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Melrose Historical Association - Bulletin No. 5

St.Mary's Church of Melrose Abbey

A tale of discovery by Dr.Bill Lonie

Photo: The Eildon Hills.

In his definitive book 'The Medieval Churches of Scotland' of 1986, Dr Richard Cruden gives his opinion, on architectural evidence, that the first Cistercian abbey church at Melrose was preceded by an earlier and more humble church. He further suggests, on charter wording evidence, that this earlier church was associated with the Ionan then Anglian monastery at Old Melrose some four kilometers to the east. Again, the comprehensive description of Melrose Abbey given in the RCAMS Inventory of Roxburghshire of 1956 notes a carved stone scroll on the magnificent south transept gable bearing the text, in Latin, 'When Jesus comes the shadow will yield and depart'and comments that this is not Holy Writ. There does not appear to have been later comment upon these observations.

Ignorant then of these writings I was not to know that the magical Eildon Hills were to lead me by stumbling steps to the same conclusion as Dr Cruden and to an explanation of the enigmatic Latin text. I apologise for the personalised account, but discovery is a very personal experience.

Walking for pleasure on the Eildon Wester Hill I came across a shallow terrace, 25m long by 4m wide cut and reveted into the hillside some 30m downslope north of the summit. The terrace is scarcely visible under its ancient peat and heather cover but immediately reminded me of the Thom terrace I had found several decades before, a Bronze Age astronomical platform, so named after Professor Thom who elucidated Stone Henge. There, in Kintyre, a great standing stone and a solitary round burial cairn nearby provided a Bronze Age setting in an otherwise empty moorland. Here on the Eildon Hills the Bronze Age burial cairn near the Mid Hill summit, a votive hoard of fine bronze socketed axes at its foot, the fallen Siller Stane and a Bronze Age ritual city of some 500 dwellings on the Eildon North Hill provide an even more powerful Bronze Age setting.

Compass revealed and OS map confirmed that the Mid Hill summit is exactly due north of the Wester Hill terrace. This is an accident of geography but the stuff of ancient astronomy and Thom terraces. The Mid Hill summit with its attendant cairn looms above the terrace. High above both stands the Celestial Pole around which the night stars circle. A priest-king entombed in the wheeling sky would be a fitting adjunct to an ancient ritual city.

From the terrace the Mid Hill and the Hill North block view of the sky-line to north and north-east respectively but through the narrow notch between can be seen the distant rise of Twin Law with it cairns and legend of fratricidal battle. This observation prompted a study of lines of sight to other distant cairns and summits of the wide Tweed basin all around.

A surprise finding of this study was that the crossing of nave and transept of St.Mary's Church of Melrose Abbey lay exactly due north of the Mid Hill summit, so exactly so that its east-west location there can scarcely have been by chance. In seeking possible reason for north-south location on this line of equal precision it was found that the Abbey church is on exactly the same line of latitude, 55deg 35min 56sec, as St.Cuthbert's Chapel at Old Melrose, It can scarcely be by chance that these two Christian sites should have the same north-south location to within a few metres. This was an exciting moment but some primary reason still eluded discovery. Melrose Abbey is unusual though not unique in having the cloister to the north of the church. By this arrangement the beautiful south facade of the church faces the Sun.

A visit to the Abbey church on a sunny day in early January, 1997, quite by chance near noon, found the brilliant Sun sliding low over the Eildon Mid Hill summit. The church was ablaze with sunlight through the tracery of the windows of the chancel, the south transept and the chapels ranged along the south aisle of the nave. The effect was astounding and good Christians and others should seek it out this Christmas or New Year season.


Christmas is at the time of the winter solstice when shadows at noon are at their very longest and that of the Mid Hill summit reaches out to the very threshold of the great south door of the south transept, but does not enter. Christmas was so chosen that it replaced the pagan festival of the winter solstice. The Shadow Text began to take on literal meaning.

There was more to come. Late in the study it was learned that in addition to the slow, 26,000 years long wobble of the Earth's axis of the Precession of the Equinox, there is an even longer cycle, that of Nutation, the nodding of the Earth's axis, that takes 41,000 years for a complete nod, so not to worry unduly. Precession moves the Celestial Pole through the stars in a huge circle some 45 degrees in diameter and moves the Zodiacal Ages, 'This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius'. Nutation alters the tilt of the Earth's axis, the obliquity, which in turn determines how low the Sun at noon of the winter solstice will stand.

In ancient times the Sun stood lower at noon of the winter solstice than at present and shadows were longer. At 3000BC, in the time of the first structures at Stone Henge, the noon Sun encircled the Mid Hill summit and the shadow of the summit enveloped the whole Abbey church site. At 1000BC, the time of the Bronze Age ritual city on the Eildon Hill North, the shadow fell on the church crossing. Now, nearly 2000AD, the Sun skims just clear of the summit and the shadow falls outwith the church. This would be a fitting place for a pagan Sun-sanctury from which the turning of the Sun from its fearsome downwards path might be observed.


This ancient Celtic or pre-Celtic Sun-sanctuary would be so powerfully placed that it would in all probability be adopted in turn by the Romano-British peoples of the pre-Christian Roman Empire and then the pagan Angles of emergent Northumbria. The Ionan monks brought in 635AD to convert the pagan Northumbrians may have lived enclosed at Old Melrose, but would surely have subsumed the ancient Sun-sanctury with a preaching station or a Christian church. So the story comes full circle to Dr Cruden's pre-Cistercian church and a deeper meaning to the shadow text carved on the Abbey church gable. The Eildon Hills and Melrose Abbey are truly magical.

A more formal version of this tale was rejected by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland as too insubstantial, ie not dug up. Stung by this rebuff I have sought and may have found other examples of Sun-sanctuaries in the Tweed basin and the Lothians. There is certainly one at Gefrin under Yeavering Bell, less certainly others under Traprain Law, North Berwick Law and Arthur's Seat. All these sites, including the Eildon Hills, were centres of Bronze or Iron Age populations. All that is another tale yet to be told.

Next: The Carved Stones of the Fairfax Mission-hall, Newstead