A.D. 1128.


Having cleared the way by the removal of the old institutions, which, in David’s opinion, were but cumberers of the ground, the King addressed himself to the second part of his task, which was to rear suitable fabrics for the new worship, and to bring ecclesiastics from abroad to conduct the services in them. This leads us to speak of the abbeys, priories, and other religious houses which now sprang up in all parts of the country—the lights which Rome kindled to illuminate our land after she had put out the candle of Iona.

First comes the founding of the Abbey of Holyrood. Not that Holyrood was the earliest, or even the most important, of these establishments. St. Andrews came before it both in point of time and in point of rank, being the seat of the primacy, and renowned moreover for the power of its abbot, the wealth of its revenues, and the number and sumptuousness of its ecclesiastical buildings, although not till 1472 did it exercise metropolitan jurisdiction. Its bishop was repeatedly baulked in his applications to Rome for the pallium, the Pope suspecting, perhaps, that he had a strain of Columban blood in his veins.

The Abbey of Holyrood was founded by King David in 1128. The incident that led to its founding has been worked up into a pretty romance by the old chroniclers, and it is difficult to say how much of the story is truth and how much is fable. We may safely say that fable predominates. It was rood-day—the anniversary of the exaltation of the Cross,—and David, as became the devout son of an eminently devout mother, had passed the morning with his Court in the religious exercises proper to the day. These performances duly discharged, some of the young nobles of his Court came round him, begging to be permitted to unbend from the austerities of the morning, in the freedom of the woods and the excitements of the chase. Fond as David was of the sport he must first take counsel with his confessor, Alwin.1 His spiritual adviser forbade the pastime as a profanation of holy Rood-day, and dangerous to the souls of those who pursued their recreations to the neglect of the due observance of the sacred season. The young gallants however pressed their suit, and the King, yielding to their importunity, mounted his horse, and sounding his bugle, road away at the head of his retinue, and plunged into the thickets and hunting grounds which adjoined the Castle of Edinburgh, where he and his Court were then residing. How different the landscape which presented itself as viewed from the Castle Rock in the days of David from the palatial magnificence of temple and statue, of garden and fountain that now lies spread out around these venerable battlements. The old rock was there, but it rose in unadorned grandeur. That rock has probably been the site of some sort of fortress ever since the time that our island was first inhabited. It stands in the great strath that runs from the western to the eastern side of Scotland, and which long ages ago was probably filled by the sea. The gulf stream that now strikes upon the shore of Ayr and the mountains of Argyll, in those days rolled through it. The force of the rushing waters would wear down and wash away the softer materials that formed the bed of this great ocean rive, carrying them into the German Sea, and leaving the harder rocks of trap to form the bold and prominent eminences which so attract and delight the eye at this day. It is to these causes, which operated when there was neither eye to mark nor pen to record them, that the capital of Scotland owes its craggy environment, and more especially its great central rock, which towers up in the heart of the city, like a monarch, with its tiara of bastions and battlements.

Savage tribes continually at war with one another would look out for the most impregnable point on which to erect their dwelling. Few better places could have been found for safe encampment than this rock. Probably the first stronghold erected on it would consist of a few turf mounds, surrounded by a pallisade of wood, such as the savages of New Zealand were wont to erect in times not long gone by; next would come a vitrified fort, which was the second form of stronghold in Scotland; and last of all there would rise a stone building, enclosed by a rampart and wall, much as we see it in our own day. Such had the Castle Rock become in the days of King David.

Let us recall the landscape which offered itself to the eye of the monarch as he surveyed it from the fortress where he was now holding his court. It is the year 1128. At the foot of the rock, clinging close to it for protection, is a small hamlet. That is the Edinburgh of those days. Outside the hamlet, divided from it by a green field, is a church in the valley, the Kirk of St. Cuthbert, originally one of the Culdee establishments. On the east is a trail of soil, the deposit of the great ocean stream of former ages, forming the long sloping bank on which the High Street and Canongate now stand. The country all about is as wild, rough, and untamed as we can well imagine landscape to be. It is mostly covered with wood. Here stand dense forests of tall trees, there a thin growth of brushwood covers the ground. Lochs gleam out here and there, while the waterfowl that make them their haunt are guarded from intrusion by the nature of the ground around them, which is swampy and boggy. In the far west are seen the peaks of the Grampian chain, behind which, night by night, the summer’s sun is seen to drop into the Western Ocean, hard by the spot where was the cradle of the Scots, and the illustrious island which connects its glory with the history of their race. On the east, at a mile’s distance, rises a fine crescent of naked cliffs, and towering over them is the lion-shaped mass of Arthur’s Seat. Farther off, in the same line of view, is the Firth, with its islands and its two Laws, Largo on the north, and North Berwick on the south, on the cone-shaped summits of which, long before the days of David, the Druids were wont to kindle the fires of Baal.

It was rood-day, as we have said. The morning had been duly honoured with religious acts, and the hunting-field claimed the remaining hours of the day. It was the fourth year of the reign of David, says the chronicler, and he had come to visit the maiden castle. "About this castle," continues he, "was ane great forrest full of hairts, hynds, toddis (foxes), and sick like manner of beasts, for the country was more to store of bestial than any production of corns." The narrator hints that such was the condition of the whole country, namely, wood and meadow, and rarely cornfield. "At last," says he, "when the King was come through the vale that lies to the east of the said castle, where now lies the Canongate, the staill passed through the wood with sick noise and a din of rachis and bugillis, and all the beasts were raised frae their dens." The King was now near the foot of the crags, and by some hap separated from his company and alone in the wood, "when suddenly," says the chronicler, "appeared to his sycht the fairest hart that ever was seen afore by leavand creatour." At the sight of his branching antlers the King’s horse took fright and fled. The hart pursued, and overtaking the horse, threw both horse and rider on the ground. The King throwing out his hands behind him to save himself from the horns of the stag, there was slipt into them a cross, at the sight of which the hart fled as fast from the King as it had before pursued him. King David was afterwards admonished in a vision to build an abbey on the spot where he had experienced this miraculous deliverance. Such is the legend of the founding of Holyrood Abbey.2

We may grant that the King had an encounter with a stag when hunting, without believing, what the legend plainly insinuates, that the apparition that assailed the King with intent to kill him, was an evil angel in the shape of a hart, and that his escape from the demon was owing to the miraculous intervention of a cross which had slipped down from the skies, or had been thrust into the King’s hand by an invisible guardian whose duty it was to attend the good monarch. This we may do with all deference to the fact, that the mysterious cross was shown in the Castle long after, till it was carried to England by Edward I., and though brought back to Scotland, has again disappeared, and is irrecoverably lost. 3

The pious purpose having been taken to build an abbey on the spot where he had experienced what has been called his miraculous deliverance, King David, in 1128, set about active preparations for the erection. Scotch masons do not appear to have been employed on the building. "The King incontinent," says Bellenden, "sent his trustiest servands into France and Flanderis, and brocht rycht crafty masonis to big this abbay." Ecclesiastical architecture was the main study of the twelfth century. It was specially cultivated by the German mansons, who formed a numerous and honourable corporation, whose members travelled through Europe, and built for kings and nobles those wonderful cathedral-churches which still remain, some entire, others in ruins, to testify to the irrepressible ecclesiasticism of the age, and the marvellous genius and art which it enlisted in its service. The masons of Holyrood did their work with their accustomed skill and care. The pillars, the groinings of the roof, the tracery of the windows are rich and beautiful, and the pile altogether is magnificent, or rather was, for ruin and neglect have now marred its glory, and one the less regrets the bulky and inartistic palace, the creation of the age of Charles II., that rises besides it, and hides the lovely but broken remains of the work of the architects of the twelfth century.

It is not necessary to suppose that the building was finished before the canons were brought to occupy it. It was enough if the cells and houses required for their daily were erected and ready. This being the case, a body of canons-regular of the Rule of St. Augustine was brought by David from the Abbey of St. Andrews to his new abbey, which he dedicated to the Holyrood, the Virgin Mary, and All Saints. The duty expected of the canons was to serve God, and the particular way in which they were to serve God was first, by giving themselves to spiritual meditation, and second, by saying daily masses for the soul of King David and those of his ancestors. That nothing might withdraw their thoughts from holy things, or hinder their appointed work of daily masses, provision was made in magnificent style for their temporal wants and bodily comforts. In other words, the abbey was richly endowed. The charter of foundation still exists, having come into possession of the City of Edinburgh in 1633, when the citizens acquired the possessions of the abbey from the noble family of Roxburgh.4

The charter shows that the provision made for the canons by the King was on no stinted scale. Whatever the Scotland of that day produced they were permitted to share. There were few counties in which property of one kind or another had not been made over to them. They were great landowners. Wherever there was carse of holm lands, watered by stream or river, or sheltered by wood or mountain, with a healthful amenity, one was sure to find acres not a few which the abbot and monks of Holyrood were permitted to call theirs. On the best of the pasture lands and the richest of the meadows they could fatten their kine, and prepare them for gracing in due season the table of the refectory. Corn of the richest soils filled their barns and was baked in their ovens. What of the produce of their wide and varied domains they did not need for their own consumption, they could carry to market without payment of the dues exigible from the rest of the population. When the harvest had been gathered in, and the grain threshed out, the monks ground it into meal at their own mill, and thus escaped the tax of muleteer and of toll going and coming. The abbot’s mule and the abbot’s wagon, like the abbot himself, were privileged, and could pass to and and fro on the highway without toll or tax. "I grant," says the monarch in his charter, "that the canons be free of all toll and custom in all my burghs and in all my lands for everything they buy and sell."

As if the riches of the land were not enough, the treasures of the deep were added thereto. In those rivers and estuaries which were known to be frequented by the salmon or other species of fish, the canons had a right to cast in their net as often as they pleased. The King gives them a "toft in Stirling, with the draught of a fishing net, a toft in Berwick, with the draught of two nets at Spittal, and a toft in Renfrew of five roods, and the draught of a net for salmon, and liberty to fish there for herring."5 The King gives, moreover, in his charter liberty to erect salt pans, and commands his servants and foresters in the county of Stirling and Clackmannan, "to give the abbot and convent full liberty to take out of all my woods and forests as much wood as they please and desire for the building of their church and houses and other purposes." 6 They were empowered, moreover, to levy tithes on a great variety of articles. They were entitled to "one-half of the hides, skins and tallow of the animals slaughtered in Edinburgh.’7 "The skins of all the rams, sheep, and lambs of my lordship of the castle and of Linlithgow; eight chalders of meal, and eight of malt, and thirty cart-loads of brushwood of Libberton; the tithe of all whales and marine animals due to me from the river Avon as far as Cockburnspath," are among the privileges accorded them. They could levy dues on all ships entering the harbours of Leith and Perth, and over and above they received moneys from the King’s exchequer.

As if all this store of wealth in cornfield and orchard, in meadow and holm, in fish and fowl, in tithes from the King’s cellars and slaughterhouses, in oblations and dues from the people, had not been enough, the canons of Holy-rood were made the owners of tofts or tenements in the various burghs of the kingdom.

These numerous dedications and gifts were but the first fruits of a greater harvest in years to come. The example of David called forth the liberality of others who strove to equal the King, and rival one another in showering on the abbey lands, churches, and other possessions. Robert, Bishop of St. Andrews, granted them the church of Carriden, with two ploughgates of land. Thor, the son of Suanus, bestowed on them the church of Tranent, its lands, pastures, and tithes. There followed the church of Kinnel, with a ploughgate of land; the church of Paxtun and the church of Bathgate, with a ploughgate 8 of land, afterwards exchanged for certain lands in the Carse of Falkirk.

In the twelfth century, Fergus, Lord of Galloway, who afterwards became a monk of Holyrood, was a magnificent benefactor of the abbey. He and his son Uchtrech bestowed on the monks lands and eleven churches, four of which had belonged to the Culdees.9 David, the son of Terr, contributed to the abbey twelve churches, situated in various parts of the country, and some of which, it may be the better half, had been Columban establishments. To one of these twelve churches there attaches a tragic interest. This was the church of "St. Mary-in-the-Fields," "on the site of which the College now stands, and which, under the poplar name of the ‘Kirk-of’-Field,’ was destined to be so tragically associated with the history of some future occupants of Holyrood."10  At the Reformation, Adam Bothwell, Bishop of Orkney, was in possession of the revenues of the abbey, and it appears that twenty-seven churches still belonged to the great monastery of King David.

In the church of the abbey there were chapels and altars dedicated to various saints. In the Burgh Records of Canongate mention is made of "Our Ladye Altar," to which the "Layde Land" belonged. There was too the "Abbot’s Chapel," to which pertained two silver candelabra. There were, moreover, an Altar to the "Holy Cross," and the "Parish Altar."11 There was an altar to St. Andrew, and another to St. Catherine, founded by George Creichton, Bishop of Dunkeld, who erected by the same deed the Alms House of St. Thomas, near the Watergate. In this institution were lodged seven poor men, who were, upon Sundays and festivals, to put on "their red gowns, and, at high mass, sit before the altar of the chapel in the said conventual church, and there say fifty Ave Marias, Five Pater Nosters, and one Credo."12  There was an altar to St. Stephen, and special mention is made of an altar dedicated to St. Anne by the tailors of Edinburgh, and another to Saints Crispin and Crispinian, by the cordwainers or shoemakers of the city, with the statues of these saints upon it. "We are gold that these altars were erected by the trades on the return of certain of their members, who had performed prodigies of valour in the Holy land, where we are informed the famous ‘Blue Blanket,’ the standard of the bold craftsmen of Edinburgh, had waved conspicuous in the van of battle, before being suspended over the altar of St. Eloi in the church of St. Giles."13 

Yearly stipends were provided for the canons whose duty it was to sing the placebo and dirge 14  on the anniversary of the death of the founder, and a mass on the day following for the repose of his soul. Moneys were paid for eight wax candles to light up the choir, altars, and tomb of the founder, as also for tapers burned at mass, and for ringing the great bell, and the hand-bells through the towns of Edinburgh and Canongate, and also for the bearers of torches about the altars and founder’s tomb, and four wax candles to be burned on the said altars, decently adorned during the first and second vespers, and respective festivals throughout the year.

Whatever placebo and dirge, and mass and wax candles and the ringing of bells could do for the welfare of the deceased monarch, it was surely the duty of the canons of Holyrood to see done. David had been mindful of their comfort, taking care that they should want for nothing. Not a day passed but the canons had cause to congratulate themselves on their founder’s benevolent forethought. When mattins had been sung and early mass said, the fathers assembled in the refectory for breakfast. The sight of the board, not to speak of the early hours enjoined by the convent ritual, was enough to awaken in the good canons a healthy appetite for the meal. The bread on the table was of the whitest, made from corn grown on the carse lands of Falkirk, and fired in the oven of the convent. There were milk, butter, and cheese from the rich pastures of Linlithgow, salmon and trout from the Tweed, herrings from the Clyde, pigeons from the dove-cots of the Abbey, and bacon of their own rearing, for one of the privileges of the canons was a free range for the swine of the abbey on the nuts and mast of the King’s woods. A pot of good ale concluded the morning’s repast.

When the dinner hour arrived the refectory board again groaned under a multitude of substantial and savoury dishes, purveyed by the diligent refectioner from the wide domains of the abbey, and skilfully dressed by the convent cook. There were sirloins of beef from the pastures of Corstorphine and Falkland, gigots of mutton from the grassy straths of Kintyre and Argyll, haunches of venison from the King’s forest at Stirling, trout from St. Mary’s or Loch Leven, good ale from the kitchen of the Abbey, and a flagon of Burgundy or Rhenish, the produce of the dues exigible by the abbey on ships arriving from France or Flanders at the Port of Leith.

When the hour grew late, and the crags behind the abbey shone red in the evening light, the board was again spread. Vespers being hymned, and all the saints duly honored, the good fathers gathered once more round the table and regaled themselves with the good things placed upon it, before retiring to rest. They would slumber—to be broken, in the case of certain of them, by midnight vigils or early orisons—with a slice of buck or deer, a little fruit from the orchards of Airth, a tankard of home brewed, or a cup of foreign wine which some good ship, plying between Dunkirk and Bordeaux and the harbours of Leith and Perth, had imported for the regalement of the fathers.

We can pardon the worthy canons if before laying them down for the night under the protection of the Holy Rood, they sought to relieve the graver thought inspired by the wearisome routine of the day by passing an hour in light diversions and pleasantries; a bit of city gossip, for instance, a bout of raillery at the expense of a frail brother, the recital of the legend of some saint; or it might chance to them to gather round some newly arrived traveller, who brought news from beyond the Rhine or the Alps, and told them how the great war which the mitre was waging against the empire was progressing, and how the course of that momentous struggle had been signalised by an episode of an astonishing kind, in which an emperor had been seen doing homage to the majesty of the pontiff, by undergoing penance, amid the snows of winter, at the castle gates of Canossa.


1. Afterwards first Abbot Holyrood. He wrote a book of Homilies and Epistles. Monasticon, i. 151.

2. Told by Bellenden, the translator of Boece, who heads his story—"How King David passed to the huntis on the Croce day in heruest. How he was doung frae his horse by ane wyld hart. And how he foundit the abbay of Halyrudhouse by myracle of the holy Croce." See Monasticon, i. 138.

3. The spot where the hart is said to have vanished was the "Rood Well," now known as St. Margaret’s Well, and which flows full and clear as in David’s days.

4. See Chart of the Foundation of the Abbey of Holyrood in Monasticon, i. 140-144.

5. This is curious as showing the change that has taken place in the habits of the herring since David’s day. This fish, sacred doubtless by the traffic on the river, does not now come so far up as Greencock.

6. Monasticon, i. 142.

7. Ibid., i. 143.

8. As much land as a plough could till in one year, reckoned at 100 acres.

9. Monasticon, i. 145, 146.

10. Monasticon, i. 146. "In the ancient Taxation of the Ecclesiastical Benefices of the Archdeaconry of Lothian, found in the Treasury of Durham, and written in the reign of Edward I., there appears among the churches belonging to Holyrood, ‘Ecclesia Sanctae Mariae in Campis"’—Priory of Coldingham (Surtee’s volume), Append. cxii.

11. Bannatyne Miscellany, ii. 24.

12. Monasticon, i. 148.

13. Monasticon, i. 148,

14. Placebo, certain prayers and aves for the repose of the soul. Dirge, the lament sung over the grave.

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