The Mining Monks of Newbattle

Newbattle Abbey College hides a wealth of Scottish history. Built on the site of a medieval Cistercian Abbey, the house has been remodelled and extended over several centuries and today showcases the best of Scottish craftsmanship and interior design.

The grounds, originally gifted by David I in 1140, were typical of other Cistercian settlements, lying by the side of a river on a fertile plain which enabled the monks, a silent order, ‘overspilled’ from Melrose Abbey, to be self sufficient. Even earlier than that it is thought that an iron age settlement existed but this has never been explored. In addition to arable farming, the monks benefited from a thriving sheep industry and were probably the first coal miners in Scotland. They owned salt pans at Prestonpans, where they also built a harbour to export their famous wool and coal to Europe.

At most there would have been 80 monks in residence but the abbey was also used by Knights Templar as a place of spiritual retreat when they became ‘demotivated’ by their hard life.

The abbey and houses were visited by many important historical figures. It was here that the Declaration of Arbroath, in the form of a letter submitted to Pope John XXII, dated 6 April 1320, was drafted. Sealed by fifty-one magnates and nobles, the letter is the only survivor of three created at the time and makes the case for Scottish Independence and that the independence of Scotland was the prerogative of the Scots people, rather than the King. Written in Latin, it is believed to have been drafted by, amongst others, Bernard, abbot of Arbroath Abbey, who was the Chancellor of Scotland at the time. This is what gives the letter its name as there was no meeting in Arbroath. There was a meeting at Newbattle in March but it took several weeks to assemble the approvals and seals of the earls and nobles of Scotland.

In 1504, Margaret Tudor, half sister of King Henry VIII of England, was betrothed to James IV of Scotland in an act of peacemaking and stopped for a blessing at Newbattle where the Maiden Bridge was built to allow her and her entourage to cross the River Esk.

Like all monasteries which had grown too rich, Newbattle suffered during the Reformation but Newbattle was doubly affected as Mark Ker, the then Commendator, as the Abbot was called, himself turned to Protestantism and evicted the surviving monks. His reward was a gift of the land and buildings, so he demolished the remains of the abbey to build the house we can see today.

The Lothian Family
His son, also Mark Ker, was given the title of Lord Lothian but his son Robert only had a daughter, Anne, who could not inherit the title. It therefore went to her husband William who was one of the Border Kerrs and the property remained in the Lothian family until 1937.  The magnificent sundials located in the Italian Garden were made in 1635.  One bears the initials ‘EWL’ for William, Earl of Lothian and the other ‘CAL’ for Anne, Countess of Lothian.  Otherwise they are identical.  The carvings are of creatures with human heads, bodies of birds and wings of angels.  Above leaf like patters are the dials on to which a shadow would indicate the time.  Above this are four evil looking faces.  The family motto Sero Sed Serio, Late but in Earnest, dates back to the Battle of Ancrum Moor, when the Kerrs were originally on the English side, switching allegiance when they saw that the Scots were winning! It can be seen in a number of locations around the building.

The title was elevated to that of Marquis in 1701.  Throughout the 19th century, far-reaching modifications were carried out.  In the 1830s, William Burn added a story and a servants’ wing.  In the 1860s, David Bryce added a new family wing, which was followed by extra accommodation, including a new boudoir.  The 9th Marquis, Schomberg Henry Kerr, who held the title from 1870 -1900, carried out the last major alterations to the property. As a partner in the Lothian Coal Company, he was involved in the sinking of the Lady Victoria colliery, which provided work and relative prosperity for local people. He was the Secretary of State for Scotland and concerned himself with improving the conditions of the poor people of the day.

One of the first additions that the 9th Marquis made was a porch across the front doors, probably to insulate the rest of the house from the cold when doors were opened and closed. Prior to that, the stone steps led straight to the Grand Hall, and a magnificent drawing room which today must rank amongst the finest in the country. Thomas Bonnar, the famous designer, transformed the Drawing Room.  The entrance door is copied from designs in the Doge’s Palace in Venice, however, most of the exquisite carvings here and on other pieces of furniture were carried out by Scottish craftsmen.

The walls are remarkable for their precise stencilling and the paintings were commissioned by the 9th Marquis.  The artist was the Italian painter Riccardo Meacci, who never visited the house.   He simply painted from the descriptions the Marquis gave him.  It is however, faithfully reproduced from drawings, but not the setting, which, rather amusingly, is that of a Tuscan landscape. The original carpet is now preserved in storage and that has been replaced in recent years by a replica. It had to be made in four pieces as there is no longer a loom large enough to recreate the original. The piece de resistance is the breathtaking ceiling, personally hand painted by Thomas Bonnar with cherubs, bluebirds and gold ribbons in 22 carot gold leaf.

The Dining Room retains its beautiful late 16th / early 17th century painted ceiling. On the walls of this room are elaborate carvings of game and flowers crafted by Grinling Gibbons.  He carried out a great deal of similar work at St Paul’s Cathedral as well as in English country houses.  The fabulous carved scrolls of foliage, fruit, game birds and fish can be recognised by his peapod signature. The peapod was left closed until the final bill was paid, at which point, the carver returned to ‘open’ the pea pod, displaying the peas inside.  The tiles in the fireplace, from a more modern age, were designed by William Morris.

Amongst many fascinating artefacts is a water organ, originally built for a visit by King George IV in 1822 and powered by the River Esk. We know that, during the royal visit, which lasted one hour, the Scottish organist Mr McGrath played Ah Perdona by Mozart.

In 1886, a further extension to coincide with the visit of Queen Victoria and the Duke of Clarence.  However, the Queen preferred the more opulent Dalkeith Palace to Newbattle Abbey but the Duke stayed on.

In the main library, which is still a working library for the college, is what is thought to be a secret passage, which would have allowed the gentleman of the house to escape downstairs for some fun, while his wife thought him hard at work. The rare clockwise (the Kerrs were left-handed) spiral staircase would have led to the crypt, one of very few remains of the original 12th century abbey. The whole area was sealed off until the 9th Marquis exposed it and built an extra pillar to support the drawing room. During the 1870s alterations, workmen discovered underground crypts which had been long buried and lost.  This underground space today leads to the college dining room but the vaulted ceiling creates a mysterious atmosphere. Also underground is the Chapel, once the kitchen and warming room of the old Abbey, where the monks carried out clerical work and where they were allowed to speak for 45 minutes each Sunday.

In the late 19th century, the 9th Marquis converted this into a private family and it was consecrated in 1893. The wonderful wood floor was hand carved and laid by the then Clerk of Works John Ramsay and designed to look like the original Abbey clay tiles which had been found during the excavations.  Seven varieties of trees were used and timber came from the estate. The first service was not held until January 1900. Sadly it was the funeral of the 9th Marquis. The font is believed to have come from Linlithgow Palace, where it was used to baptise Mary Queen of Scots in 1542. It was not used again until this year.

One of the fascinating treasures to be found is a Spanish Treasure Chest, believed to have been captured when one of the ships form the Spanish Armada was shipwrecked. The chest can only be opened by means of 14 hidden bolts.

Foundation of the College
In 1930, Philip Kerr who had been born in Woodburn House, Dalkeith became 11th Marquis of Lothian.  Altogether, in different parts of the country, he inherited 32,000 acres of land, attracting huge death duties.  In order to secure some relief, he offered to transfer Newbattle Abbey, along with 125 acres, to the people of Scotland provided the property was used to offer another chance in life to those who had been deprived of the opportunity to develop their educational potential to the full.  The heads of the four ancient universities agreed to act as Trustees and a Board of Governors was appointed to manage the running of the College.  In 1937, the College opened its doors to the first intake of students.  However, it closed temporarily as it was taken over by the War Office in 1939. During the war, it was used as a base for the Royal Army Medical Corps, and the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service.

Today it is once again functioning as Scotland’s only adult residential college, for the benefit of people whose circumstances prevented them from attending tertiary education on leaving school. Newbattle Abbey is available for conferences and private function.  Anyone interested in discovering the history of this fascinating place may contact them on 0131 663 1921 to arrange a tour (min group booking 8).

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Suse Coon

Suse Coon started life training to be an architect but ended up as a fashion buyer then civil servant. After some time out to bring up her family of three, she returned to what had been a hobby and entered the field of freelance journalism. After becoming regional correspondent, then editor of the orienteering magazine CompassSport, she formed Pages Editorial & Publishing Services. In this guise, West Lothian Life was launched, while Suse maintained a level of freelancing and wrote the award winning children's novel Richard's Castle. In 1999, Suse bought over CompassSport and found her time taken up pretty well exclusively with the two magazines. In 2004, West Lothian Life was expanded to form Lothian Life, however, the workload was too great. In 2006, CompassSport was sold and Suse concentrated on the web version of Lothian Life. Her hobbies include gardening, orienteering, sea kayaking and Tai Chi.

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