 Further excavations were undertaken at Melrose Abbey in August 1997, following on from work on the chapter house conducted in the summer of 1996 (Ewart and Murray 1996). The intention was to further investigate the area of the chapter house and also two anomalies noted during the geophysical survey conducted in 1996. Five trenches in total were opened. The first trench was opened over a sub-circular anomaly to the W of the lay brothers' range, shown on the 1st edition OS map as the site of a tree. A deep pit, possibly a tree hole, was revealed, cut through 19th-century terracing deposits. A further three trenches were opened over the bank to the S of the site of the chapter house, revealing a monastic roof-shed drain along the line of the former chapter house S wall. Further evidence for the pits revealed in 1996, representing the robbing of the Period I chapter house floor, was also uncovered, confirming their relationship to the monastic, rather than post-monastic, use of the site. The findings have enlarged the understanding of the floor evidence in that a convincing relationship between the drain, defining the S side of the chapter house before the extension of the church, and the 15th-century N transept was revealed. A further trench was opened over a linear anomaly beside the Lavatorium, proving to be a 1920s planting bed.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

G Ewart and A Dunn 1997.

NT 5486 3417 A trench already excavated by the Historic Scotland squad, to the SW of the abbey, was recorded. A number of architectural fragments and hand-made floor tiles had been reported from this trench.

A surprisingly long sequence was observed in this trench, including a cobbled surface, a wall footing and the wall construction cut. Other deposits, all apparently post-dating the wall, may represent dumps of levelling material.

The architectural fragments are evidently from the abbey, the large number of hand-made floor tiles are likely to be from the same source.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

D Murray 1998

NT 5486 3417 Excavations were carried out over December 1998 and January 1999 on the site of the presumed Lay Brothers Cloister. Ten trenches in total were excavated, nine within the gardens and a single trench in the area to the E of Abbey Street, against the interior W perimeter wall of the abbey itself. A magnetometer survey had revealed possible wall lines in the area of the gardens to the N of Abbey House. The magnetometer survey also indicated a possible wall line running E-W below the current Abbey Street, indicating a possible continuation further westwards of buildings presently confined to the enclosed abbey grounds.

Excavation around the lawn and flowerbeds of the ornamental garden located potential abbey masonry in one trench, situated on the E edge of the garden against the inside face of the Abbey Street W wall. The other seven trenches exposed a variety of drainage and landscape features, some of which may be early in date. The principal structure on the site was a large, rubble-filled trench running diagonally across the site from SW-NE, which may be a robbed-out wall line backfilled with rubble, but could also be the principal subsoil drain for the ornamental garden. An E-W cut located in two trenches could be the edge of a scarped terrace of monastic period, of which the general level of 86m OD would represent the upper terrace. It was noted that the only early finds were from below the edge of this terrace.

The single trench within the abbey grounds indicated that the 1m of later deposits found W of Abbey Street had been completely cleared away in building clearance works E of Abbey Street, with the result that the turf lies directly on the natural subsoil in this area. It was, however, noted that the level of the subsoil exactly matched the 86m OD found on the possible terrace W of Abbey Street, and appears to be part of the same levelled surface. Additionally it became clear that the column bases found in the chamber adjacent to Abbey Street do not continue to the W and that the late road wall at the W end of the columned chamber sits on the original W wall of the chamber. The range to the W of the abbey did not therefore continue beneath Abbey Street, as the magnetometer survey results may have suggested.

A small trench placed to the E of the gable end of Abbey House located masonry directly below the gravel driveway, indicating that the original guest house extended further W.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

D Stewart and A Dunn 1999

NT 5486 3417 A watching brief was carried out at Melrose Abbey (NMRS NT53SW 30) in March 2000 during a programme of cable trenching. The work consisted of excavating a narrow, 300mm deep trench over a distance of 91.4m, externally and within the abbey church. The whole of the trench was hand-dug, with archaeological monitoring covering the section of excavations within the church.

It is known that the interior of the church was extensively cleared and landscaped in 1923, and presumably much of the levelling material located in the trench sections would date from that period. A soil layer located throughout the church might be an early natural accumulation of soil over a thin layer of demolition debris, which was in turn sealed over in the 1920s by red sandstone waste material.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

D Stewart 2000

NT 5486 3417 The excavation of wall foundation trenches was monitored in June 2000 in advance of a new service room extension to the S gable of Orchard Cottage. The general area has seen several episodes of archaeological assessment and recording, none of which have revealed any structural remains associated with the abbey and its assumed precinct buildings. The present Orchard Cottage (dated to 1998) appears to fall within Capt. Steadman's Orchard, as shown on John Wood's 1826 plan of Melrose and Gattonside.

The finds from the upper deposits suggest cultivation towards the end of the 19th century, but the generally clean aspect of the lower fill suggests redeposited natural soils, imported to form the garden once the boundary walls were in place. The walls themselves do not appear to be part of the earliest settlement of the abbey (12th to late 14th century) and may be better regarded as part of a later period of land use, where extensive gardens and orchards were laid out at a time when the 13th-century abbey community had been reduced in size and the abbey plan rationalised.

G Ewart 2000.

NT 548 341 A watching brief was maintained throughout groundbreaking works associated with the installation of a new

gas mains in Melrose between November 2004 and January 2005. The work was conducted within the Scheduled area of Melrose Abbey (NT53SW 30). Excavations for the gas mains took place on Cloisters Road, Abbey Street, St Mary's Road, and within the grounds of Abbey House (Abbey Place).

The excavations on Cloisters Road revealed a number of walls that correspond in plan to the abbey remains on the N and S side of Cloisters Road. These include the great hall, the refectory and the parts of the cloisters complex. As well as these known buildings, two walls that do not relate to any of the visible features in the abbey grounds were uncovered at the W end of Cloisters Road.

Excavations on Abbey Street revealed sections of standing walls and a probable medieval culvert. No archaeological features were uncovered during the excavations on St Mary's Road or Abbey Place.

Archive to be deposited in NMRS.

C O'Connell 2005

Architecture Notes


'Builder's Journal and Architectural Record'.

May 5th 1897 Plans, elevations, section and details.


Removal of lead from 'kirk and place' of Melrose.

Letter of arrestment.

1570 GD150/1467

September 2. Letter by [Thomas?] Ogilvie, Chesters, to the Duke of Buccleuch, acknowledging receipt of a gift of venison. Comments on demolition work carried out by the Duke's orders at Melrose Abbey. This has revealed somE fine sculpture previously hidden 'but I think ... you will think you have done enough not to endanger the old building ...'

1811 GD 224/628/40

(Undated) information in NMRS.



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