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Arbroath and its Abbey
Chapter VI - History of the Abbey Buildings


THE buildings of Arbroath Abbey had to contend with many enemies, even during that period which may be termed their lifetime of nearly four hundred years, from 1176 to 1560, among which, besides the tear and wear incident to a period of such length, we must reckon the elements of wind and fire, accidental and intentional, and assaults both from English shipping and from the fierce barons of Angus.

During the melancholy year of 1272, on Saturday of the Octaves of the Epiphany, at midnight, a sudden and violent wind from the north, with hail, tumbled down houses and lofty buildings; and fire breaking out in consequence, burnt the church of Arbroath and many others. Hector Boyce adds that church towers were burnt, and that the bells (made of precious materials) were partly broken and partly melted, the most remarkable of which were the bells hanging in the towers of the church of Arbroath, and that the church was consumed along with them.

We do not know if the difference of form in the upper parts of the western towers of the Abbey Church is to be traced to this event. Whether they were both originally constructed after one model in their upper parts it is now

church should be repaired in the roof of its choir, nave, and transepts. The roofs thus destroyed by fire, were most probably those of the high central aisles, :as the side aisles bear marks of having been arched or vaulted with stone. Resistance to this ordinance, was to be visited with excommunication and imprisonment; and two monks and two squires were appointed to collect and levy the dues and rents of all the lands and churches of the monastery beyond the Mounth (that is, beyond the Grampians), and in Mearns, Angus, Fife, and Strathearn, to be expended in repairs by the master of the works, under the advice of the Abbot. The Abbot was also enjoined to restrain his own expenses, to receive no guests, but to live solitarily and privately in his own chamber; and each monk was to be content with twelve merks yearly for food and clothing.

It was several years afterwards, however, before these repairs were finished, and not at least previous to 1395, the year succeeding that on which Abbot John Gedy contracted to build the harbour. This is shown to have been the case by a document in the Scottish language, being a contract betwixt Abbot John and the Convent, and William of Tweeddale, plumber, burgess of St Andrews, for "theking the nickel quer with lede." The great choir was probably the wide part of the church immediately to the east of the transepts, opposite to the vestry. This contract is dated 16th February 1394, or, according to our reckoning, 1395. The contractor is taken bound to thatch the great choir, and gutter it all about with lead, for which the Abbot shall pay him thirty-five merks at sundry terms as he is working, but five merks shall remain in the Abbot's hands till the choir be thatched and parapeted with stone; and, when this is done, he shall "dight" it about with lead sufficiently, as his craft asks; and he is then to be paid the five merks, and a gown with a hood. The contractor and the Abbot are each to provide a labourer till the work is ended, The Abbot is to find all the material, and the contractor is to have threepence, and one stone of each hundred, for his trouble in fining the lead; and each day that be works he is to have a penny for his luncheon.. The indenture was then cut into two parts, and one-half given to each of the parties, after receiving the seal of the other party.

This is the earliest document in the Chartulary expressed in the Scottish dialect; and it possesses no little interest, not only as sheaving the condition of workmen at that time, but also as exhibiting a genuine specimen of lowland Scotch nearly five hundred years ago; during which long period it is surprising to find that it has undergone so few changes. After making allowance for antique spelling, there are not above three words in this indenture, which are not still in ordinary use. As an excellent specimen of old Angus Scotch, we give it entire:—"This endentur beris wytnes that the yer of grace MCCCXCIIII. [1394-5], the xvi. day of the moneth of Feveryer, this cuniwnde [covenant] was made betwene Johnne Abbot of Aberbrothoc, of the to part, and Wilyam Plumer of Tweddale, burges of the cite of Andirstoun [St Andrews], of the tothir part; that is to say, That Wilyam Plumer sal theke the mekil quer wyth lede, and guttyr yt al abowt sufficiandly wyth lede, for the quhilkis thekyn and gutteryn the Abbot sal pay till him xxxv. marcis at syndry termys, as he is wyrkand ; and of the xxxv. marcis, v. marcis sal dwel style in the Abbotis hand quhillys the quer be thekyt and alurryt [battlemented] al abowyt with stane, and quhen it is allurryt about with stane he sal dycht it abowt wyth lede sufficiandly, as his craft askys; and quhen he has endyt that werk he sal be payt of v. marcis and a gown with a hude till his rauarde. Quhilk Wilyam Plumer sal fynd a man on his awn cost, and the Abbot and Convent a man alsua of thar cost quhil the werk be fully ly endyt. The Abbot and the convent call fynd al maner of gratht that pertenys to that work quhil is wyrkande. Willam sal haf alsua for ilk stane fynyne that he fynys of lode iij d. [three pennies], and a stane of ilk hynder that he fynys til his travel ; and that day that he wyrkis he sal haf a penny till his noynsankys [luncheon]. In the wytnes of this thyng to the to part of there [thir] endentur to the Abbot and the Convent for to dwel the selis of John Brog and of John Prechurrys, burges of the burgh of Abirbrothoc, are to put; the tothir part anens Wilyam of Tweddal, plummer, the comoun sele of the chapyter of Abirbrothoc remanys selyt. Dowyn and gyffyn the yer and the day of the moneth before nemmyt." William Tweeddale finished his plumber work about fifteen months after the date of this contract. On 21st May 1396 he granted a receipt to the Abbot for 20 sterling, paid to him for the "architecture of the great choir," and in full of all his claims for purifying or fining the lead, for his "nonesankys," and the gown with the hood, as specified in the indenture. The Latin words "architectura magni chori" in this receipt seem to be used as equivalent to " theking the mekil quer" in the Scottish indenture. Did the term architecture at this period denote the art of constructing arched roofs?

It has been said that the Abbey Church was again more or less damaged and burnt in 1445, on the occasion of the encounter between the partizans of the Lindsays and Ogilvies already referred to. The Hamilton papers (Maitland Miscel., iv. 96) bear that the English council reported to King Henry VIII. that one Wishart, among other enterprises, undertook that a body of troops, to be paid by the English King, "joining with the power of the Earl Marshall, the master of Rothes, the laird of Calder, and others of the Lord Gray's friends, will take upon them to destroy the Abbey and Town of Arbroth, being the Cardinal's, and all the other bishops' and Abbots' houses and countries on that side of the water thereabouts." It appears that King Henry, in his rage against the Cardinal, gave them every encouragement "effectually to burn and destroy;" but there is no evidence that the undertaking was accomplished.

We have not seen any statement from a writer co-temporary with the Reformation that the buildings of this Abbey suffered at the hands of the Reformers, although it is probable that, as was done elsewhere, they burned the wooden images, beheaded and defaced the stone ones, knocked down the crosses and altars, and damaged the tombs. Neither have we seen any authentic confirmation of the popular tradition that the church was pillaged and then burnt by Ochterlony of Kelly at that period, in consequence of a feud with the Abbot; and from the great power of the Hamilton family, one of which held the Abbacy at the time, such an occurrence is far from being probable. Had such evidence been accessible, it was not likely to have escaped the editor of the second volume of the Chartulary, who is altogether silent as to any conflagration of the church at the period in question. The desiderated evidence may possibly yet be obtained; but, in the meantime, we think it possible that the story of the final alleged burning of 1539 or 1560 may have been derived from, or have been confounded with, some of the earlier burnings. We may also remark that those parts of the walls which remain do not exhibit any of that calcined appearance which we would expect to find in a building destroyed by fire; although the lapse of time may have been sufficient to obliterate such marks.

As to the Reformers, there is much truth in the following words of one who did not hold them in the highest respect: "I need only remark of the burning of the town of Dornoch and the Cathedral, in 1570, that here, as at Elgin, and in the case of many of our monasteries and churches demolished in the English wars, the disgrace does not rest on the Reformers, often blamed for what they did not as for what they did destroy." (.Iaculloch's letters on the Highlands, ii. 478.) In justice to them, we may add that it will be difficult to point to a single parish or town church, the walls of which were injured by them, farther than, perhaps, by the loss of crosses or statues; and the latter class of ornaments does not seem to have been a large one in Scotland. There is no evidence that the walls of the great churches north of Scone, including those of Dunkeld, Dundee, Arbroath, .Montrose, Brechin, New and Old Aberdeen, Elgin, and Kirkwall, suffered any damage at their hands. While we know that, to the English is to be attributed the destruction of much of the Abbey Churches of Haddington, Kelso, Dryburgh, Melrose, and Holyrood.

The statements made by Spottiswood and many others on this subject are very exaggerated. In regard to the year 1599, they speak as if a mob had in a few hours "razed to the ground" great monasteries and churches, a feat not so easily performed; whereas, at Perth, where the spoliation of monasteries was the completest of any, the walls at least were left standing. The Act of Council passed in 1561 had reference to the destruction of monuments of idolatry, within the churches and monasteries, rather than to the buildings; and although Knox writes that the Act was followed by the burning of the Abbey of Paisley, and the demolition of those of Failford, Kilwinning, and part of Crossragwel, without doubt because they belonged to Popish dignitaries, Mr D. Laing has shewn (Knox i. 167), that the destruction was far less complete than the words used would lead one to suppose. A fair idea of this purging process at the large churches may be obtained from the letter by Argyle, Moray, and Ruthven, in which they order the [wooden] images of Dunkeld Cathedral to be burnt, and the altars to be cast down, with the following caution—"Tak guid heyd that neither the dasks, windocks nor durris be ony hurt or broken--eyther glassin wark or iron wark." A few facts are worth more than whole pages of declamation. After Darnley's death, in February 1567-8, the Privy Council ordered the lead to be taken off the roofs of the cathedrals of Elgin and Aberdeen for payment of wages to soldiers. But when the power of the Presbyterians was very high, the General Assembly of 1587-8 sent a petition to the king regretting the decay of the cathedrals of Glasgow and Dunblane, and the Abbey Church of Dunfermline, "which are ruinous, and without hastie [immediate] repaire are not able to be remedied;" and asking him to cause the Abbot of Dunfermline and the Bishop of Dunblane to repair their respective churches, and to order the falling lead of Glasgow Cathedral to be employed in bearing the cost of slating that church.

The walls of St Andrews Cathedral, Elgin Cathedral, Arbroath Abbey, the chancel of Brechin Church, and the choirs and transepts of the churches of Dunfermline and Old Aberdeen, seem to have been left to go to ruin as useless erections. The choir and transepts of Holyrood Church were recommended by the Bishop of Orkney to be taken down as "superfluous ruinous parts," in the year 1570. The funds which ought to have been employed in their repair having been appropriated by the monarchs and their favourites, many of the walls of these great buildings fell by their own weight, assisted by the frosts of winter, the rains of summer, and the mattocks and pickaxes of every one who wished to obtain stones. The Reformers ordered the church of Restalrig to be destroyed "as a monument of idolatry," after the nave of St Anthony's Church, in Leith, had been assigned as the more convenient place of worship for the people of that parish, the other portions of that church having been destroyed at the siege of Leith; but the demolition of Gothic architecture in the time of the Reformers bears it very small proportion to that which was witnessed during last, and the early part of this century. Instances of this may be seen in the ruin of Melrose Abbey, after public worship ceased to be held in it, the ruin of the nave of Holyrood Church, by an absurd stone roof laid upon it, the substitution of the Gothic Town Churches of St Andrews, Cupar, Dysart, and Breehin, by the present lumpish buildings which were put in their place; not to mention the recent destruction of the noble Trinity College Church of Edinburgh, to make room for a railway shed.

It is time that the memory of our Reformers should be vindicated from the aspersions cast on it in regard to this subject. It cannot be denied that mobs at that, as well as at any other time, have committed unjustifiable excesses; but any one who has read Knox's lamentation on the burning of Scone Abbey will see that the more learned among them were proud of their ecclesiastical buildings; and the existence of St Giles, Greyfriars, and Trinity College Church, Edinburgh, St Michael's, Linlithgow, the Abbey Church of Paisley, the Greyfriars Church of Stirling, the cathedrals of Glasgow, Dunblane, and Kirkwall, the churches of Perth, Dundee, and Aberdeen, shew that they efficiently maintained those churches where there were congregations to be accommodated; and if the supernumerary erections, such as St Andrews Cathedral, Arbroath Abbey, and other monasteries, went to ruin, that ought not to be charged against the Reformed Church (which never had any spare funds to expend on what to it were useless walls), but to the nobility and gentry, and the Scottish Exchequer, who grasped the rents and lands endowed for their support, and not a shilling of which they ever thought of employing in their repair till the present century had considerably advanced.

We have little information as to the erection and repairing of the subsidiary buildings of the Abbey, nor is this to be expected. The Chartulary scarcely contains a reference to any individual building except the church and its altars, the chapter house and vestry, the dormitory, and the "Abbot's Hall," which we believe to be the modern Abbey House. The dormitory contained in its upper storey the sleeping apartments of the monks. It is described as in course of renewal in the year 1470, and is referred to in several of the monastic writs. In a lease of that year, by Abbot Malcolm to John Chepman, styled "our familiar," the Abbot let to him, "for his labour for bringing wood from Norway for the use of our dormitory, a toft in our elimosinary, and four acres of land in Pondirlaw, for five years : and when the said John is in our service he shall have the toft and four acres for his reward, and when he is not in our service he shall pay for the elimosinary (toft) twenty shillings, and for the four acres of Pondirlaw four bolls of wheat yearly 'at two terms." On 20th May of the following year, Abbot Richard leased the teinds of the church of Inverness to David, Bishop of Murray, for six years, at the rent of 53, 6s. 8d. Scots, "for the building of our dormitory erected of new." The dormitory formed the upper storey of the range of building which has the line of its roof so distinctly marked on the gable of the south transept of the church. It had a private door (now built up) through the transept wall for access to the church at midnight masses. There are indications in the Chartulary that at this period the restoration of roofs and other wood work about the Abbey had not been confined to the dormitory, but was carried out on a more extensive scale. The buildings were nearly three hundred years old, and we may easily suppose that the wood work of the twelfth century stood in need of much repair by the fifteenth century.

On 25th July 1474 the Abbot and Convent entered into a contract with Stephen Lyell, of St Andrews, to act as their carpenter in all kinds of wood work to be required within the monastery, or wherever it pleased them, during his lifetime. He was to receive twenty merks Scots annually for his wages, and his meat and drink. If lie worked for the Abbot and Convent beyond the monastery, at the repair of their churches, he was to be allowed four pennies for his expenses each working day. He was to begin work every day at five o'clock forenoon, and finish at seven o'clock afternoon, except in winter. If he continued at work all day he was to have "ad gentaculum suum" [f], and his servant was to receive a small loaf from the hall, and a drink with the convent servants, and have his afternoon [four hours] for his refreshment. And he was not to work beyond the monastery without the license of the Abbot.

Below the dormitory there still remain the vestiges of an arched passage running from east to west, adorned with seats on each side, doors at each end, and having the roof supported by ribs ending in ornamented or flowered corbels. This passage led from the cloisters to the chapter house lying to the east, and of which only a fragment of the south-east corner remains. The chapter house was a lofty and spacious erection fit for convening the chapter, with room for deputies, visitors, &c., having arches springing from the walls, and meeting most probably in a pillar at the centre of the floor, as was the usual mode of constructing chapter houses of large monasteries. The Abbey of Arbroath could not have wanted such a necessary building as a chapter house during the 230 years that elapsed before Abbot Panter erected the much smaller building for a vestry adjoining the church, which is now erroneously styled the chapter house, but which could not possibly have ever served that purpose. The south wall of the chapter house remained till 1780, and exhibited a large arched door to the westward of the existing fragment.

The lower flat of the building, which abutted on the south transept wall may have been the refectory or dining hall of the Abbey; or it may possibly have been the frater hall, or place of meeting of the monastic brethren, in which case the refectory would probably occupy the space betwixt it and the Abbot's house, on the south, or that building which had run southward from the nave of the church, on the west side of the inner or cloister court,—so that the great church on the north, the transept and dormitory on the east, the refectory and Abbot's house on the south, and the building referred to on the west, formed what was termed this inner or cloister court of the Abbey. The Abbot's house was originally a square tower (forming the south-eastern portion of the present structure), the basement floor of which was a great kitchen with groined arches and pillars, and a gracefully-moulded door, which still remain, and are well worth a visit. The cloisters or covered walks, as in most great monasteries, appear to have run along the interior of the four sides of the square court which lay on the south side of the nave of the church. A door led into the church at the north-west corner of the cloisters, and another door entered the church at the north-east corner. This door bears marks of a great degree of ornament, the mouldings being enriched with carving of open filigree work of a kind superior to any other part of the remaining buildings. It was the private entrance of the Abbot and monks into the church. The great western door was only opened on high festival occasions; while the ordinary entrance into the church for the public was by the north door of the nave, which still remains close to the north-west tower, and exhibits much fine taste and beautiful specimens of plain mouldings.

The Abbey buildings erected to the westward of the great portcullis gate were more specially appropriated to the civil department of the conventual establishment. The arched apartment, now almost demolished, which extended from the gate to the corner tower, is believed to have been the regality court-House. The square donjon tower still remaining served the purposes both of fortress and prison, and on that account this part of the buildings was sometimes termed the Castle. The lower apartment was a dismal dungeon, without light, and seems to have been accessible only by a hole in the vault, through which the unhappy prisoner was let down. This was the massimore of the Abbey, or the vale in pace., so called from the irony of the sentence, "Go in peace." The apartment next above this vault was also probably used as a prison; but the upper apartments of the tower contain fire-places and recesses, and exhibit such signs of comfort as lead to the conclusion that they were intended for other inmates than prisoners, and were most probably rooms for the safe custody of the Abbey records. This building was finished at the top like other towers of the period, with a bartizan and parapet surrounding a centre ,sloping roof rising several feet above the parapet. This upper part, with the bartizan, has been taken down, apparently from fear of accidents by its falling.

At the south-west corner of the tower may still be traced the height of the western precinct wall, which started from this point and ran straight down along the east side of the High Street till it approached near to Allan Street, and then turned a little way to the east, and again to the south, and terminated at the south-west corner of the modern Parish Church. It had a round tower at the point where it left the High Street, and the old Church steeple was the square tower which stood at its southern extremity. The line of the wall betwixt these towers forms the boundary of the burgh, and runs southward behind the houses of the High Street and School Wynd. At the Church steeple the precinct wall turned to the east and ran up to Hay's Lane, at a few yards' distance from what was then the high road to Montrose, the intervening strip of ground (on which the Parish Church, the houses in Academy Street, and others are built) being known by the name of the "Derngate Rig;" while this part of the wall was styled by the Abbots - "our Red Wall." The Dern Yett, or private gate, stood at the south-east corner of the "precinct. Part of the stonework of this gate existed till within five or six years ago. From the Dern Yett the wall ran northward along Hay's Lane, where a portion of it may yet be seen, and continued along the east end of the gardens of East Abbey Street, and the east side of the Convent Green, till it reached the south-east corner of the burying-ground, where it turned to the west, along the line of the present wall, and joined the east end of the great church. The church and other conventual buildings still existing formed the defence of the monastery along the remaining part of the northern boundary.

The history of the Abbey buildings during the last three centuries may be stated in a short paragraph. In regard to monastic edifices, the first two hundred and fifty years of that period were "a time to break down" as the former centuries had been "a time to build up." It is probable that, not long after the roof of the church was removed, the upper portions of the east and west gables would fall by their own weight, in consequence of being rent by frost and rain. The north walls and transept adjoining the cemetery seem to have been industriously levelled to the ground at an early period. The dilapidated state of the walls would lead, under the pretence of safety to lives, to the undermining and fall of the great central tower (of the form and termination of which we have no record), and of the great columns with their superincumbent arches, triforium and clere storey. Many cartloads of the stones of these columns and arches were recently found at the demolition of an old mansion removed to make room for the British Linen Company's Bank in Arbroath.

The upper part of the north-west tower was blown down by a storm in 1739. Part of the south-west tower fell in 1772, and another part fell in 1799. In 1800 the Town Council of Arbroath demolished the groined arched roof of the great gateway, with the centre wall where the hinged gate and side wicket were placed. The Magistrates of the burgh had acquired from King George I. a feu grant of the ground within the precinct lying to the south of the Abbey buildings. They formed this ground into streets, and sub-feued it to private parties, up to the walls of the church; and this led to the removal of the greater part of the boundary wall, and of the walls of the other conventual buildings, excepting the few fragments which still exist. In the beginning of this century the Scottish Court of Exchequer began to take some steps toward the conservation of these remains; and about 1835 the Commissioners of Woods and Forests cleared out the area of the Church, and repaired and partially restored those parts of the walls of which the original form could be correctly traced. These repairs have been continued till the present time under the direction of the Commissioners of Works, by virtue of parliamentary grants, which it is earnestly hoped may soon be resumed on a scale so liberal as to admit of the purchase of the Abbot's house, the only portion of the original buildings now in the hands of private parties. Although this house has been denuded of its antique internal furnishings and its battlemented exterior, it is still well worth careful preservation, not only on account of its general form, and fine vaulted basement storey, being the patchwork of several ages, but also on account of its being the frequent residence of the patriot King, Robert Bruce.


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