Dryburgh Abbey lies a few hundred yards north of the village of St Boswells. Yet its location, surrounded on three sides by a loop in the River Tweed, means that by road the journey is one of several miles. The sense of seclusion this brings is one of the great joys of Dryburgh Abbey. As a result of it you can begin to gain some sense of what a life of contemplation might have been like for the monks who lived and worshipped here.
The second main attraction of Dryburgh is that so much of the domestic architecture remains visible. In a reversal of what has happened in other abbeys like nearby Melrose and Jedburgh it is possible to gain a sense of the day to day lives of the monks, while the abbey church itself has largely disappeared.
The chapter house, perhaps the second most important space in the abbey, is especially well preserved. Above it you can still see parts of the dormitory, some of which was later converted into a house. The cloister retains its surrounding wall on three sides, while lower down the east range you can see the walls of the warming house and parts of the novices' day room. Even the gatehouse, bridging the water channel to the south of the abbey, is partly standing. (Continues below image...)
Of the abbey church, only part of the north transept gives any sense of the original structure. Here you find the chapels in and around which are buried Sir Walter Scott and Field Marshal Earl Haig, amongst others. For most of the rest of the church, you have to rely on foundations and imagination.
No physical trace has been found, but it is believed that the loop in the River Tweed occupied by Dryburgh Abbey was first settled by the early Christian missionary St Modan in around 600AD. Dryburgh Abbey itself dates back to 1150. Hugh de Moreville was the main landowner in the area. His family had come across from Normandy with William the Conqueror 84 years earlier, and he himself had befriended King David I of Scotland, eventually becoming constable of Scotland (see our Historical Timeline).
There's a cynical view that during this period rich landowners endowed abbeys to make sure of a constant stream of prayer said on their behalf: and so to secure their place in the afterlife. Hugh de Moreville took a more personal role in his own salvation, becoming a novice at Dryburgh in his old age and dying there in 1162. Hugh de Moreville should not be confused with his son, also called Hugh, who helped murder Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.
The monks who settled at Dryburgh Abbey were Premonstratensians. This white robed order came originally from Laon in Northern France, though those who helped found Dryburgh came from Alnwick Abbey. It is thought that work began on the abbey on 10 November 1150, and probably continued for most of the following century.
Dryburgh's location meant it inevitably became caught up in the wars between England and Scotland. It is said that in 1322 Edward II's army, retreating south to England, took exception to the sound of the bells of Dryburgh Abbey being rung to celebrate their defeat. They burned it down.
What emerged from a rebuilding process that probably took another 100 years was even bigger and better than before, despite further destruction by another English army in 1385. But the completed abbey of the 1400s would only see a further century of active use. The end effectively came on 4 November 1544 when some 700 English troops mounted a raid across the border, destroying both Dryburgh Abbey and the nearby town of Dryburgh.
Hot on the heels of the marauding English came the Reformation in 1560. At the time there were only eight monks or canons still at the abbey, plus the sub-prior. They were allowed to live out their lives at Dryburgh, but all had died by 1600.
The remains of the abbey were acquired by the Earl of Buchan in 1786. He worked to preserve what was left, and built within and around it a large formal garden. Like many early antiquarians, he couldn't resist the temptation to "improve" the ruins. An inscribed date of 1150 owes more to him than to the original builders. He also built the obelisk to the south of the abbey, to commemorate its foundation by Hugh de Moreville.