By the middle of the 7th century St Aidan had established a monastery at Old Melrose beside the River Tweed, and one of its early priors was the renowned St Cuthbert. Two hundred years later the monastery had been destroyed. In the 12th century David I asked a group of Cistercian monks from Rievaulx Abbey to establish their first Scottish house on this hallowed site. Eventually they settled a few miles west of Old Melrose, but Melrose Abbey was founded in 1136.
As a much-favoured house in the Borders, Melrose Abbey was granted generous endowments and rights, becoming one of the wealthiest medieval monasteries in Scotland. On the other hand, because of its vulnerable position close to the English border, it suffered disastrously in times of unrest. The first abbey church erected appeared to be modelled on its mother house at Rievaulx and was built in the traditionally simplistic style of the early Cistercians.
Little evidence of this church now exists. From the beginning of the 14th century Melrose Abbey was subjected to raids, many of the monks were slaughtered, and finally the church was burned to the ground. Even after the construction of the elaborate new church in the 15th century it was not to be left in peace, and the attack in 1545 left the abbey church and many of the monastic buildings badly damaged.
What remains of the beautiful dusky-pink sandstone monument is quite substantial and utterly breathtaking. In complete contrast to the plain, stark lines of their first church, the Cistercian monks at Melrose Abbey excelled themselves with such a magnificent quality of workmanship that it remains unequalled for this period. Even in its ruinous state so much of the rich decoration has survived, and there is an abundance of corbels and gargoyles left in situ, some quite amusing. Construction of the new church at Melrose Abbey spanned two centuries, and the changing styles during this period are most clearly reflected in the window tracery. The elegant east window displays the very English Perpendicular trend, whereas the beautiful window in the south transept follows more of a free-style French influence.
After the Reformation in 1560 Melrose Abbey was allowed to fall into further decay, and much of the exquisite decoration was quarried away. Sir Walter Scott was accused of being one of the main 'robbers', quarrying away huge quantities of stone, timber, lead and glass from the fabric of the monastery. Despite the ever-increasing deterioration, the abbey church continued to be used by the local parishioners until the early 19th century, at which time a new parish church was built making Melrose Abbey finally redundant.
Today we see the site split by a modern road that runs across the length of the Lay Brothers' Range. The church, cloister, and foundations of the claustral buildings occupy one side of the road and, on the other, a large part of the Lay Brothers' Range, the site of the Abbot's Hall, the main drainage system and the Commendator's House can be seen. This 15th century converted residence now houses a museum containing a splendid collection of artefacts excavated during the 20th century. One fascinating object uncovered in the chapter house, during excavations in 1921, was a lead casket holding the mummified heart of a human. As the chapter house was the usual burial place for patrons of the abbey, and it was known to be the wish of Robert the Bruce to have his heart interred at Melrose Abbey, there is good reason to assume that this was indeed his heart.