Arbroath Abbey is located close to the centre of the town of Arbroath, which is itself on the coast 17 miles north east of Dundee. At first sight its urban setting seems odd: it's too easy to forget that when it was built, over 800 years ago, few of the buildings you see today in this part of Arbroath would have existed.
The story behind Arbroath Abbey began in July 1174. Henry II of England, fighting off incursions by the French in Normandy and the Scots in Northumberland undertook a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral and spent a night praying at the shrine of St Thomas. It later emerged that at the precise time Henry left Canterbury Cathedral, King William I of Scotland was captured by English forces in Northumberland (see our Historical Timeline).
Both men read great significance into this, and in 1178 William I founded a monastery at Arbroath for a group of Tironesian monks previously resident at Kelso. He also bestowed considerable lands and great wealth on the Abbey, including the nearby St Vigeans Church, which in many ways it displaced. On his death on 4 December 1214, his son Alexander II helped carry his body to its place of burial in front of the high altar in the still only partially completed Abbey Church. This was finally consecrated in 1233, and there are hints it many not have been completed even by then.
In 1272 parts of the Abbey caught fire, leading to the destruction of the bell tower and the bells. At a more human level, Abbots came and went. One was expelled by his monks for unspecified misdeeds, while another was sacked for supporting the English.
Perhaps the high point in the history of Arbroath Abbey was in April 1320. Bernard, Abbot of Arbroath, drafted the "Letter of Arbroath", thought by many to be the most important document in Scottish history. This was a letter written to Pope John XXII on behalf of Robert the Bruce, and signed by most of the great and good of 14th Century Scotland. It asked the Pope to put pressure on Edward II of England to recognise Robert as the legitimate King of Scotland; and it also asked him to remove the excommunication that had been placed on Robert after he had murdered the the Red Comyn in a Dumfries church in 1306.
The Letter is famous for one phrase in particular: "as long as a hundred of us remain alive, we shall not on any condition be be subjected to English rule." Much more significant was the implication elsewhere in the letter that in future the King of Scotland could only rule with the approval of the people of Scotland. It was the first time anyone, anywhere, had thought about royalty in this way. The letter persuaded the Pope to arrange peace talks, though they proved unsuccessful.
Arbroath Abbey's later history never quite recaptured the glory of 1320. Its role increasingly became one of simply sustaining itself and the fabric of its buildings, and protecting the rights given to it. This was made no easier by an English attack from the sea in 1350 that badly damaged the Abbey. And in 1380 there was a great fire, the effects of which took over 20 years to repair.
If 1320 was the Abbey's high point, its low point came on 29 January 1446. By this time the Abbot usually delegated most of his non-religious functions, powers and privileges to a nominated "Bailie of the Regality". This was a hugely lucrative and highly sought-after position that tended to reside with the Ogilvy family. At the beginning of 1446 the Abbot appointed James Ogilvy to the role. A rival, Alexander Lindsay, arrived in Arbroath with a large crowd of supporters to challenge the appointment. The result was the "Battle of Arbroath", fought in front of the Abbey and through the streets of the town. Some 600 people were killed.
The wealth and power of Arbroath Abbey had other undesirable consequences over the following years. By the early 1500s Arbroath had become a commodity to be traded between the powerful of the land, and it was no longer the norm for the Abbot to live here. In 1524 Cardinal David Beaton, acting as Abbot, granted part of the Abbey lands to his mistress, Marion Ogilvy.
The Reformation had a less dramatic effect in Arbroath than elsewhere. In 1606 the Parliament granted the Abbey estates to James, Marquis of Hamilton who, as the last Abbot at Arbroath, had converted to Protestantism. Many of the 40 remaining monks simply continued to live in the Abbey. They gradually left or died, and over time the Abbey became used as a quarry for building material for the rest of Arbroath. Only ruins remained when James Boswell & Dr Johnson visited in 1773, though conservation work then began as early as 1815.
Visitors today will find the ruins of much of the Abbey Church, probably much as Dr Johnson did, though rather better kept. Parts of the Abbey such as the Abbot's House found alternative uses after the demise of the Abbey and as a result remain in excellent condition. The overwhelming sense is of an oasis in the centre of Arbroath, in which the red of the stone contrasts perfectly with the green of the mown grass.
And today's visitor is also greeted by a wonderful new visitor centre. This contains a range of interpretative displays within its wave-shaped form, and also carries a viewing gallery from which much of the Abbey can be seen. But what is most striking is its design. This is obviously modern, yet with its red stone and glass structure topped off with a remarkable moss-covered roof, it truly is a worthy addition to a site that has inspired wonder for over 800 years.