Why did King David I build his abbey in Selkirk?

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“..... it is a point worth emphasising that the earliest settlement anywhere in Britain of any of the communities of ‘reformed’ Benedictines – Cistercians, Tironesians, Savignacs and others – through which the religious life of western Europe underwent so profound a transformation was the abbey of Selkirk in Scotland.” – Professor Geoffrey Barrow.

If Selkirk Abbey was so important, why do we know so little about it? When was it established, where and why? In the first of a series looking into the abbey, local historian Frank Harkness look into why it was built in the first place.

Selkirk folk have long memories. The slogan “We come frae nothing sma’ suggests history is important in Selkirk.

The highlight of Selkirk’s year, the Common Riding, commemorating Selkirk’s proud and tragic part in the Battle of Flodden 600 years ago, confirms this.

It is surprising then, that something as important as the founding of Britain’s first reformed abbey at Selkirk, albeit 900 years ago, should have dropped out of Selkirk’s folk memory and that now there is apparently nothing left to tell where it was or even show that it existed.

That’s not quite the case.

There are clues if you know where to look.

The abbey was founded by Earl David, later king David I, who probably did more to shape his home country than any other Scot.

He was devout, ambitious and astute. He spent time as a youth at his brother-in-law, Henry I of England’s court and travelled in England and France. He was educated and informed in politics, warfare and religion.

Although his time at Henry’s court inspired his thinking, he was his own man.

In 1107 David’s brother, Edgar king of Scotland, died and bequeathed him control over Cumbria and most of southern Scotland.

He started a program of reforms with the aim of improving administration and control and he introduced families from England and Normandy who would support and further his march to a feudal state. David was profoundly religious, but he also knew the importance a strong and loyal church could play in supporting the cultural and political reforms he planned.

It was against this background that he decided to establish the abbey at Selkirk.

Selkirk and Tiron

Why Selkirk and why monks from Tiron, a relatively obscure and recently-formed order in France?

David may have visited Tiron in the forest of Perche while serving Henry.

He knew that the order had been established by Bernard as a breakaway from the Benedictines, who some felt had strayed from their forming principals – were too worldly and less devout.

The monks of Tiron were reclusive, devout and industrious. Every monk was expected to learn and practice a skill or trade.

But perhaps most importantly they were independent of any other established order.

At a time when the Scottish Church, supported by King Alexander I and David, was struggling to resist the authority of the Benedictine archbishop of York, the Tiron monks’ independence was an important factor.

Why choose Selkirk? An authority on Scottish medieval history, Richard Oram, likened the area to Kapelle’s ‘free zone’ where ‘population was small, royal or lordly authority was remote and largely ineffective, brigandage was endemic and social and economic structures were undeveloped’.

Nearly 2,000 years later, Wallace used the area as a base from which to carry out his guerrilla warfare against Edward I. Selkirk and its Ettrick Forrest was a key area for David. It lay on the northern boundary between his western possessions in Strathclyde and to the east what was to become the counties of Roxburgh and Berwickshire.

It also occupied a key position on one of the major Scottish highways of its day, the Minchmoor road, capable of carrying wheeled transport and providing access to the rest of Scotland.

Establishing a monastery here was critical for David’s aim to develop the area socially and culturally and increase his authority in a borderline but important area.

An equally important reason to choose Selkirk returns to his decision to select monks from Tiron to establish the monastery.

Again, politics and religion play their part. Around the year 1070, monks from Durham had tried to revive the church at Old Melrose, but had moved on after refusing to take an oath of fealty to the Scottish king.

Kelso, at the time that David established Selkirk, came under the diocese of St Andrews and under Alexander I who was struggling to resist English religious control. Selkirk was part of the Glasgow diocese which was in David’s territory and he could, and did, resist control by York.

● Next week, Frank looks at reasons why the town of Selkirk was deemed “not suitable” by an advance party of monks from Tiron.