Set against a dramatic backdrop of mountainous granite, the delightful red sandstone remains of Sweetheart Abbey are a prominent reminder of the Cistercian's inhabitation of Dumfries and Galloway. Situated at the bottom of a fertile valley, close to the point where the River Nith flows into the Solway Firth, this is a most tranquil and appealing spot even today. In the 13th Century it would have provided the strict Order of monks with the remoteness they sought from the outside world, as well as offering them good land for their farming activities.
Founded as a daughter house of Dundrennan Abbey, this was the last of the 12 Scottish Cistercian monasteries to be established and was named in honour of the remarkable Lady Devorgilla. In 1273 she dedicated the Sweetheart Abbey to the memory of her late husband, himself a founder of Balliol College, Oxford. Known to be have been absolutely devoted to each other throughout their marriage, John Balliol's widow needed a constant reminder of her husband even after his death. She had his heart embalmed and placed in a silver and ivory casket, and this she carried with her at all times until her own death some 20 years later. In 1289 Lady Devorgilla was laid to rest, with the casket, in front of the high altar of the abbey church and the monks paid their own tribute by naming the abbey 'Sweetheart'. Sadly, the original monument to this fine lady has long since disappeared but the remains of the 16th Century effigy of Lady Devorgilla (albeit headless) clasping the casket to her breast, has been reassembled and placed in the south transept of the church.
Virtually nothing has survived of the monastic outbuildings, having suffered the same fate as many other medieval abbeys and used as a convenient quarry. However, due to the efforts of a group of late 18th Century local gentlemen who became concerned that such 'an ornament' in this part of the country should be preserved, the abbey church has remained substantially complete. Largely built in the Early English style, much of the church stands as originally constructed, but some later remodelling work was carried out following fire damage suffered at the end of the 14th Century. The south transept is in exceptionally good condition, retaining the stone rib-vaulting in the chapels, and still showing some of the heraldic shields on the surviving roof bosses. Although the Cistercian's were well-known for their austere building style, there are many examples of decorative carvings, beautiful arcades, and fine bar tracery in the windows at Sweetheart Abbey.
Amidst the wild scenery of Scotland it is always a delight to seek out some of the country's historical monuments, and the romantic overtones and warm architecture of Sweetheart Abbey will not disappoint. The pretty village of New Abbey also offers the visitor a chance to see an 18th Century working corn mill, built on the site of an earlier monastic grain mill.