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Cistercian Abbeys: BALMERINO

Name: BALMERINO Location: Balmerino Abbey village County: Fife
Foundation: c. 1227 Mother house: Melrose
Relocation: None Founder: Queen Ermengarde and King Alexander II
Secularised: 1603 Prominent members:
Access: National Trust for Scotland – open to the public

The abbey church at Balmerino
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
The abbey church at Balmerino

Balmerino Abbey was founded by Queen Ermengarde, widow of William the Lion and great granddaughter of William the Conqueror, and her son King Alexander II (1214-49). The abbey was situated on the north coast of fife, overlooking the Firth of Tay and was dedicated to the Virgin and to Ermengardes relative ‘the most holy King Edward’, the Confessor. It is likely that Ermengarde intended Balmerino to be her burial place and she was actively acquiring land for its foundation as early as 1225. The Chronicle of Melrose states that in ‘the year of the Lord 1229, the abbey was made by K. Alexander and his mother and the convent was sent to it from Melrose’. However, it may be that a small community had arrived at Balmerino by 1227 and that conventional life was established two years later when a company of monks from Melrose were able to enter the abbey and take possession. The site of the abbey provided the monks with everything they could need: there was the river Tay for fishing and its rich banks for growing orchards and grain. Alexander II also added generously to his mothers endowments. Ermengarde and Alexander were frequent visitors at the abbey, especially Ermengarde who was much influenced by the intense piety of her grandmother-in-law, Margaret of Scots. In 1234 Ermengarde passed away and her body was laid to rest under the high altar of the abbey. Her grave and coffin was supposed to have been found by the tenant of the farm in the summer of 1831. It was covered by a grave slab, which was broken into pieces, while the bones found within were ‘dispersed as curiosities throughout the country’.

In December 1547 Balmerino was attacked by the English. However, the abbey does not seem to have been significantly damaged: at least sixteen monks can be found at the monastery during this period and, in 1561, the annual income of the abbey was valued at £1773, making Balmerino one of the richer abbeys in Scotland. In 1559 some destruction was caused by the Reformers but the extent of the damage is difficult to assess. The last pre-Reformation abbot was Robert Foster who held the position from 1511/12 until his death shortly before February 1561. In September 1561 possession of the monastery was acquired by Sir John Hay, first Lay Commendator of the abbey. In 1565 Mary queen of Scots was a visitor at the abbey and more than likely lived in the abbot’s house as a guest of Sir John Hay. In 1603 the lands were erected into a temporal lordship by Sir James Elphinstone, first lord of Balmerino. However, the lordship seems to have been tainted with misfortune: both the first and second Lords of Balmerino were sentenced to death and the sixth and last was beheaded as a Jacobite in France in 1746.

The most complete remains of the abbey are the east claustral range and the chapter house which were converted for use as a house after the Reformation. Of the church the standing remains are in the north transept, though there is also some low walling along the north nave wall and the west front. The plan of the rest of the abbey is known from excavations carried out in 1896 and the layout is represented by marks in the turf. The prior’s well still functions to this day and provides the water for the manse of Balmerino church. Another reason to visit the site is the Spanish chestnut tree which stands near the walls of the chapter house. It is believed to have been planted by the monks and to be about 700 years old, which makes it one of the oldest of its kind in the country. A walnut tree planted by Mary Queen of Scots on a visit to the abbey, provided the wood which lines the Secretary of State’s room at Edinburgh St. Andrew’s House. The site is now managed by the National Trust of Scotland and can be visited by the public during opening hours.