While the quartet of Historic Scotland abbeys in the Borders at Melrose, Jedburgh, Kelso and Dryburgh are rightly renowned, how familiar are you with the equally beguiling trio of romantically ruined abbeys in Dumfries and Galloway? I’m a big fan of these southern belles and recently popped down to revisit them with my young family.
All of the Dumfries and Galloway Historic Scotland abbeys boast their own unique charms, but also share their Cistercian heritage. It was the same order of white robed monks who inhabited all three before the ravages of the Reformation. Handily the abbeys are all tucked near the coast in the south of Scotland’s balmiest region so you can visit them all on one trip.
Exploring Sweetheart Abbey
The most romantic of these ruined abbeys for me is Sweetheart Abbey. Named after the touching tale of Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway, it is a place that evokes romance. When her beloved husband John Balliol died in 1268, Lady Dervorgilla had his heart embalmed and carried it everywhere until her death. She was buried here in front of the high altar at the abbey. My wee daughters were intrigued by the stone image of Lady Dervorgilla that still haunts the south transept, which depicts her as she was buried still cradling her husband’s embalmed heart to her bosom.
The abbey Lady Dervorgilla commissioned was founded by the Cistercian monks from Dundrennan Abbey. The soaring belltower of old may be long gone, but the church is beautifully preserved. I spent my time admiring the tracery around the presbytery windows, the unusual circular window tucked above the south transept and the majestic west front. The abbey lies in a lovely green and quiet spot, which makes appreciating it all the easier.
Exploring Dundrennan Abbey
Moving further west, Dundrennan Abbey reclines near the charming wee town of Kirkcudbright, itself a favourite of painters and writers. This dreamy medieval abbey lies out of town in a peaceful spot surrounded by woodland. I was beguiled by the early gothic architecture you find in its chapter house and transepts. The abbey boasts an intriguing history too - in 1568 Mary Queen of Scots spent her last hours in Scotland here before her flight from Lochleven Castle.
Little is known about the history of Dundrennan Abbey, but the grave slabs of four resident abbots do at least add names to the story. My wee ones were much more interested in the tales of a lost queen, of the Queen of Scots spending her last fretful night here before setting sail for the last time from her beloved country.
Exploring Glenluce Abbey
Even further west, Glenluce Abbey is regarded as one of Scotland’s best-preserved monasteries. Highlights include the magnificent chapter house with its ornate windows and distinctive carvings. Look out too for a dog’s print on one of the floor tiles, which my girls found especially intriguing. I was more taken with the remarkable plumbing system that once supplied water to the Cistercian monks.
Glenluce was founded around 1192 by Roland, Lord of Galloway. As at Dundrennan, the monks here were thought to have been in residence for around four centuries, though again teasingly there is little written record of their lives. Like the other abbeys in this quiet corner of Scotland, Glenluce enjoys an idyllic location surrounded by green fields and trees.
We had the run of the place and my wee daughters loved snaking around all the nooks and crannies dreaming up stories and mythical characters. I took time to appreciate the chapter house, with its grand entrance doorway, stone-vaulted ceiling and intricate traceried windows.
Exploring the Abbeys of Dumfries and Galloway
If you have already discovered the Borders Abbeys or just fancy delving into the intoxicating ecclesiastical legacy of the Cistercians in Dumfries and Galloway then I’d thoroughly recommend heading south to discover this beguiling trio. Whether you are six (like my eldest) or sixty, they all still retain an air of romance and a timelessness that has impressively survived the harsh ravages of time.