The four abbeys in the Scottish Borders are one of Scotland's greatest collections of historical ruins. These are evocative places, full of history and architectural wonder. It is difficult to choose a favourite, but go and see them all and enjoy! They are linked by a walking route and a cycling route, so it is easy to plan an adventure to visit them.
1. Melrose Abbey
In terms of scale and architectural wonder Melrose is my favourite of the 4 abbeys. Famously, the abbey is the home of Robert the Bruce's buried heart. The abbey church, dating from the late 1300s, is a magnificent piece of architecture where the height of the ceiling is immense and difficult to stop looking up at. The quality of the stone sculpture is mesmerising and there is even a carving of a pig playing bagpipes.
Melrose is one of the easiest abbeys to get to. The Borders Railway, Scotland's newest railway line stops at Tweedbank (around 55 minutes from Edinburgh). From there it is about 1.75 miles from Melrose. There is a cycle path to Melrose directly opposite the station. It is such a short cycle ride that you might prefer just to walk there. Melrose itself is one of my favourite towns in Scotland and you can read my guide to what there is to see and do.
2. Dryburgh Abbey
If you like your abbeys to have tranquil, woodland settings then Dryburgh should be top of your list. The abbey is situated in a gorgeous little enclave with the River Tweed flowing by and a great selection of nearby attractions, including a suspension bridge and a giant William Wallace statue. This peaceful location makes it easy to imagine a canon's life of devotion and nothing to interupt this.
The abbey is renowned as the burial place of Walter Scott, one of Scotland's most famous novelists. Earl Haig, the commander of British forces for part of the First World War, is also buried here.
Although the abbey is a ruin there is a lot that has survived. The immense size of the windows and doorways is awe-inspiring and the quality of the stone carving incredible.
It will take around 30 minutes to cycle to Dryburgh Abbey from Melrose Abbey using National Cycle Network Route One. My blog has the details of this route.
3. Kelso Abbey
On first impressions this is the least impressive of the abbeys because a lot less has survived- it suffered a devastating attack from English invaders in 1545. It does not have the scale of Melrose or Jedburgh, but in its day this was the richest and the oldest of the 4 abbeys with spectacular Romanesque architecture. The remains of the great doorway are finely carved. It is also in the centre of Kelso, which makes for an impressive centrepiece in the town.
You can use National Cycle Network Route One to reach Kelso. It is 11.5 miles from Dryburgh Abbey.
4. Jedburgh Abbey
Built by King David I in the 12th century Jedburgh is perhaps the most photogenic of the abbeys. The scale and lavishness of the architecture is much more obvious than the other abbeys because it is really just the roof that is missing. A spiral staircase leading to a balcony viewpoint provides a marvelous vista of the nave and the fine stone construction. The abbey sits on high ground over a river and the view of it from the other side of the river is particularly impressive. If you can arrive into Jedburgh this way it means that the abbey suddenly comes into your view and you are going to think, if not say, 'wow'.
Jedburgh Abbey is the furthest to reach by bicycle. The 4 Abbeys cycle route links Jedburgh to Melrose and this route is about 20 miles. It is not a direct route as it avoids busy roads. If you are planning to visit all of the abbeys then the 4 Abbeys cycle route is 55 miles and quite challenging, but can be done in one day. However, I recommend taking longer as this allows for much more time to spend enjoying the abbeys.
Kelso Abbey is free to visit and there is an entry fee to visit the other three. All of the Abbeys are in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and their website has current entry fees and opening hours.
For ideas of more places to visit in the Scottish Borders visit my Scottish Borders page
Melrose was rated the best place to live in Scotland in the 2018 Sunday Times Best Places to Live guide. I have been to Melrose several times and this came as no surprise to me as I find this town to be one of the most charming in Scotland. It has a fine selection of independent shops, places to eat and a magnificent Abbey to visit. Let me take you on a walk through the town...
Getting to Melrose
The Borders Railway, Scotland's newest railway line, makes it much easier to visit Melrose. The last stop on the line, Tweedbank (around 55 minutes from Edinburgh), is about 1.75 miles from Melrose. There is a cycle path to Melrose directly opposite the station. It is such a short cycle ride that you might prefer just to walk there.
There is a brilliant food and coffee kiosk at Tweedbank station. Born in the Borders is a champion for produce from the Scottish Borders region. You could pick up a nice souvenir from here, like the delicious tablet that I bought. There is even an app that allows you to pre-order your coffee so that it is ready for your arrival!
Tempest Brewing Co. is located in an industrial estate next to the station. They have a shop so that you can stock up on some of the best craft beer in the country. Read about the brewery in my blog.
Don't miss the standing stone that commemorates the opening of the railway in 2015 by the Queen. It pays tribute to the community effort involved in restoring a rail link to the area after an absence of 46 years.
Great Shops and Railway Heritage
A wander around Melrose is like stepping back in time when all of Britain's towns had shops that catered to every need. The shop fronts have elegant facades that are so perfect you would be forgiven for thinking you had stepped onto the set of a film set in the 1940s.
It is immediately noticeable that Melrose is lacking in the unfortunate characteristics of so many of Scotland's town centres- empty shop units, peeling and unloved buildings and a general lack of atmosphere. Melrose has none of this and is beautifully looked after with immaculate buildings, bright flowers and a genuinely interesting selection of stores.
There is a good selection of antique shops in Melrose. One of them is down an alleyway and was selling bird boxes made from recycled wood, displayed outside. Inside there was classical music on the radio and lots of fascinating curiosities to tempt me.
Outside the fruit shop there was an impressive display of delights, like raspberries, plums and rhubarb. I walked inside the secondhand bookshop and it had that wonderful musty smell that makes you want to spend hours exploring the shelves.
I made my way up to the old train station. It looks more like a Victorian manor house than a station, with its grand frontage of bay windows The new Borders Railway did not make it this far, but I could swear that I heard a steam train puffing. For a second I believed that a steam locomotive was on the platform until I discovered that the noise was from the extractor fan of the Italian restaurant that is now in the station.
Despite the station's new usage there are plenty of reminders of the railway's golden age. The platform still has a white picket fence, station sign and bench with a station nameplate. The canopy has vintage advertising for products like Lyon's Tea, Capstan Medium Cigarettes and Rodine ('kills rats and mice').
Take a look at the lamp posts on the platform- the stems have lovely flower motifs. A beautiful little detail that perfectly illustrates the care and attention that was once lavished upon station design.
There is something quite sad about a station no longer fulfiling its purpose; its platform now marooned alongside the busy A6091 instead of train tracks leading to Edinburgh. However, there is hope for Melrose station as there is a strong community and political desire to extend the railway here and beyond.
Amazing Ice Cream and Award Wining Pies
Dalgetty's Tea Room is the perfect place to enjoy that stepping-back-in-time feeling that Melrose creates so well. This bakery business has been around for over 100 years and the counter is loaded with an immaculate display of cakes and bread. They use tradtional ovens which are over 120 years old.
For ice cream lovers Simply Delicious is the shop to aim for. When the sun comes out there is an almost constant stream of customers. I tried the apple crumble flavour and it was amazing. There were little pieces of baked apple inside, so it perfectly replicated the taste of the dessert that it was named for. This is also an old fashioned sweet shop with shelves brimming with jars of candy delights that are measured into paper bags.
Down by the River Tweed
When you travel to the Scottish Borders it is almost impossible to avoid its mighty river, the Tweed. Melrose is situated right next to the river and one of the best places to take a look at it is from the chain bridge.
This bridge opened in 1826 and you once had to pay a toll to cross it. It feels like you are entering a castle via a drawbridge because of the iron suspension chains and the tower with the arched doorway.
The bridge still has the old signs with the list of byelaws 'by order F.P. Smart, Clerk to Joint Commitee.' There rules included no more than 8 people on the bridge at one time, not crossing in a heavy gale and not deliberately swinging the bridge. You could end up in prison for these offences!
The bridge is a good vantage point to take in the Eildon Hills, the distinctive peaks that give Melrose its attractive backdrop.
Gardens of Melrose
In the town centre there are two gardens that are havens of tranquility. Harmony Garden is free to enter and the venue for the Borders Book Festival.
The gardens belonged to a wealthy joiner, Robert Waugh, who owned a pimento plantation in Jamaica. He named Harmony House (1807) after the variety of pimento that he grew. The design of his Melrose home was also inspired by his West Indian property. Take a look at the staircase up to the front door of the Georgian House- this replicated the stairs to the front of the plantation house where they were designed to keep wild animals at bay.
You cannot visit the house, but you can rent it as a holiday home. The gardens are not huge, but they are a joy to walk around because of the beautifully presented flowers and views of the ruined abbey.
The only sound was chirping birds. The sweet scent of the huge variety of flowers delighted my nose. In one corner raspberries, substantial and juicy-looking, were thriving. A peek through the windows of a glasshouse revealed peppers, tomatoes and chilles.
Priorwood, also free to enter, is the other garden in the centre of Melrose, adjacent to the abbey. Its high walls hide it from view, so it is somewhat of a secret garden and easy to miss. The entrance to it is through a visitor centre and shop where you can buy dried flowers and apples from the gardens.
Priorwood is dedicated to cultivating flowers for the purpose of dried flower arranging. There is also an orchard with about 70 varieties of apples. I loved that you could walk among the trees and take a good look at the growing fruit. One of the apples is called White Melrose and is thought to have been grown by the monks of Melrose Abbey.
This place is so tranquil and pretty that it is crazy to think that it was going to be turned into a car park in the 1970s! Thankfully the National Trust stepped in to save it. Amongst the apple trees there is a bronze sculpture of two doves.
Melrose Rugby Football Club
Rugby has been played at The Greenyards since 1877. It is a lovely ground located right in the centre of the town. It does not have a massive stand and high fences, so you could easily watch some of a game as you wander down the street. Melrose is one of the most prestigious clubs in Scotland; this is where the Rugby Sevens tournament was invented.
The entrance to the club is turned out smartly with yellow doors and window frames, complimented with flower displays.
Famously the home of Robert the Bruce's buried heart, Melrose Abbey is the main visitor attraction in the town. The abbey church, dating from the late 1300s, is a magnificent piece of architecture where the height of the ceiling is immense and difficult to stop looking up at.
The scale is breathtaking, perfectly illustrated by the incredible size of the blocks of stone on the columns.
The detail of the stone carvings is spectacular- the most famous piece is a pig playing bagpipes, but there are plenty of others to look out for.
There is a spiral staircase with a rope banister to grasp. It leads to a viewing platform that allows you to take in the roof of the church and the surrounding countryside.
Melrose is much more than its visitor attractions and it topped the list of best places to live in Scotland because of good schools, transport links and community spirit.
Melrose is also brilliantly situated for nearby attractions that make for great day trips and I will be writing about these in future blog posts.
I am interested to find out if you liked Melrose as much as I did, so please leave a comment below.
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.