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Arbroath and its Abbey
Chapter XIII - Description of the Conventual Buildings


LIKE many cathedral churches erected at the same period, the Abbey Church of Arbroath was reared in the usual form of a Latin cross, that is, with the head of the cross towards the east. The main body of the Church, forming the stalk of the cross, consisted of a high centre aisle, with an aisle on each side of less than half its height. These side aisles stopped at the west end of the chancel, leaving the centre aisle to extend two divisions further to the eastward. About two-fifths of the distance from the east end these long aisles were intersected by the transept forming the arms of the cross. It consisted of a high aisle running from north to south of equal dimensions in height and breadth with the long central aisle ; and it had toward the east a side aisle of equal dimensions with the other side aisles. The great central tower was erected on the four pillars where the high aisles crossed each other. The north and south side aisles were each terminated on the west by a square tower which projected several feet beyond them on either side, and beyond the high aisle in the centre. These towers were of three storeys, and reached in their square form to a height of ninety feet or thereby, and overlooked the roof of the centre aisle. The north tower bears marks of having been raised to a greater height than the south tower. They had double buttresses at each corner diminishing toward the top in a very graceful manner. The lowest storeys of the towers were adorned with two rows of blind arches, and the upper storeys were lighted by pairs of tall lancet windows on every side, except where they joined the church. These elegant towers, with the intervening deeply recessed door, surmounted by the rich work of its porch, and the great circular window of the middle aisle gave to the west front of the church a most superb and beautiful aspect.

The internal portions of this extensive building were known by various terms. The nave consisted of the middle and side aisles from the west front to the great tower in the centre. The north and south transepts included the high and side aisles on both sides of the tower. The great choir (termed in the Abbey writs the meikle queer) included the high aisle betwixt the tower and chancel, with the aisles on either side. And lastly the chancel was an extension of this high aisle without any side aisles. It contained the high altar or stone table raised on a platform, reached by four very broad steps or degrees. The floor of the church, or at least a part of it, was paved with square glazed tiles of various colours. Beside the four great pillars which supported the central tower, there were twenty-four pillars betwixt the middle and side aisles. All these pillars measured seventeen and a-half feet in height from the floor to the top of the capitals; while the four centre pillars mounted upwards to a height of at least forty-five feet from the floor. The diameter of those pillars was eight feet, and the diameter of the lesser pillars was five feet, measured across their stalks. They were all formed externally of slender columns nearly round set on one base; there being ten such columns in each of the four great pillars, and eight in each of the others; and each pillar appeared like a cluster of tall columns joined together. Their capitals were adorned by carving, principally in the stiff' leaf or early English style. Richly moulded arches, in the pointed style, sprung from the capitals, and supported the upper walls of the high aisles. Next above these arches was the blind storey, containing thirty triforium windows, running along the sides of the high aisles. These windows were not seen from without, as they looked into the dark galleries betwixt the vaulting and roof of the said aisles. Each window was adorned with triple columns at the sides, and a centre column and double arches within. One of these windows remains to spew the elegance of the other twenty-nine. They were again surmounted by the clere storey windows which gave light to the upper part of the high aisles. There were thus three storeys or ranges of windows round the church; the upper and lower ranges of which were also adorned by double columns and arches.

The side aisles were covered by ribbed and groined vaults of stone reaching to thirty feet in height. But the internal roofs of the high aisles, or their inner vaulting, if they were finished in that manner, must have been of wood, and probably reached to a height of eighty-three feet above the floor. An open gallery of light and elegant stone work still remains above the west door ; and another open gallery still exists running along the inside of the south transept gable, which, together with two lower ranges of clustered columns and blind arches, gave to this part of the church a very rich appearance. The interior of the chancel was also surrounded by columns and arches which skew much taste. The walls of the west towers, the four great gables, and west walls of the high transept aisles were perforated with galleries or arched passages on a level with the blind storey, so that persons could go round the whole building at this height.

The church possessed at least four doors. The great western door bears marks of having been the last formed. Its top is a deep semicircular arch of the latest Norman style, with peculiar mouldings, rising from six columns on each side, flanked by small blind arches in the pointed style. The doorway as now existing is ten feet wide and fourteen feet high; the ornamented stone work by which the passage was contracted having been removed several years ago. The other doors, namely one on the north and two on the south side of the nave have elegant pointed arches: and the eastmost one is flanked by columns and a blind arch on each side. The walls contain the holes from which wooden beams were stretched behind these doors when wished to be secured. The western door was surmounted by three pointed windows in the ornamental work of the porch, and by a very magnificent circular window covering nearly the whole breadth of the centre aisle, and the frame of which is about twenty-eight feet in diameter. Each of the west towers was lighted by ten lancet windows; and the body of the church had thirty-nine pointed windows of various heights on the north, and as many on the south side, including those in the transept gables, beside a circular window at the top of each of these gables. The east or chancel gable contained nine pointed windows, with one of a different form, probably round or triangular, at the top. There is little doubt that the central tower was lighted by twelve windows at least, or three on each side, above the roof of the church; so that the whole number of windows or lights (not including the triforium) was one hundred and twenty-six. None of the pointed windows were divided by stone mullions, whatever was the interior form of the circular windows; such mullions not having been generally adopted at the time of erection. The roof of the church was covered with lead, from which the rain fell into leaden gutters, protected by parapets of stone. These parapets were reached by circular stone staircases, one of which remains in the gable of the south transept; and the frame of another may be seen in the south-west tower.

The following measurements will give an idea of the actual size of this edifice and some neighbouring buildings. The total length of the church over walls is 28-4 feet, thus —nave and west wall 153 feet, centre tower 40 feet, great choir 51. feet, chancel and east wall 40 feet. Total width of nave and choir over walls 71 feet; the centre aisle being 37 feet and each side aisle being 17 feet wide. Length of transept from north to south over walls including centre tower 1.40 feet. Width of transept over walls including high and side aisles 54 feet. The central tower was about 40 feet square, and each of the west towers measure about 30 feet square. The walls of the side aisles are 30 feet in height. The height of the side walls of the middle aisles was about 67 feet. The rigging of the upper roofs was about 89 feet high; and it may be assumed that the great central tower, without any spire, rose at least to a height of 140 feet from the ground. The vestry built by Abbot Panter, and containing his arms, measures about 19 feet square within walls. The lower apartment is vaulted with stone, upwards of 30 feet in height, and adorned on three sides with columns and blind arches. It is lighted by two elegant windows (one of which is a twin window); and a small turret, still existing, overtops its south-west corner.

The cloister court measured about 100 feet square within the boundary walls, and occupied the site of the modern garden south from the nave. The dimensions of the Abbot's house are 78 feet in length from east to west, and 40 feet in width over walls. This dwelling was wainscotted internally with dark oak, bearing many figures in relief ; but the whole has been ruthlessly destroyed, except two doors which yet remain to shew what has been lost.

A range of building two storeys in height, and about sixty feet in length, extends due westward from the south-west tower of the church to the great gateway. The basement storey is formed into vaults, covered with groined arches, in a state of good preservatioln. The great gatehouse of the Abbey precinct, looking towards the north, at the west end of this building, measures 64 feet in length from north to south, and 30 feet in breadth over walls. The outer or north clear gateway, formed of clustered columns, and a moulded arch, obtusely pointed, is 16 feet in width, and about 17 feet high. It was formerly contracted by masonry for greater security; and it still exhibits the groove for letting down the great iron portcullis, which with its chains now forms the modern heraldic representative of the town of Arbroath. The arch at the south end of the gatehouse and those in the middle where the hinged doors were hung are of a plainer character. The ribbed and groined roof which covered the passage way was surmounted by a large apartment, the walls of which yet remain. It is lighted on the north by a square-headed window divided by a mullion, and a small round window above, all enclosed in a pointed arch of the decorated style; and is adorned by blind arches, and large deep corbels on either side. The south end of this apartment is also lighted by a plainer pointed window in the same style, and there are several pointed windows on each side. West of the gatehouse there stood a vaulted apartment 28 feet long and about 18 feet wide within. This was succeeded by the hail called the Regality Court-house, covered with groined arches, and measuring 40 feet long and about 18 feet wide within. This hall was surmounted by other apartments, the roof of which is marked on the east wall of the tower. The donjon tower, supported by double buttresses at the corners, measures 21 feet from north to south, and 21 feet from east to west over walls, and is about 70 feet in height to the bottom of the bartizan. The walls are five or six feet in thickness. This tower commanded the three approaches to the Abbey, and it still has a formidable look.

The conventual buildings which had formerly stood on the south side of the church have been referred to in a, previous chapter. The plot enclosed by the convent walls (which were from 20 to 24 feet in height), and called the precinct, extended to about 1150 feet in length from north to south. It was 706 feet broad at. the north end, including the length of the great church, and 484 feet broad at the south end. Its form was exactly that of a wooden stoup, with the bottom or broad end looking to the north; excepting that the east wall had a curve outwards for some distance about midway from each end.

The church was externally destitute of those numerous small turrets and pinnacles which superficial admirers of Gothic architecture now prize so highly; and of which a florid specimen is given in the new Houses of Parliament. The builders being sagacious men saw that such external ornaments were neither fitted for the climate nor the material of the fabric. Its external beauty consisted in its great altitude and fine proportions, with the well-balanced adjustment of all its parts, which at first was fitted to give a limited idea of its great bulk till it was compared with the neighbouring buildings.

But the principal glory of the church was internal. A view of the vistas of its lofty vaulted aisles, separated by its twenty-eight massive clustered pillars, and illumined by the light which streamed through its hundred and twenty-six windows, and adorned with innumerable columns, capitals, and arches, with tombs, statues, crosses, screens, and altars, which met the eye in every direction—can only be understood by those who have visited the large cathedral churches of England or the Continent; as there is not any existing Gothic building in Scotland equal to Arbroath Abbey Church in size, altitude, or continuous grandeur and unity of design.

All these tombs, altars, screens, and crosses, except a few insignificant fragments, have vanished. The remains of the statues consist of three mutilated, headless trunks, now placed in the vestry. One of these has been formed out of a block of very hard and dark coloured shell marble; and has been supposed to be a statue of the founder William the Lion, because the feet rest on the body of a lion. The robe is large and flowing, knit by a girdle, from which a purse hangs on the left side, and the figure was originally recumbent. It exhibits remains of three or four pigmy figures which, on a close inspection, appear to be knights in armour, engaged as if they were arranging the drapery. This statue, without the head, measures four feet three inches in length. Another truncated statue is three inches loner, and is evidently formed to stand upright. It consists of very fine freestone, and clearly represented a high church dignitary, most probably one of the abbots. The hands, which had held a crosier, or may have been clasped, are broken off. But mutilated as it is, this figure displays a very great degree of beauty and grace in the arrangement of the drapery and disposition of the limbs. The robes from the neck to the feet are adorned with finely-carved lace ornaments, which bear traces of having been richly gilt. The other statue is of a size fully greater than the two above noticed, but so mutilated and wasted, owing to the softness of the sandstone of which it is composed, that it is difficult to say more respecting it than that it also appears to have been the figure of an abbot.

The graves within the area of the church had been ransacked long ago, most probably at the Reformation. Three of these are before the high altar, where it is said the founder was interred; but it is impossible to determine whether any of the bones now shewn to visitors really belonged to the material frame of this Scottish monarch.

The Conventual Seal of the Abbey was round, and measured 31 inches in diameter, It was well executed, considering its age; and it represents on the obverse side Thomas 5, Becket at the altar with four assassins approaching to murder him, while a figure kneeling on the steps below is believed to represent the penance of King Henry II. The inscription is:—" SIGILLV\i : ABBATIS : ET: CONVENTVS : SCI : THOME : 'NLARTVRIS : DE ABERBROTIiOT." The counter seal represents a shrine with open folding-doors, displaying the Virgin and child seated and crowned, and surrounded by a legend, which has been found to read as follows:—"PORTA SALL TIS AVE : PER TE PATET EXITVS A VE: VENIT AB EVA VE : VE QVIA TOLLIS AVE."

The impression of a beautiful seal, used by Abbot John Gedy, and appended to the Act of Parliament settling the successor to the Crown in 1371, contains in its upper compartment the Virgin and child, with an angel worshipping on either side. The middle compartment represents the murder of Becket and the King's penance at the altar; while a figure seated and fully draped occupies the lower compartment. This seal is oblong, and measures about 21 inches in length. The outer inscription is:—" SIGILL : ABBATIS : SCI : TIIOME : DE : ABERBROTHOC ;" but another inscription, in much smaller letters, cannot be given with certainty.

We have met with no reference in the records of the Abbey or burgh of Arbroath to that outlying reef known as the Bell Rock, which is associated with the memory of the Abbots of Aberbrothock. During the times of the Papacy the shipping which belonged to this part of Scotland was very limited; and those who have noticed the wear of rocks within flood-mark in the neighbourhood of Arbroath can easily conceive that, at the period referred to, this rock may have stood above the line of high-water, so as to be less dangerous to mariners, except at night and during fogs than it latterly became. As stated by Mr R. Stevenson, civil engineer, in his article "Bell Rock" (Edinburgh Encyclopoedia), the earliest name of the rock was " Inch-scape." It was afterwards called "Inch-cape," and latterly, the " Bell Rock.' What might appear at one time in the form of a scappe—the Scottish name of a straw bee-hive—would at other states of the tide bear the common form of a bell, and this circumstance very probably gave rise to the more generally understood term Bell Rock. This supposition is a more natural way of accounting for the origin of the tern than the unsupported tradition that the Convent of Arbroath had affixed a bell to the rock, to give warning to mariners. "It would be difficult to conceive any machine of this kind, which in such a situation could have been useful;" and we do not believe that such an unusual signal could have been in operation in former times without allusion to it being found in the pages of some contemporary record or annalist. The existence of the name and nonappearance of the bell might readily lead to the idea that a bell had once been there, and that the erecter was John Gedy or some other Abbot of the monastery. This idea, however, as well as the story of its removal by a Dutch or Danish shipmaster, who afterwards perished at the rock in consequence of his own act, although sufficiently romantic, and stereotyped by Southey's beautiful ballad, is met by so many sound objections as to lead to The conclusion that it must be classed among the fables. But the signal-tower securely placed on this hitherto treacherous rock, by the Commissioners of Northern Lights, in the years 1808-9-10, is no myth. Its graceful form rising from the waters during the day, its well-known red and white flames gleaming afar under the sky of starry nights, and its bells sounding along the waves in misty weather, is now hailed by the mariner in gladness as a friendly guide on which he may safely depend while steering his course in the vicinity of the dangerous coast of ST. THOMAS.


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