Font Size

100% 150% 200%

Background Colour

Default Contrast
Close Reset

Kelso, Bridge Street, Abbey

Abbey (13th Century), Monastery (12th Century)

Site Name Kelso, Bridge Street, Abbey

Classification Abbey (13th Century), Monastery (12th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Monastery At Kelso; Kelso Abbey

Canmore ID 58418

Site Number NT73SW 18

NGR NT 72844 33815

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2023.

Toggle Aerial | View on large map

Digital Images

First 100 images shown. See the Collections panel (below) for a link to all digital images.

Administrative Areas

  • Council Scottish Borders, The
  • Parish Kelso
  • Former Region Borders
  • Former District Roxburgh
  • Former County Roxburghshire

Accessing Scotland's Past Project

The origins of Kelso Abbey lie in the arrival of monks from Selkirk in 1128. These brethren were Tironensians, an order with its roots in France. Work on the great abbey church finished in 1248, and the building was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St John. At its height, Kelso was one of the richest monasteries in Scotland, with revenues from over 30 churches throughout the country as well as from brewing, mills and wool.

Today, the most tangible remainder of the abbey is the impressive monumental west porch of the church, which stands three storeys in height with the remains of its two transepts (the arms of the cross), and the west side of the tower at the west crossing. The church is unusual in that it was built to resemble a double cross, with transepts at either end. This design was probably inspired by buildings such as Ely Cathedral in England, and several similar churches in the German Rhineland. Little would be known about the interior of the church if it was not for the writings of John Duncan, a cleric from Glasgow who visited Kelso Abbey in 1517. His detailed account pre-dates the destructive raids carried out by Henry VIII's soldiers about 30 years later.

Excavations have shed some light onto the layout of the abbey's other buildings. A cloister adjoined the southern wall of the church, and was enclosed by buildings that would have probably housed offices, a dormitory and a refectory, or dining hall, for the monks. The infirmary was discovered through excavation, and lay to the east of the main abbey buildings. The infirmary, where the sick and infirm would have been cared for, probably had running water as lead pipes were found nearby.

Text prepared by RCAHMS as part of the Accessing Scotland's Past project

Archaeology Notes

(Centred: NT 7290 3381) Abbey (NR) 12th Cent. (Site of).

Church (NR).

OS 25"map, Roxburghshire, (1921).

NT73SW 18.01 NT 728 338 Lead Pipe

NT73SW 18.02 NT 7293 3384, NT 7303 3377 and NT 7300 3374 Excavations

NT73SW 18.03 NT 72862 33802 Roxburghe Cloister

(Monument to the Dukes of Roxburghe)

NT73SW 18.04 NT 7287 3372 Watching Brief (2004)

Kelso Abbey:

In 1128 a convent of reformed Benedictines abandoned their earlier home at Selkirk, to which they had come in 1113 from their mother-house of Tiron in France, and migrated, under the leadership of Herbert, the third abbot (A C Lawrie 1905), to a new abbey at Kelso, founded and endowed by David I. The earlier site, which David had also provided, had proved unsuitable. This new abbey, dedicated both to the Blessed Virgin and to St John, rose on level haugh-land on the left bank of Tweed, facing the burgh of Roxburgh (RCAHMS 1956, No.521) and the royal castle that was known as Marchmount (RCAHMS 1956, No.905). It was destined to become one of the largest and the second wealthiest of the religious houses in Scotland. But its situation, so close to the troubled Border, laid it open to attack throughout almost its whole existence (Papal Letters AD 1444). For a time after the Wars of Independence it had even to be abandoned (Liber de Calchou 1846), while in the period preceding the Reformation it was continuously harried by the English. Destroyed by Dacre in 1522 and by the Duke of Norfolk twenty years later, it was finally stormed and captured in 1545 by Hertford, who resolved "to rase and deface this house of Kelso so as the enemye shal have lytell commoditie of the same" (State Papers, Henry VIII 1830-52). What survived was given to the flames two years later. Thereafter, the Commendator, James Stewart, effected some repairs; (Hist Mss Commission, Milne Home, Wedderburn Castle, 250), but it was reported in 1587 that "the haill monkis of the monasterie of the abbey of Kelso ar deciessit" (Acts Parl Scot, W Thomas and C Innes eds.) and in 1594 the temporality of the abbey was inalienably annexed to the Crown. (Acts Parl Scot).

The Buildings: Little more is left of the abbey buildings than the W end of the great church, which was founded on 3 May 1128, (A O and M O Anderson 1936), and dedicated by David de Bernham, bishop of St Andrews on 27 March 1243. When on the point of death in 1253 this bishop chose to be buried here and not in his own cathedral. In view of the condition of the fabric, it is particularly fortunate that a description of the Abbey as it stood in 1517, before the major destructions had taken place, is preserved in the Vatican archives. This is contained in a Latin document published as early as 1864 (A Theiner 1864), which, however, escaped notice until about thirty years ago because it was omitted from the index of the work in which it appeared. The document in question is a deposition made before a papal notary by a certain John Duncan, a cleric of Glasgow diocese, and contains the following passages a translation of which deserves to be quoted in full.

"The church or monastery of Calco took its name from the small town of that name by which it stands. "The monastery itself is double, for not only is it conventual, having a convent of monks, but it is also a ministry; for it possesses a wide parish with the accompanying cure of souls which the Abbot is accustomed to exercise through a secular presbyter-vicar, removable at his pleasure. The Abbot exercises episcopal jurisdiction over his parishioners himself.

"The church, in size and shape, resembles that of St Augustine de Urbe, except that at each end it has two high chapels on each side, like wings, which give the church the likeness of a double cross. Its fabric is of squared grey stone, and it is very old indeed (vetusta admodum et annosa). It has three doorways, one towards the west, in the fore-part (in anteriore parte), and the other two at the sides. It is divided into three naves by a double row of columns. The entire roof of the church is wooden, and its outer covering is of leaden sheets. The ground within is partly paved with stone and partly floored with bare earth. It has two towers, one at the first entrance to the church, the other in the inner part at the choir; both are square in plan and are crowned by pyramidal roofs like the tower of the Basilica of St Peter. The first contains many sweet-sounding bells, the other, at the choir, is empty on account of decay and age. The church is divided by a transverse wall into two parts; the outer part is open to all, especially parishioners both women and men, who there hear masses and receive all sacraments from their parochial vicar. The other part, the back of the church, takes only monks who chant and clebrate the Divine Office. Laymen do not go in except at the time of Divine Service, and then only men; but on some of the more solemn festivals of the year women are also admitted. In this furthest-back part, at the head of the church, there is an old wooden choir.

"The high altar is at the head of the choir, facing east, and on this several choral masses are celebrated daily, one for the founder and the other according to the current feast or holiday. There are besides, in the whole church, twelve or thirteen altars on which several masses are said daily, both by monks and by secular chaplains. In the middle of the church, on that wall which divides the monks from the parishioners, there is a platform of wood; here stands the altar of the Holy Rood, on which the Body of Christ is reserved and assiduously worshipped, and there is the great worship and devotion of the parishioners. On the same platform there is also an organ of tin. The sacristy is on the right-hand side of the choir; in it are kept a silver cross, many chalices and vessels of silver, and other sufficiently precious ornaments belonging to the altar and the priests, as well as the mitre and pastoral staff.

"The cemetery is on the north, large and square, and enclosed with a low wall to keep out beasts. It is joined to the church. The cloister, or home of the monks, is on the south and is also joined to the church; it is spacious and square in shape, and is partly covered with lead and partly unroofed through the fury and impiety of enemies. In the cloister there is, on the one side, the chapter-house and the dormitory and on the other two refectories, a greater and lesser. The cloister has a wide court round which are many houses and lodgings ; there is also a guest-quarters common to both English and Scots. There are granaries and other places where merchants and the neighbours store their corn, wares and goods and keep them safe from enemies. There is also an orchard and a beautiful garden.

By the late 17th century, to judge from the illustrations in Slezer's Theatrum Scotiae, little more was left of the church than at present. Within the parts then surviving a parish church was instituted in 1649, its E wall being built in alignment with the E piers of the W crossing while the vestry extended E into what had been the nave. Traces of this intrusion remained until the middle of the last century, but had been swept away before HM Office of Works became custodian of the fabric in 1919.

The abbey church, as well as the cloister on its S side, must have been set out on the first entry of the convent to the site; this inference is corroborated by Fordum, who relates that Earl Henry (died 1152) "in monasterio de Kalco secus Roxburgum sepultus est, quod pater ejus a fundamentis construendo ... ditaverat", (Scotichronicon, Fordoun, Goodall ed. 1759) and some sixty years later, when the W end of the church came to be built, no material departure was made from the original Norman design although the architectural details were fashioned in the Transitional style then current.

The abbey buildings (RCAHMS 1956, fig. 297) are of sandstone, probably from Sprouston Quarry (RCAHMS 1956, No.975), situated on the opposite bank of the Tweed and 2 1/2 miles ENE of Kelso. The stone, pale grey to buff or yellow in colour when freshly broken, is rich in disseminated flakes of mica and consequently the carved details are considerably decayed.

Claustral Buildings: The only surviving part of the conventual buildings is the outer parlour, which adjoins the gable of the S transept. This is an oblong barrel-vaulted cell entered from the W by a much restored round-arched doorway. It formerly communicated with the cloister through an angular passage passing beneath the SE angle of the transept. Its walls bear the remains of an elaborate arcade (RCAHMS 1956, fig. 463) rising from a wall-bench. Most of the arcading has been removed from the E wall, and that of the S wall has been mutilated where a later door, window, and aumbry have been inserted, while none of its monolithic shafts has survived.

This parlour was latterly used as a stable, for which purpose its floor has been cobbled. A fragment of the abbey mill is described under RCAHMS 1956, No.508. On the S of the abbey buildings an arcade has recently been erected in memory of the eighth Duke of Roxburgh. In this arcade has been inserted a 13th-century doorway with a foiled head, which formerly stood SW of the parlour but probably came originally from the chapter-house....

RCAHMS 1956.

Various carved stones, including tomb-stones are to be found around the remains of the abbey. Some are undated while others vary from 14th to 17th century in date. Some have been brought to the abbey from other sites. (See RCAHMS 1956 for full details). (See Roxburgh. 10 NW 15 for Abbey Mill).

Information from OS recorder (DT) 27 february 1957.

NT 7285 3382. As described and illustrated by RCAHMS 1956.

Visited by OS(RDL) 28 November 1963.

A plaque at the entrance to the Abbey reads: 'The noble fragment which survives dates from the last quarter of the 12th Cent.....'

(Undated) information from OS recorder (EGC).

1988 excavations by Lowe and McCormick

Area 1 NT 7293 3384 85m NE of W transept

Area 2 NT 7303 3377 50m SE of area of 1975-6 excavation

Area 3 NT 7300 3374 75m SE of area of 1975-6 excavation

C E Lowe 1988.

Architecture Notes

Architect: Reginald Fairlie 1934 - Roxburgh Cloister


National Library -

M.S.S. 155-156 Vol. 1 (Gen. Hutton) - 2 sketches dated 1784-1788.

No. 155 - Bridge and Abbey in distance.

No. 156 - of stone placed in wall on Edin. Rd.

Ministry of Works Library -

Country Life, Sept. 24th p.776 - photograph of water colour by Baynes 1812.

Southern Reporter - July 5th 1866

Restoration of Kelso Abbey. Repairs £300 under the superintendence

of Mr Blaikie, Master of Works to the Duke of Buccleuch.

Massive clustered arch in SW arch is bulging out.


Excavation (1975 - 1976)

In 1975-6 excavations were carried for the Scottish Development Department on garden ground to the south-east of the standing remains of the abbey. This revealed evidence of intensive occupation throughout the monastery's existence from the 12th to the 16th centuries. The area was possibly used as a masons' lodge during the construction of the church and cloister, and later cleared before the end of the 12th century to accommodate the infirmary hall and its associated buildings. This had been largely abandoned by the end of the 15th century when its remaining walls were partially taken down and another dwelling erected upon the site. This was destroyed in the following century and the remains were used as stone quarry before reverting to open ground.

Tabraham 1984, 365-404

Publication Account (1985)

Reformed Benedictines from Tiron in France were introduced to Selkirk c1119. The site proved unsuitable and by 1128 they had moved to Kelso under the patronage of David I. Facing the now longvanished burgh and royal castle of Roxburgh (NT 713338), and dedicated both to the Virgin Mary and to St John, the abbey was to become one of the largest and the second richest of Scotland's religious houses. It also lay on the invasion route, close to the Border, and its downfall was sealed at the Refonnation-by 1587 "the haill monkis of the monasterie of the abbey of Kelso ar deciessit".

The principle survival is the abbey's west end, essentially a late 12th century Nonnan structure in transition to a pointed style of architecture. Internally there are virtually no plain surfaces; the walls are particularly strong in decorative arcades, notably in the two surviving bays fonning part of the south side of the nave. The first-storey arcades enclosed a wall passage (triforium), with another at the higher clearstory level; there are communicating stairs within the great angle buttresses.

Design in the nave is predominantly horizontal with relatively little light; in the many·windowed western transepts however, and in the great 'Galilee' torch, the lines are primarily vertical. Kelso was unusual in having transepts at the western end-indeed it had transepts at both ends, a feature deriving perhaps from churches in Gennany's Rhineland and found also at Ely and Bury St Edmunds. On plan the abbey must have resembled a double-ended cross, with a dark nave looking either way into brilliantly-lit transepts-a tunnel-effect from within.

Best preserved is the north transept with its magnificent gable. To the exterior both corners are gripped by buttresses, between which projects a stylish doorway with three recessed arches. Above the arches, an interlaced arcade is finished by a triangular pediment, decorated as at Lincoln.

Kelso also boasts an uncommon octagonal parish church (1773), the fine Ednam House (1761), 17th century houses in Abbey Court and 18th century houses in the Woodmarket The spacious Market Square has a Gallic feel to it; and Rennie's magnificent bridge (1800-3) replaced an earlier one of 1754, swept away in 1797.

Information from 'Exploring Scotland's Heritage: Lothian and Borders', (1985).

Watching Brief (7 June 2011)

NT 7283 3381 A watching brief was carried out on 7 June 2011 during the excavation of a single trench at the W door of Kelso Abbey. Deposits encountered appeared to represent demolition horizons from the Abbey Church, possibly relating to 16th-century destruction and clearance works.

Archive: RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: Historic Scotland

Kirkdale Archaeology, 2011

Watching Brief (7 June 2011)

A watching brief was carried out during the excavation of a single trench at the West Door of Kelso Abbey. Deposits encountered appeared to represent demolition horizons from the Abbey Church - possibly 16th-century demolition and clearance works.

Information from Oasis (kirkdale1-123735) 15 November 2013

Project (2014)

A geophysical survey and community engagement project was carried out to investigate the potential for archaeology within the Glebe Field, adjacent to Kelso Abbey, and engage local young people and members of the Friends of Kelso Museum.

Geophysical survey was carried out over an area that measured 120 m north-west/south-east by 120 m north-east/south-west (maximum). The surveys were conducted using resistivity and magnetic gradiometer within grids measuring 20 m by 20 m. A number of anomalies are intriguingly aligned more or less on the same orientation as medieval structures excavated in the 1970s to the north-east. This suggests that structures relating to the abbey survive beneath the Glebe Field. It is also possible that one anomaly that protrudes into the field may represent part of the cloistral buildings themselves. A group of anomalies aligned north-east/south-west may be a strong contender for the abbey's Great Drain.

An integral element of the project was a series of three workshop-based interactions with members of the Rezz Youth Club and members of the Friends of Kelso Museum, some of whom also assisted with the geophysical survey.

Source: Northlight Heritage (OL)

Funder: Scottish Borders Council, Heritage Lottery Fund Townscape Heritage Initiative, Historic Environment Scotland

Resistivity (2014)

Resistivity survey.

Source: Northlight Heritage (OL)

Funder: Scottish Borders Council, Heritage Lottery Fund Townscape Heritage Initiative, Historic Environment Scotland

Magnetometry (2014)

Magnetometry survey.

Source: Northlight Heritage (OL)

Funder: Scottish Borders Council, Heritage Lottery Fund Townscape Heritage Initiative, Historic Environment Scotland

Field Visit (September 2018 - October 2018)

NT 72885 33808 An assessment was undertaken of this 45 piece collection, which has a 12th- to 19th-century date range, in September – October 2018. The wide date-range is due to the presence of several late stones from the abbey’s boundary wall, which was probably renovated in the early 20th century. The remaining stones in the collection are medieval in date, and include a spandrel from a screen, jambs or column shafts, and a sundial, One jamb (KEL/j/2), has parallels in the triforium arcade in the SW transept. Here the mouldings, with a pointed roll set between a pair of halfrolls, resemble the form of the ex situ stone. The spandrel stone is large and fragile, but still embodies enough detail to see that it came from a two-sided screen which would probably have had miniature vaults spanning between the sides. As far as the structure is concerned, this

is very close to the choir screen identified at Dundrennan Abbey, where there is substantially more evidence to show how it was constructed. The sculptural treatment of the outer face includes a coiled reptilian creature, with clearly articulated scales and a long tail, and miniature ribs on the back of the stone show how it was intended to be used in the complete screen.

The sundial (KEL/o/3a+b), although broken in two, still has evidence of a gnomon on two adjacent faces, and would originally have had numerals incised around the edges of each rectangular face.

This and other inventories of carved stones from Historic Environment Scotland’s properties in care are held by the Collections Unit. For further information please contact

(source: DES, Volume 19)

Ground Penetrating Radar (12 June 2019)

NT 73037 33692 Ground penetrating radar survey.

Archive: NRHE

Funder: Northlight Heritage

Dr Susan Ovenden - Rose Geophysical Consultants

(Source: DES Vol 20)

Geophysical Survey (12 June 2019)

NT 73037 33692 Resistivity survey.

Archive: NRHE

Funder: Northlight Heritage

Dr Susan Ovenden - Rose Geophysical Consultants

(Source: DES Vol 20)

Project (12 June 2019)

NT 73037 33692 A geophysical survey was undertaken, 12 June 2019, to the SE of Kelso Abbey (Canmore ID: 58418) in advance of planting of an orchard by a local community group. The area surveyed is a small field to the SE of the main abbey building complex, on the eastern edge of the Glebe Field. Kelso Abbey is one of a series of abbeys founded by David I in the early twelfth century. The extent and nature of the abbey precinct is not well understood, but the historic name of The Glebe implies the area to the south of the surviving abbey buildings was part of the agricultural lands within the precinct. This survey forms part of a wider archaeological evaluation of the site.

Both resistance and ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey were undertaken and have detected several anomalies and complement each other well. The resistance data is dominated by a broad, but well-defined, area of high resistance in the south of the area. The GPR survey suggests that this anomaly is very shallow and may indicate a possible rubble spread.

Towards the centre of the survey area several anomalies have been detected. A linear anomaly in the E of the area suggests a possible former field boundary or drain. Apparently associated with it is a comparable linear anomaly which appears to have a potential structure associated with it, although the responses could all be drainage features. Some 3m N of a linear low resistance anomaly a strong GPR response suggest a pipe or drain within a possible ditch which may have been associated with a former ditched field boundary.

While it is not clear from the data if this group of responses in the centre of the area are archaeologically significant, they are definitely anthropogenic in origin rather than natural. However, they could have a relatively modern origin. Early maps of the area do not show any structures within the survey area, although there were buildings immediately to the south of the survey area. As a result, it is possible that the anomalies might be associated with some form of short-lived outbuilding and drainage features associated with the mapped structures to the south, or simply early arrangements of field boundaries. However, an archaeological origin cannot be dismissed.

Archive: NRHE

Funder: Northlight Heritage

Dr Susan Ovenden - Rose Geophysical Consultants

(Source: DES Vol 20)

Excavation (25 September 2019 - 28 September 2019)

NT 73033 33693 A phase of archaeological mitigation was undertaken on the south eastern edge of the Kelso Abbey precinct, a Scheduled Monument (SM90177), on behalf of the Kelso Heritage Society in relation to the proposed development of a community orchard. The first phase comprised a geophysical survey conducted in June 2019 (Ovenden, DES 2019). The second phase consisted of the archaeological excavation of 16 planting holes corresponding to the proposed fruit tree locations. The trenches measured 1m² and aimed to establish the topsoil depth as well as the presence or absence of any archaeological remains. The excavation was conducted between 25 and 28 September 2019 focusing on volunteer participation and school engagement which aimed to raise awareness of the project, develop new skills and confidence in archaeology and heritage and encourage a greater sense of community ownership of the proposed orchard.

No significant archaeological remains were uncovered within any of the 16 planting holes, the majority of which comprised significant depths of topsoil lying on sterile alluvial deposits. A single negative cut feature, most likely relatively modern in date and possibly relating to the removal of a tree or hedge, was recorded within Trench 11 and a moderate quantity of post-medieval pottery, glass and bone was recovered from the topsoil deposits. The results indicate that it is highly likely all geophysics anomalies are the result of activity from the last 200 years when the site was an orchard then an allotment.

Archive: NRHE(intended)

Funder: Kelso Heritage Society

Steven Black – Clyde Archaeology

(Source: DES Volume 21)


MyCanmore Image Contributions

Contribute an Image

MyCanmore Text Contributions