A monastic pilgrimage through the Borderlands

Over a number of decades, right up to the 1970s, an exciting youth pilgrimage '“ organised by Franciscan friars, lay people and others '“ loosely followed the route taken by the monks who had carried St Cuthbert's remains, fleeing the marauding Danes.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 29 July, 2018, 17:08
Jedburgh Abbey in the Scottish Borders. Founded in 1138.

These pilgrims, who camped along the way, completed their journey with great celebrations, with pilgrims’ songs, gathered around campfires on the edge of Budle Bay, just North of Bamburgh.

Their journey paused at each of the erstwhile border abbeys. There they would stop and pray, giving thanks for the communities in past ages that had built and inhabited these amazing buildings.

Even today, this can make a fascinating pilgrimage.

So, let us set out on our way, following the paths of pilgrims from those earlier days.

We begin by crossing the border into Scotland at Carter Bar, arriving in the town of Jedburgh, the first town in Scotland situated on the road now unromantically named the A68.

Here rise up before us the powerful ruins of the Augustinians’ Jedburgh Abbey.

Built alongside the Jed Water, it was ideally placed for both fresh water and a running stream to carry away the monastery’s unwanted effluent.

Although the site may have a history going as far back as the ninth century, it was King David I of Scotland who, in 1183, founded the present abbey, setting up a colony of regular canons, most likely from Beauvais in Northern France.

The Augustinians are canons following a rule (regula means rule) of St Augustine of Hippo (d. 430).

The abbey church’s majestic nave is well viewed from the triforium level on the West front, reached by a spiral staircase on either side.

From that elevated vantage point, the road northwards is clearly visible, and we now motor up the A68 through St Boswells.

St Boswells is a corruption of St Boisil, abbot of the abbey at Old Melrose when St Cuthbert was a novice in the seventh century.

Melrose Abbey was a Cistercian foundation dating back to 1136, again founded by King David, with a colony of monks from Rievaulx in Yorkshire.

The Cistercians were founded in Citeaux, near Dijon in Eastern France. Their earliest celebrated abbot was St Bernard of Clairvaux. They had been founded as an order to follow more rigorously the Rule of St Benedict.

Often their monasteries were in remote locations. They were pioneers in farming and in mining for metallic ores.

King Robert (the Bruce) was a supporter of Melrose and his heart was buried in the grounds – the place is still marked.

Having refuelled with lunch in the town, we now travel five miles East along a stunning section of the Tweed Valley, much beloved by Sir Walter Scott (Scott’s View is nearby) and arrive at Dryburgh, the most beautifully situated of these border abbeys.

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Here, alongside a meander in the fast-flowing Tweed, an abbey was founded in 1150 by Hugh de Morville, a friend of King David.

This foundation was Premonstratensian, an order named after Prémontré in North Eastern France, where it had been founded by St Norbert.

Like the Augustinians, they were ‘regular’ canons and not monks, living a semi-monastic life, focused more on preaching and missions than on an enclosed life of prayer.

In this attractive setting are laid the mortal remains of both Sir Walter Scott and those of Field Marshal, Earl Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in the Great War; Haig lived at nearby Bemersyde.

The ruins here are impressive and the pattern of monastic life is easily discerned from the footings of the church, the cloister and other claustral buildings.

Having taken tea – perhaps at the nearby hotel – there is just time to motor on, past Sir William Playfair’s Floors Castle, built for the Duke of Roxburgh, and into the delightful border town of Kelso.

Motoring around the town, past the classical Town Hall in the market square, we travel towards the bridge over the Tweed.

On our left are the fragmentary remains of Kelso Abbey.

Kelso is the earliest of King David’s foundations, established on its present site in 1128.

Similar in some ways to the foundation at Melrose, this abbey was for monks again seeking to follow more strictly the Rule of St Benedict.

They were Tironesian monks, named after their birthplace at Tiron, near Chartres.

Kelso Abbey suffered badly in the border wars with England and the main survivor is the Western tower.

Around the ruins were built an attractive, cloister-like memorial for the Great War dead.

Kelso is the perfect place to complete our day’s pilgrimage, with many places to choose from to stay at or to dine, or to engage more deeply with the history and culture of these remarkable religious houses, which still shapes the character of these fascinating borderlands.

To complete our pilgrimage, we could follow St Cuthbert to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, and ultimately to Durham. His shrine stands at the opposite end of the cathedral from the tomb of Bede, from whom we learn most of what we know of Cuthbert.

• A book of the Rt Rev Dr Stephen Platten’s first 20 articles in his Berwick Advertiser Borderlands series is now available to buy.

Titled simply Borderlands, it costs £6.95 and is available either from Grieve’s the stationer or from the book shop Slightly Foxed in Berwick. Alternatively, get it online from publisher Wilds of Wanney at www.wildsofwanney.co.uk or by post from Wanney Books, 15 Fairfields, Alnwick, NE66 1BT.