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.
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: http://www.rampantscotland.com/know/blknow_heart.htm
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