I only came to appreciate the full magnificence and grandeur of the ruined Abbeys of the Scottish Borders on a couple of recent visits, drawn there by 19th century paintings by J.M.W. Turner and early photographs by Henry Fox Talbot. However, taking the time to look at the ruins was both inspirational and moving. Walking through the Aisle Chapels and entering the Monks Choir at Melrose Abbey as the monophonic motets of Gregorian chant echoed through the ruins, thanks to Historic Scotland’s carefully concealed speakers, I found myself overwhelmed by the massiveness of this 12th century Abbey, and suddenly deeply moved by the sense of loss of the religious communities that had once strived to maintain their grandeur. The sense of loss was totally unexpected.
These Romanesque and Gothic Abbeys founded by David I, stand, more than anything, as monuments to the turbulent medieval history of Scotland: the struggle for nationhood, attacks perpetrated under the orders of the English king, Henry VIII, and the Scottish Reformation that eventually led to their ruin. They are also museums of the arts, crafts and sciences of the 12th through 15th centuries, each a showcase of architecture and engineering, of stone masonry, light, space, and elegance – they are an open history book of tragedy and struggle that evoke emotions ranging from exaltation to melancholy.
The interplay between light and stone, so evident in all of the Abbeys, was not lost on Sir Walter Scott, whose house is nearby at Abbotsford and who was laid to rest in Dryburgh Abbey. In his poem “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” he positively extols the virtue of viewing the ruins by moonlight. Perhaps not surprising, therefore, that they lend themselves so well to black and white photography.
Wandering around the ruins looking for the interplay between light and sandstone that yields the silver edged imagery seen by Scott, pools of sunlight seemed, to me at least, to accentuate the ebony and ivory framing of the Romanesque and Gothic arches that are the hallmark of these remarkable structures.