Our weekend in Scotland: Medieval Edition

One of the greatest things about visiting the UK is the wealth of historical material available to us, be it Bronze or Iron Age, Roman Britain, or the Middle Ages. As a medievalist myself, I was naturally ecstatic about our trip to Scotland, and needless to say I was spoiled rotten with all the medieval stuff that we got to see last weekend. Edinburgh itself is a very historical town built into the craggy landscape of the volcano Castle Rock, which offers a naturally defended position for its resident castle.

Edinburgh castle, one of Scotland’s greatest national symbols, is located at the top of the Royal Mile, and is visible from much of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Andrew, our lovely tour guide, regaled us with a harrowing tale of Scottish valour during the Wars of Scottish Independence, where the castle was taken back from Edward I Longshanks’ English control with only thirty men led by Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, in 1314. The castle wall was stealthily scaled along a secret section (known only by a night’s watchman William Francis) and a large garrison of Englishmen were overtaken in the dead of night. Edinburgh Castle was back in English clutches again only a few decades later, and then brought back into Scottish control with an attack led by William Douglas, Lord of Liddesdale, whose party breached the gates disguised as merchants. The castle is shrouded in history and legend and is a beautiful feature of the Edinburgh skyline.

Edinburgh Castle nestled atop Castle Rock
Edinburgh Castle nestled atop Castle Rock

Right after our tour, we hightailed it into the National Museum of Scotland where we had some time to ogle the curio before meeting up with Dr. Fraser Hunter for his wonderful talk on all of the British Roman artefacts in the museum. This meant that we had some time to peruse the rest of the museum. There was a very extensive medieval collection, including pieces from the Lewis Chessmen, an intimidating looking claidheamh mòr, and a beautiful Anglo-Saxon Brooch.

The grim-faced Lewis Chessmen probably originated in Trondheim, Norway, and may constitute some of the few complete, surviving medieval chess sets.
The grim-faced Lewis Chessmen probably originated in Trondheim, Norway, and may constitute some of the few complete, surviving medieval chess sets.
An exquisite Angle-Saxon Brooch in the museum, that was probably worn by a wealthy nobleman. I'd certainly wear it.
An exquisite Angle-Saxon Brooch in the museum, that was probably worn by a wealthy nobleman (or me, in my wildest dreams)
The massive claidheamh mòr, a type of medieval two-handed longsword that I would probably behead myself with if I tried to wield it.
The massive claidheamh mòr, a Scottish type of medieval two-handed longsword that I would probably behead myself with if I tried to wield it.

Sunday morning after we bid a tearful farewell to Edinburgh, we began our journey home to Northumbria. Luckily for us, Beth and Alex elected to take the scenic route, and this could only mean plenty of stops along the way to visit some gorgeous border abbeys!

First up was Melrose Abbey, once one of Scotland’s richest and most powerful abbeys, as well as home to Scotland’s first Cistercian monastery under David I. Aside from its beauty, the ruins of Melrose are particularly intriguing for a number of reasons, including the heart of Robert the Bruce being buried here, the exquisite High Gothic aesthetic with the flying buttresses and entertaining army of demons and hobgoblins, as well as the really cool winding stairway that gave us a lovely view from the top. Melrose Abbey was burnt down during the Wars for Scottish Independence in 1385 by Richard II, who incidentally commissioned it to be rebuilt afterwards (guilty conscience, perhaps).

The hauntingly beautiful skeleton of the once grand Melrose Abbey
The hauntingly beautiful skeleton of the once grand Melrose Abbey
You can see one of the flying buttresses as well as a large Gothic window, characteristic of the abbeys and cathedrals of the time.
You can see one of the flying buttresses as well as a large Gothic window, characteristic of the abbeys and cathedrals of the time.
IMG_2137
Sure took us a while to spot the bagpipe playing pig on the roof. He’s been serenading monks for centuries.

We stopped at Jedburgh Abbey next, once home to the Augustine Order in Scotland (we can credit David I for that too). Jedburgh is a little more intact than Melrose and quite gorgeous as well. An interesting feature is actually a Roman altar inscription dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus reused as a building stone, which Beth and Alex had challenged us to find. This is also the place where we were loosed onto the medieval costume dress up section and discovered our inner lord, lady, or wizard (Robin). Impromptu dance parties may have also occurred…

My fellow Field School students march into Jedburgh Abbey
My fellow Field School students march into Jedburgh Abbey
We climbing up the steep winding stairs again to get a nice higher view. Don't envy the monks who had to go up and down those stairs every morning for Matins.
We climbed up the steep winding stairs again to get a nice higher view. Don’t envy the monks who had to go up and down those stairs every morning for Matins.

Scotland has swiftly become one of my favourite places in the world, and I would highly recommend that you all swing by for a visit!

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