The Commendator's House Museum lays claim to having the largest collection of medieval artefacts on display anywhere in Scotland. It forms part of Melrose Abbey, and entry to it is via the visitor reception building for the abbey itself, at the west end of the site. An admission ticket for the abbey is needed to access the museum. This page takes a look at the museum itself, while the rest of Melrose Abbey is covered in our main feature about it.
You reach the Commendator's House from the main part of the abbey by passing through a gate in the south wall, on the far side of the refectory and kitchen range from the cloister. You then cross a minor road before passing through another gate. The Commendator's House is obvious, being the only complete building in what is quite a large site. It is at about this point that you begin to realise just how enormous Melrose Abbey was in its prime. This part of the site has the very obvious foundations and column bases of the Lay Brothers' Range, or the east range of the domestic accommodation. Anyone paying attention when wandering around the side of the site nearest the abbey will realise that this range continues all the way through, and was cut across by the much later road.
This part of the site is also home to the foundations of the Abbot's Hall, off to your right as you come through the gate. In some ways the most impressive feature is the abbey's stone-lined main drain, which cuts right across the site, at one point passing under the foundations of the Lay Brothers' Range. Beyond the Commendator's House is a medieval bridge crossing the mill lade, a larger but less obvious feat of engineering built to divert part of the flow of the River Tweed from a dam about a quarter of a mile to the west. This powered the abbey's mills, and was itself used to provide water for the main drain. (Continues below image...)
The Commendator's House has stood in its present form since 1590, when it was converted to serve as a private residence for the James Douglas, the last commendator of the abbey. Commendators were lay administrators who, during the 1500s, increasingly supplanted abbots as the men in charge of abbeys. Their arrival was one of many indicators of the moral decline of abbeys across Scotland, itself a symptom of the wider malaise in the church that helped prompt the Scottish Reformation of 1560.
The post of commendator increasingly became a political one, often being awarded to the monarch's favourites and often being seen as a means of allowing a powerful individual to tap into the wealth tied up in abbeys and priories. In many cases appointments continued to be made after the Reformation, and by the time James Douglas was appointed as commendator of Melrose Abbey it had virtually ceased to exist as a religious institution, and he would have been able to use its assets as he saw fit.
The earlier use of the building converted to form the Commendator's House is unknown. It has been established, however, that there were at least three rooms on the ground floor, with an upper story accessed using an external stair at its north end. What emerged in 1590 was clearly intended to be a statement house, which just a hint from the offset tower of a Scottish castle. The style and finish of the Commendator's House does help us envision the domestic buildings of the abbey whose extensive foundations can be seen today. The reddish stone gives just a hint of the sheer visual impact of Melrose Abbey in its prime. The Commendator's House was restored in the 1940s to provide a means of displaying the huge range of objects uncovered at the abbey, and in the surrounding area.
The ground floor of the museum has a main room displaying stonework uncovered on the site of the abbey itself. One vaulted room on this floor has displays about Newstead Roman Fort (also known as Trimontium), which stood on a site a little over a mile to the east.
The upper floor of the museum houses three very impressive galleries. The northernmost, "Treasures from the Drain", is home to a series of cabinets showing off the amazing range of medieval objects uncovered when the main drain was excavated. The large central gallery focuses on "Tiles and Saints" with its large collection of floor tiles and architectural fragments. The third gallery you reach, at the south end of the building, is home to the museum's education area, with Cistercian robes in children's sizes. Here you will also find an odd wood and metal structure. This turns out to be the works of a clock erected in 1762 on the south transept of the abbey church.
For us, though, the most entrancing exhibit is to be found in the room at the north end of the ground floor. Here a glass case is home to a series of costumed models of people connected with the story of Melrose Abbey, beautifully made by a local artist in the 1980s.