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Cistercian Abbeys: DUNDRENNAN

Name: DUNDRENNAN Location: Dundrennan village County: Dumfries and Galloway
Foundation: 1142 Mother house: Rievaulx
Relocation: None Founder: King David I / Fergus lord of Galloway
Secularised: 1606 Prominent members:
Access: Historic Scotland – open to the public

Dundrennan Abbey was founded in 1142. Whereas most sources attribute the foundation to King David, this was possibly made in collaboration with his friend, Fergus of Galloway. It may be the case that King David asked Fergus to grant lands for the foundation of a Cistercian abbey at Dundrennan in order to bring more literate men into Scotland, and to provide administration and pastoral care. The name (Dun-nan-droigheann) means ‘fort of the thorn bushes’, for the site was on the cliffs overlooking the Solway Firth, and surrounded by heath and marsh. It is thought that the monks came from Rievaulx although there is no recorded evidence. However, St. Aelred of Rievaulx visited the abbey on more than one occasion and in 1167 the first abbot of Dundrennan, Sylvanus, was elected to succeed Aelred as abbot of Rievaulx. At least one other abbot went on to become the head of Rievaulx Abbey, in 1239. The abbey prospered in the first hundred years of its existence. Fergus looked on the abbey with favour and his family were to endow the Cistercian Order with lands and sites for two more abbeys and a nunnery. The monks of Dundrennan maintained their own ships at abbey Burnfoot and from there they engaged in trade with Europe.

By the end of the thirteenth century the abbey was experiencing some financial difficulties due to the losses incurred during the Scottish War of Independence. In 1299 the abbot sought compensation from King Edward I of England for damages to the monastery amounting to £8000. In 1328 the abbey appealed to Edward III for the restoration of their estates in Ireland from which they had been expelled. Despite these troubles Dundrennan does not seem to have suffered unduly from the various wars with England. Nevertheless, by 1529, the abbey buildings had fallen into a state of ruin and in 1561 the annual income of the monastery was assessed at just £500, making Dundrennan the poorest Cistercian house in Scotland. However, this figure may not represent the full income and the abbey was still supporting a community of twelve at the time of the Reformation. From c. 1523 the abbey was held in ‘commendam’, firstly by John Maxwell and then by Henry, bishop of Galloway. Adam Blacadder, the last pre-reformation commendator, was appointed to the post in 1541.

In 1567 Mary Queen of Scots spent her last night on Scottish soil in Dundrennan Abbey, after being forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, James VI. Following his death the commendatorship was granted to Edward Maxwell, son of John Maxwell, in 1562. For the next thirty-six years the post was held by members of the Maxwell family. The last commendator was John Murray who succeeded to the position in 1598/9. Seven years later the abbey was erected into a temporal lordship for Murray, who was made Earl of Annandale.
In 1621 the abbey was annexed to the royal chapel at Stirling and for many years it was used as a source of building materials for the construction of houses in the vicinity. In 1838 the owner, Adam Maitland, excavated the site and in the following year he offered to wave his rights of ownership. In 1840 it was ruled that the site was now Crown property and further excavations were carried out at various times during the proceeding century and a half.
Today the most extensive remains are of the transepts and the entrance arches to the chapter-house. Nothing else in the precinct remains standing to any height although much of the foundation masonry is visible. The monastery was constructed with local freestone ashlar, which contrasts with many of the other Scottish abbeys, built, as they were, with warm-coloured sandstone. A point of interest on the site is an effigy of an abbot set into the recess of the west wall of the abbey church. He has a dagger in his chest and at his feet is another figure, with a wound in the abdomen: it clearly depicts the assassination of one of Dundrennan’s abbots. The abbey is now in the care of Historic Scotland and is open to the public at regular times during the year. The site has a souvenir shop with a good stock of books on the history of Scotland, the Cistercian Order and Mary Queen of Scots.