Melrose_AbbeyMelrose Abbey Wikimedia: Globaltraveller / Creative Commons

If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moon-light;
For the gay beams of lightsome day
Gild, but to flout, the ruins gray.
When the broken arches are black in night,
And each shafted oriel glimmers white;
When the cold light’s uncertain shower
Streams on the ruined central tower;

When buttress and buttress, alternately,
Seem framed of ebon and ivory;
When silver edges the imagery,
And the scrolls that teach thee to live and die;
When distant Tweed is heard to rave,
And the owlet to hoot o’er the dead man’s grave,
Then go—but go alone the while—
Then view St David’s ruined pile;
And, home returning, soothly swear,
Was never scene so sad and fair!

–Sir Walter Scott, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” Canto II

On the same day (April 26, 1853) that Harriet Beecher Stowe visited Abbotsford and Dryburgh Abbey, she visited the ruins of Melrose Abbey. The Abbey is the subject of a number of books, including the History of St. Mary’s Abbey, Melrose, the Monastery of Old Melrose, and the Town and Parish of Melrose (1861), by James A. Wade and Melrose Abbey, with notes Descriptive and Historical (1888), by J. Wass. As Stowe relates in her own account in Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands:

We got into our carriage, and drove up to Melrose. After a little negotiation with the keeper, the doors were unlocked. Just at that moment the sun was so gracious as to give a full look through the windows, and touch with streaks of gold the green, grassy floor; for the beautiful ruin is floored with green grass and roofed with sky: even poetry has not exaggerated its beauty, and could not. There is never any end to the charms of Gothic architecture. It is like the beauty of Cleopatra,—

“Age cannot wither, custom, cannot stale
Her infinite variety.”

Here is this Melrose, now, which has been berhymed, bedraggled through infinite guide books, and been gaped at and smoked at by dandies, and been called a “dear love” by pretty young ladies, and been hawked about as a trade article in all neighboring shops, and you know perfectly well that all your raptures are spoken for and expected at the door, and your going off in an ecstasy is a regular part of the programme; and yet, after all, the sad, wild, sweet beauty of the thing comes down on one like a cloud; even for the sake of being original you could not, in conscience, declare you did not admire it.

We went into a minute examination with our guide, a young man, who seemed to have a full sense of its peculiar beauties. I must say here, that Walter Scott’s description in the Lay of the Last Minstrel is as perfect in most details as if it had been written by an architect as well as a poet—it is a kind of glorified daguerreotype.

This building was the first of the elaborate and fanciful Gothic which I had seen, and is said to excel in the delicacy of its carving any except Roslin Castle. As a specimen of the exactness of Scott’s description, take this verse, where he speaks of the cloisters:—

“Spreading herbs and flowerets bright,
Glistened with the dew of night,
Nor herb nor floweret glistened there,
But were carved in the cloister arches as fair.”

These cloisters were covered porticoes surrounding the garden, where the monks walked for exercise. They are now mostly destroyed, but our guide showed us the remains of exquisite carvings there, in which each group was an imitation of some leaf or flower, such as the curly kail of Scotland; a leaf, by the by, as worthy of imitation as the Greek acanthus, the trefoil oak, and some other leaves, the names of which I do not remember. These Gothic artificers were lovers of nature; they studied at the fountain head; hence the never-dying freshness, variety, and originality of their conceptions.

Another passage, whose architectural accuracy you feel at once, is this:—

“They entered now the chancel tall;
The darkened, roof rose high, aloof
On pillars lofty, light, and small:
The keystone that locked, each ribbed aisle
Was a fleur-de-lis, or a quatre-feuille;
The corbels were carved grotesque and grim;
And the pillars, with, clustered shafts so trim,
With, base and with capital flourished around,
Seemed bundles of lances which garlands had bound.”

The quatre-feuille here spoken of is an ornament formed by the junction of four leaves. The frequent recurrence of the fleur-de-lis in the carvings here shows traces of French hands employed in the architecture. In one place in the abbey there is a rude inscription, in which a French architect commemorates the part he has borne in constructing the building.

GargoyleA gargoyle on Melrose Abbey roof, geography: Walter Baxter / Creative Commons

These corbels are the projections from which, the arches spring, usually carved in some fantastic mask or face; and on these the Shakspearian imagination of the Gothic artists seems to have let itself loose to run riot: there is every variety of expression, from, the most beautiful to the most goblin and grotesque. One has the leer of fiendish triumph, with budding horns, showing too plainly his paternity; again you have the drooping eyelids and saintly features of some fair virgin; and then the gasping face of some old monk, apparently in the agonies of death, with his toothless gums, hollow cheeks, and sunken eyes. Other faces have an earthly and sensual leer; some are wrought into expressions of scorn and mockery, some of supplicating agony, and some of grim, despair.

One wonders what gloomy, sarcastic, poetic, passionate mind has thus amused itself, recording in stone all the range of passions—saintly, earthly, and diabolic—on the varying human face. One fancies each corbel to have had its history, its archetype in nature; a thousand possible stories spring into one’s mind. They are wrought with such a startling and individual definiteness, that one feels as about Shakspeare’s characters, as if they must have had a counterpart in real existence. The pure, saintly nun may have been some sister, or some daughter, or some early love, of the artist, who in an evil hour saw the convent barriers rise between her and all that was loving. The fat, sensual face may have been a sly sarcasm on some worthy abbot, more eminent in flesh than spirit. The fiendish faces may have been wrought out of the author’s own perturbed dreams.

An architectural work says that one of these corbels, with an anxious and sinister Oriental countenance, has been made, by the guides, to perform duty as an authentic likeness of the wizard Michael Scott. Now, I must earnestly protest against stating things in that way. Why does a writer want to break up so laudable a poetic design in the guides? He would have been much better occupied in interpreting some of the half-defaced old inscriptions into a corroborative account. No doubt it was Michael Scott, and looked just like him.

It were a fine field for a story writer to analyze the conception and growth of an abbey or cathedral as it formed itself, day after day, and year after year, in the soul of some dreamy, impassioned workman, who made it the note book where he wrought out imperishably in stone all his observations on nature and man. I think it is this strong individualism of the architect in the buildings that give the never-dying charm, and variety to the Gothic: each Gothic building is a record of the growth, character, and individualities of its builder’s soul; and hence no two can be alike. . . . .

The guide pointed to a broken fragment which commanded a view of the whole interior. “Sir Walter used to sit here,” he said. I fancied I could see him sitting on the fragment, gazing around the ruin, and mentally restoring it to its original splendor; he brings back the colored light into the windows, and throws its many-hued reflections over the graves; he ranges the banners along around the walls, and rebuilds every shattered arch and aisle, till we have the picture as it rises on us in his book.

Michael Scott (1175 – c.1232) was a mathematician and scholar whose fame led to his becoming known in later legends as a powerful magician. Sir Walter Scott portrays him as a wizard in “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” where he writes of his grave at Melrose Abbey. Stowe quotes the poem in her own description:

I confess to a strong feeling of reality, when my guide took me to a grave where a flat, green, mossy stone, broken across the middle, is reputed to be the grave of Michael Scott. I felt, for the moment, verily persuaded that if the guide would pry up one of the stones we should see him there, as described:—

“His hoary beard in silver rolled,
He seemed some seventy winters old;
A palmer’s amice wrapped, him round,
With a wrought Spanish baldric bound,
Like a pilgrim from beyond the sea:
His left hand held his book of might;
A silver cross was in his right;
The lamp was placed beside his knee:
High and majestic was his look,
At which, the fellest fiends had shook,
And all unruffled, was his face:
They trusted his soul had gotten grace.”

I never knew before how fervent a believer I had been in the realities of these things.

There are two graves that I saw, which correspond to those mentioned in these lines:—

“And there the dying lamps did burn
Before thy lone and lowly urn,
O gallafit chief of Otterburne,
And thine, dark knight of Liddesdale.”

The Knight of Otterburne was one of the Earls Douglas, killed in a battle with Henry Percy, called Hotspur, in 1388. The Knight of Liddesdale was another Douglas, who lived in the reign of David II., and was called the “Flower of Chivalry.”

Melrose AbbeyMelrose Abbey depicted in John Stoddart‘s Remarks on Local Scenery & Manners In Scotland (1801)

Stowe continues her description of the Abbey:

Having looked all over the abbey from, below, I noticed a ruinous winding staircase; so up I went, rustling along through the ivy, which matted and wove itself around the stones. Soon I found myself looking down on the abbey from a new point of view—from a little narrow stone gallery, which threads the whole inside of the building. There I paced up and down, looking occasionally through the ivy-wreathed arches on the green, turfy floor below.

It seems as if silence and stillness had become a real presence in these old places. The voice of the guide and the company beneath had a hushed and muffled sound; and when I rustled the ivy leaves, or, in trying to break off a branch, loosened some fragment of stone, the sound affected me with a startling distinctness. I could not but inly muse and wonder on the life these old monks and abbots led, shrined up here as they were in this lovely retirement.

In ruder ages these places were the only retreat for men of a spirit too gentle to take force and bloodshed for their life’s work; men who believed that pen and parchment were better than sword and steel. Here I suppose multitudes of them lived harmless, dreamy lives—reading old manuscripts, copying and illuminating new ones. . . .

We walked up, and down, and about, getting the best views of the building. It is scarcely possible for description to give you the picture. The artist, in whose mind the conception of this building arose, was a Mozart in architecture; a plaintive and ethereal lightness, a fanciful quaintness, pervaded his composition. The building is not a large one, and it has not that air of solemn massive grandeur, that plain majesty, which impresses you in the cathedrals of Aberdeen and Glasgow. As you stand looking at the wilderness of minarets and flying buttresses, the multiplied shrines, and mouldings, and cornices, all incrusted with carving as endless in its variety as the frostwork on a window pane; each shrine, each pinnace, each moulding, a study by itself, yet each contributing, like the different strains of a harmony, to the general effect of the whole; it seems to you that for a thing so airy and spiritual to have sprung up by enchantment, and to have been the product of spells and fairy fingers, is no improbable account of the matter.

Melrose Abbey is the burial place of King Alexander II and of the heart of King Robert the Bruce. Harriet also mentions a more humble personage, Tom Purdie, who is described as Sir Walter Scott’s factotum. As Harriet describes:

One fancies again the picture described by Lockhart, the strong, lank frame, hard features, sunken eyes, and grizzled eyebrows, the green jacket, white hat, and gray trousers—the outer appointments of the faithful serving man. One sees Scott walking familiarly by his side, staying himself on Tom’s shoulder, while Tom talks with glee of “our trees,” and “our bukes.” One sees the little skirmishing, when master wants trees planted one way and man sees best to plant them another; and the magnanimity with which kindly, cross-grained Tom at last agrees, on reflection, to “take his honor’s advice” about the management of his honor’s own property. Here, between master and man, both freemen, is all that beauty of relation sometimes erroneously considered as the peculiar charm of slavery. Would it have made the relation any more picturesque and endearing had Tom been stripped of legal rights, and made liable to sale with the books and furniture of Abbotsford? Poor Tom is sleeping here very quietly, with a smooth coverlet of green grass. Over him is the following inscription: “Here lies the body of Thomas Purdie, wood forester at Abbotsford, who died 29th October, 1829, aged sixty-two years. Thou hast been faithful over a few things; I will make thee ruler over many things.” Matt. xxv. 21.

Melrose AbbeyMelrose Abbey from Billings’ Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland

Regarding the Abbey’s architecture, Stowe makes note of the description in The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland by Robert William Billings (copies of which she had earlier received as a gift). She writes:

One remark on this building, in Billings’s architectural account of it, interested me; and that is, that it is finished with the most circumstantial elegance and minuteness in those concealed portions which are excluded, from public view, and which can only be inspected by laborious climbing or groping; and he accounts for this by the idea that the whole carving and execution was considered as an act of solemn worship and adoration, in which the artist offered up his best faculties to the praise of the Creator.

Stowe and her party returned to their hotel, but she was not yet done with Melrose Abbey. As she relates:

“Nevertheless,” said I to S——, after dinner, “I am going back again to-night, to see that abbey by moonlight. I intend to walk the whole figure while I am about it.”

Just on the verge of twilight I stepped out, to see what the town afforded in the way of relics. To say the truth, my eye had been caught by some cunning little tubs and pails in a window, which I thought might be valued in the home department. I went into a shop, where an auld wife soon appeared, who, in reply to my inquiries, told me, that the said little tubs and pails were made of plum tree wood from Dryburgh Abbey, and, of course, partook of the sanctity of relics. She and her husband seemed to be driving a thriving trade in the article, and either plum trees must be very abundant at Dryburgh, or what there are must be gifted with that power of self-multiplication which inheres in the wood of the true Cross. I bought them in blind faith, however, suppressing all rationalistic doubts, as a good relic hunter should.

I went up into a little room where an elderly woman professed to have quite a collection of the Melrose relics. Some years ago extensive restorations and repairs were made in the old abbey, in which Walter Scott took a deep interest. At that time, when the scaffolding was up for repairing the building, as I understood, Scott had the plaster casts made of different parts, which he afterwards incorporated into his own dwelling at Abbotsford. I said to the good woman that I had understood by Washington Irving’s account, that Scott appropriated bona fide fragments of the building, and alluded to the account which he gives of the little red sandstone lion from Melrose. She repelled the idea with great energy, and said she had often heard Sir Walter say, that he would not carry off a bit of the building as big as his thumb. She showed me several plaster casts that she had in her possession, which were taken at this time. . . . .

Well, I got home, and narrated my adventures to my friends, and showed them my reliquary purchases, and declared my strengthening intention to make my ghostly visit by moonlight, if there was any moon to be had that night, which was a doubtful possibility.

In the course of the evening came in Mr. ——, who had volunteered his services as guide and attendant during the interesting operation.

“When does the moon rise?” said one.

“O, a little after eleven o’clock, I believe,” said Mr. ——.

Some of the party gaped portentously.

“You know,” said I, “Scott says we must see it by moonlight; it is one of the proprieties of the place, as I understand.”

“How exquisite that description is, of the effect of moonlight!” says another.

“I think it probable,” says Mr. ——, dryly, “that Scott never saw it by moonlight himself. He was a man of very regular habits, and seldom went out evenings.”

The blank amazement with which this communication was received set S—— into an inextinguishable fit of laughter.

“But do you really believe he never saw it?” said I, rather crestfallen.

“Well,” said the gentleman, “I have heard him charged with never having seen it, and he never denied it.”

Knowing that Scott really was as practical a man as Dr. Franklin, and as little disposed to poetic extravagances, and an exceedingly sensible, family kind of person, I thought very probably this might be true, unless he had seen it some time in his early youth. Most likely good Mrs. Scott never would have let him commit the impropriety that we were about to, and run the risk of catching the rheumatism by going out to see how an old abbey looked at twelve o’clock at night.

We waited for the moon to rise, and of course it did not rise; nothing ever does when it is waited for. We went to one window, and went to another; half past eleven came, and no moon. “Let us give it up,” said I, feeling rather foolish. However, we agreed to wait another quarter of an hour, and finally Mr. —— announced that the moon was risen; the only reason we did not see it was, because it was behind the Eildon Hills. So we voted to consider her risen at any rate, and started out in the dark, threading the narrow streets of the village with the comforting reflection that we were doing what Sir Walter would think rather a silly thing. When we got out before the abbey there was enough light behind the Eildon Hills to throw their three shadowy cones out distinctly to view, and to touch with a gloaming, uncertain ray the ivy-clad walls. As we stood before the abbey, the guide fumbling with his keys, and finally heard the old lock clash as the door slowly opened to admit us, I felt a little shiver of the ghostly come over me, just enough to make it agreeable.

Melrose_AbbeySource: The Macabre Observer

In the daytime we had criticized Walter Scott’s moonlight description in the lines which say,—
“The distant Tweed is heard, to rave,
And the owlet to hoot o’er the dead man’s grave.”

“We hear nothing of the Tweed, at any rate,” said we; “that must be a poetic license.” But now at midnight, as we walked silently through the mouldering aisles, the brawl of the Tweed was so distinctly heard that it seemed as if it was close by the old, lonely pile; nor can any term describe the sound more exactly than the word “rave,” which the poet has chosen. It was the precise accuracy of this little item of description which made me feel as if Scott must have been here in the night. I walked up into the old chancel, and sat down where William of Deloraine and the monk sat, on the Scottish monarch’s tomb, and thought over the words

“Strange sounds along the chancel passed,
And banners wave without a blast;
Still spake the monk when the bell tolled one.”

And while we were there the bell tolled twelve.

And then we went to Michael Scott’s grave, and we looked through the east oriel, with its
“Slender shafts of shapely stone,
By foliage tracery combined.”

The fanciful outlines showed all the more distinctly for the entire darkness within, and the gloaming moonlight without. The tall arches seemed higher in their dimness, and vaster than they did in the daytime. “Hark!” said I; “what’s that?” as we heard a rustling and flutter of wings in the ivy branches over our heads. Only a couple of rooks, whose antiquarian slumbers were disturbed by the unwonted noise there at midnight, and who rose and flew away, rattling down some fragments of the ruin as they went. It was somewhat odd, but I could not help fancying, what if these strange, goblin rooks were the spirits of old monks coming back to nestle and brood among their ancient cloisters! Rooks are a ghostly sort of bird. I think they were made on purpose to live in old yew trees and ivy, as much as yew trees and ivy were to grow round old churches and abbeys. If we once could get inside of a rook’s skull, to find out what he is thinking of, I’ll warrant that we should know a great deal more about these old buildings than we do now. I should not wonder if there were long traditionary histories handed down from one generation of rooks to another, and that these are what they are talking about when we think they are only chattering. I imagine I see the whole black fraternity the next day, sitting, one on a gargoyle, one on a buttress, another on a shrine, gossiping over the event of our nightly visit.

We walked up and down the long aisles, and groped out into the cloisters; and then I thought, to get the full ghostliness of the thing, we would go up the old, ruined staircase into the long galleries, that

“Midway thread the abbey wall.”

We got about half way up, when there came into our faces one of those sudden, passionate puffs of mist and rain which Scotch clouds seem to have the faculty of getting up at a minute’s notice. Whish! came the wind in our faces, like the rustling of a whole army of spirits down the staircase; whereat we all tumbled back promiscuously on to each other, and concluded we would not go up. In fact we had done the thing, and so we went home; and I dreamed of arches, and corbels, and gargoyles all night. And so, farewell to Melrose Abbey.