Cambuskenneth: Stirling’s Hidden History

(this article is from March 2016)

Down a twisted path from Stirling Rail Station lies Cambuskenneth Abbey, the often overshadowed sibling of Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument. This archaic Abbey used to lie at the forefront of Scottish history, although that wouldn’t be clear now.

Once an important pilgrimage destination to Scotland’s most prominent nobles, Cambuskenneth Abbey is rich in history, but that history is hard to imagine. Sheep roam the flatland where Scotland’s first ruler, Kenneth MacAlpine, defeated the Picts. Medieval kings prayed there, although the cathedral has long since been ruined. Robert the Bruce held his first parliament at Cambuskenneth, however the hall is now a square of marshland. That’s not all that’s been lost; an infirmary, library and dormitories could have existed before the stone was quarried to create a mansion for the Earl of Mar.

Nevertheless there is still an otherworldly, almost mystical feel to Cambuskenneth Abbey. I have rallied a battalion similar to Kenneth MacAlpine’s tribe. History, politics, film and psychology students I hope will represent a true reaction to the unassuming piece of medieval architecture. We begin in the Industrial Revolution however, the first ten minutes of the walk circles Stirling Railway Station and leads to a disused harbour.

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GUARD Archaeology explained how their research at the Abbey highlighted many interesting discoveries, in particular revelations about the local harbour. “The harbour and ford are primitive in design but were functional for several centuries … on what was effectively a holm (an island created by river) within the Carse landscape. Most other river systems across Scotland and elsewhere have long since evolved in adaptation to the industrial revolution but Cambuskenneth has evaded such destruction.”

Through Abbey Road we walk, and Cambuskenneth is already looming over the trees. It is a rather eerie sight on this grim, foggy day. The dark clouds that threaten rain billow from the abbey like smoke. Cambuskenneth looks foreboding, not welcoming.  A brief stop at a deserted park delays our travels, followed by an essential snack break for Cadbury’s Creme Eggs. Kenneth MacAlpine would be proud of our style of pilgrimage, I’m sure.

Apparently Riverside was a famed market village until the 1950’s. Vibrant colours would spring from gooseberries, apples and strawberries on stalls, and they would be accompanied by the smells of tulips and roses carried by street vendors. There was enough activity and beauty that the famous ‘Glasgow Boys’ painters drew inspiration from the area, ultimately settling in the village during 1920. Now it is rather lacklustre, a newsagent and a bowling alley break up the rows and rows upon houses where curtains twitch, but no-one is seen.

Next we reach the footbridge connecting Cambuskenneth with the outside world. It is quieter this side of the bridge, and the Abbey seems much more prominent up close. Leaving us speechless, it is mesmerizing as we take in the bell tower riddled with grotesques and intricate medieval detail. For it is only the bell tower that remains, the stones of the surrounding buildings were purged the Earl of Mar’s mansion, which ironically was never completed.  Even the footbridge is not historically accurate in its tieing of Riverside to Cambuskenneth, it was only constructed in 1934. Despite this link between suburbia and  marshy land peppered with houses, Cambuskenneth still feels like it is on the cusp of the city, secluded from Stirling life.

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Cambuskenneth is truly a hidden gem of Stirling’s history which I can only presume is even more enjoyable when it is actually open during the summer months. Despite the padlocked gate separating 2016 students from 14th century Scotland, it still feels like I have caught a glimpse of a land time forgot.

The graveyard remains. It is home to James III and his wife Margaret, but feels oddly out of place. Not just because of the Victorian style memorial for the ancient royals, but also because of the rather less archaic Riverside surrounding it.

Apart from our ragtag group there are no other visitors. It seems easy to picture the medieval scene, a monk walking from the graveyard to the bell tower, another praying outside, a traveller ambling down the path. The image is disrupted only slightly by the anxious ba’s of sheep as a tractor rumbles past.

Nevertheless it feels like there is still a medieval presence here. Spirits of fallen warriors tread the boggy marshland, ghosts of royalty survey the Abbey’s visitors. Indeed there is an unsettling feeling of being watched, the grotesques glare down as we approach the padlocked gate.

Cambuskenneth Abbey was so important because of its position near the Royal Burgh of Stirling, the Glasgow of its time in terms of its urban centre and people. It’s strange how quickly a building can go between popularity and oblivion. We don’t stay too long, it’s getting cold and the barren landscape provides little protection. We walk back a slightly different way, down Lover’s Walk, and gradually return to present day Stirling.

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Cambuskenneth Abbey was never recommended to me as part of the integral Stirling experience, although I think it should be. It offers a more subtle look at Scotland past. To be fair, it’s had its fair share of interest from historians. An ancient English coin at least 700 years old was found by archaeologists, the small coin equal to a month’s wage for a soldier in Edward II’s army. I’ve never metal detected before, but the area surrounding Cambuskenneth could yield some treasure of the past.

I spoke to Elizabeth Rimmer, a prominent Scottish poet based in Stirling. She had visited the archeologists’ dig and the final stanza in her poem ‘The Ruined Abbey’ sums up what is learnt from a visit to Cambuskenneth Abbey.  

…But still the tower stands

a monument to Victoria’s fling

with Scotland, and the quiet graves

of James and Anne, and villagers

long since dead, sleep in its shadow

and in its memory of prayer.

 

 

Sources:
Elizabeth Rimmer, Poet. The Ruined Abbey used with permission.
Ronan Toolis, GUARD Archaelogy. Press Release used with permission.
Pictures my own (15th March 2016)

 

 

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