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Melrose Abbey: Must-See Historic Ruins near Edinburgh, Scotland

Melrose Abbey: Must-See Historic Ruins near Edinburgh, Scotland | CosmosMariners.com

A major draw for many people visiting Scotland are the beautiful historic spots scattered around the country. Some of them, like Eileen Donan Castle or Holyroodhouse, can get quite crowded during peak times, so I'm always on the lookout for lesser known places that allow me to immerse myself in the history without fighting hundreds of other people. 

While we were in Scotland, we wanted to visit some historic ruins near Edinburgh, and I found some beautiful ones in Melrose, Scotland. Visiting Melrose Abbey was a highlight of our adventures in the Scottish borderlands!


What is an Abbey?

An abbey is a property where monks (oftentimes called brothers) would live and work in a religious community.

Melrose Abbey is one founded by the Cistercian order of monks, whose communities focused on agriculture, engineering, and metalworking. Founded in 1136, Melrose was the first Cistercian monastery in Scotland, following closely behind other influential Cistercian monasteries in the UK: the more well known Tinturn Abbey in Wales (1131), and just before Ireland's Mellifont Abbey in 1142. [We managed to squeeze a quick trip to Mellifont Abbey in on our massive Ireland road trip!]

When it was established, Melrose Abbey drew on an earlier monastic tradition in the area: there had been a monastery just a few miles away from the 600s to 800s. When King David began to scout places for the first Cistercian monastery, he originally wanted to put it on the same, older abbey site, but the land where Melrose was ultimately located was much better for the agricultural focus of the monks. 

How to Get from Edinburgh to Melrose

After our trip to Roslin (and Rosslyn Chapel and Rosslyn Castle), the little white Hyundai hatchback rental car headed off on its merry way. We got a little lost on the way to our second destination of the day, since half of the roads in the Scotland Borders were closed.

Melrose Abbey: Must-See Historic Ruins near Edinburgh, Scotland | CosmosMariners.com
Melrose, Scotland, map with travel times from Edinburgh

We were headed to Melrose, which is home to gorgeous abbey ruins and quite a bit of Scottish history. It was built by the Cistercian monks over 900 years ago.  It's been ruined for some time now, but the remaining bits are still breathtaking.

Going from Edinburgh to Melrose is pretty easy, and, if you wanted to base yourself in the city, you could do Melrose as one of your day trips from Edinburgh.

Winding down the little roads in a rental car can sometimes be a challenge (especially if there are lots of detours like when we were there), but you'd probably be okay with an updated GPS. We were too cheap to buy a GPS, so we were traveling at our own peril. #lessonlearned

There's also a direct train from Edinburgh to Melrose that makes for a great way to see the abbey ruins without the need to rent a car--or worry about all of those back roads.

However you get to Melrose, it's worth it, as the abbey at Melrose and the Melrose Abbey cemetery are hauntingly beautiful and filled with plenty of history.

Melrose Abbey and British Literature

In my former career, I was a college literature professor--and one deeply obsessed with British literature. During the Romantic period, there were a lot of poets and writers wandering around these old ruins by moonlight looking for inspiration. William Wordsworth wrote his famous poem "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tinturn Abbey" in this manner, and it tends to be the go-to poem for British ruins.

However, Sir Walter Scott, another one of these moonlight-loving, wandering Romantic poets, focused on several historic ruins near Edinburgh, including Melrose in his poem "Melrose Abbey." In it, he recommends:

If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight;
For the gay beams of lightsome day
Gild but to flout the ruins gray.

You won't get to heed his advice since the abbey isn't open at night, but the poem is well worth a read before you visit.

What to see at Melrose Abbey

Robert the Bruce's heart is buried here (well, at least people think it's his heart). There is a bagpipe-playing pig water spout on the right side of the Chapel. What's not to love?

As with Rosslyn Chapel, we were the only ones there (I highly recommend visiting Scotland in the off-season!), so we were free to wander the property once we'd had a quick chat with the man at the Melrose tourist information booth. The abbey tours are self-guided, so grab an audioguide and go at your own pace.

There are three main areas of interest: the interior of the chapel, the ruins of the Cistercian living/work quarters, and the Melrose Abbey cemetery.

Melrose Abbey: Must-See Historic Ruins near Edinburgh, Scotland | CosmosMariners.com

The Chapel Interior

We started in the chapel ruins as a way to get a feel for the entire property and learn more about the Cistercian community that called this place home for over 400 years.

Although the Cistercians were a religious community, they welcomed interaction with the town that grew up around them. This differs from other religious communities, some of which live hermetic lives devoted to silence, self-reflection, and prayer. When you walk through the abbey's chapel, you can see the two main worship areas: the one at the front and closest to the alter was for the Cistercian monks, while a second worship area in the back was for laypeople and community members. 

Although the abbey no longer has windows or a roof in places, it's easy to see how impressive this space must have been during its most prosperous. 

After you've had a moment to take in the alter area and the cavernous interior of the main worship space, head up to the roof via a winding spiral staircase set back into the stone walls. On your way, look for an inscription that reads:

"Be halde to ye hende."

Translated from Middle English, that means "Keep in mind your ending," which is a way to remind those reading the inscription that they should work through the days with their mind on their lives' end (and, for the religious, that meant their salvation and afterlife). The inscription by John Morow was so beloved by the community that it's now been adopted by the town of Melrose as their motto. 

Melrose Abbey: Must-See Historic Ruins near Edinburgh, Scotland | CosmosMariners.com

The huffing and puffing that you'll do climbing the spiral staircase will be rewarded when you get to the roof and are able to gain a new perspective on the abbey, town of Melrose, and the beautiful surrounding area. 

Even with the fog that lingered over our visit, we were able to see into the countryside just outside of Melrose.

Melrose Abbey Buildings

As you wander the grounds of the abbey, you'll see stones in the shapes of the now completely destroyed buildings. Walking along these pathways gives you a better idea of how the religious community here managed to work to support themselves and the town of Melrose despite the limited offerings here during the abbey's heyday. 

This is where the audioguide comes in handy, as you can learn about each of the plots of land and how the community used each of them. In the Commandator's House, you can walk through a small museum that showcases the many artifacts that were discovered when the abbey went through a restoration in the late 1990s. Most of the Melrose museum pieces date from the property's most productive phase during the Middle Ages, and, while it is a limited collection, it is arranged for maximum impact and learning opportunities.

As I mentioned earlier, Melrose Abbey is known for the fact that Robert the Bruce's heart is buried here. This is another must-see along the walking tour around the property. Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) was also known as Robert I, and served as the Scottish king from 1306-1329. He's a national hero thanks to his campaign against the English to recreate an independent Scotland, and, because of that, he's revered in much the same manner as William Wallace (who you probably know from "Braveheart"). f

The rest of Robert the Bruce is buried in Fife at Dunfermline Abbey, roughly an hour and 45 minute drive from Melrose.

Melrose Abbey: Must-See Historic Ruins near Edinburgh, Scotland | CosmosMariners.com

The Melrose Abbey Cemetery 

Although Robert the Bruce is the most famous of Melrose Abbey's permanent inhabitants, there are several others of note to look for as you walk through the cemetery.

Among the people buried here are King Alexander II, the Scottish king who ruled slightly earlier than Robert the Bruce; the man who invented the kaleidoscope, Sir David Brewster; the fourth abbot of Melrose Abbey and, later, the Bishop of Glasgow, Jocelin; and St. Waltheof of Melrose.

While you're reading the tombstones, don't forget to look for the rainspout that's decorated like a pig playing the bagpipes. At least those monks had a sense of humor!

On a personal note, we discovered something quite fun as we were leaving the cemetery and heading back into the car park: a sign with my mom's maiden name on it. One of the things on my travel bucket list is to visit the 4 places that my ancestors lived. We ended up seeing where the Buchanan clan hailed from on this trip (Loch Lomond), and it was fun to find all of the references to Gibsons along the way (the Gibsons are a sept, or branch, of the Buchanan clan).

Melrose Abbey: Must-See Historic Ruins near Edinburgh, Scotland | CosmosMariners.com

Apparently, my ancestors were roaming around this area of the world, too! [Note: We visited here before we had kids, but now, I have a son named Gibson, so this is even more awesome.]

What to Know before You Visit Melrose Abbey

Melrose Abbey: Must-See Historic Ruins near Edinburgh, Scotland | CosmosMariners.com

It is open year round. There are shortened hours from October to March, but you can visit it any day of the week all year other than December 25 and 26, and January 1 and 2.

Use the Explorer Pass to get in for free. Otherwise, a visit costs £6.00 for adults, £3.50 for kids 5-15, and £4.50 for seniors. Kids under 5 are free. All admissions come with a free audioguide. [Prices correct as of 8/2017]

Go early for the most peaceful experience. Even though Melrose Abbey isn't as well known as Roslyn Chapel, it's still one of the popular historic ruins in Scotland. If you're going during the high season (summertime), be at the gates first thing in the morning so can you wander the property at your leisure. We visited on a weekday afternoon in November and were the only two people there for the vast part of our visit: we only saw two other people as we were preparing to leave.

Melrose, Scotland, isn't a huge town, so parking is limited. If you're planning on visiting during peak times, you'll want to head towards the paid parking lot across the street from Melrose Abbey. If you get there early enough (or if you're lucky enough!) you might be able to find a parallel parking spot right alongside the road in front of the abbey.

The ground on the abbey property is uneven, so wear sturdy shoes. Add in the high likelihood that it will be raining and/or foggy during your visit, and you're looking at some uneven, slippery surfaces. Avoid any turned ankles or slips by leaving your platform shoes at the house and wearing some practical footwear with gripping soles.

There aren't any food options on-site. If you're one to need a snack break (or if you're traveling with a snack-loving kid), you'll either need to pack something to take in with you, or leave the property when you're ready to eat. There is a small tea house across the street from Melrose Abbey on the other end of the paid car park, and there are several other sandwich shops and bakeries in Melrose within easy walking distance.

Check out more from our UK trip here and see the entire 11-day road trip itinerary here.


What parts of Scotland have you visited? Are you interested in seeing historic ruins in Scotland when you visit next?


Melrose Abbey: Must-See Historic Ruins near Edinburgh, Scotland | CosmosMariners.com

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