Heading south out of Dumfries, Scotland, driving approximately 5 miles you come to the beautiful village of New Abbey. You cannot fail to notice there is one landmark towering above all in the skyline. The ruins of Sweetheart Abbey. A shell of a building that is packed full of intrigue, history, and a story of true love.
The story begins in 1268. Lady Devorgilla of Galloway had just lost her husband John Balliol (Snr) and her love was so strong she could not live without him. She had his heart embalmed and placed in an ivory box. This box she carried everywhere she went. She, in his name, ensured the permanence of Balliol College, Oxford University by giving money and laying the statutes, that still survive. Also, in his memory, in 1273 she had built an Abbey a few miles south of Dumfries, and at the time it was a New Abbey of course, hence the village’s name……
The Cistercian monks of the Abbey named it ‘Dulce Cor’, latin for Sweetheart in recognition for all the lady did in the name of love for her husband. Lady Devorgilla herself died in 1290, and was buried in a tomb in front of the altar, with the embalmed heart buried with her.
Lady Devorgilla’s son John Balliol (Jnr) became King of Scotland when Edward I had to choose between 13 pretenders, upon the death of Margaret, Maid of Norway (Queen of Scots). Wittled down to the final two of John and Robert Bruce (Grandfather of Robert ‘The’ Bruce), John Balliol was chosen to be Edwards puppet King of Scotland. History shows that this didn’t end well, and also shows that Lady Devorgilla maybe missed out on being Queen of Scotland by nine months.
It wasn’t long before the Wars of Independence started and Edward I stayed at the Abbey during his battles in Galloway. The Abbey did start to fall into disrepair though until later in the 14th Century it came under the protection of Lord Galloway (Archibald the Grim).
The Protestant Reformation in the 1560s of course sounded the end for Sweetheart Abbey. Even though it took longer here to take effect than most places. The Abbey was at this time in the care of a Catholic, Lord Maxwell. The last abbot was Abbot Gilbert who continued to defy the new religion and carried on preaching. He was jailed for a short period in 1603 and exiled in 1608.
When visiting, and as you can see in the pictures, the church element of the Abbey is structurally standing tall and proud still. The cloisters etc and much of the walls have fallen to real ruin. We often think of historical conservation as a modern thing, however much of the building remains due to the fact that in 1779 the local community got together to conserve what remained as a monument to the local area.
The Abbey is now under the care of Historic Scotland and thanks to hundreds of years of luck and care there is much of the Abbey left to see. You can pay to go literally inside or you can walk around the outside of the wall from the car park and still get a good feel for the place. The path leads to the graveyard that gives great views of the Abbey too. As you enter there is the plaque reminding you that William Paterson, the Scot that founded the Bank of England in 1694 is buried somewhere here at Sweetheart Abbey, in an unmarked grave.
Dumfries and Galloway is an area packed full of beautiful landscapes, seascapes and history. Sweetheart Abbey is one of the stops you should make in this remarkable area.