open country

Having dallied in Kirkcudbrightshire, captivated by the attractive historic buildings and the brush-strokes of the Glasgow Boys, I changed from relaxed to irritable.

The goal of our day was to visit Dundrennan Abbey, situated just south of the town.

So we left the peace of the town green, where a mother was calling on her child to get off the low stone wall and a man sat in the sun with a roll and his paper. I was disappointed to find that the abbey was not isolated in a rural idyll but had a village now nearby.

Disappointment turned off as the car swung right and we were looking down on elegant grey walls. I drew my breath in. The walls were tall and straight on the short mown grass.

As the lay brothers would have done, we walked towards the largest remaining section of the abbey ruins along the footprints of the nave. Even without the walls and roof, the sensation was one of grandeur, my walk to the choir and the transepts flowed as if I was drifting into the monks’ sanctum. Was their spirituality so intense that it has transcended hundreds of years?

The lay brothers attended services in the nave; only the monks were permitted in the east end of the church which comprised the choir, the transepts and the presbytery. A night stair linked the church to the monks’ dormitories for attending night prayers which in the summer were at 1.30 and 3.30am.

I did not think that I could leave the Gothic elegance of the transepts. The tall grey arches opened up landscape views and sections of the building on every turn of my head. Crowning the north and south transepts were the more dainty arches of the open gallery, triforium (blind arcade), celestory and the mural passage. The collection of arches and windows in this area displays the cross-over in architectural style from Romanesque to Gothic.

Eventually I moved out of this space through the night stair doorway into a room paved with hot, pale grey stone with supine grave stones adding to the floor’s interest of texture and pattern. The chapter-house, named because a chapter of the abbey’s rule book would be read here each day, was where the business of the community was conducted.

This room was built in the 13th century, later than the main building which began in the late twelfth century. The ceiling was held up by six moulded pillars creating twelve bays; around the walls, wooden benches would have run to seat the monks in attendance. I sat against its north wall facing the evening sun. After the huge pointed arches of the unfolding spaces of the east range of the church, this space was warm and open to the reviving heat of summer.

The silence and peace is omnipresent. The delicate calmness is inexplicable. However, when I spoke with Barbara, the site warden, she was not surprised to hear me gush about the atmosphere which, she told me has been well documented in similar words for several hundred years.

“Self-will has no place; there is no moment for idleness or dissipation… Everywhere peace and serenity, and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world.” Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire made this observation and Rev W Gillespie, minister of Kells Parish said: “Dundrennan, through thy courts to muse, where sleep the long forgotten dead.”

Dundrennan Abbey is under the care of Historic Scotland. Barbara told me the story about Mr Brown. From the late 1500’s and for the next 100 years, the abbey, having been largely diluted by the reformation, continued to be used as a church. The presbytery, now used as a graveyard awaits its final burial – Mr Brown’s.

Barbara was on duty when his family brought him round to check on the small graveyard. Several weeks later the stone on his family plot was cleaned – but it is still waiting for his time of eternal rest.