Lindores Abbey is a beautiful, tranquil site situated on the outskirts of Newburgh, Fife. Many walking or driving past its rich sandstone walls know little of the abbey’s immense significance within Scottish history and the scenes, both tragic and joyous, to which it bore witness through the ages.
Standing amid the now peaceful ivy-clad ruins of Lindores Abbey, it is difficult to picture the day in 1298 when a battle-wearied William Wallace and his men strode through the East gate, fresh from a bloody skirmish with the Earl of Pembroke and his men at the nearby Battle of Blackearnside. On a still day, you can hear the trickle of the Holy Burn just beyond the Abbey from where Wallace and his men drank and refreshed himself after the battle.
The abbey was founded in 1191 by David, Earl of Huntingdon on land given to him by his brother King William I. Situated on the estuary of the River Tay, the abbey’s location would have been chosen for more than simply its beautiful views. Fresh running water could be drawn from the Tay and the Holy Burn, the surrounding forests would have supplied plentiful wood, and the local Clatchard quarry provided material for construction.
There are two explanations as to why the Earl of Huntingdon may have initially founded the abbey, one more romantic than the other. The story goes that when Earl David was returning home from fighting in the Holy Land on the Crusades, his ship was caught in a perilous storm that threatened to leave him and his crew for dead. As the winds howled, he prayed to the Virgin Mary and vowed that if he escaped drowning, he would found a large church in her honour. This story, made famous by Sir Walter Scott in his book The Talisman, is perhaps less believable than the other explanation: in the Middle Ages, the wealthy and powerful believed that founding a religious house would earn them great honour in heaven.
Irrespective of the reasons for its founding, the abbey was duly built and became a thriving hub of industry and contemplation. The monks who lived and worked at the abbey were Benedictines from the Order of Tiron, France, also known as Tironensian. The group who came to build the abbey were from Kelso, and around 30 of them would have been based at the abbey at any one time.
The Tironensians were hard-working, and favoured a practical, productive life dedicated to education and worship through industry, believing that hard manual work cleansed the soul. They were masons, distillers, brewers, carpenters, blacksmiths, sculptors, painters, gardeners, beekeepers and farmers. The Tironensians of Lindores were particularly highly regarded for their horticultural knowledge, and cultivated the abbey lands with reverence and skill. They planted orchards of apple, pear and plum trees which covered 30 acres, and were the largest in Scotland at the time.
The monks of Lindores prided themselves on sharing their knowledge with the local village, and trading their wares with merchants as far afield as Flanders in the Netherlands.
While not working the land, the monks of Lindores put their minds to good use. They were truly enlightened men, dedicating several days each week to teaching members of their community both practical skills and subjects such as calligraphy and manuscript illustration. One Lindores monk particularly famed for his artistry was Thomas Wode. He gathered a variety of celebrated pieces of religious music and adorned them with intricate, colourful illustrations to create the famed Wode Psalters, now housed at St Andrews University.
The Abbey, despite being a lesser-known site today, welcomed kings, knights and bishops over the centuries. Edward I of England (Hammer of the Scots), John Balliol (predecessor of Robert I as King of Scots) David II (King of Scotland) and James III were among the monarchs who visited the abbey.
Despite the monks’ peaceful way of life and the abbey’s significant role in Scottish history, their haven was not to last forever. Their time at the abbey came to an abrupt end in 1559, when a rabble roused by John Knox and his religious intolerance sacked the abbey and ‘overthrew the altars, broke up statues, burned the books and vestments and made them cast aside their monkish habits.’ The mob, from nearby Dundee, ravaged the abbey and the buildings eventually fell in to decay. Local villagers used much of the broken-up stone to build their own houses, and the Abbey slowly became the ruins that can be seen today.