I came to appreciate the full magnificence and grandeur of the ruined Abbeys of the Scottish Borders on a recent a visit, drawn there by 19th century paintings by J.M.W. Turner and early photographs by Henry Fox Talbot. Taking the time to look at the ruins was both inspirational and moving. Walking through the Aisle Chapels and entering the Monks Choir at Melrose Abbey as the monophonic motets of Gregorian chant echoed through the ruins, thanks to Historic Scotland’s carefully concealed speakers, I found myself overwhelmed by the massiveness of this 12th century Abbey, and suddenly deeply moved by the sense of loss of the religious communities that had once strived to maintain their grandeur through the struggle for Scottish nationhood and political and religious turmoil. The sense of loss was totally unexpected. From that moment, not only did I want to photograph the Abbeys; I simply had no choice.
These Romanesque and Gothic Abbeys founded by David I, stand, more than anything, as monuments to the turbulent medieval history of Scotland: the struggle for nationhood, attacks perpetrated under the orders of the English king, Henry VIII, and the Scottish Reformation that eventually led to their ruin. They are also museums of the arts, crafts and sciences of the 12th through 15th centuries, each a showcase of architecture and engineering, of stone masonry, light, space, and elegance – they are an open history book of tragedy and struggle that evoke emotions ranging from exaltation to melancholy.
It’s perhaps not surprising that they seem to photograph particularly well in black and white. Sir Walter Scott, in his poem “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” positively extols the virtue of viewing the ruins by moonlight.
When the broken arches are black in night, And each shafted oriel glimmers white;
When the cold light’s uncertain shower; Streams on the ruined central tower;
When buttress and buttress, alternately, Seem framed of ebon and ivory;
When silver edges the imagery, And the scrolls that teach thee to live and die;
When distant Tweed is heard to rave, And the owlet to hoot o’er the dead man’s grave;
Then go–but go alone the while– Then view St David’s ruined pile; And, home returning, soothly swear, Was never scene so sad and fair!