Scottish abbeys open during the winter months - things to do

01 November 2022
Visit Melrose Abbey
Many of Scotland's finest historic abbeys are open to the public during the winter months, as our travel guide reveals.

1. Arbroath Abbey

Famed for its associations with the Declaration of Arbroath (Abbot Bernard of Arbroath is believed to have drafted the document for Robert the Bruce), Arbroath Abbey was one of Scotland’s most important abbeys and was founded by William the Lion in 1178.

The abbey has a visitor centre and new interpretation panels and the substantial ruins include the gatehouse, guesthouse, abbot’s house and sections of the precinct wall.

Arbroath Abbey, Arbroath DD11 1EG; tel: 01241 878756; website.

2. Dryburgh Abbey

A medieval abbey on the Scottish borders whose location close to the border between Scotland and England meant that it has been subject to raids, fire and war over the centuries.

The abbey is renowned for its Gothic architecture and both the church and cloister can be explored. Three famous Scots are buried at the site – Sir Walter Scott, David Erskine, eleventh earl of Buchan, and field marshal Earl Haig.

Dryburgh Abbey, near St Boswells, TD6 0RQ; tel: 01835 822381; website.

3. Holyrood Abbey

With its strong associations with royalty, Holyrood Abbey has been at the centre of history since its earliest days, when it was a monastery built to serve nearby Edinburgh Castle.

Because the abbey always served as a royal residence as well as a place of worship, the building was gradually absorbed into the adjoining Palace of Holyroodhouse. However, there is still plenty to see, including the Gothic west front, east processional doorway and the royal vault, which is the burial place of David II, James II, James V and Henry Lord Darnley, the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots.

Holyrood Abbey, Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DX; tel: 0131 556 5100; website.

4. Iona Abbey

A place of worship since AD563 when it was founded by St Columba, Iona Abbey is one of Scotland’s oldest Christian buildings. The abbey stands on the Isle of Iona and was founded in the early thirteenth century to house a community of monks and nuns.

There are substantial ruins to see at Iona, as well four stone crosses dating to the eighth and ninth centuries, and a newly refurbished museum which tells the story of the abbey and the island.
Iona Abbey, Island of Iona PA76 6SQ; tel: 01681 700512; website.

5. Jedburgh Abbey

A medieval abbey whose location close to the Scotland/England border has given it a colourful history. The abbey was founded in 1138 for a community of Augustinian canons and served the nearby castle of Jedburgh, with King Alexander III marrying Yolande of Dreux here in 1285.

The abbey church still exists almost in its entirety, as does the cloister. There is also a visitor centre and virtual tour.

Jedburgh Abbey, Abbey Bridge End, Jedburgh TD8 6JQ; tel: 01835 863925; website.

6. Melrose Abbey

Scotland’s first Cistercian monastery, Melrose Abbey was founded by David II in 1136. It is famed as the burial place of the heart of Robert the Bruce, noted with a plaque marking the spot.

Visitors can explore the abbey church and chapter house, and see quirky medieval carvings including a bagpipe-playing pig.

Melrose Abbey, Abbey Street, Melrose TD6 9LG; tel: 01896 822562; website.

7. Paisley Abbey

Founded in 1163, Paisley Abbey is still a place of worship and pilgrimage today. Often named as the cradle of the royal house of Stewart, six high stewards of Scotland are buried here, as well as the wives of Robert II and Robert III.

Notable features at the Abbey include the 1,000-year-old Barochan Cross, a twelfth-century processional doorway and the tomb of Marjory Burce, with its carved effigy.

Paisley Abbey, Abbey Close, Paisley PA1 1JG; tel: 0141 889 7654; website.

8. Pluscarden Abbey

A Roman Catholic Abbey founded by Alexander II in 1230 and, following its restoration, now home to a community of Benedictine monks. Although the building’s primary focus is as a monastic community and spiritual retreat, visitors are welcome and can visit the restored abbey church, see medieval grave slabs, the choir, stained glass and high altar.

Pluscarden Abbey, Pluscarden, Elgin IV30 8UA; tel: 01343 890257; website.

9. Sweetheart Abbey

The beautifully-named Sweetheart Abbey was founded as a Cisterncian monastery in 1275 by Dervorguilla of Galloway in memory of her husband John de Balliol. A stone effigy of Dervorguilla stands in the south transcept and the abbey’s precinct wall is one of the most complete in Scotland.

The abbey church is a substantial ruin of red sandstone which visitors are welcome to explore.

Sweetheart Abbey, New Abbey Bridge DG2 8BU; tel: 01387 850397; website.

Originally published December 2015. Reviewed November 2022.

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