Kelso, Bridge Street, Abbey
Abbey (12th Century), Monastery (Period Unassigned)
- Council Scottish Borders, The
- Parish Kelso
- Former Region Borders
- Former District Roxburgh
- Former County Roxburghshire
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 at http://www.accessingscotlandspast.org.uk
(Centred: NT 7290 3381) Abbey (NR) 12th Cent. (Site of).
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)
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....
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.
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