The ruins of Lindores Abbey stand close to the eastern end of Newburgh in Fife and about a quarter of a mile from the southern shore of the River Tay. The abbey was built in the years from 1190 and thrived for over 350 years. After the Reformation of 1560 it was used as a quarry for building stone for use in projects in Newburgh. Over time, the ruins became slighter and more overgrown and easier to overlook. When we first came to look for it in 2004, what we found was a series of ivy-clad red stone walls, which appeared to be a feature in a very large garden and were viewable only over the wall that divides the site from a minor road running parallel with the shore of the river.
To judge from the few photographs we took at the time, we took no notice of what was on the other side of the same road, a farm steading whose very existence apparently passed us by. In the autumn of 2017, the magnificent Lindores Abbey Distillery began to produce spirit which, in due course, will mature into Scotch whisky, and which is available already as Aqua Vitae.
As part of the development of the distillery as a visitor attraction, the ruins of Lindores Abbey have been opened to public access. As well as providing a lovely addition to the distillery and visitor centre, the ruins also form a suitably romantic backdrop for those wishing to get married at the distillery. (Continues below image...)
We've perhaps become too used in Scotland to ruins that have undergone extensive remediation and consolidation, and had centuries of growth of vegetation removed from them. Lindores Abbey is a fascinating exception to that rule. Yes, the surrounding gardens and grounds are neatly mown and tended, but the ruins themselves are in a wonderfully "unimproved" condition, with ivy growing over many of the walls, and, in a couple of places, even very large trees which have taken root in walls.
While this certainly enhances the romantic atmosphere of the abbey, it does make understanding what you are looking at rather more challenging.
With a bit of thought, however, it is possible to make the ruins fit something like the traditional layout of an abbey. If you take as your starting point (as you will) the gateway on the opposite side of the minor road from the distillery itself, it is only a short distance diagonally ahead of you to what was once the south-west corner of the abbey cloister. From here you can get a sense of the overall layout. Ahead of you are the slight remains of the west range of buildings, which have largely been converted into gardens over the years. To your right would once have been the south range of buildings, now shown only by the lower part of the walls on their cloister side.
The more substantial wall remains on the north side of the cloister were once the south wall of the abbey church. On the east side of the cloister are the fairly significant remains of the chapter house, with the still-roofed Slype (or passage) to its north. Beyond this is the end of the south transept of the church.
Beyond its south wall, the remaining features of the abbey church are some substantial walls around the choir and the west end, and both transepts. There are also the low remains of a tower outside the north-west corner of the church. We saw an adult-sized stone coffin on our visit, but we've seen plans (albeit from over a century ago) showing three in or just outside the north transept. Very much still visible, and highly poignant, are the two infant-size stone coffins set in the ground where the choir meets the crossing. We've seen it speculated that these were for two of the founder's children, in an age when infant mortality was high for all levels of society.
Lindores Abbey was founded by David, 1st Earl of Huntingdon and younger brother of both Malcolm IV and William I, as a Tironensian monastery in about 1190. The first Abbot was called Guido and came to Lindores from Kelso Abbey. He was said to have "built the place from the foundations" by the time of his death in 1219, and it is thought that all the surviving remnants, which were built of local red sandstone, can be dated to around 1200. In 1266 Alexander III gave the monks permission to establish the town of Newburgh as a burgh with a weekly market. The abbey thrived, being spared the regular bouts of destruction which befell so many Scottish abbeys further south.
For over three and a half centuries, Lindores Abbey became an increasingly powerful and wealthy institution. Notable visitors included King John Balliol, King David II, King James III and King James IV. William Wallace and King Edward I of England also visited, though not together: for obvious reasons. The abbey was attacked and damaged by a Protestant mob from Dundee in 1543, but the end came in 1559 when a rabble roused by John Knox's distinctive brand of religious intolerance "overthrew the altars, broke up statues, burned the books and vestments and made them cast aside their monkish habits".
One thing gives Lindores Abbey a truly unique place in history. It is probable that people have been producing spirit by distillation for much longer, but the first time anyone thought to record its production in Scotland was in 1494. The exchequer roll - in effect the record of the king's financial and trading transactions - records that King James IV commissioned Brother John Cor, a monk at Lindores to turn eight bolls of malt into aqua vitae. Eight bolls of malt comes to around 500kg, which using modern methods would have been enough to make about 400 bottles of whisky. It was this snippet of historical record which prompted the building of the Lindores Abbey Distillery, and which allows the distillery to market itself as The Spiritual Home of Scotch Whisky.