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It was a pleasure to welcome back Dr Chris Bowles, archaeologist for Scottish Borders Council, to give a packed audience an update on investigations at Coldingham Priory.
Chris began by explaining that the site is almost unknown outside the area.
Before the priory existed, there was an earlier building. It was allegedly sited on what is now Kirk Hill, but is commonly called the Brugh (a corruption of Sax. burh- fort), on the headland at St Abbs, separated from the world by a deep trench and high palisade.
This religious house lasted for about 40 years and was a double monastery of monks and nuns, governed by Æbbe. Aebbe was born about 615 into the royal house of Northumbria and was the sister of Oswald and Oswiu. Cuthbert is believed to have spent time there.
The abbey was accidentally burnt down between 685 and 700 after Aebbe’s death, but was rebuilt. It was later attacked by Vikings and there is a legend that the abbess and sisters mutilated themselves by cutting off their noses and lips, rather than give themselves up. The monastery was destroyed and it was deserted by the time Bede wrote about it in the early eighth century.
There is little to see at Kirk Hill today. It probably moved to its present location around 1100, by which time it was reformed as a community of nuns-only. A great cult around Aebbe had developed.
Alcock carried out excavations in 1980 and there was a medieval chapel visible from the sea on the Kirk Hill site. Recent finds include cross bases. The chapel may have been a pilgrimage chapel associated with St Aebbe. However, the archaeological evidence is weak and even the geophysical survey may have interpreted features that are natural.
The original name of Coldingham was Colud-ingas-ham. Bede referred to it as Colud’s Fort. King Edgar of Scotland granted land at Coldingham to the church of Durham in 1098 and a church was built shortly after. Part of this building is still used as the parish church of Coldingham.
In medieval times it was said that Coldingham had more guest houses than Berwick, which was the second largest post in Scotland. Lands belonging to the monastery included a large part of Berwickshire.
Several graves and skeletons have been found around the arch. A surviving wall of the original building is known as Edgar’s Wa’, although this may refer to a well, more likely to be considered scared than a wall.
The priory is also the site of St Michael’s Knowe, a shrine to St Michael. Legend tells of a man from Coldingham who, after experiencing visions, built a chapel at Kirk Hill, which became the source of miracles. It is said that when the relics of St Aebbe were discovered they were taken to the new priory.
Berwick Naturalists Society excavated in the 1960s and 70s and there are good photographic records. More recently carved stones have been found in storage, as well as burials under Edgar’s Walls. Since the 1990s some of the field has been sold and is no longer accessible.
Friends of Coldingham Priory has been set up and extensive metal-detecting taken place. Finds include a buckle, spoon and musket ball, but these are post-medieval. Long kist burials have been found along Fishers Brae.
Our speaker stated the case for Coldingham being the site of the original monastery and that it could be a multi-phase Christian site, even pre-Northumbrian. Perhaps the well-known story of St Cuthbert and the otters relates to Coldingham Sands. A Border Heritage Festival dig is planned for September.
We enjoyed hearing about a place comparatively unfamiliar to us and appetites were whetted for a possible visit. Chris Bowles provided a great deal of information and there is certainly more to come.