Not far from Edinburgh, there are ghouls and ghosties galore at an ancient Cistercian monastery. Now the ruins have been incorporated into an educational college, but there are reports of a Grey Lady and spectral monks wandering the grounds – 125 acres of parkland with swathes of ancient forest, the remains of a prehistoric settlement and a bridge thought to be of Roman origin.
In 2000, sewer workers discovered 135 medieval skeletons. Once the archaeologists had left, these were reburied. Perhaps one of those long-departed souls was the Grey Lady – thought to be the spirit of a young girl who was killed when she fell in love with one of the monks.
The Abbey had a long association with the kings and noble families of Scotland. King David 1st established the abbey, having brought Cistercian monks from France as part of his attempt to improve life with religious enrichment, economic development, hostelries to protect the traveller and infirmaries for the sick and dying. The royal association did not end with visits from Alexander 2nd and his Queen Consort, Marie de Coucy, who was subsequently buried there, and in 1296, King Edward 1st, Longshanks, visited as well.
Despite success at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Robert the Bruce found the anticipated rewards and recognition of Scottish independence not forthcoming. There were still many opponents to his crown, and at a wider level, neither the Pope nor King Edward 2nd recognized him as king. In fact, the Holy Father had called for a truce between Scotland and England, hoping they would unite and support another crusade to the Holy Land, providing necessary funds and manpower. To offset these developments, Robert summoned a council of nobles to Newbattle Abbey. And it was here three letters were drafted – from the king, the church and the nobles respectively, to be sent to the Pope in Avignon. One of these documents, known famously as the Declaration of Arbroath, was subsequently formalized by Bernard, Abbot of Arbroath, and signed by a large number of barons: it upheld the legal and philosophical case for Scottish independence with an explanation of Scotland’s foundation and ancient past.
Another royal link came about through Robert the Bruce’s son – King David 2nd and Catherine Mortimer, his mistress who died a violent death, when an assassin stabbed her, probably at the behest of some dissatisfied nobles in the royal court. She is said to have been buried upright in one of the abbey’s walls.
Sometime during the 14th century, the abbey was attacked by English forces and burnt. It took some forty years to repair the damage.
Around 1520, the Abbey was de-established; and when one of the lay abbots, Mark Kerr, rejected Catholicism and became a Protestant, the abbey then passed into private hands, remaining with the Kerr family, the Earls of Lothian, for many generations.
An interesting story refers to another of the Kerr family: the second earl of Lothian, Robert Kerr, who was said to have consulted witches and magicians. Apparently overcome by his accrual of great debts, he barred himself in one of the chambers, and stabbed himself several times, before slitting his own throat. This unhappy chap, along with some of the famous Douglas family, were buried in the grounds.
Eventually the abbey ruins were incorporated into the Kerr family home. In the 1930s, it was gifted to the nation – an educational training facility for the disadvantaged – and was also registered as a Scheduled Monument.
Today, the house holds treasured items such as the baptismal font of Mary Queen of Scots and the grand entrance retains one of Scotland’s only water-powered organs but it is the original abbey which ignites my imagination.
For the monks of Newbattle were granted the right to mine coal nearby, which possibly makes them the first formal coal miners in Scotland. They also had numerous granges where sheep were reared, and a lucrative income obtained from local saltpans. Road building and the development of ports to export wool, hides, timber and salt would have fallen within their mandate.
The abbey offered a guest complex for visitors, lodging for the abbot, and a substantial infirmary with a medicinal and kitchen garden. Around the monastery, a small village would have housed lay personnel, as well as all the shepherds, masons, wrights and artisan builders who contributed to the upkeep of the abbey.
Because it was used for royal councils, there would be an expectation of finery, ample good food and wine, with appropriate security. In its heyday, Newbattle Abbey was a wealthy and influential institution.
Today, Newbattle Abbey remains a purposeful environment offering facilities for educational purposes such as conferences as well as community events.
Some years back, we attended a concert there by The Battlefield Band. This raging Celtic group of fiddlers and bagpipers certainly would have woken any slumbering ghost and ghoulies. Down in the shadowy vaulted under croft during the interval, volunteers served warming soup from tureens.
Even now, I recall that strange tingling sense that we were not alone.