At first sight, Soutra Aisle isn't obviously all that remains above ground of one of the most important institutions in medieval Scotland. Yet in its heyday, the House of the Holy Trinity at Soutra was one of the three most important hospitals in Scotland and occupied a walled area measuring some 700 square metres.
The hospital was founded by the Augustinians at the request of King Malcolm IV in about 1160. It was sited approximately mid way between Edinburgh and the Border Abbeys and served by what was at the time the most important road in southern Scotland, Dere Street, built by the Romans but still the main route south from Edinburgh for many centuries afterwards. Parts of Dere Street remain and can still be traced on the ground near the Aisle.
The Holy Trinity at Soutra treated the sick and provided alms to the poor, hospitality to travellers and sanctuary to fugitives. It funded its activities through the extensive estates it had been granted by Malcolm IV for the purpose. Archaeological excavations since 1986 have found traces of medicinal products from all over the known world, including cloves from East Africa.
Also found in one of the cellars were traces of a mixture of the seeds of hemlock, black henbane and opium poppy, used as a general anaesthetic in the case of amputations. Calculating the correct dose of this highly poisonous mixture must have been fairly critical to the survival of the patient.
For three hundred years the hospital continued to deliver its important service. But in the 1460s the Master of the Hospital was accused of misconduct and the hospital stripped of its estates. These were then granted instead to Trinity College Hospital in Edinburgh, marking the start of the capital's role as an international centre for medicine.
Soutra Aisle was originally part of the hospital church. It went on to become the burial vault of a local family, the Pringles of Soutra. This saved it from the fate of the rest of this once world-famous institution, which rapidly slid into disrepair before its stone was recycled into every building project within reasonable carting distance.