Leading the way
Around 1113, David I of Scotland invited Benedictine monks from Tiron Abbey, near Chartres in northern France, to establish a house at Selkirk. By 1128 they had relocated to Kelso, perhaps to be nearer David’s new castle and burgh of Roxburgh across the River Tweed.
Those founding Tironensians have the distinction of being the first of the reformed Benedictine orders to settle anywhere in the British Isles. In their wake came the Cistercians, Cluniacs and others.
The Tironensians were never to be as popular in Britain as the Cistercians. Apart from St Dogmael’s, in Wales, they had just a few small cells elsewhere. But for some reason King David had a high regard for the order founded by St Bernard of Tiron in 1109. David even visited them at Tiron. Consequently they became significant players on the Scottish monastic scene.
As well as Kelso, David founded a Tironensian priory at Lesmahagow, while his grandsons, King William ‘the Lion’ and Earl David of Huntingdon and the Garioch, established abbeys at Arbroath
(1178) and Lindores (1191) respectively. King William’s constable, Richard de Moreville, founded Kilwinning Abbey
in the 1180s.
Next to nothing remains of the once-sprawling monastery precinct. But what survives of the church is one of the most spectacular achievements of Romanesque architecture in Scotland. It is comparable with the best in England, and in some respects superior to Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, which has a similar west end.
The remains include part of the nave, the western transept and half of the great west front and Galilee porch. Enough exists of the great western door to indicate how richly sculptured it once was. And the external elevation of the north-west transept is exquisite, particularly the gable of its projecting pedimented porch with its raised lattice pattern.
War and peace
Kelso became one of the largest and wealthiest of Scotland’s religious houses. However, its proximity to the English border exposed it to frequent attack, particularly from the outset of the Wars of Independence in 1296.
In 1460 the young James III was crowned there following the untimely death of his father, James II, at the siege of nearby Roxburgh.
In the 1500s Kelso suffered severely from repeated English invasions. After the final attack of 1545, the buildings were ‘all put to royen [ruin], howsses and towres and styples’ – all except the fragment of abbey church now standing. This continued in use as the parish church after the Protestant Reformation of 1560, until a new one was built close by in 1771–3.
- The location – overlooking the graveyard of the old parish church, a charming grassed and wooded area at the heart of one of Scotland’s prettiest towns.
- The architecture – amongst the best Romanesque architecture surviving anywhere in Britain.
- The Roxburghe Memorial Cloister – built in the 1930s to commemorate the 8th Duke of Roxburghe, who entrusted the abbey ruins into State care in 1919.
Region – Scottish Borders
Grid reference - NT 728 338Opening TIme
1 Apr - 30 Sept
Daily 9.30am to 5.30pm.
1 Oct - 31 Mar
Mon Tues Wed Sat & Sun, 9.30am to 4.30pm.