New Abbey: Sweetheart Abbey

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The ingenious wheel window in the south transept

Located on the eastern edge of the village of New Abbey stands an impressive shrine to human and divine love. The ruin of Sweetheart Abbey sits between the grey granite bulk of Criffel and the waters of the Solway Firth. Lord John Balliol of Barnard Castle died in 1268 and his grieving widow, Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway, had his heart embalmed and put into an ivory casket. Dervorgilla undertook many charitable acts which included establishing the Cistercian abbey of Sweetheart, not far from her home at Buittle Castle. When she died in 1289 her body and her husband’s heart were buried there.

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View from the west front towards the presbytery

Established in 1273, the abbey was a daughter house of Dundrennan Abbey near kirkcudbright and was devoted to the worship of God. While builders were still working on the abbey church, the Wars of Independence erupted and after 50 years of bloodshed, the monastery was in a poor state of repair. The new lord of Galloway, Archibald Douglas ‘the Grim’, had the abbey repaired but thereafter little is heard of the abbey until its demise following the Protestant Reformation of 1560. Despite the prolonged wars with England, much of the abbey survives almost entire providing a lasting testament to the monastic ideal that was of such pivotal importance in the medieval age.

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The crossing tower

The site of the abbey was perfect for the Cistercian way of life with shelter provided by rising ground to the west with fertile land drained into a slow winding burn, Abbey Pow, and a neighbouring loch provided water for drinking, flushing toilets and powering corn mills. A little over a mile from the abbey was a safe natural harbour for ships bringing in building materials and other provisions and carrying away the produce of the monastery’s granges (estate centres).

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View along the nave to the west front

The abbey church at Sweetheart, in common with all Cistercian churches, was dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. It was planned in the shape of a cross and divided up into different areas including the presbytery, monks’ choir, transepts and nave. A pulpitum (timber screen) to the west of the central crossing divided the long church into two with the presbytery and monks’ choir to the east and the nave to the west. The west front and upper part of the nave were only built in the later 14th century as a result of the Wars of Independence interrupting the building schedule.

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The wheel window in the west front

The abbey would have been designed by a master mason appointed by the abbot. The builders lived in temporary wooden huts as did the monks themselves until their new home was ready. The land was cleared of granite boulders which were used to build the precinct wall, the domestic buildings and the cores of the church walls. The red sandstone for the church and for the window and door surrounds in the cloister buildings was brought from nearby quarries. Oak for the roof and fir trees for scaffolding may have been imported by sea. Although the building has beautiful stone tracery in the windows, Cistercian austerity is evident in the planning of the building. There is no triforium and the tower over the crossing was deliberately kept low in deference to a ban in 1157 on bell towers. The battlements and gables above the tower were added much later.

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Stone boss bearing the Douglas arms in the vaulting of the south transept chapel

The stone tracery in the presbytery windows demonstrates the influence of the style of Gothic architecture which developed in France in the 1230’s. The presbytery, in the east end, was the most sacred part of the church where the high altar was situated. In the vaulted ceiling of the south transept chapel (above) is a stone boss bearing two croziers in saltire together with a heart and three stars (the Douglas arms). This is evidence that the abbey church was repaired by the Douglas family after the Wars of Independence. The nave is six bays long and aisled down both sides. The phased construction of the abbey church is visible not only in the clerestory, where the two eastern windows are of a different design from the other ‘eyebrow’ windows (below), but also in the arcade where the moulded capitals on top of the two eastern pillars have simple mouldings while the four western ones have carved foliage.

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‘Eyebrow’ windows along the top of the nave

The monks who built Sweetheart Abbey were Cistercians. The order was founded in 1098 at Citeaux, near Dijon in France, by monks desiring to return to a purer observance of the monastic rule compiled by Benedict of Nursia for his monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy in around 540. The Cistercians, or ‘white monks’ as they were known from the colour of their habit, first arrived in Scotland from Rievaulx settling in Melrose in the eastern borders in 1136. Sweetheart Abbey was the last of 12 Cistercian monasteries set up in Scotland.

 

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Nithsdale: New Abbey War Memorial

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On the A710 next to Sweetheart Abbey stands New Abbey War Memorial. Dedicated to the memory of those lost in the Great War (1914-1918), the monument is of rough surfaced granite and set upon a stepped plinth. An ornamental sword adorns the cross shaft and the memorial lists thirty six names of those who lost their lives.

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Caerlaverock Castle

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On the south coast of Scotland, where the swift flowing River Nith enters the salt marshes of the Solway Firth, stands the medieval stronghold of Caerlaverock Castle. During the Middle Ages, the castle guarded an important gateway into the kingdom of Scotland. The lands of Caerlaverock (meaning fort of the skylark or elm fort) were ruled by British lords of Nithsdale after the Romans abandoned their hold on southern Scotland around 400AD. By 950AD, the Nithsdale lords had built a fort on the site that would later become the old castle. In around 1220, Alexander II of Scotland granted the lands to an incomer from the eastern Borders, Sir John de Maccuswell (Maxwell).

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The Maxwell coat of arms was added above the entrance gate in the 1600s.

The Maxwells built the first castle (old castle) around 1220 but as it proved too small and prone to flooding, they built a new castle in around 1270. The castle is uniquely triangular in shape with three tall towers built integrally at each point of the triangle. As a result of the close proximity to England, Caerlaverock Castle was frequently brought into conflict during the Middle Ages. The castle walls were rebuilt in the 1370s after the War of Independence and further alterations were made to make the fortress more suited for lordly living. The siege of 1640 however, during the Civil War between Charles I and his Socttish subjects, proved to be the castle’s last, and after the Royalist garrison surrendered to the Covenanters, Caerlaverock fell into disuse.

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Surrounding the castle are two moats (outer moat is now dry) and following archaeological excavations in 1958, three phases of medieval bridge construction was discovered in the outer moat. The courtyard (above) was the heart of the castle and when first built, the curtain walls were lined with timber buildings. Over the course of time, the Maxwells replaced them with stone buildings and a 15th century stone stair tower was added giving access both to the gatehouse and the west range.

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The plain front of the west range (above left & right) contrasts to the grand facade of the Nithsdale Lodging. Built after 1450, the two-storey block has three rooms on the ground floor, each entered separately from the courtyard. Each room had a decorated fireplace with a larger room on the upper floor believed to have been used as a great hall or banqueting room.

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Murdoch’s Tower viewed from the east range overlooking the courtyard

At either end of the south range was a round tower. The south west tower, known as Murdoch’s Tower, still stands to full height. The tower takes its name from Murdoch the Duke of Albany, a cousin of James I, who is recorded as being confined there in 1425 shortly before his execution.

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In 1603, James VI’s accession to the English throne as James I brought peace to the Border country for the first time in centuries. The new found confidence led to Robert Maxwell overseeing more building works within Caerlaverock and he was created Earl of Nithsdale in 1620. As they were built by Robert, the ranges along the east and south sides of the courtyard are known as the Nithsdale Lodging. The lodging was completed in 1634 and as security was no longer a priority, Robert had large windows installed in the east curtain wall. The Renaissance mansion had a richly decorated symmetrical facade with stone carving. The pedimented windows are adorned with figures from classical myths and legends.

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17th Century fireplace

The east range consists of two roomed apartments on each of the three floors and all featured a fireplace and toilet closets. After the siege of 1640, the castle was partially dismantled by the Covenanters to render it incapable of further defence. The castle was left to fall into decay until 1946 when the 16th Duke placed Caerlaverock in state care.

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Caerlaverock Castle: Carved Stone

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On display at Caerlaverock Castle are a selection of carved stones which show the diversity and skill of the mason’s art. All of the fragments are from the castle and are carved from soft red sandstone. Most of the stonework is from the ‘dainty fabrick’ of the new lodgings built by Robert Maxwell, Earl of Nithsdale from 1634. Robert was well travelled and cultured and used the very latest in design for his classical house. The decoration was drawn from the literary world with illustrations from Francis Quarles Emblems, published in 1635, reproduced on the first floor while the second floor has carvings taken from an earlier book of emblems by Andreas Alciatus. The above deeply carved demon face would once have occupied a prominent position on the castle walls and is an example of a strong medieval carving.

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The above stonework is a heraldic panel bearing a fleur-de-lys below an earl’s coronet. The panel may be a device used by the Countess of Nithsdale’s family, the Beaumonts.

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The above carved female figure, or caryatid, once formed one side of an elaborate fireplace in the Nithsdale lodging.

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The above is a small part of a tympanum from the Nithsdale lodging. Human Love is seen trying to take honey from a wasps nest in the shape of an orb, but representing the World. On the original drawing in Quarles’ book, Divine Love can be seen alongside holding a honeycomb but this has been lost from the carving.

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The above is a section from a carved panel from the Nithsdale lodging and thought likely to be part of the crest and supporters on a heraldic panel. Below is a stone corbel decorated with a crudely carved face.

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Sweetheart Abbey: Lady Dervorgilla

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Located in the south transept is a monument to Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway. Following the death of her husband Lord John Balliol in 1268, Lady Dervorgilla had his heart embalmed and placed into an ivory casket. In memory of her husband, Lady Dervorgilla founded the Cistercian abbey of Dulce Cor (Latin for Sweet Heart) in 1273. When she died in 1289, her body and her husband’s embalmed heart were laid to rest in front of the high altar in the presbytery. The original monument was destroyed at the Reformation in 1560 with a new one made by Abbot Gilbert Brown later in the century.

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During clearance work in 1929, fragments of this second monument were discovered and reassembled in the south transept. The table monument is ornamented with square traceried panels containing shields and badges. A stone effigy rests on top of the table and depicts Lady Dervorgilla dressed in a gown and mantle and cradling her husband’s heart casket to her breast. The year of Dervorgilla’s death is incorrectly given in the inscription on the capstone which reads: “R VILLA FUDATRIX HUI MONASTII QUE OBIIT S M CCLXXXIIII” (Dervorgilla, foundress of this monastery, who died in 1284).

Caerlaverock Castle: Leather Fragment

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On display in the museum area of Caerlaverock Castle is a piece of richly decorated leather. Identified as either a section of a side-laced boot or a mitt, the leather features ornamental leaf scrolls with punched decoration on the background. The fragment details stitching around the edges and dates to the early 15th century.