Scheduled Monument

Melrose AbbeySM90214

Status: Designated


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The legal document available for download below constitutes the formal designation of the monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. The additional details provided on this page are provided for information purposes only and do not form part of the designation. Historic Environment Scotland accepts no liability for any loss or damages arising from reliance on any inaccuracies within this additional information.


Date Added
Last Date Amended
Ecclesiastical: abbey; burial ground, cemetery, graveyard; church; claustral remains; cloisters; monastery
Local Authority
Scottish Borders
NT 54800 34100
354800, 634100


The monument is the remains of Melrose Abbey, founded in 1136/7 by King David I. It comprises the upstanding remains of the abbey church, the foundations and walls of other monastic buildings and structures, and buried archaeological structures and deposits located below the visible remains and in the surrounding area. The monument also includes a lade that brought water to the abbey from a weir in the River Tweed about 500m to the west-northwest. The abbey lies immediately northeast of the historic town centre of Melrose, on a mostly level site about 80m above sea level.

The most imposing remains are those of the abbey church itself. Three bays of the nave stand to the west of the crossing. They have a barrel vault inserted in around 1621 when the abbey was used as a parish church after the Reformation and are closed off to the west by the stone screen that defined the monks' choir. The aisles here retain their ribbed vaulting and eight south aisle chapels also survive. The transepts and the presbytery to the east all stand close to their full height, though only the east bay of the presbytery and the south bay of the south transept have retained their vaults. These upstanding parts of the church date largely to a phase of rebuilding conducted after the abbey was severely damaged by an invading English army in 1385.

Most of the major abbey buildings around the church are represented by low stone footings, which show the scale of the buildings was impressive. Unusually, Melrose's cloister lies to the north of the church to take advantage of the diverted waters of the Tweed. The location and nature of all the cloister ranges have been identified as have several other buildings such as the monks' latrines and the Abbot's hall. Buried remains of the choir monks' infirmary are expected to the east of the cloister, probably near the former brewery warehouse where upstanding fragments of a vault may be a late medieval modification of this infirmary. A medieval graveyard is also expected in ground close to the abbey church. Foundations of a very long building extending the west cloister range on a slightly different alignment indicate accommodation for lay brothers. A further structure extending west from its north end may be the lay-brothers' infirmary. This building, whose west end has not been located, overlies the main drain, fed from the west via a long lade. West of Abbey Street, further buried remains of monastic buildings are expected, including those of a guest house west of Abbey House. Evidence for a road or courtyard and for drainage and landscape features has been identified in the grounds of Abbey House, while culverts and the footings of a substantial stone structure have been identified in the grounds of Harmony Hall.

The scheduled area is irregular in plan, to include the remains described above and an area around them within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment is expected to survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The scheduling includes the masonry structures in and around the yard to the south of the former brewery warehouse. The scheduling specifically excludes Harmony Hall, Harmony Gardner's House, Harmony Cottage, Abbey House, the house known as 'The Cloisters', the former brewery warehouse, and the above ground elements of the Commendator's House. The scheduling specifically excludes the above ground elements of all modern buildings and structures including the above ground elements of all modern fences, gates, fixtures and fittings, signs, lights and street furniture. The scheduling excludes plots where rights of burial exist and the above ground elements of all gravestones. The scheduling excludes the top 200mm of all surfaced paths, tracks and yards.

Statement of National Importance

Cultural Significance

The cultural significance of the monument has been assessed as follows:

Intrinsic Characteristics

This monument is the remains of the first Cistercian abbey built in Scotland, founded as a daughter house of Rievaulx in Yorkshire. The east part of the church still stands as a tall, imposing ruin with stonework of a very high quality, one of the most richly decorated churches in Scotland. Elsewhere, intact foundations indicate most of the major monastic buildings, and buried archaeological remains supplement the visible features, indicating the location and form of other structures and offering high potential to understand many details of monastic life.

The architectural features in the standing structures can support a detailed understanding of the form and development of the main buildings and their architectural influences. Existing studies provide an overview (Fawcett and Oram 2004, Chapter 2), but there is high potential for further research and analysis. Buried archaeological remains can provide much additional information about the layout, development and character of the site. Some of this potential is demonstrated by earlier interventions, for example around the Chapter House, beneath Cloisters Road, and west of Abbey Street (Canmore IDs 55738, 55748, 100232). Artefacts such as pottery and metalwork together with plant and animal remains can provide evidence for the daily life of the monks and lay brothers and for their economy and trading contacts. There is also potential to identify ancillary buildings relating to the monks' agricultural activity and for scientific study of human burials that can inform understanding of diet, disease, stature, age and cause of death. Evidence for the precinct boundary, probably marked by a ditch and then a wall, may survive below undeveloped land north of the abbey. The monument offers significant potential to gain a better understanding of monasticism in Scotland, and of the impact of warfare on an important border abbey.

Melrose Abbey had an extended development sequence. The church was adapted many times, reflecting changing architectural tastes and the need to rebuild after events such as the burning of the abbey in 1385. The associated conventual buildings were also frequently remodeled, not just in response to damage but reflecting the need to house very large numbers of lay brothers early in the abbey's history, then far fewer in the 14th to 16th centuries. There is high potential to refine the chronology and understanding of the abbey's development, using scientific dating of buried remains alongside architectural and artefact studies. There is also potential to explore how the economy and character of the abbey changed through time. Its function changed at the reformation, when existing monks remained in residence but the abbey became an asset to be managed by the crown. After 1621, the abbey church took on a new function as a parish church.

Contextual Characteristics

Melrose Abbey is one of a cluster of important medieval monasteries sited in the Scottish Borders. It has added significance because of the potential to compare it with nearby houses founded in the earlier 12th century, including Dryburgh Abbey, a house of Premonstratensian canons (Canmore ID 55618, scheduled monument reference SM90103); Jedburgh Abbey, an Augustinian house (Canmore ID 57020, scheduled monument reference SM13126); and Kelso Abbey, founded by the Tironensian order (Canmore ID 58418, scheduled monument reference SM90177). There is also the potential to compare Melrose Abbey with the earlier monastic community established around AD 635 some 3.5km to the east in a loop in the River Tweed (Canmore ID 55629, scheduled monument reference SM3536).

In general, Melrose can be regarded as a representative example of a medieval abbey. However, in some respects it has very high rarity value. It was the first Cistercian monastery to be founded in Scotland and shows the Cistercian Order forming a new relationship with the Scottish crown. As a Cistercian house, its early history demonstrates a reliance on large numbers of lay brothers, reflected in the extended west range and large lay brothers' infirmary. The layout of the monastery is also unusual in having the cloister on the north side of the church, in this case probably because the river that supplied running water was to the north. The hard stone used to build the abbey has also contributed to the unusually fine stone carving that is still evident today. Moreover, the east end of the church has been preserved as a tall and imposing ruin that can be regarded as among the most impressive manifestations of the nation's medieval history.

The Abbey stands on relatively flat land in the Tweed Valley, in the shadow of the earlier prehistoric fort on top of Eildon Hill North. It drew fresh water from the river and had access to a range of agricultural resources. The core of its lands lay between the Tweed and the Eildon Hills, but the abbey soon started to accumulate more widely flung estates, including blocks of sheep pasture in Eskdale. There is potential to compare the activities conducted within the precinct at Melrose with those undertaken on the abbey's farms and satellite estates. A medieval settlement grew up just south of the abbey, probably around the south gate of the precinct, and it is still possible to appreciate the relationship between the town and abbey.

Associative Characteristics

The abbey is an important foundation of King David I. As the first Cistercian abbey is Scotland, it demonstrates David I's extensive patronage of the reformed monastic orders. The foundation of abbeys, belonging to various religious orders, was a central element in David I's revitalisation of the Scottish Church but also helped to transform Scottish society. Monasteries became centres of foreign influence, and provided sources of literate men to serve the Crown's growing administrative needs.

The present form of the abbey buildings and ruins has been influenced strongly by many historical, cultural and social influences, including the beliefs of the Cistercian monks who built it and the patrons that funded them, and the views of Sir Walter Scott and the Duke of Buccleuch who led repairs to preserve the ruins in the early 19th century. The abbey ruins have particularly strong aesthetic attributes, forming a picturesque and Romantic grouping at the foot of the Eildon Hills; they were portrayed by Slezer as early as 1693 and later by artists including George Barret and James Ward. The prominence of Melrose grew through its association with Scott, who used it in The Lay of the Last Minstrel and built his house nearby at Abbotsford, copying features from the abbey. From the mid-19th century, Melrose Abbey has been a major feature in the Scottish national consciousness.

Statement of National Importance

This monument makes a significant addition to the understanding and appreciation of the past, particularly of medieval abbeys. The upstanding ruins retain their structural and decorative characteristics to a marked degree and there are associated buried archaeological remains below and around them with high potential to enhance knowledge and understanding of the site. The abbey buildings would have been dominant in the historic landscape and continue to make a major contribution to today's landscape. The physical remains of the abbey are supplemented by rich documentary and historical records that add to the understanding of the monastery and its development over time. The potential of abbeys to contribute to an understanding of the past would be seriously diminished if the monument were lost or damaged. The remains of Melrose Abbey hold a prominent place in the national consciousness.



Historic Environment Scotland reference number CANMORE IDs 55738, 55748, 100232 (accessed on 14/12/2016).

Local Authority HER/SMR Reference 55738 (accessed on 14/12/2016).

Fawcett, R, and Oram, R, 2004 Melrose Abbey, Tempus Publishing, Stroud

Historic Environment Scotland Properties

Melrose Abbey and Precinct

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Melrose Abbey, looking northeast across the cloister, during daytime with an overcast sky
Melrose Abbey, looking northwest, on a clear day with blue sky

Printed: 22/05/2024 21:11