A Little Taste of the Complex Scottish Borders

Grass topped ruins and walls of the ancient Coldingham Abbey, Scottish Borders, Scotland

On the mild and bright winter day I travelled to St Abbs I also made it to Coldingham. A more substantial village than St. Abbs, Coldingham sits as a crossroads between many places of interest in the area. The village itself is as quiet and laid back as much of this part of the Scottish Borders tends to be. Yet it belies the treacherous and turbulent history that still shapes much of this region today. So let me take you to the village of Coldingham, it’s priory and tell you a story of borders, identity, conflict and resolution.

The village of Coldingham may not look much today. There isn’t the cliff edge quirkiness and drama of St. Abbs, nor the seafront fortifications of Dunbar. Instead Coldingham is a somewhat stereotypical countryside village with more similarities to English villages rather than Scottish. There’s less of the rugged bare stone and far more mortared “chocolate box” cottage style homes. There is, however, a diversity of building eras on display in this small community. There’s some particularly old 17th century, perhaps a few even older, a few more Georgian and Victorian homes that add occasional grandeur. A village shop and a cafe that sits at the gate of the priory complete the picture.

Coldingham Priory sits at the centre of this village both geographically and historically. To this day the priory is probably the number one reason people visit this place. The priory is also a reminder of a complex history that can often be an uncomfortable thorn in the side of contemporary Scottish independence advocates. The borders is Scotland but it isn’t a simple tale, this is not the land of William Wallace, this is the land of crossed allegiance and Border Reivers. The border realm where identity can be a much more fluid concept. Yet as I walked around the peaceful nature of this place could only whisper of its trauma.

There’s often a story told that the Romans came to Britain, couldn’t subjugate the rowdy Scots in the north, so built a big wall forever separating England from Scotland. This is, of course, nonsense. The Scotti or Gael people mentioned in Roman texts were coastal people that resided along the south west of contemporary Scotland. The more significant tribal group to come into conflict with the Romans were the Picts, who mostly resided in North East Scotland. There were a plethora of other Brythonic tribes, some of whom were effectively refugees from contemporary England. After the Romans left many of these people began to cross the wall and intermingle again. That was until the influence of the Angles and Saxons grew into petty kingdoms vying for power. Few, if any, of the trees of Coldingham could whisper this tale in your ear though. Yet the dirt beneath my feet bore witness to these years we are blind to.

One of those kingdoms was Northumbria. An Angle kingdom that stretched north of the river Humber to the Forth. At it’s height the kingdom covered much of contemporary Northern England, Dumfriesshire, Lothians and Borders. This kingdom recognised itself as part of the broader idea of Ænglerland that would, over the centuries, become England. Long before that would occur though the princess of the first true kingdom of Northumbria Æbbe would go through some truly “Game of Thrones” shenanigans as her family would lose control of the kingdom, run away to Dalriada (the sea kingdom of West Coast Scotland and Northern Ireland) before returning to defeat their usurpers and reclaim Northumbria. In some ways I felt like the whispers in the breeze where from the ghost of this ancient princess come abbess.

Æbbe took holy orders, having converted to Christianity whilst in Dalriada, and helped found the Columban monastery on what is today referred to as Kirk-hill or The Brugh on the St Abbs headland. Separated from the mainland by a deep trench and palisade this double monastery of both monks and nuns would last 40 years governed by Æbbe. Unfortunately I didn’t know to look out for any of this while in St Abbs. Something to teach me to do my research before going places.

This first monastery burned down around 679 and, although replaced, there’s little to really indicate its existence today. A later church was build on the site in the 14th century, partly due to this historical connection, but even that is in ruins today. At some point there was the shift inland to contemporary Coldingham but there’s little known of this period other than some mentions of another abbess also called Æbbe.

This Æbbe the Younger holds a somewhat mythological reputation with a story of her, and the other nuns, mutilating themselves when the monastery was raided by Danes in 870. This was to avoid rape and accept a martyrs death instead. There are no contemporary accounts of this though and the first record of this story is from 250 years later. Suffice to say though that the Anglian grip of the area was eroded by invading Vikings. A violence there’s little evidence of today as I strolled the streets.

By the time the family of Wessex united the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and defeated the Vikings the power base for the new kingdom of England had shifted south and the Gaels of Dalriada were on the rise, taking their Roman name Scotti to begin forming the kingdom of Scotland. England would have further tumult with the Norman invasion of 1066 but as the Normans solidified their power in 1095 Étgar mac Maíl Choluim would be gifted the Lands of Lothian by the Norman English King. The English king would also support Étgar in his attack and deposing of King Dumnall of Scotland thus bringing the Lothians into the kingdom of Scotland in 1098. At the same time Étgar would confirm Coldingham as part of his new kingdom with the monks of Durham, who were the spiritual leadership and owners of the Monastery.

A new church was built to St Mary in Coldingham, opening its doors in the year 1100. Over the years the now King Edgar of Scotland would gain further charters and agreements to control more land around the monastery and church until within fifty year it was able to assume the dignity of a priory. Much would stay the same with little change or threat until 1375. Hot on the heels of the Wars of Independence Coldingham hit a rough spot.

There are few records from the period 1375 to 1399 with only the Scottichronicon accounts to fill in the gap. The monastic and Prince Bishopric records of Durham are suddenly devoid of information. What does seem to have happened though is that Prior William Claxton had been convicted as a spy by King Robert II and control of the priory had been handed to the Benedictine house of Dunfermline Abbey. Stripping Coldingham from its near five century connection to Durham for the king’s fear of English influence. I have to admit now that I’m skipping over a lot of complexity but the village is only small and the whispers had to be quick.

Of course things didn’t end there. The priory would go through significantly more as the reformation took hold and the War of Three Kingdoms swept across Great Britain and Ireland like tsunami of destruction. The priory church that stands there today is a relatively recent restoration of the original choir that still contains some of the original 16th century building. Surrounding this Church of Scotland place of worship are the remaining ruins of the priory and what feels like an absurdly oversized graveyard. The graveyard is still growing with several modern graves amongst some extremely old ones. This is also a Commonwealth War Graves site with people from across the British Empire and Commonwealth, who had died due to war, buried in these ancient grounds. This can make for another fascinating way of looking at this little village.

As I walked around the priory grounds, saw graves of English, Scots, Canadians and more. As I strolled through the quiet streets, passed the babbling burn nestled by the lovely Georgian home, I took in the whispered truth. The truth that there isn’t a wall that formed the Scotland I live in today but a tangled, velcro mesh. People here have been subject to the preoccupations, demands and paranoia of others for centuries. They’ve been Angles, Danes, English and Scots. Stripped of identity and forced into others. They created their own as lawless raiders, switching allegiance to match the pendulum of power. Here is the history of England and Scotland having found a comforting balance. I don’t know how my visit to Coldingham makes me feel about the future of Scotland, only to say that we should not forget these places nor dismiss the people that live here.

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A J Merron

A J Merron

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I’m a writer, photographer and documentarian based in Scotland.