8.4.5 Early monasteries and monumentality

Despite the important early evidence for Christianity in the SESARF region detailed above, the archaeological evidence for physical church buildings and monastic settlements remains poor (Foster 2019).

Landscape photograph showing gentle hills at the edge of a field. There is a winding path leading round the hills, and there is a feint sea-view in the background.
Kirk Hill, St Abb’s Head © Mick Garratt (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Among the best-documented sites is the early monastery of Coldingham. The first recorded mention comes from Bede, who records a house of religious females there in the 7th century. However, it is still unclear whether this was at the site of the medieval priory or at the promontory fort of St Abb’s Head on the coast. Bede named Aebbe, sister of King Oswald, as one of its first leaders. Amongst other early medieval Northumbrian sculpture surviving from this site, there is a stone with a fragmentary inscription in Insular display capitals reading – [A]BBADISSA +, ‘- the Abbess’, followed by the sign of the cross, tentatively dated to the 8th or 9th centuries (Okasha 1988; 1992). This proves the existence of a female house here by then. Coldingham is named in a list of churches within the diocese of St Cuthbert (Lindisfarne) in 854, but we do not hear much more about this site until a new charter was granted by King Edgar in 1098, re-confirming it to the Benedictine monks of Durham.

Black and white photograph showing the excavation site of the remains of an old stone building.
Excavations at Coldingham © HES

A church devoted to St Mary was dedicated around 1100, and a Benedictine priory was founded in 1147. Numerous archaeological campaigns have been undertaken in and around the Priory and the surrounding fields over many years confirming substantial settlement, burial and ditched features dating as early as the 7-9th centuries (Stronach 2006; Casswell et al 2019). Another notable early documented establishment is at Abercorn, named by Bede as the location of a short-lived diocese headed by Bishop Trumwine. The diocese was created in 681 to cover the Northumbrian-controlled territories on both sides of the Forth, but a Northumbrian defeat at the battle of Nechtansmere in 685 led to the evacuation of that see. However, the site was seemingly never abandoned, and houses a remarkable collection of early medieval sculpture. A particularly ambitious 8th-century high cross decorated in relief once stood around 4m tall (Calder 1938, 218). Sculptural production seems to have continued here throughout the early medieval period, including hogbacks and related tegulated coped recumbent stones which date from the 10th to 12th centuries. Limited excavations by Charles Thomas (1983) revealed a putative vallum monastic enclosure, but no secure dating evidence (a fragment of supposed ‘E-ware’ ceramic was rejected by Campbell 2007). A putative vallum has also been identified at the site of Old Melrose but has not been investigated (Thomas 1971, 35-6).

Early sculpture turned up by the plough led to fieldwork at The Hirsel 1978–1984 by Dame Prof Rosemary Cramp. A single-celled drystone proprietary chapel was built here in the 10th–12th century and expanded to become a substantial mortared stone estate church and cemetery in the later medieval period (Cramp 2014). Some of the radiocarbon dated burials could be as early as the 11th century, but most cluster in the 12th to 14th-century range. The simplicity of some of the early cross-marked grave markers precludes close dating, but an openwork ringed cross head with wedge-shaped arms belongs to the 11th or 12th century.

The only early medieval monastery to receive a modern open-area excavation was Auldhame, though for reasons of preservation, the excavation was stopped before reaching the earliest layers of the church. The dated burials and material culture here go back to at least the 7th century. The site was shown to re-occupy a prehistoric promontory fort. The earliest dateable stone church building was dated to the mid-8th to mid-9th century but appears to be on the site of an earlier timber structure that was left unexcavated (Crone and Hindmarch 2016). An exemplary multidisciplinary study has fleshed out its position in the early medieval period as a subsidiary or daughter church of the minster or ‘mother’ church at Tyninghame. Despite its subsidiary status, however, finds like a gold cabochon mount and a rare glass inkwell show that it likely enjoyed royal patronage in the 7th and 8th centuries.

Excavation at Auldhame © HES

The best index for the scale and influence of the ‘golden age’ of the Church in the SESARF region is the distribution of relief-carved stone sculpture. This includes highly accomplished high crosses at Aberlady, Abercorn, Borthwick and Morham, and an intriguing collection of fragments of Anglian sculpture including possible shrine panels at Jedburgh and Ancrum (Clarke et al 2012, 57-8). Unfortunately, as the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Sculpture has not extended across the border, there has been limited cataloguing and analysis of this material (but see now Smith 2017, and entries as part of the Early Medieval Carved Stones Project, Ritchie 2016). Mapping their original findspots would help flesh out the spread of monastic estates, territorial boundaries and routeways through the landscape. Sites like Coldingham and Old Melrose, with dispersed groups of sculpture, would benefit from such analysis.

Stone panel depicting various animals, including birds and a mouse
Jedburgh Abbey shrine panel © HES
Black and white photograph showing various carved stones on a floor
Collection of early medieval and medieval carved stones at Abercorn © HES

Early medieval settlement around monasteries is becoming better understood with the excavations at The Hirsel (Cramp 2014), Jedburgh (Lewis & Ewart 1995), and Auldhame (Crone and Hindmarch 2016). However, the overall settlement hierarchy and interplay between monastic, royal and urban centres, and the relationship between these and their hinterland remains poorly understood (Petts 2009; 2017). The foundation of monasteries, at times on sites of existing importance, seems to be intimately tied to the expansion of Northumbrian hegemony in this area. Both ‘Christian’ and ‘secular’ centres should be considered on a wider landscape basis (eg Stronach 2006; SESARF 8.2.5 Territorial Organisation, and 8.4.4 Burial in the landscape).

Early medieval Scotland was home to many important pilgrimage sites, including Iona, Whithorn, the Isle of May, and St Andrews. Numerous pilgrimage routes crossed the Borders and East Lothian, especially that from Lindisfarne to Iona, via Coldingham and Old Melrose, as well as routes to St Andrews and parts north. This is primarily attested by placename and art historical evidence linking the main routes of travel (eg Taylor 2000; Manson 2021; Smith 2017).

Queen Margaret’s efforts to promote pilgrim traffic from south of the Firth of Forth to St Andrews in Fife can be seen in the enduring name of Queensferry (SESARF 8.3.2 Roads, harbours and infrastructure), where she established a ferry service for pilgrims (Manson 2021; Webb 2001). The provision of the ferry as well as the foundation of hospitals on both sides of the Firth of Forth provide evidence for the traversing of South East Scotland by pilgrims (Prosser & Webley 2021).

While exact pilgrimage routes are difficult to reconstruct, projects such as those carried out for Whithorn provide a good methodological foundation for putting together this information. The Whithorn study used the locations of abbeys, chapels, holy wells, and other places of significance in order to determine the most likely routes taken by pilgrims (McMillan 2013). A project of this nature for the SESARF area would greatly expand our knowledge.

Black and white photograph of a stone with a cross-shaped carving
Dalmahoy cross slab © HES

In addition to potential for pilgrimage routes, the SESARF study area would greatly benefit from an overview of early medieval cross-slabs and Christian sculptures. Sites such as Ancrum, Jedburgh, Abercorn, Aberlady, Coldingham and Morham are just a few of the sites with Anglian style crosses, while other less culturally defined crosses and cross slabs, including those found at Dalmahoy, would also benefit from further study. Although covered in the Early Medieval Carved Stones Project, a written synthesis of this material would greatly aid in mapping the early monastic and church settlement sites in this region.