Church Borders Tour – Sophie O’Mahony

The School of Divinity’s tour of several religious sites on the Borders was a stimulating and certainly invigorating excursion, as students of all disciplines came together to learn about the stomach-churning history of a medieval hospital, to explore the desecrated ruins of an abbey, and to walk around an ancient and story-filled house.

Our first stop at Soutra Aisle was less academic lecture, more Horrible Histories brought to life as the noted archeo-ethno-pharmocologist, Dr Brian Moffat, divulged the medical knowledge of the Augustinian monks who went about amputating limbs, curing cancer, and delivering babies. Scotland’s largest medieval hospital, which served pilgrims, the poor and weary travellers, was situated on top of a bleak and lonesome hill where the raging wind added to the eerie atmosphere. As well as informing us that we were standing on top of old drains saturated with blood, human flesh and live anthrax spores (cough), he also taught us remedies for removing tumours (mistletoe) and anesthetising people (three parts Henbane to one part Hemlock and Opium Poppy) – cures and therapies that are currently being looked at by modern hospitals due to their vast success at Soutra Aisle. So far only 0.5% of the original hospital grounds has been excavated – who knows what else has yet to be discovered, gruesome or otherwise.

An informative tour around the remains of the Gothic Cisterican-run Melrose Abbey was then conducted by Stephen Holmes of the School of Divinity, the Abbey being the burial site of numerous Scottish kings and nobles and rumoured resting place of the embalmed heart of Robert the Bruce. Despite a missing roof and general lack of interior, the ecclesiastical structure retained its ability to generate awe and wonder at its magnificence, and Stephen did an excellent job of filling in the gaps in our knowledge and blanks in our imagination. The tour finished nicely with a crucial investigation into Melrose Village’s assortment of tea houses.

Despite the temptation to wreak havoc/bring about the Apocalypse, we refrained from opening the infamous Bear Gates of Traquair House, closed in 1745 by the Jacobite army who stated that they would not be opened until the Scottish Throne was occupied by a Stuart again. We were shown around the oldest continually inhabited house in Scotland by the current inhabitant, Catherine Maxwell Stuart, the 21st Lady of Traquair, who informed us that although there had been no reports of ghostly apparitions within the House, sometimes her late great-aunt could be seen taking a stroll in the grounds. Each room that we looked at appeared to be frozen in time according to visual displays – the bed that Mary, Queen of Scots once slept in, set the scene for a 16th century bedroom – and the definite highlight was the ‘emergency exit’ for the live-in Catholic priest should a Protestant mob storm the House at any given moment (cue PhD students excitedly scrambling down the inconspicuous spiral staircase). Faculty staff members got lost in the garden’s maze. A visit to the beautiful Renaissance-inspired chapel was dominated by the fumes from the brewery down below. We were sad to leave.

It was one of those rare days when ‘education’ and ‘fun’ were both delivered at the same time. The trip was an excellent opportunity to see a little bit more of Scotland, as well as learn about some of its historic sites. 

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