The Commendator's House is a detached building situated to the north of Melrose Abbey within the boundary of the former abbey precinct. Potentially built in the 15th or early 16th century as an addition to the Abbot's residence further east, it was remodeled in 1590 by the Abbey Commendator, James Douglas of Lochleven. Alterations and additions were made in around 1830 to form a mansion house known as 'The Priory'. In 1936 the building was reworked back to an approximation of its 1590 form by John Wilson Paterson and James Smith Richardson of HM Office of Works. It houses important artifacts found during excavations of the Abbey precinct.
The Commendator's House consists of a two-storey rectangular-plan block of red sandstone rubble with a piended roof, and a three-storey, crowstepped stair tower towards the south end of the east side. The south end has two windows on each floor. The entrance on the south side of the stair tower has a recut lintel with the initials of James Douglas and Mary Kerr of Ferniehurst and is dated 1590. The east and north walls of the stair tower have wide mouthed defensive shot-holes at the ground floor.
The east elevation of the main block has nine socket holes at the first floor level marking the location of a former timber gallery and stair. The east and west elevations of the main building have an irregular arrangement of predominantly 16th and 17th century window openings, with smaller windows at the ground floor.
The ground and first floor windows in the south elevation are timber sash and case with a 15-pane glazing pattern. Smaller windows to ground floor are fixed timber casements. The roofs have grey slate. There are three chimney stacks, one at the inner gable of the stair tower and the other two on the piended ridge of the main block. The rainwater goods are cast iron.
The interior, seen in 2016, was reworked in 1936 to house a permanent display of important medieval masonry and artefacts uncovered when the main drain and other building foundations at Melrose were excavated. There are two barrel vaulted chambers on the ground floor, dating to 1590 or earlier. The south room has a wide fireplace arch with recesses in the jambs. The first floor is divided into three gallery rooms with high, vaulted ceilings. There is also evidence of early fireplace openings.
Statement of Special Interest
Age and Rarity
The Commendator's House at Melrose is thought to have been built in the 15th or early 16th century as the Abbot's apartments, detached from the lay brothers dormitory to the east. The early building had at least three rooms on the ground floor, each with a hooded fireplace. The upper floor was reached by an external timber staircase and gallery to the north and east elevations (Dennison and Coleman, p.98).
The building was reworked in 1590 by the Commendator of Melrose Abbey, James Douglas, presumably to serve as his private residence. Douglas appears to have removed the external timber gallery, added the three-storey, square-plan stair tower at the southeast corner and reorganised the upper rooms.
The building was enlarged during the 1830s as 'The Priory' mansion house, in the Tudor style. The footprint of the building is shown as The Priory on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed in 1859) with additions to the east and south and a detached agricultural range to the east. These additions were removed when the Melrose Abbey site was brought into state guardianship in 1934. The building was reconstructed back to an approximation of its 1590 form, revealing the earlier historic core and stair tower. The intention was for the restored building to house a wide range of medieval stone fragments uncovered at Melrose during excavation works.
Melrose Abbey (scheduled monument SM90214) holds a prominent place in the national consciousness. It was the first Cistercian monastery in Scotland. Founded in 1136/7 by King David I, large areas of land were given or leased to the monks to fund the construction of the vast abbey complex. Melrose Abbey has a long and complex history of building and rebuilding due to damage caused by warfare. The Abbey as rebuilt after its virtual destruction by Richard II in 1389. It was sacked in 1544 by the English and was never fully repaired, intensifying its decline as a working monastery.
The role of commendator allowed an administrator, often a cleric, who was not the legal holder of the office of abbot or prior to exercise the functions attached to the office. It was often used when an abbacy was vacant. By the 16th century, the practice had become increasingly common with 32 out of 39 Scottish monasteries overseen by commendators by 1560. These officers, who were often bishops or the sons of the nobility, or members of the Royal family, secularised monastic land to benefit themselves and their families but also to keep their religious houses in being. The prominent position of the Commentator's House within the Abbey precinct at Melrose reflects these significant changes to the organisation of monastic houses.
James Douglas of Lochleven was appointed as the fifth and final commendator of Melrose Abbey in 1590. By this time the Abbey had largely ceased to function as an ecclesiastical institution. The lands associated with Melrose Abbey were commandeered by the crown in 1608 and the abbey became a secular lordship for Viscount Haddington, John Ramsay, who was created Lord Melrose in 1609. James Douglas reprised his role as commendator at Melrose in 1613 until his death in 1620. It is not known if the house was Douglas's primary residence during this latter period. The building was described in the Melrose Chronicle of 1618 as 'the fortalice at manor place' (Inventory of Roxburghshire, p.287).
Nearby Dryburgh Abbey (scheduled monument SM90103) contains the remains of a presumed commentator's accommodation. Here the accommodation was created within the east conventual range, where the dormitory had already been adapted to changing patterns of monastic life, probably to create a separate residence for the abbot. At Crossraguel Abbey, Ayrshire (scheduled monument SM90087), a tower house was built in about 1530 as an abbatial residence and was later used by the commendators who succeeded them.
The Commendator's House is a building of significance both to Melrose Abbey and to the abbeys of the Scottish Borders more widely. The reworking of the building to reflect its 1590 form adds to our appreciation and understanding of monastic governance in Scotland during the 16th century. It is a dominant building in the landscape. Its 15th and 16th century architectural details, including stair tower, small offset windows, shot-hole openings and crowstepped gables, contrast significantly with the Cistercian architecture of the wider monastic community. Although reworked, Scotland has no other example of a commendator's residence that survives to the same degree as at Melrose. It is therefore an important and rare example.
Architectural or Historic Interest
The interior (seen in 2017) was largely reworked in 1936 to house a permanent display of medieval stonework and other artefacts excavated at Melrose in the 1930s. Barrel-vaulted rooms to the ground floor probably date to 1590. Further 16th century elements including recesses and fireplace openings have been retained and highlighted within the reworked museum interior scheme where possible. These surviving features add to the interior interest of the building.
The present L-plan form of the building is the result of its reworking in 1936 to return the building to its late 16th century footprint. The building of an L-plan tower within the grounds of the Abbey precinct in 1590 is indicative of the transformed status of such religious institutions in the second half the 16th century, adding to the interest of the building.
Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality
The small offset windows, shot-hole openings, crowstepped gables and steeply pitched roof of the stair tower are typical of fortified Scottish houses of the 16th century. These defensive buildings are a distinctive element of Scotland's built landscape and are commonly associated with notions of ancestral dynasty and land ownership. The introduction of a house with a fortified appearance at Melrose Abbey in 1590, at a time when the Crown was seeking to legitimise its claim to abbey lands, reinforced those associations.
The 15th and 16th century core of the Commendator's House has been reworked and remodelled on a number of occasions. The various building phases are reflected in the irregular size and arrangement of the window openings and the variation of exterior stonework.
The 1936 reworking of the building to re-establish its 1590 appearance reflects architectural conservation principles during the inter-war period in Scotland. The architect John Wilson Paterson was employed by HM Office of Works from 1909 to 1943. He worked on many significant projects, often as chief architect, including restoration work at Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle. As Inspector of Ancient Monuments for the Office of Works, James Smith Richardson brought many monuments into guardianship, often working closely with John Wilson Paterson.
The Commendator's House is a prominent building in the north precinct grounds of Melrose Abbey (scheduled monument SM20914). To the left of the house are the lower course and column bases of the accommodation for the lay brothers, and to the right are the foundations of the former Abbot's Hall. The abbey's stone-lined drains are cut in front of the house, while the former mill lade runs behind. The Abbey to the south remains prominently inter-visible with the house. Together, these elements are an important monastic group.
There are no known regional variations.
Close Historical Associations
The Commendator's House is most closely associated with James Douglas of Lochleven Castle. His father, the 6th Earl of Morton (and Regent for King James VI), appointed Douglas as fifth and final commendator of Melrose in 1590. Douglas probably reworked an existing 15th century building for his own residence. The re-sited lintel stone above the main entrance to the house has the initials of Douglas and his wife. Earlier commendators at Melrose include James Stuart, the son of James V, in 1555.
Statement of Special Interest
The Commendator's House is a building of significance to Melrose Abbey and to the abbeys of the Scottish Borders more widely. The reconstruction of the Commendator's House to reflect its 1590 form adds to our understanding and appreciation of post-Reformation monastic governance in Scotland. It also reflects the impact of warfare on an important abbey in the Scottish Borders.
Its 15th and 16th century architectural details, including stair tower, small offset windows, shot-hole openings and crowstepped gables, contrast distinctively with the Cistercian architecture of the wider monastery. It is a dominant building in the landscape. Scotland has no other known example of a commendator's residence that survives to this degree.