The ruins of Kinloss Abbey stand in the midst of a graveyard surrounded by fields, just to the south of the village of Kinloss and two miles north-east of Forres. The ruins are pretty fragmentary, but the site remains of considerable interest: not least because Kinloss was once one of the finest and wealthiest of all of Scotland's abbeys. The proximity of RAF Kinloss (now an Army base), which lies a short distance to the north, is reflected in the presence of lines of military graves in the graveyard.
Visitors can park on the grass area immediately outside the graveyard gates. The main surviving remains of the abbey are a part of the south transept and the neighbouring vaulted sacristy. From it the lines of the walls of the south side of the nave and east end of the chancel can be traced on the ground, and there are a number of column bases that would once have supported the nave roof. Other substantial remains include walls on the south and west sides of the cloister. One of these still incorporates the most beautiful piece of surviving stonework in the ruins, a magnificently carved arch.
A little to the south, projecting from what would have been the east range of the cloister, are substantial remnants of the abbot's house. These are, however, outwith the area of the modern cemetery, and are both inaccessible and said to be unsafe.
Kinloss Abbey was founded in 1150 by King David I of Scotland. The story goes that David was hunting nearby when he became separated from his party and lost in the thick woodland that covered much of the area at the time. After praying for guidance he was led by a dove to the shelter of some shepherds, where he spent the night. In a dream he was instructed to establish a church to give thanks for his rescue. The following morning (it is said) he marked out the plan of an abbey on the ground with his sword, before departing to rejoin his party at Duffus Castle.
David stayed at Duffus Castle long enough to summon masons to begin work on his new abbey, and Cistercian monks from Melrose Abbey to take over the supervision of its construction and to occupy it once complete. Kinloss Abbey received its Papal Bull in 1174, which implies that by that time enough of it had been built for it to function as an abbey: probably a chancel and perhaps parts of the rest of the abbey church in which the monks could worship, as well as the temporary living accommodation that would be used until the most important parts of the abbey had been completed. It was, however, presumably fully complete when selected in 1214 to host a meeting of the General Chapter of the Prelates of the Cistercian Order.
The support of successive generations of Scottish royalty, and others, meant that Kinloss Abbey rapidly became one of the wealthiest abbeys in Scotland. Lands were granted to it by Malcolm IV, William I and Alexander II. In 1312 Robert the Bruce granted the abbey the fishing rights on the River Findhorn. Over the centuries the abbey saw a succession of royal visitors, including Edward I and Edward III of England in 1303 and 1336.
In the years around 1400s the abbey became the subject of scandalous stories about the conduct of the monks and an envoy was sent from Cîteaux Abbey, the headquarters of the Cistercian order in France, to resolve matters. Expansion of the abbey followed in the late 1400s, though in 1492 a second scandal struck when a monk, William Butler, murdered a boy in the cloister.
Kinloss Abbey had 24 abbots in all. The most notable was Robert Reid, who was appointed abbot in 1528. One of his first moves as abbot was to ask the Italian scholar, Giovanni Ferrerio of Piedmont to come to Kinloss to establish a centre of academic excellence. Reid also had a wider role in the affairs of Scotland at the time, undertaking a number of diplomatic missions abroad for James V. This led to his spending time in England discussing peace terms with Henry VIII. He was also in France in 1537 and again in 1538 arranging the marriages of James V to Princess Madeleine of France and, following her death, to Madeleine's adopted sister, Marie de Guise.
In 1541, while still retaining his position as Abbot of Kinloss, Reid was made Bishop of Orkney. On arrival in Kirkwall he began the extensive rebuilding of the Bishop's Palace, his official residence overlooking St Magnus Cathedral. In 1543, Reid added to his collection of posts when he was appointed Lord President of the Court of Session, the head of the judiciary in Scotland. He must have spent a considerable amount of his time on board ships travelling between his posts in Edinburgh, Kinloss and Kirkwall. Robert Reid resigned his post at Kinloss Abbey in 1553, in favour of his nephew, Walter Reid. On his death in 1558 he left significant funds for the founding of a seat of learning in Edinburgh, and these formed the basis of the endowment of the University of Edinburgh when it was established by a Royal Charter granted by James VI in 1582, making it only the sixth university to be founded in the British Isles, and the fourth in Scotland.
The Reformation of 1560 did not bring about the immediate demise of Kinloss Abbey, and it still seems to have bee a going concern when Mary Queen of Scots stayed here in 1562. Over the years that followed, the lands and properties of the abbey were gradually run down, and in 1601 what was left was granted to Edward, Lord Bruce of Kinloss. The abbey itself was sold to Alexander Brodie of Lethen in 1643, who in 1652 sold most of its stone to Cromwell's army for use in the construction of their citadel in Inverness.