Live /

Many historic places are still open for visitors, outwith Level 4 COVID protection areas. Book in advance and check if Scottish Government travel restrictions apply before travelling.

x

A pirlie pig is a medieval version of today’s piggy bank. This example was found at Melrose Abbey and had been made locally. It dates from the 1400s to 1500s, when such vessels were common in Scotland.

England also had its pirlie pigs. In fact, the earliest example we know of – from the late 1200s – was found in the south of England. Most English pirlie pigs have a vertical slit for coins, whereas most Scottish ones have a horizontal slit.

Melrose Abbey

David I founded Melrose Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery in Scotland, in 1136. It was one of a number of abbeys that he set up in the Borders to show both his piety and his power over this contested territory.

The Cistercians were drawn to this fertile spot beside the River Tweed by its close associations with St Aidan and St Cuthbert. The monks came from Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, the Cistercians’ great northern English missionary base.

Monastic life continued at Melrose for the next 450 years. The last monk, John Watson, died around 1590. The crumbling abbey church was used as a parish church until a new kirk was built nearby in 1810.

A focal point of the Borders

The great abbey church of St Mary the Virgin at Melrose loomed large in the lives of many people on both sides of the border.

Powerful people endowed the abbey richly and it was a highly desirable final resting place. Alexander II (died 1249) was among the privileged people to be buried here. The heart of Robert the Bruce (died 1329) was also buried at Melrose, although his body was interred at Dunfermline Abbey.

Melrose’s location put it on the front line of conflict with England during the later Middle Ages:

  • attacks by Edward I (1300 and 1307) and Edward II (1322) required major repairs
  • Richard II’s attack in 1385 led to a complete rebuilding of the abbey church
  • the War of the Rough Wooing in the 1540s caused further damage

Architecture of solitude

Only a very small part of the first abbey church survives. The present building of rose-coloured stone dates almost entirely to the post-1385 rebuilding. Yet Melrose is still considered one of the most magnificent examples of medieval church architecture anywhere in the British Isles.

Still remarkably intact are:

  • the presbytery at the east end, where the high altar once stood
  • the monks’ choir and transepts
  • part of the nave

Highlights of the interior include the ornate stone vaulting over the presbytery, the elegant piers and the window tracery (carved stone separating the glass).

The exterior is decorated with some of the most fascinating sculpture found on any medieval church building.

It depicts:

  • demons and hobgoblins
  • lute-playing angels
  • cooks with ladles
  • the famous bagpipe-playing pig

Everyday monastic life

Little remains standing of the two great cloisters that lay to the north and west of the abbey church, but their ground plans are largely complete. These provide a glimpse of monastic life.

Finds made here include everyday objects like:

  • cooking pots
  • portable urinals
  • floor tiles

There is also a precious fragment of the shrine of St Waltheof, the second abbot.

The various objects are displayed in the (restored) Commendator’s House, built in the late 1500s.

Find out more about Melrose Abbey

Details

Date Made
15th century-16th century
Dimensions
h 68mm (h 2 11/16")
Property Information
Melrose Abbey
Object Number
MEL469
Access Status
Display

Tags

Share