Kelso Abbey

Kelso Abbey, exterior, from west

Summary description

The medieval parish was housed in the nave of the Tironensian abbey church, relocated here in 1128. The church was a unique Scottish example of a double-cross plan, of which part of the nave south arcade wall, and the shells of the western transepts, and parts of the west tower and vestibule survive. Following the Reformation the church was re-sited in the west crossing area. In 1771-73 it was superseded by a new church on a different site. 

Historical outline

Dedication: Our Lady

Wrongly assigned to the archdeaconry of Teviotdale in the diocese of Glasgow by Ian Cowan,(1) the church of St Mary of Kelso, which King David I ‘has erected into an abbacy’, was confirmed free from all subjection and exaction by Bishop Robert of St Andrews, probably at the time of the transfer of the Tironensian monastery from Slekirk to Kelso.(2)  From that date the parish function of the church and the whole of its fruits were incorporated into the abbey, the parish being served by an altar probably located in the nave of the monastic church.  Consequently, the parish church as distinct from the monastery of Kelso appears in no form in the accounts of the papal tax-collector in Scotland in the 1270s.  No record survives of the parochial function of the abbey church or the clergy serving it before the Reformation.  At the time of the Reformation the parsonage and vicarage teinds remained incorporated into the revenues of the abbey, while the cure was served by a vicar pensioner.(3)

There are a few indications of a wider ‘public’ devotional role for the abbey church in references to the presence of a chapel of St Anthony within it.  In December 1435, a supplication to the pope claimed that the chapel, which was served by a priest, was visited by a ‘great multitude’ of people to hear the offices being performed there.  It had, however, no endowment attached to it from which to maintain its fabric or to support the priest, so a layman, John Budon, was supplicating for the granting of an indulgence of seven years for anyone who made offerings in support of the chapel.(4


1. I B Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society, 1967), 92-3.

2. Liber S Marie de Calchou (Bannatyne Club, 1846), no.443.

3. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 224, 232, 234, 237, 240.

4. Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome, iv, 1433-1447, eds A I Dunlop and D MacLauchlan (Glasgow, 1983), no.229.

Architectural description

In about 1128 Bishop Robert confirmed the parish of Kelso to the Tironensian abbey there, around the time that the abbey had itself been transferred from Selkirk. Both the parsonage and vicarage were annexed, with the cure in the hands of a vicar pensioner.(1) A dedication of the church was carried out by Bishop David David de Bernham on 27 March1243.(2)

By the later middle ages, and probably from the start, it was the nave that accommodated the parishioners. This is confirmed by a description of the abbey as it was in 1517 that has survived in the Vatican archives; written by a priest named as John Duncan who was in search of preferment, this states:

The monastery is itself double, for not only is it conventual...but it is also a ministry; for it possesses a wide parish with the accompanying cure of souls which the abbot is accustomed to exercise through a secular presbytery-vicar....The church is divided by a transverse wall into two parts; the outer part is open to all, especially parishioners both women and men, who there hear masses and receive all sacraments from their parochial vicar.(3)

The Tironensian foundation at Kelso was of the greatest historical significance,(4) since it has been shown that, as first established at Selkirk by the future David I in 1113, it must have been the first foundation for any of the reformed Benedictine orders anywhere in Britain.(5) In 1128, four years after his succession to the throne, he moved it to its present site, on the east bank of the Tweed, thus placing it closer to his favoured burgh and castle of Roxburgh. The abbey was itself to be occasionally referred to as being of Roxburgh.

David maintained a close interest in the Tironensians, evidently visiting the mother house in 1117. The order was lavishly endowed in Scotland both by David and his immediate successors and, as an indicator of the importance of the senior Scottish Tironensian house, Selkirk provided the second and third abbots of Tiron itself. Enough of the church at Kelso was complete for the king's son, Henry earl of Northumberland, to be buried within it in 1152. Kelso's high status was confirmed when its abbot was granted the mitre in 1165, the first head of a Scottish monastery to be so dignified.

In the later middle ages the abbey suffered greatly in the wars with England and from the long-term English occupation of Roxburgh Castle. The abbey's charters had been burned before 1305, and there are further references to damage in about 1316 and 1420.

The abbey gatehouse was burned in 1523, and there were probably further attacks on the complex in 1542, 1544 and 1545. On the last occasion a proposal was drawn up by the Italian gunfounder Archangelo Arcano to turn it into a fortress, and one of his drawings showing how this might be accomplished has been recently identified.(6) Although this proposal was abandoned, the abbey was stripped of its lead ‘and all put to royen, howsses and towres and stypeles’.

The abbey was probably ‘cleansed’ by the reforming party in 1559, in the prelude to the Reformation. By then it had been headed by commendators rather than abbots since at least 1511, presumably with the usual consequences for the morale of the house. It was erected into a temporal lordship for the future earl of Roxburghe in 1607, whose descendants, the dukes of Roxburghe still own it, though it is in the care of the state.

After the Reformation, the nave continued to house the parish church, though, taking account of the damage suffered in the 1540s, it is unlikely that it occupied more than a small part of the nave. In about 1648 an even more compact vaulted structure was formed within the west transepts, with a stone-vaulted gaol set above the vault of the church itself. Around the same time a three-arched gabled bellcote was built at the wall-head of the north transept, above the parochial doorway into the church.

Following partial structural collapse during a Sunday service in 1770, a new parish church was built to the north east of the abbey church in 1771-3. Following construction of the new church the insertions in the nave associated with its use as a parish church were removed by the dukes of Roxburghe between 1805 and 1816, apart from the bellcote on the north gable.

Major repairs to the historic fabric were carried out in 1823 and 1866. Other repairs probably post-date a survey of 1869 by Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, who had designed the nearby Episopalian church in 1867. In 1919 the abbey was placed in state care.

Turning to consideration of the surviving fabric,(7) this consists of: the greater part of the two west bays of the three-storeyed south arcade wall of the aisled nave; a pair of full-height aisle-less western transepts, each of square plan, which project a short distance beyond the aisle on each side; the south and west faces of the west crossing tower; and the north half of an axial west vestibule of square plan and of the same width and height as the main space of the nave.

The church east of those parts has entirely disappeared, but the 1517 description makes clear there was a second pair of transepts to the east, with a pyramidal-roofed tower over each crossing. Excavations in 1971 located what was thought to be the site of the south west pier of the east crossing, suggesting the nave was of six bays. Further south were located what may have been the foundations of the south-west corner of the south-east transept, suggesting that the east transepts projected further beyond the nave aisles than the west transepts.(8)

The plan east of the east transepts is unknown. The Vatican description says the east tower was empty on account of age and decay, and refers to an old wooden choir at the head of the church; it was also said that several choral masses were celebrated each day at the high altar at the head of the choir. The description refers to a cross wall, presumably a pulpitum, dividing the conventual choir from the parochial nave, on which was the altar of the Holy Rood and an organ.

Such a double-cross plan invites comparison with the double-ended churches of Ottonian and Romanesque Germany(9) and the Netherlands. But the use of the west projection as a high vestibule, rather than as a second choir, shows more direct similarities with double-transept churches in East Anglia. In particular the cathedral priory church of Ely was also given a full-height porch west of the west transepts. The Ely porch, however, was a slightly later construction and was more clearly separated from the west transepts than at Kelso, where the west vestibule was essentially a continuation of the main space of the nave.

Since the destroyed east parts of the church contained the presbytery and monastic choir, they were presumably the parts that were started first, around the time of the move from Selkirk in 1128. But on the indications of the massive piers and scalloped capitals of the surviving part of the south arcade, and of the details of the intersecting wall arcading around the west transepts and vestibule, the nave arcades and lowest storey of the transepts and vestibule must also have been built as part of the first campaign.

The scalloped capitals of some of the high responds of the west tower arches raise the possibility that those responds could also have been raised to full height at the same time. However, it is perhaps more likely that capitals cut as part of the first campaign were only being brought into service at a late stage of operations.

Indeed, the architectural evidence suggests that the upper levels of the west parts of the church were constructed layer after layer, rather than bay after bay, with the nave clearstorey only being completed in the late twelfth century and the belfry stage of the west tower in the early thirteenth century. In the storeys above the nave arcade the bay system established by the arcade arches was largely ignored, so that the layered appearance of the nave must have been particularly striking.

The two surviving bays of the south nave arcade are carried on squat, basically cylindrical piers augmented by single semi-circular shafts mounted on pilasters towards three of the four cardinal directions: these shafts carry the inner orders of the arcade arches and the springers of the aisle vaults. As with the double-transept plan, piers of this form could show awareness of types at Ely where there are piers with either one or two shafts on pilasters; variants on piers of this kind are also to be seen elsewhere in East Anglia at Peterborough and Thorney.(10)

The arcade capitals are scalloped, and the semi-circular arches have three (extensively renewed) chamfered orders. Little remains of the outer aisle wall, but the stub projecting from the east wall of the south-west transept embodies the west jamb of the processional doorway from the cloister. The jamb of this simple doorway also served as the north jamb of the doorway from the outer parlour, which is now blocked.

The aisle had rib vaults of pointed profile, which were probably only set in place at a relatively late stage of building. The steep curvature of the vaulting resulted in the exposure of an unusually great expanse of crudely faced wall between arch and vault, while the threshold of the opening into the aisle roof space from triforium level is well below the vault crowns. A later twelfth-century date for the vaulting is supported by the rib profile, which has a keeled roll flanked by cavettos.

The middle storey of the arcade wall is a triforium, which rests on a chevron-decorated string course directly above the arcade arch heads, and takes the form of a continuous row of small arches in front of a passage in the wall thickness. If the plan and arcade have parallels in East Anglian buildings, there was to be nothing of this in the upper storeys, which may have been the result of a change of design.

There is no correspondence of rhythm between the arcade and triforium, and Kelso is the only major Scottish church where there is known to have been such independent treatment of the storeys. Although it now appears as if the triforium was punctuated by a section of solid wall at the east end of the surviving stretch, above the second pier from the west, early views show that this masonry is part of the nineteenth-century strengthening and is unlikely to perpetuate the original arrangement.

The triforium arches are carried by single circular or octagonal shafts, with capitals that are either scalloped or decorated with water-leaf foliage, details which suggest this stage was not completed before the third quarter of the twelfth century. It may be mentioned that amongst the earliest water-leaf capitals in Scotland are likely to be those at St Andrews Cathedral, which was started by Bishop Arnold (1160-2), who had earlier been abbot of Kelso.

Access to the roof space over the aisles was through openings above the arcade piers; the aisle roofs evidently swept down steeply, with no outer wall to the roof space. As already pointed out, the vaults over the aisles rose considerably higher than the floor level of the triforium passage.

The clearstorey was elevated about eight courses above the top of the triforium arcading. Like the triforium, it has continuous arcade in front of a mural passage, though, unlike in the triforium, the need to take account of the windows in the outer wall of the passage necessitated some regard being paid to the bay rhythm established at aisle level. On the outer face, the bay rhythm established at arcade level is continued by a shallow pilaster rising from the moulding above the aisle roof up to the wall-head corbel table. Between the pilasters there are two round-headed windows to each of the bays.

Internally this spacing is reflected in an alternating pattern of arches, with semi-circular arches corresponding to the windows and slightly narrower stilted round arches between. The small piers supporting the clearstorey arches have triplets of keeled shafts towards the central space, projecting from rectangular tails. The capitals are decorated with water-leaf foliage or crockets.

The arch mouldings are similar to those of the triforium, with an angle roll to the inner order and a cavetto to the outer order, though the clearstorey arches do not have a quirk at the outer edge of the cavetto. A combination of the horizontal wall-head and the continuous clearstorey arcading makes clear there was no intention to have high vaulting; the 1517 description confirms that the roof was wooden, and says it was covered in lead.

There are no surviving closely comparable elevations in Scotland or, indeed, in England to that at Kelso. The closest parallels are perhaps with St John's Collegiate Church at Chester, where the triforium and clearstorey are also significantly later than the arcade, and similarly take the form of two layers of continuous arcading.(11) But at Chester the bays were strongly marked both by the rhythm of the arcading and by wall shafts rising through the two upper storeys to the wall-head, so the parallels are limited.

The likelihood that other buildings must once have shown something closer to Kelso's independence of rhythm between the three storeys, however, is supported by comparisons with the English-inspired work in the south transept of Trondheim Cathedral in Norway, where each stage also sets its own independent pace.

The lowest storey of the west transepts and west vestibule has a dado of decorative arcading internally, and also externally where the wall was not abutted by other buildings or interrupted by doorways. On analogy with Dunfermline Abbey and Kirkwall Cathedral, it may be assumed the aisles of the main body of the church would also have had a decorative arcaded dado at least internally.

The surviving sections of arcading have intersecting arches, except for the portions flanking the north doorway, where there are single arches. The caps are scalloped or foliate with some pellet decoration. Internally there are beak-head-like spurs to the arcading in the south-west transept and along the flanks of the vestibule, whereas there is chevron or embattled decoration in the north-west transept. At the east end of the south wall of the south-west transept, the arcading is interrupted by a low arch, within which are an arched piscina and two aumbries to serve the altar which must have been adjacent.

Two doorways into the church survive either wholly or in part. In the north face of the north-west transept is the main lay entrance, a round-arched opening of four orders with scalloped or foliate capitals; the en-délit shafts of three of the orders are now lost. The arch has mouldings with nutmeg, billet and nail-head decoration.

This north doorway is set within a salient section of wall capped by a superstructure, which has intersecting arcading below a triangular gable with diaper decoration. The arcaded superstructure, but not the gable, are paralleled at Dunfermline Abbey and Dalmeny Church in West Lothian.

Within the superstructure of the doorway is a small mural chamber, reached by steps down from the passage at triforium level, and there are five narrow windows set within the arcading. This could have been a watching chamber, or it may have been provided for a choir as part of the Palm Sunday liturgy, as was to be the case later at Salisbury and Wells Cathedrals.(12) The same function could also have been served by later Scottish west galleries at Arbroath and Holyrood Abbeys.

Only the north jamb and arch springing survive of the west doorway, which was evidently a highly ambitious piece of work. The jambs had five shafted orders, of which only the outermost engaged shaft survives. The arches were decorated with varieties of chevron, ringed rolls, cable and beak-head. The doorway was set in a projecting section of wall capped by a gable.

Wherever there were not adjoining buildings, aisle roofs, or features such as the west claustral range or the north doorway, each face of the west transepts and the west vestibule was pierced by two windows at each of the three levels corresponding to arcade, triforium and clearstorey in the nave. The only exception to this was the west front of the west vestibule, which was the main frontispiece to the church; here, above the great doorway, was a single window rising through both upper storeys, flanked by blind intersecting arcading.

Mural passages passed around the two upper levels throughout the transepts and vestibule. However, access across the upper level of the west window must have been by removable bridging.

One pointer to the progress of the building work is a change in the internal treatment of the windows and wall passages. Along the two lower storeys of the surviving parts of the north transept, the vestibule and the west side of the south transept, the only enrichment to the windows was nook shafts carrying the plain outer arch order, with scalloped or waterleaf capitals to the shafts. The wall passage simply cut through the window embrasures.

Along the east and north sides of the south transept, however, where there were no windows, an inner triforium arcade was introduced at the middle level, and a similar arcade was then provided  throughout the clearstorey of the western parts. As in the nave clearstorey, there were arches corresponding to both the windows and the wall between, with the arches being carried on triplet shafts.

The provision of a triforium passage in the south transept was called for by the particular circumstances of that part of the building, but it is significant that its design is closer to that of the nave clearstorey than of the nave triforium. On balance it therefore seems likely that the parts with this internal arcading were completed later than those parts of the building in which the mural passages simply pass through window embrasures.

However, it should be noted that there are several scalloped capitals interspersed with water-leaf or crocket capitals in this internal arcading, though, as with the tower arch responds, these had perhaps been cut in earlier phases of the building campaign and were only later brought into use.

Externally the west transepts and west vestibule have pilaster buttresses at the angles, with rolls in the re-entrant angles; single narrower pilasters subdivide the west faces of the transepts and the flanks of the vestibule. There are spiral stairways at the two west outer angles of the transepts. The angles of the west transepts are surmounted by circular turrets, and those of the west vestibule by octagonal turrets.

The west gable evidently had a stepped profile capped by deep weathered coping, and it was pierced by a central circlet. The south transept gable also has part of a circlet surviving, but this evidently dates almost entirely from nineteenth-century restorations. The north transept gable similarly has a circular window, though what is now seen appears to represent a secondary modifiation, since there are traces of a slightly higher circlet both internally and externally.

The north gable rises to a horizontal string course running above the transept roof apex. Rising above this string is a three-arched bell-cote, with a circlet in its pediment-like gable. The details of the bell-cote arches partly correspond with those in the later work of the nave, and yet it seems certain that it dates from the parochial reconstruction of around 1648, suggesting that some earlier masonry may have been reused in its construction. A now partly indecipherable date is carved on a stone tablet above the gable circlet, and a drawing of 1770-71 by James Nesbitt records this as 1649.(13)

The west tower, of which only the south and west faces survive, rose one and a half storeys above the surrounding roofs, and can hardly have been completed before the early thirteenth century on the evidence of its details. Flanking the apices of the roofs which once abutted it are quatrefoiled circlets, and above this the belfry stage has three lancets to each face, with three orders of chamfers in the arches emerging from a single broad chamfer in the jambs.

This tower is perhaps the earliest illustration of what was to be an enduring Scottish medieval taste for towers with rows of equal-height windows at belfry stage. The 1517 description says the west tower contained many sweet bells and that both it and the east tower were capped with pyramidal roofs; the description compares the tower roofs with St Peter’s in Rome perhaps in reference to the tall roof of the campanile that flanked the entrance to the atrium there.

The tower was supported internally on pointed arches springing from the base level of the clearstorey. Internally, above the arch apices and looking down into the crossing is a mural passage. Its details are similar to those of the clearstoreys in the nave and transepts, with an arcade of four round arches carried on keeled triplet shafts, though with chalice capitals in this case. Behind this passage a single opening in each face looked out into the surrounding roof spaces. The tower was floored above this level.

At the next level round arches corresponded to the quatrefoils on the outer faces, and opened onto a mural passage. At the belfry stage the lancets were internally of the simplest character. Corbels in the angles presumably supported the pyramidal roof.

By 1770, when the roof of the church in the west crossing of the abbey church collapsed during a service, it was clear that the part of the building in parochial use was beyond repair, and plans for a new building were sought. The design adopted, which was started on a site to the north east of the abbey church in 1771, and was complete by 1773, was the work of the masons James Nisbet and John Laidlaw and the wright John Purves.

Its octagonal plan represents an important attempt to develop a centralised design appropriate for reformed worship. It is one of the first of a series of octagons under construction in the later eighteenth century, others of which included the Glasite Church in Dundee, Dreghorn Parish Church in Ayrshire and St George’s Episcopal Chapel in Edinburgh.

The octagonal plan is covered by a pyramidal slated roof capped by a cupola, that now has open arcaded sides, but was originally glazed. The walls are of buff sandstone, with droved ashlar dressings to quoins and windows, and polished ashlar to the plinth, string courses, cornice and doorways. The lower windows are rectangular while the upper ones are arched, all having mildly Gothic raised hood moulds.

The principle entrances are through pedimented vestibules on the north and south faces, but there were also arched and pedimented doorways through the east and west walls that are now blocked. A substantial wooden bellcote was added over the north vestibule by William Elliot in 1823; it has paired consoles below the piers framing the arched and louvred openings on all sides, and a bracketed cornice. The vestries flanking the south vestibule were added in about 1833.

In the original internal arrangements galleries were carried around all sides of the octagon, with heavy Tuscan columns that have a marked entasis supporting the galleries, and lighter Tuscan columns supporting the ceiling, which was originally open to the cupola. But in 1823 William Elliot introduced a flat ceiling, remodelled the galleries into a horse-shoe formation directed towards a pulpit relocated towards the south end, and introduced a cross-wall behind the pulpit.


1. Ian B. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society), 1967, pp. 92-93; Cowan mistakenly refers to the parish as being in Glasgow diocese, though there can be little doubt that it was in St Andrews diocese.

2. Alan Orr Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, Edinburgh, 1922, vol. 2, p. 523.

3. Latin text published in Vetera Monumenta Hibernorum et Scotorum Historiam Illustrantia, ed. A. Theiner, Rome, 1864, no dccccxxvii.

4. Liber S. Marie de Calchou, ed. Cosmo Innes (Bannatyne Club), 2 vols, 1846, no 2; Regesta Regum Scotorum, vol. 1, The Acts of Malcolm IV, ed. Geoffrey Barrow, Edinburgh, 1960, no 131; Ian B. Cowan and David E. Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, Scotland, London and New York, 1976, pp. 68–69.

5. Geoffrey Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots, London, 1973, pp. 200-01.

6. Richard Fawcett, ‘A Plan of 1545 for the Fortification of Kelso Abbey’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 141, 2011, pp. 269-78.

7. The accounts of the abbey and later church are based on those in Kitty Cruft, John Dunbar and Richard Fawcett, The Buildings of Scotland, Borders, New Haven and London, 2006, pp. 438–48. Other accounts of the abbey church include: David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, vol. 1, 1896, pp. 347–61; Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Inventory of Roxburghshire, Edinburgh, 1956, vol. 2, pp. 240–46.

8. Christoper J. Tabraham , ‘ Excavations at Kelso Abbey, Roxburghshire, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 114, 1984, pp. 365-405.

9. At Cologne St Pantaleon the western projection was also a porch or vestibule, but the central space of the nave does not continue through into that vestibule, and the church shows few other similarities with Kelso.

10. Bridget Cherry, ‘Romanesque architecture in eastern England’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, vol. 131, 1978, pp. 1–29.

11. Geoffrey Webb, Architecture in Britain, the Middle Ages, Harmondsworth, 2nd ed., 1965, p. 54.

12. Pamela Z. Blum, ‘Liturgical Influences on the Design of the West Front at Wells and Salisbury, Gesta, vol. 25, 1986, pp. 145–50; J. Philip McAleer, ‘The north portal of Durham Cathedral and the Problem of “Sanctuary” in Medieval Britain’, Antiquaries Journal, vol. 81, 2001, pp. 195–258.

13. National Records of Scotland, RHP 8466/4; reproduced in Terry Friedman, The Eighteenth-Century Church in Britain, New Haven and London, 2011, fig. 353.



Click on any thumbnail to open the image gallery and slideshow.

  • 1. Kelso Abbey, exterior, from west

  • 2. Kelso Abbey, door relocated to Roxburghe cloister

  • 3. Kelso Abbey, exterior, nave and south-west transept from south east

  • 4. Kelso Abbey, exterior, north-west transept and vestibule from north west

  • 5. Kelso Abbey, exterior, north-west transept from north

  • 6. Kelso Abbey, exterior, north-west transept, door

  • 7. Kelso Abbey, exterior, south nave arace wall from south

  • 8. Kelso Abbey, exterior, south-west transept and nave from south east

  • 9. Kelso Abbey, exterior, south-west transept from west

  • 10. Kelso Abbey, exterior, west door arch

  • 11. Kelso Abbey, exterior, west door, north jamb

  • 12. Kelso Abbey, interior, looking west

  • 13. Kelso Abbey, interior, north-west transept, north wall

  • 14. Kelso Abbey, interior, north-west transept, west wall

  • 15. Kelso Abbey, interior, south arcade wall from north, 1

  • 16. Kelso Abbey, interior, south arcade wall from north, 2

  • 17. Kelso Abbey, interior, south arcade wall from north east

  • 18. Kelso Abbey, interior, south clearstorey caps

  • 19. Kelso Abbey, interior, south triforium and clearstorey

  • 20. Kelso Abbey, interior, south triforium caps

  • 21. Kelso Abbey, interior, south-west transept, lower south wall

  • 22. Kelso Abbey, interior, south-west transept, south wall

  • 23. Kelso Abbey, interior, west tower, west wall

  • 24. Kelso Abbey, interior, wall arcading

  • 25. Kelso Abbey, interior, vestibule, north wall, 2

  • 26. Kelso Abbey, interior, vestibule, north wall, 1

  • 27. Kelso Abbey, interior, tower arch caps

  • 28. Kelso Abbey, interior, south-west transept, west wall