I collect my final Borders Abbey.
I collect my final abbey on a day looking perfect in a jacket of clouds and with an accessorizing breeze that keeps the warming air from warming too much.
I collect my final abbey in the company of my host L and her dog Eddie.
The last few weeks, I’ve had my work blinders on as I’ve been barreling towards the end of June deadline I’ve set for the draft of this novel I’m writing. And, but for the art shows and music that L and G took me to, but for the added up hours at my computer, my daily walk, some captured time out in the garden, I have done little else.
One day while I was talking about Things Still to Do, L said she was game for an adventure and a new place to go for a walk (even though she’s been to this particular abbey before and more than once!) and that we could go together. On the morning we’ve agreed upon, assured by her that it’s not an inconvenience, we set out as if we’re both on holiday together.
The days, as they always do, are passing by quickly and my time in this place is winding down. With only a few more weeks to go, I know I have to get out and see the last of what I want to see or chance missing it altogether.
Scott’s View is one of those things.
The story is that Sir Walter Scott frequented this particular spot on his way from place to place (and he traveled and worked all over the Scottish Borders) so often that his horses would halt there without being told to do so. The story goes on that on his final trip through the land he’d loved so much, on his way to be buried at Dryburgh Abbey his horses stopped once more to give him a chance to take one last view.
“We’ll stop there first,” L tells me. And I’m thrilled.
She pulls into the little layby and I get out, camera ready.
The foreground gorse has bloomed a dusty gold. The clouds swoop down like birds. The Eildon Hills rise up, blue-green pyramids, from the not-so-distant horizon with their own golden blanket of gorse to warm their foothills. The trees of green, and green, and different green make odd patterns around a few patches of lighter green grassy fields. The land domes and descends, curves and rolls.
Not sure how much time we have, I creak my way down the hill of grass to one of the benches there overlooking it all. Another lady takes the bench over to the left. A man goes to stand at the edge of the gorse. But even tourists can’t get in the way of the view. I’m so taken in that I don’t even have to remind myself that I too am a tourist.
Sitting with the whole world, with all that matters before me, I feel as if I should instantly be able to speak some poetry, to write something, anything, everything. That I should be able to express how being here is being at the top of the world, stirred to feel that magic, dragons, and good exist. That if I weren’t too fond of gravity, if I stepped beyond the fence of gorse, I could fly out over that sea of green.
The earth rises and falls, and I feel small and eternal there at the top of it all. I want to spend the rest of my life in this spot. To see what each day looks like, what each season looks like. I want. I breathe. I am.
Then, it’s time to go.
Back in the car, we drive through Dryburgh (pronounced Dryburoh) and as we travel on, I feel as if I’ve been transported to a different world. What is it? What is it? What is different? Why is it different? It doesn’t hit me until later that it’s the trees, the old trees. For weeks now, I’ve been staring at open fields, at rising hills, at lined stands of trees atop those rising hills through the window of my writing room, at those ever-moving cows, but I haven’t been among big and ancient trees for some time. As we walk into the Abbey grounds, I listen to the sounds. I hear the birds, I hear the bumble of the bumblebees, I hear the lilting sounds of Italian, of Spanish, of English. And I hear the sound of the trees. The language they speak is older, is deeper, is more filled with rolling r’s and rumbling g’s. It’s a language thick with earth and worms, and the absorption of water, mineral, oxygen.
Aye, they seem to say. Aye, we hear you. They shift in the breeze. They sigh, contented to be. Then they doze, they watch, they speak, they grow older still. Moving down the graveled path, I look past them, and, there within the trees are the ruins.
There’s a peace among the ruins of the Abbey. Maybe it’s just the flowering pink of the cherry trees, the friendly blue of the forget-me-nots, but I feel as if I’ve never been happier in my life.
I follow behind L and Eddie, wander this way by myself, skip ahead for a moment there. We sit in the Chapter House and listen to the recording of the young boys’ choir playing from speakers that I never find among the stones.
“Last time I was here,” L says, “they were playing Gregorian Chants.”
“I bet that was something,” I say, leaning back against the cold stone of the house’s wall, looking up at the intact roof, and at the light coming in through the windows.
The Dryburgh Abbey was founded in 1152 by canons of the Premonstratensian order which was Augustinian in form (which in the simplest terms means that they followed the teachings of Augustine of Hippo who was all about following God with all one’s heart, being loving towards others, acknowledging grace, beauty, and singing—this is of course, a very summed up description of what it means to be Augustinian in form and shouldn’t be used by anyone to start up their own order). And, as at the Jedburgh Abbey, this order was made up of canons rather than monks which means that while they lived an austere, prayerful, and ordered life, they also interacted with the community.
We make our way out of the Chapter House and I walk through the other rooms with their crumbled walls. We stare at Sir Walter Scott’s tomb. I touch the old stone and look up at the open sky through the space where once a roof closed the walls in.
As I wander through, I reflect on the other Borders Abbeys. I’d felt comfortable at Jedburgh Abbey, at home. I’d felt a sense of miracle at the Kelso Abbey when I saw the sun light up a spider’s web. I’d felt a bit of judgment, a bit of aloofness at Melrose Abbey. Each different in their stone and ruin. Each different in their placement and welcome. Here, I feel at peace.
“I could have lived here,” I tell L.
“It gets really dark in the winter,” she says. “It’s really different.”
Maybe what I mean is I could have lived here now. With the clouds like dreams. With spring like promise. With the cloud of bugs like a swarm of birds. With the trees as old as they are.
The canons did not know these trees, not the ones I mark as being old, as many weren’t even planted until the 1700s. Though Dryburgh does boast a yew tree from the 1100s which one plaque says, “is thought to be older than the abbey.” The canons would have known that tree.
However, the canons did not know most of these trees for the abbey, suffering from attacks by the English, having been built and burned and rebuilt, had fallen into its exhausted decline by the 1500s.
In the 1700s, the beauty-loving Earl of Buchan bought the abbey in all its ruins and glory and organized its protection. It was he who planted the trees. It’s because of him that I’m able to visit the abbey on this day. I’m grateful.
While the trees slumber in the afternoon sun and murmur in their sleep, I read the plaques which talk of the strictness of the canon life, of the silence, the rigid schedule, the discipline. They tell of Brother Marcus who punched the Abbot in 1320 and how for that breach of manners, Brother Marcus was expelled. But what had the Abbot done? What drove Brother Marcus to such violence? Where had he gone after being excluded from the order? What peace had Brother Marcus never found? Or what peace had the Abbot lost?
Then, I think, this peace here that I feel, is just my own peace. It’s this place and me, the weather and the company. The joy of the open air and the beauty of ruins, of trees.
When we’ve wandered all we want to, L, Eddie, and I leave the abbey. We drive into St. Boswell’s and have lunch at a delightful little café. Then we go for a walk by the river.
When we return home, I feel as golden as the gorse at Scott’s View, as green as the grass growing tall by the river, as pink as the cherry tree blossoms of Dryburgh Abbey. As I fix my dinner and settle in for the night, like one of Virginia Woolf’s characters, I “[string] the afternoon on the necklace of memorable days.” I pin the abbey visit to my vest of collected experiences. Ah, what a day. What an abbey.
*From Virginia Woolf’s short story: Moments of Being
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