The foundation of Melrose Abbey generally dates from 1136, when David I. of Scotland, among his many similar erections, built a church here. But Melrose, as a seat of religion, boasts a much earlier origin. It was one of those churches, or more properly missionary stations, which the fathers of Ireland and of Iona spread over Britain and the continent. It was in fact a portion of that pure and beautiful British church which existed prior to the Roman hierarchy in these islands, and of which the professors presented in their primitive habits and primitive doctrines so apostolic a character. .
In 1136 the pious David raised a new and much superior abbey, about two miles westward of the original site, but on the same south bank of the Tweed, and established in it the Cistercians. He conferred on them extensive lands and privileges; the lands of Melrose, Eldun, and Dernwie; the lands and wood of Gattonside, with the fishings of the Tweed along the whole extent of those lands; with the right of pasturage and pannage in his forests of Selkirk and Traguair, and in the forest between the Gala and the Leeder, with wood from those forests for building and burning. In 1192 Jocelin, Bishop of Glasgow, granted to the monks of Melrose the church of Hassindean, with its lands, tithes, and other emoluments, “for the maintenance of the poor and of pilgrims coming to the house of Melrose.” From this cause the old tower of Hassindean was called “Monks’ Tower,” and the farm adjoining the church is still called “Monks’ Croft.” In fact, the Abbey of Melrose was a sort of inn, not only to the poor, but to some of the greatest men of the time. The Scottish kings from time to time, and wealthy subjects too, added fresh grants; so that in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Abbey had accumulated vast possessions and immunities; had many ten-ants, great husbandmen, with many granges and numerous herds. It had much other property in Ayrshire, Dumfriesshire, Selkirkshire, and Berwickshire.
But the abbey church which David built was not that of which we have now the remains. The whole place was repeatedly burned down by the English invaders. In 1215 the rebellious barons of King John of England swore fealty to Alexander II. of Scotland, at the altar of Melrose. Edward I., in 1295-6, when at Berwick, granted the monks of Melrose restitution of the lands of which they had been deprived; but in 1332 Edward II. burned down the abbey and killed the abbot William de Peeblis and several of his monks. Robert I., of Scotland. in 1326 or four years afterward, gave L2,000 sterling to rebuild it; and Edward II., of England, came from New Castle at Christmas, 1341, and held his yule in the abbey, and made restitution of the lands and other property which his father had seized during the late war. In 1378 Richard II. granted a protection to the abbot and his lands ; but in 1385 he burned down Melrose and other religious houses on his expedition into Scotland.
Robert Bruce, in the beginning of the fourteenth century, granted a revenue to restore the abbey; and betwixt this period and the Reformation arose the splendid structure, the ruins of which yet charm every eye. It is in the highest style of the decorated order, every portion is full of work of the most exquisite character, occasionally mingled with the perpendicular. They are the only ruins of the church which remain, and they present the finest specimen of Gothic architecture and sculpture that Scotland possesses. One of Scotland’s most discriminating writers says, “To say that Melrose is beautiful, is to say nothing. It is exquisitely-splendidly lovely. It is an object possest of infinite grace and unmeasurable charm; it is fine in its general aspect, and in its minutest details. It is a studya glory.” The church is two hundred and eighty-seven feet in length, and at the greatest breadth one hundred and fifty-seven feet. The west is wholly ruined; but the great eastern window remains, and one above the southern door, which are extremely fine. The pillars that remain to support the roof are of singular grace, and wherever you turn you behold objects that rivet the attention by their richness of sculpture, tho often only in fragments. The only wonder is that so much has escaped the numberless assaults of enemies.
During the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., and Elizabeth, the abbey was continually suffering from their inroads, in which the spirit of vengeance against the Scots who resisted their schemes of aggression was mixed strongly with that of enmity to Popery. In the year 1545, it was twice burned and ransacked by the English, first under Sir Ralph Eyre and Sir Bryan Layton, and again by the Earl of Hertford. At the Reformation, when all its lands and immunities were invested in the Crown, they were valued at £1,758 Scots, besides large contributions in kind. Among them, in addition to much corn were one hundred and five stones of butter, ten dozens of capons, twenty-six dozens of poultry, three hundred and seventy-sit more fowl, three hundred and forty loads of peats, etc. Queen Mary granted Melrose and its lands and tithes to Bothwell, but they were forfeited on his attainder. They then passed to a Douglas, and afterward to Sir James Ramsay, who rescued James VI. in the conspiracy of Gowrie; then to Sir Thomas Hamilton in 1619, who was made Earl of Melrose, and afterward Earl of Haddington.
About a century ago they became the property of the family of Buccleuch, in which they remain. The Douglas built himself a house out of the ruins, which may still be seen about fifty yards to the north of the church. The ruins are pre-served with great care, and are shown by a family which is at once intelligent and courteous. The person going round, most generally, points out the shattered remains of thirteen figures at the great eastern window, in their niches, said to have been those of our Savior and his Apostles. They were broken to pieces by a fanatic weaver of Gattonside. A head is also pointed out, said to be that of Michael Scott, the magician, who exerted his power so wonderfully, according to tradition, in this neighborhood, as to split the Eildon hill into three parts.
The name of Melrose is clearly derived from the Ancient British, Melross, the projection of the meadow. Moel in Welsh and Maol in Irish signify something bald, naked, bare. Thus MoalRoss, in the language of the Irish monks who first built the church here, would signify the naked promontory. Moel in Welsh is now usually applied to a smooth mountain, as Moel-Siabod; and we find Ross continually showing its Celtic origin Where there is a promontory, as Ross on the Moray-frith, and Ross in Herefordshire from a winding of the Wye. But some old sculptor, on a stone still preserved in the village, has made a punning derivation for it, by carving a well, or mallet, and a rose over it. This stone was part of a wall of the old prison, long since pulled down.
The site of Melrose, like all monastic ones, is fine. The abbey stands on a broad level near the Tweed, but is surrounded by hills and fields full of beauty, and peopled with a thousand beings of romance, tradition, and poetry. South of the village rise the three peaks of the Eildon hill, bearing aloft the fame of Michael Scott and Thomas the Rhymer. On the banks of the Tweed, opposite to Melrose, lies Gattonside, buried in its gardens and orchards, and still retaining its faith in many a story of the supernatural; and about three miles westward, on the same bank of the river, stands Abbotsford, raised by a magician more mighty than Michael Scott. How is it possible to approach that haunted abode with-out meeting on the way the most wonderful troop of wild, and lofty, and beautiful beings that ever peopled earth or the realm of imagination? Scotch, English, Gallic, Indian, Syrian come forth to meet you. The Bruce, the Scottish Jameses, Coeur de Lion, Elizabeth, Leicester, Mary of Scots, James I. of England, Montrose, Claverhouse, Cumberland the Butcher. The Covenanters are ready to preach and fight anew, the Highland clans rise in aid of the Stuart. What women of dazzling beautyFlora M’Ivor, Rose Bradwardine, Rebecca the noble Jewess, Lucy Ashton, and Amy Robsart, the lovely Effie Deans, and her homely yet glorious sister Jenny, the bewitching Di Vernon, and Minna and Brenda Troil, of the northern isles, stand radiant amid a host of lesser beauties.
Then comes Rob Roy, the Robin Hood of the hills; then Balfour of Burley issues, a stalwart apparition, from his hiding-place, and of infinite humor and strangeness of aspect. Where is there a band like thisthe Baron of Bradwardine, Dominie Sampson, Meg Merrilies, Monkbarns, Edie Ochiltree, Old Mortality, Bailie Nicol Jar-vie, Andrew Fairservice, Caleb Balderston, Flibbertigibbet, Mona of the Fitful head, and that fine fellow the farmer of Liddesdale, with all his Peppers and Mustards raffling at his heels? But not even out of Melrose need you move a step to find the name of a faithful servant of Sir Walter. Tom Purdie lies in Melrose Abbey-Yard; and Scott himself had engraven on his tomb that he was “the Wood-forester of Abbotsford,” probably the title which Tom gave himself. Those who visit Melrose will take a peep at the gravestone of Tom Purdie, who sleeps amid a long line of the dead, reaching from the days of Aidan to our own, as alive he filled a little niche in the regard of a master who has given to both high and low so many niches in the temple of immortality.