Located in a secluded bend of the River Forth, near Stirling, the ruins of the 12th century Augustinian Abbey watch over the village of Cambuskenneth.
Founded at the request of David I around 1140, and originally dedicated to St Mary, the abbey enjoyed a close connection with royalty at the nearby Stirling Castle. Something reflected in the main road from the castle to the abbey retaining to this day the title of St Mary’s Wynd.
Rise of the Abbey
The proximity to such a favourite royal residence caused the abbey to grow quickly in wealth and influence, leading it to play an important role in Scotland’s history over the next few centuries. The abbey regularly provided accommodation to visiting royalty and in 1423 the Abbot was sent to negotiate the release of James I from English captivity.
Several Scottish kings held Parliaments at the abbey; Robert Bruce notably held one in 1326, which was the first to include representatives from Scotland’s burghs, and confirmed the succession of his son David. James III was even buried before the altar, after his death at the battle of Sauchieburn in 1488, and his rather grand tomb remains, somewhat forlornly, among the ruins.
The church itself is laid out in a manner more common in Cistercian abbeys. The freestanding bell tower is unusual and thought to date from the late 13th Century, though it has been altered extensively over the centuries. Possibly erected as a result of damage sustained to the original bell tower, part of the main church, when it was reportedly struck by lightning in 1378.
Fall of the Abbey
Naturally the proximity to both Stirling and the royal family did not always play in the abbey’s favour. It found little favour with passing English armies during the Wars of Independence and spent much of the later half of the 1300s in ruins, before being rebuilt in the early 1400s.
After the Reformation the abbey fell to ruin, with few monks remaining by the time it closed in 1559, most of the buildings having been looted and burned out. Later it would fall under the guardianship of the Earl of Mar and there is some debate as to whether the stone was used to build his town house in Stirling or for the extension of the castle itself.
Either way, by the time the site was excavated by the Burgh Architect in 1864 there was little left of the original buildings, and the Bell Tower required considerable restoration work. Shortly afterwards Queen Victoria financed the raising of a tomb for James III and his Queen Margaret of Denmark, and in 1908 the site was acquired by the crown for preservation.
Visiting the Abbey
Few enough cars find their way down the winding road from the Alloa road (A907) that the tourists compete with the cows for space in the adjoining field and visitors are kindly requested to close the gate. Most visitors come on foot and during the summer the ruins and lower parts of the tower are open for free. Accessible from Stirling itself only by a footbridge across the Forth from Riverside, both ruins and village retain an otherworldly air.
The contrast between the restored Bell Tower and the knee-high ruins of the rest of the abbey gives the impression that the visitor is at the gateway to another world. Standing with your back to the city, the tower outlined against the Ochils and the sound of small adventurous children seeking entrance to Narnia and Avalon, it is easy to imagine that the rest of the ruins will rise up around you.
Maintained by Historic Scotland, the site is open from April to September.
Mon – Sat: 9.30am – 6.00pm
Sunday: 2.00pm – 6.00pm