Sweetheart Abbey, a Shrine to a Beautiful Scottish Love Story
Scotland is a picturesque and historic land and the country has a long history with many celebrated landmarks. Sweetheart Abbey, a monastery built in Middle Ages is now in ruins but still remarkable for its beauty. Visitors are able to get a real sense of the period and relish the remarkable history of the church which was named for a widow’s life-long devotion to her dead husband
Religion and War: The Foundation of Sweetheart Abbey
The abbey was built on the banks of the Pow Burn River by Dervorguilla of Galloway a rich Scottish aristocrat who was married to John, 5 th Baron de Balliol. Most of the abbey was built by 1273 and it was home to a branch of the Cistercian Order, and soon became a major monastic center. It was originally the daughter house of Dundrennan Abbey and known as the New Abbey. However, tragedy struck the foundress of the monastery when her husband died.
Dervorguilla had her husband’s heart embalmed and placed in a silver casket. She named the abbey named Dulce Cor which in Latin means ‘Sweetheart’ in his honor which is how the monastery received its unusual name.
Dervorguilla of Galloway, Lady of Balliol painted by Wilhelm Sonmans c 1670 ( Public Domain )
Her son later became King John I of Scotland (1249-1314). He reigned for 4 years until he was deposed by the Scottish nobles. The Cistercians, or ‘white monks’ as they are still known to this day, turned the monastery into a major agricultural and commercial center.
In 1296 the king of England, Edward I, invaded Scotland and hoped to conquer it as he had done Wales. This began the First Scottish War of Independence (1296-1328). Legend has it that Edward I stayed in the abbey in 1300 and that is was severely damaged during the war.
After the Scottish victory at Bannockburn, the local Scottish lord contributed to the reconstruction of Sweetheart Abbey. It became an important religious center in Scotland once more and remained so until the Scottish Reformation in the 16 th century.
At this time, the monastery was secularized, and the lands entrusted to a local lord who kept its revenues for himself. However, a small community of monks continued to inhabit the abbey, long after the Scottish Reformation, until the 1620s. The lands of the old Cistercian monastery were forfeited to the Crown in the 1630s.
The Beautiful Ruins of Sweetheart Abbey
The abbey was built using red sandstone and it dominated the local skyline. The original gate to the monastery can still be seen but it is now in a state of disrepair. The centerpiece of the site is the church of St Mary the Virgin which is almost complete and managed to survive wars and the Reformation.
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Sweetheart Abbey’s stone tracery and circular window remains ( Carole / Adobe Stock)
The church was constructed in the shape of a cross and has Gothic and Romanesque features. The overall style, however, is quite austere, following the monastic principle of austerity. The original sections of the church can still be seen, as well as the presbytery and the high altar of the abbey in the east.
The monks’ choir and the north and south side-chapels can still be visited. The bell tower still soars over the abbey as it has done for centuries. The west front of the church is the best-preserved and here there are some fine examples of stone tracery and circular windows. One of the most popular features at the church is the tomb of Lady Dervorguilla, with her effigy holding her husband’s embalmed heart.
The cloister area, where the monks lived, is mostly gone and is now a green area. The large graveyard adjacent to the abbey contains interesting headstones, and many prominent Scots were buried here.
Visiting Sweetheart Abbey, Scotland
The abbey is located in the south-west of Scotland and is a fifteen-minute drive from Dumfries. The ruins are near the village of New Abbey, which was named after the monastery. A fee is charged to enter the church which has been restored in recent years. It is free to walk the grounds and the graveyard. A charming tearoom and carpark are located next to the remains of Sweetheart Abbey.
Top image: Sweetheart Abbey, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland Source: Heartland Arts / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
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