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New Abbey, Sweetheart Abbey

Abbey (Medieval)

Site Name New Abbey, Sweetheart Abbey

Classification Abbey (Medieval)

Canmore ID 65464

Site Number NX96NE 9

NGR NX 96506 66270

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
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Digital Images

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Dumfries And Galloway
  • Parish New Abbey
  • Former Region Dumfries And Galloway
  • Former District Nithsdale
  • Former County Kirkcudbrightshire

Archaeology Notes

NX96NE 9.00 96506 66270

(NX 96506 66270) Remains of Sweetheart Abbey (NR)

(Cistercian - founded 1273) (NAT)

OS 6" map (1971)

NX96NE 9.01 NX 9655 6635 Wall

NX96NE 9.02 NX 9651 6596 Church (New Abbey Parish Church)

NX96NE 9.03 NX 965 664 Slag; Beads

NX96NE 9.04 NX c. 965 664 Coins

NX96NE 9.05 NX 9623 6627 Mill (possible)

NX96NE 9.06 NX 96559 66272 Burial-ground (Cemetery)

For war memorial at NX 96462 66227, see NX96NE 129.

Sweetheart Abbey, alternatively named New Abbey by the RCAHMS, was the last Cistercian foundation in Scotland. It is fully described in the Official Guide (J S Richardson 1951).

It was founded in 1273 by Devorgilla, widow of John Balliol, and was secularised in 1624. Though the conventual buildings have almost entirely disappeared, there are very substantial remains of the Abbey Church, which was dedicated to St Mary. An isolated doorway on the line of the presumed inner wall of the W range faces W, suggesting that the W range shown on the official plan did not exist, and there was instead a free-standing wall on this side.

RCAHMS 1914, visited 1911; S Cruden 1960; I B Cowan and D E Easson 1976.

The remains of Sweetheart Abbey are as described and illustrated by the previous authorities.

Visited by OS (WDJ) 6 July 1964.

NX 9660 6603 A watching brief was carried out in January 2002 on groundworks required for the construction of a conservatory to the rear of St Mary's Villas. The site was located within the Scheduled area of the precinct of Sweetheart Abbey (NX96NE 9), a Cistercian house founded in 1273. No deposits, features or finds of archaeological interest were encountered.

Full report deposited in Dumfries and Galloway SMR and the NMRS.

Sponsor: HS

M L Brann 2002

NX 965 662 No archaeological finds or features were noted in a series of post-holes for signs in the vicinity of the precinct wall at Sweetheart Abbey (NX96NE 9). Neither were any finds or features noted in the foundation trenches for an extension to 23 Main Street, New Abbey, that lies within the precinct walls.

Reports lodged with Dumfries and Galloway SMR and the NMRS.

Sponsor: Dumfries and Galloway Council.

J Brann 2004.

Remains of

New Abbey or Sweetheart Abbey [NAT]

OS (GIS) Master Map, July 2009.

Architecture Notes

NX96NE 9.00 96506 66270


Transactions of the Architectural Institute of Scotland 1864-65 - 1 plan, 2 sections, 3 details and 1 interior.


Antiq. Lib. - Archeol. Coll. of Ayrshire and Galloway Vol X 1894 - 20 plates plans etc.


Aerial Photography (1972)

Oblique aerial photographs of Sweetheart Abbey taken by Mr John Dewar in 1972.

Publication Account (1986)

Of red Nithsdale sandstone and hugely, but fittingly, out of scale with the village, the abbey church of Sweetheart or New Abbey ('new' in relation to the mother-house ofDundrennan) was the last, and is now the most complete, of Galloway's trio of Cistercian monasteries. It is also the most romantic. Its name, 'Dulce Cor' (Sweetheart), reflects the circumstances of its foundation in 1273 by the rich and pious Dervorguilla de Balliol in fond memory of her husband, John (d. 1268). His embalmed heart in a casket was buried with her on her death in 1290. An effigy of the foundress bearing a representation of the heart casket surmount ·the reassembled fragments of a copy of her tomb in the south transept chapel.

Anglo-Scottish warfare evidently delayed building works in the later 13th and 14th centuries, and caused much damage to the abbey's property. Its buildings were also struck by lightning before 1381, and were alleged in 1397 to have been 'totally burned'. At the Reformation in 1560 it was staffed by an abbot and convent of 15 monks, and, covertly, under Maxwell family protection, Roman rites continued into the early 17th century. The abbey and its estates were formed into a secular lordship in 1624, but successive buildings in and around the cloister continued to serve as the parish church until 1877. Positive affection for the abbey church ensured its survival, for in 1779 it was purchased from the owners and would-be quarriers of the site by a local consortium 'desirous of preserving the remainder of that building as an ornament to that part of the countIy'; the conventual buildings were practically all removed, however, leaving only the gateway from the outer court into the cloister.

Opinions differ as to the quality of the design and detailing of the church itself; its unquestioned merits are its colour and its completeness. Virtually all load-bearing medieval masonry is still in place except for parts of the transepts and the outer wall of the north nave-aisle. Its layout demonstrates the essential conservatism of Cistercian planning: a cruciform outline consisting of aisled nave, square-ended transepts (with a pair of chapels in each transept) and simple unaisled chancel. The structural nave, in this case two-storeyed and of six bays, contained the liturgical choirs required for lay brothers and monks. The provision of a low belfry-tower over the crossing and the introduction of decorative details, particularly in the traceried windows, represent departures from earlier and stricter Cistercian practice. There are rose windows in the west and south gables, the latter encircling, halo-like, a solid segment of the roof apex of the former east range. The surviving bar tracery involves much use of geometric circles, a style well exemplifIed in the great east window.

Outside the churchyard, the abbey precincts are enclosed on the north and east sides by a massive granite boulder-built wall up to 3.6m high and 1.2wide, one of the most complete of its kind in the country. The wall originally embraced an area of more than 12 hectares, the site of the western gateway being marked by a roadside pillar in the middle of the modem village. The eastern wall is reduced to footings, and the southern boundary was apparently formed by a water-filled ditch.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Dumfries and Galloway’, (1986).

Fabric Recording (December 2007 - June 2008)

NX 9650 6627 The abbey has a large collection of ex situ carved stone, most of which is on display in the S transept. Work was carried out on this collection December 2007–June 2008. SWT/j/5 is a section of a jamb which can be related to those in the triforium arcade of the nave. As well as its well preserved outer face, a mason’s setting-out mark can be seen on one end of the stone, indicating the centre of the large filleted roll moulding on the outer face.

The tomb and effigy of the abbey’s founder, Queen Devorgilla, occupies a prominent position in the S transept of the abbey church. The tomb has been moved from the choir to this location, and has been damaged and restored a number of times since her death in 1290. A group of six tomb panels, dating from the 16th century, including SWT/tpl/1a+b have been inserted into the sides of the present tomb-chest. These panels were recorded in 1914 as lying in a recess to the E of the S door. They are assumed to have come from a 16th century tomb, replacing an earlier 13th-century monument, of which only the effigy remains (RCAHMS, 1914, 206–207). A drawing in Historic Scotland drawing office, ref 73/293/58, shows the 1932 reconstruction of the tomb, and indicates the placing of the 16th-century panels and coped moulding of the tomb slab.

RCAHMS (1914) Fifth Report and Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in Galloway, Volume II, County of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. HMSO.

This and other inventories of carved stones at Historic Scotland’s properties in care are held by Historic Scotland’s Collections Unit. For further information go to:

Funder: Historic Scotland

Mary Markus, 2008

Watching Brief (21 March 2012)

NX 9645 6624 A watching brief was undertaken on 21 March 2012 during the excavation of a small trench for a new sign close to the entrance of Sweetheart Abbey. There were no finds or features of archaeological significance.

Archive: RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: Historic Scotland

David Murray, Kirkdale Archaeology2012

OASIS ID: kirkdale1-310895


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