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Efter tha’ Moorns Nicht and Afair Sunsit II: Stirling and Melrose

Here at the University of Edinburgh we have something called Innovative Learning Week. Classes are cancelled and the departments put on all these programs, trips, and events you can attend in the hopes that students will venture beyond lectures and acquire a new sort of knowledge by creative means. Most students just take that opportunity to travel or go home and visit their families but I looked into what they had to offer. Two particularly exciting opportunities I found were historic field trips, one and ecclesiastical tour to Melrose, Traquair, and Soutra Aisle through the School of Divinity, and the other to Stirling through the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology. The first trip was led by a Dr. Holmes, a former monk who gave up the holy life for a calling to teach theology; quite the character. Heading the second trip was Dr. Llewellyn-Jones, a most knowledgeable ancient history buff and brilliant lecturer.

Straddling the River Forth, Stirling was once the only gateway from the fertile central belt (wherein lies Edinburgh) to the rugged, mountainous north. Throughout history, kings, queens, nobles, clan chiefs, and soldiers fought for control of this area and because of that Stirling is littered with important remnants of Scotland’s past. It was here where some of the most significant developments in the evolution of the Scottish nation took place. In 1297, the Scots defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge under the command of William Wallace. In 1314 they fought and won again (this time led by Robert the Bruce) at the Battle of Bannockburn only a couple of miles away. Stirling enjoyed its golden age between the 15th and 17th centuries when its castle was the favored residence of the Stuart monarchy and the setting for the coronation of the young Mary, future Queen of Scots. The castle, standing beside a sheer 250 feet drop down the side of a crag, is quite the sight. Arguably the best in Scotland, its delightful gardens, endless battlements, hidden staircases, painted walls, the Stirling Head carvings, and the magnificent unicorn tapestries made it thoroughly inspiring.

Beyond the white and yellow washed walls of the great hall, gargoyles guard over the Royal Palace, one of the many building that belong to Stirling Castle

One of Stirling Castle’s many gardens; in it stood the most grand and beautiful tree I have ever seen

My favorite building: the Chapel of Stirling Castle

One of the 56 Stirling Heads, oak carvings that richly decorated the King’s presence chamber. Carved in the 1540s, they depict many of his courtiers, along with gods and heroes from Classical antiquity. Today 36 of the original survive and they  are  the supreme example of renaissance iconography in Scotland

Two of the 5 Unicorn Tapestries that hung in the Queen’s Inner Hall. Tapestries were extremely expensive and prized by the wealthy elites of the European Renaissance. These have been hand woven using techniques from the 1400; the originals, created in the 1500s, are displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

A statue of Robert the Bruce stands in the Castle Terrace, which looks out over the town of Stirling

If Stirling houses the greatest of Scotland’s castles (Edinburgh’s comes in a close second), then Melrose boasts the best of the Border abbeys. Tucked in between the Tweed and the gorse-backed Eildon Hills, the little sleepy town of Melrose charmed me with its high-standing Victorian facades and tweedy shops. However, it was its abbey that left me speechless. The red and pink-tinted stone ruins of Melrose Abbey soar above their riverside surroundings. It was founded in 1136 by King David I and was the first Cistercian settlement in Scotland. Its prosperity was made fragile by constant blows from the English; thus most of the present remains date from the intervening period when rebuilding abandoned the Cistercian austerity for the elaborate Gothic style. Aside from claiming the burial site of Robert the Bruce’s heart, Melrose proudly displays beautiful sculptural detail. Windows sprout delicate foliate tracery and angels playing musical instruments while the buttresses support crouching figures holding scrolls, mischievous gargoyles, and even pigs playing bagpipes.

The Eildon Hills looming over the pink and red stones of Melrose Abbey

 Melrose was built in 1136 and was the first Cistercian Abbey in Scotland. It is truly one of the most beautiful remains of history I have ever beheld

The ceiling boss of the abbey, depicting the head of Christ

Gargoyles prowled the highest points of Melrose Abbey, ready to spew water from their mouths when it rained

The courtyard

I can imagine Melrose Abbey must have been a place where monks and men felt God’s presence for hundreds of years

Finally, one of our more interesting visits was that paid to the obscure site of Soutra Aisle. Marked by only a small heap of rocks in the middle of the Borderland countryside (on what was a Roman road in ancient times), it was once one of the most important hospitals in medieval Scotland, the House of the Holy Trinity of Soutra founded c.1150. Recent archaeological investigation has unearthed ditches full of blood and body parts, anthrax spores, body parasites and evidence of opium, hemlock and medicinal plants from North Africa, telling us a lot about the life of the medieval hospital that once stood there and the Augustinian Canons who ran it. Fascinating…in my opinion.

Upon the dark hill of Soutra Aisle stands what was once one of the most prominent hospitals of the Medieval Ages. Run by the “Master & Brethren” of the Augustinian Order, this “once powerful” place of care for pilgrims and wayfarers left behind coagulated blood, preserved parasites, and other bodily remains that give us a clue into medicine in one of the mankind’s darkest ages

With that said I bid thee fare well! I think the University of Edinburgh will be happy to see my week was “innovative” after all, wouldn’t you agree?


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