Scottish Monastic Life


  • Sybil M. Jack


When one considers that there were monasteries in Scotland for over a
thousand years, we know surprisingly little about the way of life that was
familiar over that long time span to the occupants and their contemporaries
alike. Indeed, in many cases we scarcely know whether there was a monastery
there or not. Easson's gazetteer of the Scottish monasteries has many listed as
uncertain or "supposed" foundations because the documentation for them
cannot be found but one must remember that the nunnery of St. Evoca would
have fallen into this category, but for a problem in the early 15th century
which led to a papal rescript now preserved in the Vatican.2 There is, of
course, a paradox in this, because the remains of all that human endeavour
mislead us into thinking that the life is also familiar to us. It has been
romanticised: the ruins have their own culture. Most visitors to Scotland are
likely to visit at least one of the great ruins, the names of Iona, Melrose,
Sweetheart abbey, Lincluden, Dundrennan, Inchmahome, Holyrood,
Cambuskenneth, Dryburgh, Coldingham, Crossraguel, Arbroath, Haddington
are all names inextricably mixed into the history of Scotland. Yet as you
wander through the smooth and antiseptic lawns of the Ministry of Works at
one of the sites, where the occasional tracery of the great windows and
columns of the naves rise dramatically to the sky, while the outlines of the
buildings razed and ruined have been carefully restored to a uniform foot or
so above the land, to create the illusion that one is walking through a
manicured ground plan, or skeletal framework, what are you really seeing? Is
this reality, or is it finely created myth? What relationship does it bear to the
daily life of that vanished millennium?