Monday, April 23, 2018

Two Abbeys With One Stone

The day I go to Melrose is a day shiny with sun and fresh with joy for spring is finally fulfilling its promise to arrive. The little local bus drops me off in Kelso and while I’m waiting for my connecting bus, I walk around the corner to the Kelso Abbey.

It’s the most ruined of the four Borders Abbeys with the crumbled remains of only one tower left. It has no gatekeeper and no entry fee. Yet, it’s still grand, in its own majestic and tumbled down way. But I don’t have the time to really get to know it. I snap some pictures, admire what I can, and go on to make my connection.

At the bus stop, in the moments still left to wait, I make a friend. A man who is perhaps someone’s grandfather, a man with a cane near to hand. While we sit patiently, he tells me of his trip to Florida and the Bahamas in the 90’s, of his hometown of Edinburgh, says, “aye” for “yes,” and tells me that the bus I’m intending to take will get me to where I want to go.

We’re still chatting when the 67 rolls up. I stand, saying a kind farewell as I get in line to get onboard, buy a return ticket from the driver, and go sit by a window. My friend (I hadn’t realized we were taking the same bus) takes a lower, more accommodating seat and for a moment, I wonder if I should join him. But I don’t. As the miles pass, I’m glad to not be distracted by stories. For the road to Melrose holds my attention captive with its rolling grasslands, distant hills, with the stark figure of Smailholm Tower cast dark against the blue backdrop of the sky, with the sky itself sparkling with sunlit clouds. I press my face against the window and hope to remember this forever.

Some stops later, my friend disembarks to catch a bigger bus to Edinburgh. As he exits, he turns to wave at me and wishes me a pleasant day. I wish him a good journey home and he smiles. Outside, he stops to wave at me again. Friends waving through the glass. Friends bidding each other goodbye. Friends who don’t know each other’s names.

Content as I am, on I go to the comfortable, friendly town of Melrose with its narrow streets and cozy shops. From the small town square, I find my way easily enough to the Abbey, pay the entry fee, and begin my slow exploration.

Writing of Melrose Abbey, Sir Walter Scott said:

If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight

Now that would be something, I’m sure. But moonlit abbey visits are not, that I know of, an available option and I have nothing but this bright sunshine to accompany me as I go. And anyway, on this brilliant day, on this welcome warm day, moonlight is the furthest thing from my mind.  

Deciding to tour the grounds first, I head to the graveyard and stroll among the varied headstones. One has a skull and crossbones and I wonder if the grave holds a pirate—as a man I’d met in the Hale Village graveyard said was true there for the stones so marked. The inscription is too worn to read, and I doubt, even if it weren’t so, that it would have read: Here Lies a Pirate. But you never know.

I wander on.

With no trouble at all, I find the famous pipe playing pig on an outer wall between a more crumbled gargoyle and a guarding, watchful death. One online site claims this porcine gargoyle is the most famous pig in Scotland. Though it never says which other pigs it contends against for that status. Not that I’m doubting the claim. It’s a charming pig.
Another site claims that Melrose Abbey is the most famous of the ruins of Scotland. Though it’s not quite clear if that means out of all ruins of all Scottish things or only of abbeys. Anyway, whether most famous or not, I feel as if I’ve come to the right place. The Abbey is grand.

Leaving the renowned pig to pipe, I step back and back some more to take in the full length of the abbey, and then I go inside.

Just inside the arched doorway, I pause and look up, look around.  

Maybe it’s the weather calling attention to itself—perhaps moonlight would change everything, perhaps the abbey wakes up at night—but for now, at this time, the place feels impersonal and aloof. Not unfriendly, but indifferent somehow. Here, I sense no connection, nothing says, “Welcome, stay awhile.” Whereas, at Jedburgh I’d felt included, at home within the walls. Here, the feeling is of a building, a structure, a construction for lofty ideals rather than a home.

Maybe once you’ve made friends with one abbey that’s it. I’d chosen Jedburgh, advertently or inadvertently, and Melrose sensed it immediately, snubbed me for loving another abbey first. But that’s silly, for buildings don’t have feelings, do they?  

It is quite a grand building.   

Reading the placards, I learn that Melrose was founded in 1136 by Cistercian monks. Jedburgh was founded by Augustinian canons. Perhaps that’s the difference—the prayers, the rituals of the orders with their enlaced personalities settled into the walls like age, time, weather, with different pressures driving them in like etchings into the stone.
One difference, for instance, is that monks, unlike canons, kept their distance from the secular demands found outside the walls of their abbeys. They had lay brothers to act as middlemen between the spiritual and temporal worlds. Theirs was a sacred and secluded life. Set apart, set above.

The Cistercian order was established by a group of monks who felt that the Benedictine order had become too loosey goosey and wanted to be more meticulous with their prayers and rituals.

Maybe it’s that strictness that still lingers in the air.

Even so, indifferent or strict, I stay a long time, walking the grounds, wandering through arches and into rooms, taking the winding stone steps up to the roof. At some point, outside again, I stand over the burial site of Robert the Bruce’s heart. Apparently, in the 1300s it was no unusual thing to separate a person’s organs from the body and bury them helter skelter across the land.

A brief bit of history.

Born in 1274, Robert the Bruce was a claimant to the Scottish throne. A fierce warrior, he fought for Scottish independence and was crowned as King of the Scots in 1306. His is a story of patriotism and self-serving actions, of accusations of treachery, murder, and loyalty, of hard fought battles and ones not fought in at all, of separation from the English king and the seeking out of help from the English king. Robert the Bruce died in 1329 just shy of his 55th birthday from an unspecified illness which might have been syphilis or leprosy. His body was buried at Dunfermline Abbey, 52 miles north of Melrose, the traditional burying spot for Scottish kings. His organs were buried at Levengrove Park in Dumbarton, 87 miles from Melrose, in a parish church. Certainly, he wasn’t really buried helter skelter, the sites were surely chosen with care—most likely by Bruce himself—and maybe that was his way of holding claim to as much of Scotland as he could for as long as he materially lasted. Who can say?

Before he died (obviously), in one version of the story, Robert the Bruce requested that his heart be sent to war against the infidels since he himself had missed out on the chance to fight in the Crusades. Ah, those deathly spiritual clashes. Because war at home was not enough. 
In another version, he asked his chum Black Douglas to take his heart to Jerusalem, present it to God there in the Holy Land, and then eventually bring it back to Melrose. 
Regardless of the exact details of the request, Sir James Douglas is said to have taken the embalmed heart in a metal urn attached to a necklace chain with him to Spain when he went to quash an uprising there. (How big was the urn? Did Douglas really wear it around his neck? How much did it weigh? Did he say when asked what the urn contained, “Ah, this? It’s nothing more than the heart of the former king of Scotland.”?) In Spain, not making it to the Holy Land, Douglas died fighting the Moors. Alas, a heart cannot save one from death. But, then again, it hadn’t been sent as a talisman, so that’s really no surprise. The more romantic version of the story says that before throwing himself into that last battle, Douglas hurled the urn at the enemy while crying out, “Lead on brave heart, I’ll follow thee.” *
After the war (presumably), Sir William Keith (whoever he was) then brought the heart back—along with Sir James Douglas’s body. Once returned to Scotland, the heart, and apparently the loyal Douglas too, was buried at Melrose Abbey.

During an excavation in 1921, the heart in its tiny conical casket was dug up, admired, and then reburied. In 1996, other digging people took it up, verified the authenticity of the heart as Bruce’s to the best of their technological ability, and then buried it yet again with a new headstone to mark its place.

Now, here it is, perhaps in its final resting place. Having stared long enough, I walk away from the marker and from the heart wondering where I’d want my own heart buried. The sun glares too brightly for me to be thinking for long of mortality, of what the heart signifies, of belonging, of the possession of place. But I conclude, without indictment, without disrespect to Robert the Bruce or his heart, and without disagreeing with Sir Walter Scott in any way that it would not be Melrose Abbey for me.  
For one moment, I go again inside, to sit there and see what that’s like. I find a small ledge at the foot of a pillar and ease my way down. It’s nice to sit. But I get up when it seems I’ll end up as a rather main feature in someone else’s photographs. I myself find that it’s hard enough to get people-less pictures of sites without visitors sitting in corners like gargoyles. And, I’m no pipe playing pig.

Having thoroughly enjoyed my abbey afternoon, I bid the place farewell, wander down the road to Harmony Garden where I admire the flowers, stroll the streets of Melrose, and then catch the 3:33 bus back. The scenery on the return is no less wonderful.

At some point in a little village, the bus stops for traffic or something and I, looking out, look up at a second story window into the face of a guy, a bloke. I smile and he smiles in return. Or he smiles and I smile in return. Perhaps we’re both smiling to begin with and that’s enough. Then he waves. I lift a hand and return the greeting. Though I can’t hear him, I can see him laughing. He turns his head, talking, and a friend, another bloke, appears at the window next to him, also talking, laughing, looking down at me. I wave to him too. He waves back, delighted. I wish I knew what they were saying, what they were up to. Nevertheless, even not knowing, I’m amused. The two of them seem to find this meaningful. I suppose I do too, though I’m not really sure why.

Window friends.

Back in Kelso, with half an hour before my bus home, once again I go to the Abbey. I feel as if I should have some contemplative time on an abbey day, especially on a two-for-one abbey day. And I hadn’t gotten that at Melrose. As if on some strange, repetitive pilgrimage (sans urn with heart), I walk a second time through the gates and into the ruins. I’m the only one here. I find a place that feels distant from the nearby streets and the sounds of passing cars and sit. Peace. A moment of stillness. For a while, though with an eye on the time, I am here. Simply here. Then my mind picks up again. Do, do something, do, it says. Don’t miss the bus, it might be the last one, it says. I check my clock. I double check the timetable. I still have time. But caught up in the counting of seconds, I do something. I look up as the sun strikes the lines of a spiderweb, hung between the two miniature spires of a wrought-iron fence, lighting it up, electric.

In that instant I remember, Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Sing the Body Electric,” though what that means I know as little as I know the meaning of the interaction I’d had with the two window guys. For all I really remember of the poem is the title. But here, now, the body electric is this moment in time; the brilliance of those thin and intricate strands, the contrast of blurred green from the moss-covered wall behind the web, it’s the half circle of light off to the left proving sunlight, it’s the gleam of something so beautiful—broken, ruined, abandoned, perfect—I want to share it, I want to keep it for myself.

Here, I think, life still exists even within a ruin. It might not be human life. Yet, here, the spider, as meticulous as a ritual enacting monk, spins its web, waits—as if in prayer—for God to bless it with a meal.

The spider as a monk. I smile.

The monk is gone. And, in fact, the spider is also gone.

Then that quickly, the moment is gone. The web no longer shines, the sun drifts down. The clock ticks onward.

I collect my things. And, I’m gone too.

 Alternate story details from:

Want even more adventures with me? Come along by way of my Patreon page:

Monday, April 16, 2018

Beheading Queens

After a week and a half of not much more than lovely walks, a long string of rainy days, and devoted novel writing time, I rally myself together and—with some local help from my host—figure out the bus schedule to the nearby town of Jedburgh (pronounced Jedbouroh).

I select my adventure day using my somewhat-trusty weather app and know that it’ll be overcast, chilly, but (most likely) not raining. And, with all that in mind, I get up Wednesday morning, do my morning rituals; exercise, meditation, coffee, get in my writing time, have my breakfast, put on my scarf and jacket, and make it outside in plenty of time to catch the 11:53 bus.

The village I’m in has no official bus stop. But, having gotten an idea of the general spot people use, I wait near it and hope that when I flag the driver down, he’ll realize what I’m up to and be kind of enough to take me along for the ride.
He does and is. And, like many times in my life before, I’m on a bus going in the right direction to a place I’ve never been before.
In no time at all, I arrive.

Jedburgh is lovely. Although it’s a small town, traveling in from the country as I’ve done (all six miles of it), I feel like I’ve come to the big city. Shops, sites, people.

I’ve come specifically to see the Abbey, but there are other places to visit as well. I’ve got all the intentions of making a full outing of my afternoon and getting back to the bus stop before the 4:40 bus—which, as far as I can tell from all the combined information I’ve gotten, seems to be the last bus home for the day.  

Jedburgh Abbey is one of the four Borders Abbeys. And, stirring myself out of countryside lethargy, I’ve made it my new quest to visit them all. Surely, I must do more in Scotland than simply wander up and down muddy hills.

In the Abbey gift shop and reception, I step up to the counter to pay for my entry ticket and the man asks me if I have any passes or membership cards. I tell him no.
“Do you plan to visit more sites?”
I tell him my intention to visit the other abbeys and he proposes I buy a pass that will include the other abbeys, Smailholm Tower, and one other place I can’t now remember. I try to calculate if there will actually be a savings for me if I buy all now or if I should wait and make sure that I actually can find my way to each location or fit the visits into my indolent schedule. As I’m thinking, the man suggests I go tour the abbey and that will give me the time I need to decide.
“And pay when I’m done?” I ask, suddenly, feeling trusted and kindly treated. He nods and smiles and sends me on my way.

What a nice plan.

Happily, I go up the stairs and scan the placards that tell me the history of the town and the Abbey. I look over some carved stone fragments, see the replica image of one of the canons (who looks both downcast and dejected), and gaze upon the carved face of a Merelles board which was a popular game at one time in the distant past.

But enough of that, I think, I want to see the Abbey. So, pondering what I’ve just learned—that canons were priests rather than monks. Which means that although they lived a cloistered life in the abbey, they, as priests, still served the spiritual needs of the nearby community. And tucking away facts about the abbey such as it was built in the 12th century and housed an order of Augustinian Canons, I wander through the ruins.

It’s a grand structure. A feat of architectural skill and beauty, mixing Romanesque and Gothic styles (more because it took nearly 120 years to complete the project than because an architect went rogue and mishmashed the styles). Though I’m not really architecturally well-versed enough to differentiate the one from the other, I can admire the rose window, the long nave, and the splendid arches that run the length of the building.
And, I do.

In between the wars and disorder that afflicted the area because of the site’s unfortunate placement at the Scottish and English border, the Abbey must have been peaceful. Even now there’s a calm that seems to rise up from the garden grass like evaporating dew, to drift down, smoke like, over the stone pillars to settle like moss, like the soft green of age.
Even so, from what I’ve only just read, the peaceful years seem as if they were few and far between. Over the centuries, the Abbey suffered attacks, major raids, and fires. A dying down of religious fervor brought fewer and fewer new canons in, a decreasing interest from the locals for religion, and the conflict between the Church of England and the Catholic Church created a growing divide between priest and layperson, canon and king. Meanwhile, as kings and queens battled for the land, tensions rose high between the Scots and the English. Time marched militantly on, the Protestant Reformation gained its capital letters, and the Abbey with its diminished order was tolerated only long enough to allow the remaining few canons to live to the ends of their days within the distressed walls. Then, sometime after the 1560s, the Abbey fell out of use altogether.

I stand and take in the majesty of the three-tiered arches, the soft colors of stone and pillar, the empty bell tower, the open spaces. I can’t sense the blood, the burning, the tears of the past, it’s as if the place has forgiven all that. As if the place itself can forgive and forget. Forgive and remember. Forgive and be as it is.

The Abbey must have been grand in its fullest days. With the garden in abundant bloom. With the bells hanging in the bell tower. The glass in the windows – would it have been stained glass? What light would have streamed in to dance across the stone floors?

But here, after all this time, purpose has been lost. Stones crumble. Civilizations rise and fall.
There’s a verse somewhere in the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus tells his disciples, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another, everyone will be thrown down.” And I always think of that when I see majesty diminished to ruins. Or even sometimes when I see lofty buildings with their proud lines and haughty heights, their stains of money and their glittering self-importance. When I see that we’re all just wanting to leave our mark in some way, somewhere.  
Do you see all these great buildings?
I look around again. For still, even ruins are beautiful. Not every stone here has yet been thrown down.

I smile and take some pictures. I smile and wonder how I’d feel if there was a roof closing in this space, closing me up within it. Different, I’m sure. But I’ll never know the contrast. I only have this moment, I only have these walls around me.

I’m not the only one here. There are other visitors and we move around each other as if we are pegs on a Merelles board. Though who even knows the rules of the game?  

With my thoughts to think, I’d like to sit against a pillar and gaze up through the open bell tower, but I haven’t got the time. Today is for moving not contemplation; in the past week and a half, haven’t I had my fill of thinking, thinking, always thinking (as a friend of my grandmother’s once said of her little baby. “Just look at her. Thinking, thinking, always thinking.”)? Well maybe, but I would also like to sit here and reflect.

Another time, perhaps. Another abbey, perhaps.

When I’ve lingered and admired as long as I can, I bid the Abbey farewell and go, with my mind made up, to pay for the multi-abbey pass.

As I’m pulling out my wallet, I ask the friendly man if the pass doesn’t include all four abbeys (he’d only mentioned three) and he tells me that the Kelso Abbey has no entry fee.

“Can Smailholm Tower and … the mysterious place I’ve forgotten… be reached by bus?”

He shakes his head. “No.” With a pause for thought, ever helpful, he calculates the walking distance from where we are to the places and says, “It’d be quite a long walk.” More than fourteen miles when all was said and done. 
Together we conclude that it’d be wisest simply for me to pay as I go. We can’t figure out how I’d save money by purchasing the pass, if at all. And, truth be told, who knows if I’ll even ever figure out another Borders Bus’s time schedule. In a continuing fit of kindness, the man gives me a discounted price and we part practically the best of friends.

Leaving the enclosure of the Abbey, I go up the road and up the hill to the Jedburgh Castle Jail and Museum.

From the peaceful cloister to imprisonment. There’s an interesting topic to compare and contrast, but like contemplation this too is better left for another day—still, it’s on my mind as I wander down dimly lit halls and gaze into tiny, cold, friendless cells.

What prisons we make of our worlds. What worlds we make of our prisons.

The Castle Jail was built in the 1820s on the site of an old old castle, thus its name.
Children were jailed within its wall for stealing turnips, potatoes, candles, and money. Women were jailed, several for exposing their children (which I think means exposing them to the elements, but I’m not really quite sure). And men, for their own varied social infractions, some which included debt.

I’ve never understood the idea of a debtor’s prison. How can a person repay another if they can’t work? But, I suppose, the making or having of money, the liquifying of assets was different in the 1800s. And, if, going back in time, I had to choose what kind of prisoner to be, a debtor wouldn’t be the worst choice to make. Apparently here, the indebted prisoners had an easier life inside than the other prisoners. They could chew tobacco, have food brought in, and get extra fuel. For the other law breakers, life was pretty drear.  
The conditions which started out well enough for the Reverend John Purves to say in 1834, “There is not indeed a more comfortable place of confinement in Scotland,” deteriorated so rapidly that the gaol was closed in 1868. Prison reform—another topic for another day—did its work, I suppose, in some form or the other. At least children weren’t locked up anymore for taking turnips (which one assumes they did because they were hungry and not just because they were trouble-making imps). That’s something at least.

Touring a prison, even one with parts made cheerily into museum rooms geared for children and with a temporary exhibition on the 75 years of Jedburgh’s Pipers, is depressing. Too blatantly is visible the dark side of humanity—and the darkness can as easily be found in those who have broken the law as in those who uphold it. It’s an ugly and complicated coin. Right and wrong aside, law and lawlessness put away, surely, prison is awful. Someone did once say, “I think that’s the point.” But we’ve made it often too long of a point. We’ve continued on locking up the turnip stealers and the potato takers. We’ve forgotten how to forgive (like the Jedburgh Abbey) in our preference to mete out justice, however harsh, however impersonal. Ah, the terrible things we do to each other.

I enter another cell block and shiver in the actual chill of the building while imprisonment joins the growing list of conversations for other times. Eventually, I find my way out.

Happy enough to leave prison, and all it means, behind me, I walk the charming streets of Jedburgh and meander on over to Mary Queen of Scot’s House.

While it’s easy to romanticize the life of a royal, Mary Queen of Scot’s life seemed pretty fraught. She herself spent a good portion of her time imprisoned and not for stealing turnips.

A bit of history. Mary became queen when only six days old at the death of her father.  

Jumping at the chance to connect his English kingdom to the Scots’, Henry VIII wanted to marry her off to his son Prince Edward. But the Scots said, “No way, man.” Which made Henry mad enough to attack Scotland. Once started on that angry path, he never could leave off with the war.

The Scots, to protect Mary, sent their queen away to France where she grew up quite happily betrothed instead to the heir to the French throne.
She married him at fifteen and all seemed well for a while.
But then her young king husband died.

At age nineteen, no longer the Queen of France, the Queen of Scotland returned to rule her own people in person. Wanting love and needing an heir, Mary married again. But her relational luck was bad. Her second husband was murdered and her third husband was suspected of being a part of the murderous plot. At some point, though, with one of her husbands, she did have a son.

I follow the signs and partly follow the subsequent intrigue and political jumble that complicated Mary Queen of Scots’ life. Religion, Rights to the throne, and Relatives did nothing to help her live blissfully and in peace.

For reasons that I skim over and apparently don’t absorb, Mary was imprisoned in Scotland (though not in the Jedburgh Jail) while her brother served as regent for her son for whom she abdicated her throne—apparently under threat of death. But the Scots had not given up on their queen. In a stunning escape, hatched by her devotees, Mary broke out of jail and rallied her people in a wild and heartfelt attempt to regain her place on the Scottish throne. But the battle of Langside, a short but bitter fight against her brother the regent, ended with Mary’s defeat.

Fleeing to England to seek the help of her cousin Queen Elizabeth. Instead of giving her help, Elizabeth gave Mary imprisonment. After eighteen years of confinement, and because of her alleged involvement in an assassination attempt against Elizabeth, the Queen signed Mary’s death warrant.
Of course, Elizabeth’s part in the matter was no straightforward or even malicious deal against her cousin, it was more complicated and the result of plots and counterplots by advisers and meddlers, but, in the end, the result was the same, no matter whose fault it really was—Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded.

With two strokes of an axe, a plaque informs a rather horrified me.

For a moment, I look into a case at Mary’s death mask and think what a strange world it is, what strange and sad things people do to each other. And for what?

For what.

Grateful not to be royalty, I walk back into the open air. While the history was grim and my thoughts laced through with dark intrigue, I’m surprisingly happy. It’s nice to be out and about. It’s nice to be free. Striding along, I check my clock. I still have some time before the last bus home, so I wander into a teashop and order a pot of tea and a vegetarian haggis complete with neeps and tatties. It seems a fitting Scottish thing to do.

When the hour comes, I make my way to the bus stop, buy my ticket from the driver, and settle into a seat. A handful of miles later, when I ring the bell advising him that I’d like to be let off at the next stop, I go stand up near the front.
“Where do you want me to drop you?” the driver asks.
I smile, for it is a small village and there is no assigned stop. I imagine he’d turn down the street I’m staying on and drop me off at the doorstep, if I asked. But I tell him it’s fine right in front of the village hall. That’s practically at my door as it is. 
Then thinking of the future and the Kelso Abbey, I ask him, “If I want to take this bus from here going along this way, where would I stand to catch the bus?” 

“Oh anywhere,” he says. “Just stand where we can see you and put out your hand. We’ll stop for you.”
What a lovely and casual stop, I think. What a lovely and casual bus this is. I thank the driver as I get off. He gives me a cheery farewell.

Contented, I let myself into my rooms, turning the locks I have control over. What a privilege that is, I think, and what a day. Abbeys, prisons, and queens, what a history. What a lot of history for this land. Through the windows, there before me are those Scottish hills, that fought for earth, and a moody sky, perfect for writing and contemplation. I sit in my chair, put my chin in my hand, and do just that.