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Dundrennan Abbey lies a little over a mile inland from the Irish Sea, five miles east of Kirkcudbright and close to the village of Dundrennan. There are many abbeys in Scotland with more complete remains, but few whose location manages to convey such a strong sense of the spirituality that first brought monks here in 1142 and kept them here for more than four centuries.
The abbey was founded by King David I, who invited Cistercians from Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire to set up a daughter house in Galloway. There's no direct written evidence of the link with Rievaulx: but it is known that the Abbot of Rievaulx visited Dundrennan in 1164, and over the following centuries there were at least two occasions on which monks or abbots at Dundrennan went on to become abbots at Rievaulx Abbey.
Building work would have taken place over fifty years or more at Dundrennan. During this period the favoured style for ecclesiastical buildings changed from Romanesque to Gothic and the remains of the abbey reflect this transition. After its establishment Dundrennan became the mother house for two other Cistercian Abbeys in Galloway, Glenluce Abbey founded in 1191 by Roland, Lord of Galloway, and Sweetheart Abbey founded in 1273 by Lady Devorgilla in memory of her husband, John Balliol.
Dundrennan Abbey's more than 400 years of active life were not wholly without disruption from the outside world. No record remains of damage actually done to the abbey during the Wars of Independence with England, but the Cistercians did later make claims against both Edward I and Edward III for compensation for the actions of passing English armies.
Work on Dundrennan Abbey would have been undertaken by just 13 monks and 10 lay brothers from Yorkshire. After erecting temporary accommodation they would first have started work on the east end of the abbey church. Only when that was complete would they have moved on to other parts of the abbey.
The pattern followed at Dundrennan was a familiar one from abbeys across Scotland and beyond. The most important building was the abbey church. Parts of the transepts and the the presbytery survive today, with the north transept being the most complete. The largest part of the abbey church was its nave, used by lay brothers. Little of this remains above ground level, but from the foundations of the walls and the visible bases of the supporting columns it is possible to see that the nave would have been an impressive structure with north and south aisles.
South of the abbey church, to avoid being cast forever in its shadow, were the other buildings of the abbey, gathered around the four sides of a square cloister. The abbey's second most important building was the chapter house, in which monks gathered daily to conduct the administrative business of the community. The front wall remains, as do parts of the columns that would once have supported a vaulted roof.
The west range of the cloister would have been used by the lay brothers. A number of the vaulted ground floor rooms are still relatively complete, possibly reflecting the later rebuilding of this part of the abbey into a house. These are used to display some of the attractive stonework recovered when the abbey grounds were cleared. Little remains of the south range, which would have included the kitchen and the dining hall.
During the abbey's active life the monks would have lived a daily round involving eight services starting a 1.30am and at frequent intervals until 7.30pm. Much of the heavy work needed to support the abbey was undertaken by lay brothers, who also ran granges or abbey farms. Those at Dundrennan were particularly noted for the wool they produced, most of which was exported to Europe.
In common with many other abbeys, Dundrennan entered a period of decline in the early 1500s. Abbots were replaced by commendators (administrators) appointed by the monarch. These were prized posts allowing those holding them to benefit from the abbey's income. By 1530 many of the abbey buildings were already in need of repair. After the Reformation in 1560 the remaining monks were allowed to live out their days here.
The abbey church continued in use as a parish church into the 1600s. But by the time the remains of the abbey were taken into State care in 1842, most of its stone had been quarried as convenient and cheap building material. Much of it remains on view today in the village of Dundrennan.
Dundrennan's one and only appearance in the mainstream of Scottish history occurred fleetingly and during its declining years. On 15 May 1568 Mary Queen of Scots spent her last night on Scottish soil here, probably in the commendator's house on the site of the west range. The next morning she boarded a fishing boat bound for Workington in England: and for imprisonment and eventual execution.