Grave discovery prompts uplifting rescue
11 October 2006
Dundrennan Abbey is among the most beautiful of Scotland’s medieval abbeys and also holds one of the country’s finest carved grave slabs. At around 650 years old, this ornate slab seemed to be standing the tests of time, but a closer inspection revealed a different story and it was the sharp, knowledgeable eye of Monument Manager, Barbara Thomson that triggered a complex conservation project to save this superb piece of our national heritage.
Barbara Thomson, Historic Scotland Monument Manager said "The 14th Century grave slab of Abbot Giles is extremely beautiful, covered in raised ornamentation, which is rare for the usually restrained Cistercians.
As Monument Manager, I make sure I know every piece of this Abbey and in the same way, notice even slight changes. As the slab is exposed to the elements, I became increasingly concerned for the safety of the stone, and noticed it was suffering from erosion. I immediately contacted our stone conservators, and within weeks the slab was lifted to safety."
To fill the gap left by the slab, an exact replica was crafted in glass-reinforced plastic, and re-laid in the chapter house floor. The original slab is now on display in the abbey vaults – safe from wind, rain, frost and snow.
Peter Yeoman, Senior Archaeologist with Historic Scotland, said, "This grave slab is an exceptional piece of workmanship and had pride of place in the chapter house facing the seat of honour which Giles would have occupied as abbot. But since the building lost its roof and fell into ruin after the Reformation, it has been exposed to centuries of harsh Scottish weather and this was starting to take its toll.
By removing the original to the vaults we are ensuring that it can still be enjoyed by visitors while keeping it safe for future generations. And the replica, made by our highly skilled conservation team, means people will still be able to appreciate how it looked in its original context."
Not much is known about the life of Abbot Giles, except that he was superior of the monastery around 1350. This, and the placing of the slab in such an important location in the Abbey, suggests that he was a figure of great importance among his brethren. It could be that Giles was the man who oversaw the reconstruction of Dundrennan Abbey after the damage it suffered in the Wars of Independence. This being the case, he did much to create one of Scotland’s historic gems.
Notes for editors
- Dundrennan Abbey is 6.5 miles south east of Kirkcudbright on the A711. Telephone 01557 500262. Tickets are £2.50 for adults, £2 for concessions and £1 for children.
- The Abbey was founded in 1142 by the Cistercians who sought out wild and remote places to settle, in keeping with their motto "Everywhere peace, everywhere serenity, and freedom from the tumult of the world".
- The grave slab measures some two metres in length. The inscription tells us it marked the burial place of Egidius – or Giles – who was abbot around the year 1350. Its exquisite carvings show four eight-petalled roses projecting from a floriate cross and an ornate abbot’s crozier with a delicate rose-shaped head. This crozier has similarities to one which was discovered during excavations at Whithorn Priory.
- The Chapter House where it lay was originally a building of great beauty with a fine doorway and rib vaulted ceiling dating from the 13th century. It was common for abbots to be buried under the floor in the Chapter House to some how remain part of the ongoing business of their house.
- Historic Scotland has 345 outstanding historic properties and sites in its care. These include some of the leading tourism attractions in the country, including Edinburgh, Stirling, and Urquhart Castles, Fort George, Linlithgow Palace, the Border Abbeys, and Skara Brae.