Foundations built on Rock
28 May, 2013
Many of Scotland’s abbeys were founded in remote sites. This tradition dates back to the first religious hermits, who sought solitude for study and contemplation in the deserts of the Middle East. However, when building a monastery there was another important consideration: local geology.
Medieval monasteries were not only places of religious contemplation but also true monuments to the glory of God. Their churches and other buildings were large, imposing and beautiful. They were constructed and decorated by the finest masons of the day.
The type of stone available was therefore important. I had to be durable, a suitable colour and, perhaps most crucial, easily carved into intricate ornamentation. This kind of material is known as ‘freestone’ – fine-grained stone which is soft enough to be cut easily without shattering or splitting.
It was worked with a chisel to create moulding (three-dimensional figures and patterns), tracery (to divide the panes of windows) and other delicate features. It is believed that the word ‘freemason’ originally meant a craftsman skilled in carving freestone.
The most common variety of freestone used was sandstone. A particular favourite was ‘old red sandstone’, which is found throughout Scotland. But transporting large amounts of stone was difficult and expensive, so large buildings had to be sited close to a quarry.
It is for this reason that the great Borders abbeys – Jedburgh, Dryburgh, and Kelso – are located close to outcrops of sandstone. Melrose is the exception in this group because the stone was not sourced from the immediate vicinity, but had to be brought in from a quarry three miles away!
Building a monastery some distance from the source of stone was only feasible when there was a practical way to transport stone over long distances. This usually involved transport by sea or river.
Sweetheart Abbey, near Dumfries, is partly built from locally quarried volcanic rock. This light grey hard granite is very hard and not easily worked. For this reason it is used in its natural state to build the outer wall of the abbey ‘precinct’, and as infill for the monastery wall. The main fabric was red sandstone quarried from across the Solway Firth. It was transported by boat across the firth and up the river called the New Abbey Pow which runs to the east of the abbey. The same material was used to build Caerlaverock Castle.
Towering above the Kirkwall townscape, St Magnus Cathedral is one of Scotland’s finest cathedrals – and one of the oldest. Parts of it have stood for more than 850 years. It was built using two different stones – red sandstone quarried from Head of Holland to the north, and yellow sandstone which is believed to have been brought from Eday, one of Orkney’s northern isles.
The colour of the stone depends on where it was formed. Dark reds were formed by sediments under water, whereas lighter colours were formed onshore in desert conditions. The resulting combination is a thing of beauty, for which we have both natural geology and skilled masons to thank.