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Arbroath Abbey

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Title: Arbroath Abbey  
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Subject: Stone of Destiny (film), St Vigeans, Westminster Stone theory, Declaration of Arbroath, Parliament of Scotland
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Arbroath Abbey

Arbroath Abbey, showing distinctive sandstone colouring.

Arbroath Abbey, in the Scottish town of Arbroath, was founded in 1178 by King William the Lion for a group of Tironensian Benedictine monks from Kelso Abbey. It was consecrated in 1197 with a dedication to the deceased Saint Thomas Becket, whom the king had met at the English court. It was William's only personal foundation — he was buried before the high altar of the church in 1214.[1]

The last Abbot was Cardinal David Beaton, who in 1522 succeeded his uncle James to become Archbishop of St Andrews. The Abbey is cared for by Historic Scotland and is open to the public throughout the year (entrance charge). The distinctive red sandstone ruins stand at the top of the High Street in Arbroath.


Abbey seal, depicting murder of St Thomas Becket.

King William gave the Abbey independence from its mother church and endowed it generously, including income from 24 parishes, land in every royal burgh and more. The Abbey's monks were allowed to run a market and build a harbour. King John of England gave the Abbey permission to buy and sell goods anywhere in England (except London) toll-free.[2]

The Abbey, which was the richest in Scotland, is most famous for its association with the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, believed to have been drafted by Abbot Bernard, who was the Chancellor of Scotland under King Robert I.

Since 1947, a major historical re-enactment commemorating the Declaration's signing has been held within the roofless remains of the Abbey church. The celebration and many other events are now run by the Arbroath Abbey Timethemes a local charity, and tells the story of the events which led up to the signing. This is not an annual event; the most recent performances have been in August 2000 and 2005 but more are planned. However, a special event to mark the signing is held every year on the 6th of April and involves a street procession and short piece of street theatre.

The Abbey fell into ruin after the Reformation. From 1590 onward, its stones were raided for buildings in the town of Arbroath. This continued until 1815 when steps were taken to preserve the remaining ruins.

On Christmas Day 1950, the Stone of Destiny was stolen from Westminster Abbey. On April 11, 1951, the missing stone was found lying on the site of the Abbey's altar.

In 2005 The Arbroath Abbey campaign was launched.[3] The campaign seeks to gain World Heritage Status for the iconic Angus landmark that was the birthplace of one of Scotland's most significant documents, the Declaration of Arbroath.[4] Campaigners believe that the Abbey’s historical pronouncement makes it a prime candidate to achieve World Heritage Status. MSP Alex Johnstone wrote "Clearly, the Declaration of Arbroath is a literary work of outstanding universal significance by any stretch of the imagination"[5] In 2008, the Campaign Group Chairman, Councillor Jim Millar launched a public petition to reinforce the bid explaining "We're simply asking people to, local people especially, to sign up to the campaign to have the Declaration of Arbroath and Arbroath Abbey recognised by the United Nations. Essentially we need local people to sign up to this campaign simply because the United Nations demand it."[6]

Architectural description

Arbroath Abbey, showing The Round 'O'.

The Abbey was built over some 60 years using local red sandstone, but it gives the impression of a single coherent, mainly 'Early English', architectural design, but the round-arched processional doorway in the western front looks back to late Norman or transitional work. The triforium (open arcade) above the door is unique in Scottish medieval architecture. It is flanked by twin towers decorated with blind arcading. The cruciform church measured 276 feet (84 m) long by 160 feet (49 m) wide.

What remains of it today are the sacristy, added by Abbot Paniter in the 15th century; the southern transept, which features Scotland's largest lancet windows; part of the choir and presbytery; the southern half of the nave; parts of the western towers; and the western doorway. The church originally had a central tower and (probably) a spire, which would once have been visible for many miles over the surrounding countryside and certainly acted as a sea-mark for ships.

The soft sandstone of the walls was originally protected by plaster internally and render externally. These coatings are long gone and much of the architectural detail is sadly eroded, but detached fragments found in the ruins during consolidation give an impression of the original refined, rather austere, architectural effect.

The distinctive round window high in the south transept was originally lit up at night as a beacon for mariners. It is known locally as the 'Round O', and from this tradition, inhabitants of Arbroath are colloquially known as 'Reid Lichties' (Scots reid = red).

Little remains of the claustral buildings of the Abbey except for the impressive gatehouse, which stretches between the south-west corner of the church and a defensive tower on the High Street, and the still complete Abbot's House, a building of the 13th, 15th and 16th centuries, which is the best preserved of its type in Scotland.

In the summer of 2001, a new visitors' centre was opened to the public beside the Abbey's west front. This red sandstone-clad building, with its distinctive 'wave-shaped' organic roof planted with sedum, houses displays on the history of the Abbey and some of the best surviving stonework and other relics. The upper storey features a scale model of the Abbey complex, a computer-generated 'fly-through' reconstruction of the church as it was when complete, and a viewing gallery with excellent views of the ruins. The centre won the 2002 Angus Design Award. An archaeological investigation of the site of the visitors' centre before building started revealed the foundations of the medieval precinct wall, with a gateway, and stonework discarded during manufacture, showing that the area was the site of the masons' yard while the Abbey was being built.

In fiction

The ruins of the Abbey in the late 18th century

Arbroath Abbey was the basis for the description of the ruined monastery of St Ruth in Sir Walter Scott's The Antiquary.[7]


See also


  1. ^ Blair 1913.
  2. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  3. ^ [1] Rampant Scotland Newsletter, 19 November 2005
  4. ^ [2] Angus Council Website, Arbroath Abbey article (1998-2008)
  5. ^ [3] The Arbroath World Heritage Campaign, Points on Nomination (2005)
  6. ^ "Interview with Jim Millar, February 2008", Group Chairman of the Arbroath Abbey Campaign.
  7. ^ Walter Scott, The Antiquary (London, 1895), p. 181


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain

External links

  • Arbroath Abbey – site information from Historic Scotland
  • Angus Council, Arbroath Abbey history
  • Arbroath Abbey pageant Archive link
  • 2002 Angus Design Award
  • Engraving of Arbroath Abbey in 1693 by John Slezer at National Library of Scotland

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