Dundrennan Abbey - A Personal Tour



Dundrennan Abbey stands in a valley about a mile from the coast of south-western Scotland. This small monastery is an excellent example of the standardised monastic design of the Cistercian Order, but has unique features due to its history and development. Between 1142 and 1607, this site had a dignified history, marked by links to the ancient MacFergus petty kings of Galloway and later to the Maxwell family. Its most famous visitor was Mary Stewart, also named Mary Queen of Scots, who made the fatal decision to leave Scotland at Dundrennan Abbey. Since that time, demolition and restoration have affected the Abbey, but enough remains to show the quiet dignity and peace of its past. The Abbey still plays a part in this era, as from 1607 onwards it has been the burial ground of many local families. In this personal account, the writer intends to give some idea of the life of the monks and to show the importance they played in the history of the Kingdom of Scotland.

Access to the Abbey

The Abbey is in the care of Historic Scotland, which is currently extending and improving those areas accessible to the public. It may be visited between 9:30 and 6:30 except Sundays, 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., April to November. During October and November the Abbey is closed on Thursday afternoon and all day Friday. Winter Opening is restricted to Saturdays and Sunday afternoons.

Entry costs (1997) : Adults 1.50 Pounds, Concessions 1.00 Pounds, Children 0.75 Pounds. The excellent Guidebook costs 1.75 Pounds.

The site office has a good stock of books on the history of Scotland, including several books on the Cistercian Order and Mary Queen of Scots. Sweets and souvenirs are available here, the only shop in Dundrennan. Historic Scotland has a good car park and provides a free toilet with washing facilities. Visitors can picnic in the grounds if they ask permission from the Site Steward.

The Abbey has been Commended for its facilities and service to visitors.

The Cistercian Order

All the Western European Christian Monastic Orders run their lives according to the Rules of Saint Benedict of Nursia, the first Abbot of Monte Cassino. Benedict set up his community in 554 AD, jotting down the 'Rules' as guidance to himself as Abbot, and to his fellow-monks, that they have a structure to their lives. His well-meaning Rules soon became dogma, and their provisions, - gentle in Southern Italy, - were over time to make existence extremely harsh for the monasteries set up in the cold climates of Northern Europe. That inevitably led to failures in adherence to the Rule, which was soon to create the 'Strict' 'Common' and 'Low' Observances, varying in adherence and difficulty.

The monks of Cluny in central France were by 900 AD rather a byword for decadence and corruption, being (to the stricter monks) too inclined to wealth and to living outside the Abbey. Benedict had insisted that monks live in cloister, praying seven or eight times daily to the glory of God., but many Cluniac monks were living in granges (manor houses) well away from their cloisters. The crowning insult to the stricter brethren, was that these 'Grangers' were becoming in some cases fathers and grandfathers, alienating Abbey property to their bastards. Reform was to come when the stricter Benedictines agreed to found their own Abbey at Citeaux in northern France, pledging themselves to live strictly by the Rules of Saint Benedict, which meant that they would live in cloister, leaving it only to travel from one Abbey to another. These new 'Cistercians' were to inspire the most remarkable surge of monastic expansion in Europe.

The Cistercians were to establish no fewer than 769 Abbeys, and maybe as many as a thousand minor houses and Granges were started by them. This vigour was in part due to their rigorous adherence to the Rule of Saint Benedict, but also to the skill with which they developed marginal land into agricultural estates. Citeaux itself was founded in marshland, so the drainage and land improvement at the site was a skill developed further elsewhere. A benefactor could cheaply buy masses for his soul by giving the Cistercians the worst land he owned, the monks and lay-brothers building their abbey and improving their land to a high level of productivity. The mediaeval writer 'Giraldus Cambrensis' wrote of the Cistercians that within twenty five years they could create a fair estate with a noble abbey standing in its midst'. In addition to this, the order ran their own salt-pans and saltmines, iron mines, smithies and ironworks, collieries and breweries, with the intention of providing all their own needs. British Cistercian Abbeys were famous for their exports of wool, the Dundrennan monks gaining much of their own wealth from this.

Cistercian monks considered that they had 'laid their bodies aside at the door' when entering the monastery, so lived and died short lives of personal poverty. Including infant mortality, it is assessed that the average lifespan of the British population was then about 35 years, but that of a Cistercian monk was barely 28. Aware of the harshness of their life, the monks tried to reduce their mortality by an efficient system of infirmaries for sick monks, cold baths at least once a quarter, and regular washing of head, hands and feet during the day. The Dundrennan monks had ten Abbots between 1273 and 1347, - a space of some seventy years, - indicating the level of the deathrate. Attempts to moderate this harshness throughout the Order lead eventually to a division between the 'Strict' monks of La Trappe and the rest of the Order, the 'Strict' and 'Common' Observances remaining separate though parallel to today.

As with other aspects of mediaeval life, the Black Death tolled the knell for the lay brethren of the Cistercians, mainly because there was a shortage of farm workers and town labourers after up to two third of the population had died. Before, the lay brethren offered security and promotion for the ambitious and diligent, but afterwards there was the prospect of paid employment or life as a tenant farmer. The Cistercian Order lost much of its earlier impetus, but went through a series of internal reformations until and after the French Revolution. Perhaps the most serious blow came from the appointment of 'Commendators', generally noble laymen who the Pope or the Crown rewarded with the nominal Abbacy of a monastery. Fully two-thirds of the twenty-four major Scottish Abbeys became little more than noble estates, Dundrennan suffering this indignity in 1523. The remainder became additional benefices for needy or greedy Bishops and Archbishops. By 1587, Dundrennan had no more monks left alive, and suffered twenty years of further decline before being officially deconsecrated in 1607 by Act of the then-Protestant Scottish Parliament. That most rigorous of Calvinists, John Knox, had the sense not to interfere with the Scottish decline, as some of his support actually came from Commendators of the half of the Scottish monasteries. This was at least less cruel than the mass-Dissolution of the English monasteries by Thomas Cromwell, who closed down viable monasteries for the profit of Henry VIII.

The Cistercians on the Continent suffered from two major political disasters; the first was the 1782 shutdown of 'useless religious institutions' by the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, which closed or changed most of the monasteries in Germany, Austria and the Balkans. France suffered from the French Revolution of 1789, monasteries in France, and in parts of Italy and Spain, being pillaged and demolished in the cause of 'rationalism' and for their accumulated wealth. The Order very nearly collapsed, but through the determination of a handful of monks, survived Swiss, Russian and English exile, before returning to France. Their enforced diaspora was to create new monasteries in America, England and Ireland, whilst in Scotland the Priory of Pluscarden in Nairn was rebuilt by monks as a centre of Cistercian life. Dundrennan has at various times hosted services by visiting Cistercian monks from Pluscarden, continuing an ancient and worthy tradition.

Fergus of Galloway and David the First of Scotland

During 1142, King David I of Scotland asked Fergus, Lord and 'King' of Galloway, to grant lands to the Cistercian Abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, for an Abbey at Dundrennan. King David needed more literate men in Scotland, for administration and to provide pastoral care, but he had to rely on the good will of his nobles to provide lands, - and, sometimes, grants of money. The 'Hill of Thorns' of Dundrennan was to be cleared for pastureland and ploughlands, the valley drained and improved. If Fergus had given nothing more than the land, the Order would have gathered funds from within its own establishments, to provide Dundrennan with enough to establish itself.

As it was, Fergus appears to have looked on the monks with favour, and may have been buried at the Abbey after his death. His family were to endow the Cistercian Order with lands and sites for two more Abbeys and a nunnery, the remains of which can still be identified today. The last of his royal descendants was Princess Dervorguilla, - 'Queen of the South', - who married a John Balliol. On John's death, his body was buried in Jedburgh, but Dervorguilla embalmed his heart, establishing Sweetheart Abbey - 'Dulce Cor' - as a memorial to her husband. Dervorguilla was buried at Sweetheart with her husband's heart, her son John Balliol going on to become King of Scotland during the Interregnum.

King John Balliol was later publicly stripped of royal honours by Edward I of England, but lived out his days in his family home near Dalbeattie. His grandson Edward tried to gain the throne during the captivity of William the Lion, but the return of the true King saw the Balliol estates pillaged and Buittle Castle levelled. Edward Balliol died in exile, a pensioner at the Court of Edward III of England. From then onwards, the Black Douglases and the Maxwells were to play a greater role in Galloway, but never achieved the royal honours of MacFergus and Balliol.

The Founding of the Abbey

Dundrennan appears to have been founded in the usual Cistercian way. A party of lay brethren arrived first, to clear the site where the Abbey was planned to stand. Local stone and timber were used to construct a precinct wall around the site, a gatekeeper's cell being erected at the one entrance. A crude chapel, a dormitory and a refectory, were also erected near where the cloisters would stand. From historical events elsewhere, it is evident that the temporary buildings could be as basic as wattle and daub huts, but at Dundrennan there would probably have been field stone for walls, brushwood and heather for thatching, and tree limbs and trunks for rafters.

Abbot Sylvanus and his dozen monks apparently travelled by way of the Order's Abbey at Holmcultrum, at Abbeytown on the Cumbrian coast. The writer was told by an Abbeytown resident that Holmcultrum was used as a kind of training-centre, teaching the founders of new monasteries the best way to go about this complex matter. From Holmcultrum, the monks could have travelled by coastal vessel to Burnfoot, where Dundrennan Burn reaches the sea. Alternatively, the monks may have walked or ridden around the Solway to Carlisle, and thence along the old coastal Pilgrims' Way towards Whithorn. As the Solway was a better 'road' than the inland heath and marsh, an arrival by sea may have been more likely, and would have limited the time spent out of Abbey precincts. The monks of Holmcultrum certainly had interests on the north side of the Solway, later establishing a grange at Kirkgunzeon, and salt-pans and a house at Sandyhills Bay.

Burnfoot had many uses; the hard, flat beach, served as the port for visiting coastal vessels, which came inshore and beached as tide fell, were unloaded into carts, then floated off as the tide rose again. Salt pans may have been set up on the shore, so, too, may have been fixed fishing nets, to provide fish for the community. But the most lasting contribution was to come from the sea-cliffs, which were used as a quarry for the stone used in the Abbey. Most of the facing stone was a hard siliceous sandstone, the body of the walls being rougher basalts, sandy shales, basalts and volcanics. Lime for building was in short supply in this area, so was probably imported by sea from lime-kilns at Workington or Whitehaven. Sand would have come from river and beach deposits, probably washed clean of salt and mud with the help of river-water.


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Developed by Richard Wordsmith. Last updated 16th July 1997.

© Copyright Richard Edkins 1997.