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North Berwick Priory

Nunnery (12th Century)

Site Name North Berwick Priory

Classification Nunnery (12th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Cistercian Convent

Canmore ID 56760

Site Number NT58SW 3

NGR NT 5459 8499

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council East Lothian
  • Parish North Berwick
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District East Lothian
  • Former County East Lothian

Archaeology Notes

NT58SW 3.00 5459 8499

NT58SW 3.01 NT 545 849 Abb's Well

NT58SW 3.02 NT 5465 8504 Tile Kiln

NT58SW 3.03 NT 5477 8500 Cross

NT58SW 3.04 NT 545 849 Architectural Fragments

(NT 5459 8499) Rems of (NAT) Priory (NR)

(Cistercian) (NAT)

OS 6" map (1968)

The priory of Cistercian nuns at North Berwick was founded by Duncan, Earl of Fife, between 1147 and 1153, a date of foundation of c.1150 having much to commend it. It would appear that this house may have been founded as a Benedictine house, and later claimed to be Cistercian to obtain the privileges of that order. The church was dedicated (to St Mary) by David de Bernham, bishop of St Andrews, in 1242. In Clement VII's bull, which is erroneously dated 1529, this house is said to have suffered frequent devastation by war and to have had its church burned by hostile action, but the occasion of the statement is not quite clear (English invasions took place in April and August 1385, and the reference must be retrospective). The buildings of the priory were said to be ruinous in 1587, and were granted to Alexander Hume, in whose favour in 1587x8, James VI granted 'the place in which the church and cloister were formerly situated', with the nunnery's properties, erected into a free barony.

I B Cowan and D E Easson 1976

The remains of this priory stand in the grounds of an old people's home in Old Abbey Road. They consist of a ruined late medieval range running E-W and built of rubble with dressings of yellowish-white stone. The W part has been a hall, raised on a series of four barrel-vaulted rooms running N and S which can be entered only from the S. The N side is featureless apart from a row of corbels for a wooden lean-to. The upper floor is mostly gone, but its arrangements can be traced. The S wall was lit by small oblong windows wider than high. The W gable had a fireplace and the E gable a large door giving access to another apartment of which only the N wall stands. The line of its roof is preserved on the E gable of the first room, but its mains feature is a large fireplace that projects outwards from the face of the N wall. Externally it has a series of set-offs like a buttress. In the inside wall of the fireplace is a small lancet, built-up when the fireplace was made. Another fireplace of the same type and date adjoined immediately to the E, and the arched opening between the two is still there, blocked and pierced with a gun loop. A square tower projects from the N wall at the junction of the two rooms. In its W face is a round stair-turret, and at the NE angle a circular turret is corbelled out. This tower may have been built by Alexander Hume around 1587.

The extant buildings most probably formed the N range of the claustral buildings, refectory to the W, kitchen to the E. The cloister garth would then be represented by the present garden and the church would lie to the S. (The foundations of the church are said to have been noticed during the formation of a tennis court; and Ferrier mentions that human bones have been unearthed from time to time in the garden of the old people's home, indicative of a graveyard.) The extent of the monastic buildings can be gauged from the segmental-arched gateway on the W side of the garden and the continuation of the N wall for 17m E of the kitchen before it turns S.

C McWilliam 1978; RCAHMS 1924, visited 1915; D B Swan 1928; W M Ferrier 1980

When seen in 1975, the remains of the priory were in the same condition as that described by McWilliam.

Visited by OS (JP) 8 July 1975

NT 5459 8499 Archaeological evaluation at North Berwick Priory was commissioned by MacAlister & Gilmour Architects and was conducted by AOC (Scotland) Ltd in advance of a proposed building development.

North Berwick Priory was a foundation of Duncan, first Earl of Fife,

cAD 1150, and was a house of Cistercian nuns. The ruined N range of the convent buildings still stands in the grounds of 'The Abbey', an old people's home. Previous excavation had revealed a 13th century tile kiln 30m N of the present Priory ruins. The present evaluation took the form of trial trech excavation at four locations SW, S and SE of these ruins.

Twenty-four graves (F4012) recorded in a trench E of the ruins appear to represent an organised cemetery, probably contemporary with the occupation of the site by the Cistercian Priory.

Two large, deep pits recorded in the same trench are interpreted as industrial features and appear to have been used to fire or roast limestone in the preparation of building mortar. One of the pits demonstrably pre-dates the cemetery as it is cut by several graves.

The present grounds are bordered on the S and E by a shallow, dry valley which falls towards NE, issuing seawards. A former stream channel within this valley is represented by water-sorted sediments occuring at depths of up to 2.8m from the present surface. The higher ground on the N side of this stream valley is demarcated, variously, by a stone-revetted terrace edge or by a stone kerb. Both the stream channel and the stone revetments were buried under a series of deep land-fill dumps- rich in medieval midden material- with which this low-lying area of the site had been levelled or reclaimed.

Sponsor: FASGA Ltd.

J O'Sullivan 1995.

NT 5459 8499 A programme of archaeological works in response to the development of the grounds of the medieval priory at North Berwick was undertaken in January, February and March 1997. These works included a watching brief on all ground-breaking works; the excavation of six burials which fell within the footprint of the development; and the excavation of a partial structure to the immediate SE of the priory.

Sponsor: FASGA Ltd.

T Rees, J Gooder and M Engl 1997

NT 546 850 A small residential housing development is being built to the SW of the priory (NT58SW 3.00). A previous trench (DES 1995, 50-51) ran through the middle of the development area without encountering significant archaeological remains. In the current evaluation, seven trenches were excavated in November 2001, comprising 10% of the overall area. Archaeological remains were widespread but the most significant were clustered towards the E side of the site. These included a cobbled surface, aligned with the surviving arched entrance to the SW of the main ruins, as well as boundary walls and ditches with in situ medieval structures and deposits. Significant structural remains include a slab-lined trough and a pair of drystone culverts draining the site. A range of medieval artefacts, including pottery, a lead pistol shot and a James IV (1583-90) plack were found.

Report deposited in the NMRS.

Sponsor: Barbour Homes.

I Suddaby (CFA) 2002

Architecture Notes


National Buildings Record - Views in the Lothians - H.H.D. Collection - Pages 6 and 7 - 3 engravings.

(Undated) information in NMRS.


Publication Account (1981)

About a quarter of a mile to the west of the town stands the ruins of a nunnery dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was formerly endowed with revenue from different sources in Fife, Ayrshire, Berwickshire and the Lothians (Ferrier, 1878, 14). It was founded by Duncan I Earl of Fife (1136-1154), and may have been originally a Benedictine house later claiming to be Cistercian in order to claim the privileges of that order (Cowan, 1947, 147). Ruins of the nunnery survive in the grounds of an old people's home. They consist of a ruined late medieval range running east and west, constructed of rubble with dressing of a yellowish white stone (Mcwilliam, 1978, 363).

Information from ‘Historic North Berwick: The Archaeological Implications of Development’ (1981).

External Reference (2 September 2011)

Scheduled as 'North Berwick Priory, nunnery 60m NE of 4 Priory Gate [comprising] the buried and upstanding remains of a medieval nunnery, founded between 1147 and 1153 and suppressed in 1597.'

Information from Historic Scotland, scheduling document dated 2 September 2011.


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