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Responding to a previous feature in History Scotland, Lindsay Neil sifts the difficult and fragmentary evidence in an effort to recover the lost location of 12th-century Selkirk abbey, Scotland’s first Benedictine monastery
The top end of the ‘Clocksorrow’ ravine. It carried the outflow from the Haining loch and was quite sufficient to drive a mill

Mystery has always attended the site of Selkirk abbey. As the first abbey established in Scotland in the early 12th century, one can be forgiven for feeling that its existence has been overlooked, or at least not given the importance it deserved. One may also ask why it has never been seriously looked for. The country is dotted with ruins attesting to the many abbeys which followed Selkirk’s, but of the first there is not a trace, not a stone nor a folk memory pointing to where it was. Since its establishment, not one sod of earth has been turned over in an effort to find it, although much has been written. As the abbey was only in Selkirk for fifteen years, perhaps this could account for the mystery.

There are, however, abundant historical references and many hints as to where it was sited that one can pull together to infer its location. It is admittedly all conjecture without hard proof – what would be termed ‘circumstantial evidence’ in a court of law. However, one can at least get a fairly clear idea of where it was built, and where it was not, from weighing up what is known.

The popular tradition in Selkirk, often repeated, is that the abbey was located at the site of the ruined Lindean kirk two miles from the town. Despite the detailed and comprehensive defence of this theory published by Frank Harkness in the September/October 2017 issue of History Scotland, there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support it, and considerable reason to be sceptical. In fact, several pieces of key evidence point to the abbey having been close to, or part of, Selkirk itself.

Unravelling the mystery

In 2013 a limited community archaeological project in Selkirk was undertaken to confirm the site of Selkirk’s castle and look for traces of its wooden structure. This was supervised by Northlight Archaeology. Traces of the castle were not found but instead the original Haining tower house was rediscovered.

In the course of the work, a search of records was undertaken to see if there was any historical evidence that the castle site had been previously occupied, in particular what relationship it had with the pre-12th century church which existed before the abbey came to Selkirk. This inevitably involved an examination of what was known about the foundation of Scotland’s first abbey.

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About History Scotland

In the May/June issue of History Scotland we present the latest research from experts in the fields of Scottish history, heritage and archaeology, as well as news, opinion, book reviews and upcoming history events. Highlights include: · The tragic attempt by the tobacco heir David Guthrie Dunn to sail around the world in his small yacht, Southern Cross, in 1930 · A fresh contribution to the ongoing debate as to where the elusive abbey of Selkirk was situated during its brief existence in the early 12th century · A new study of the causes and consequences of the devastating famine of 1623 Plus: Family history advice, archaeology dig reports and finds analysis, National Records of Scotland column and lots more…