At 2.45pm 71 Brethren, clothed in their regalia, assembled outside the Abbey Row Centre and thereafter walked in Masonic procession to the grounds of Kelso Abbey. The Right Worshipful Master, Bro Graeme White, introduced Bro Allan J Marshall PM who welcomed the Brethren and called upon Worshipful Provincial Grand Secretary Bro Jock W Blackie to address the assembly.
The full text of Bro Blackie’s oration is here appended in for posterity,
“Right Worshipful Master, Right Worshipful Provincial Grand Master, Members of Provincial Grand Lodge, Distinguished guests, Reigning Masters, Past Masters, Worshipful Wardens, Brethren and Ladies and Gentlemen all.
Firstly, I would like to begin by thanking the Right Worshipful Master and the Brethren of Lodge Kelso and Tweed No.58, for giving me the honour and pleasure delivering this address on such an historic occasion.
While the Brethren of the Kelso Lodge have formed many processions in the past, this has usually been for the laying of foundation stones, or similar ceremonies. And while they have also had parades to the Abbey in the past this is certainly the first occasion in modern times that such procession as been held.
That may seem strange considering the prominence and importance the Abbey has held in the history of Kelso, and its links with Freemasonry over the centuries
I don’t know if it is the intention of this new Lodge to make this an annual Masonic walk in Kelso, or whether this is a one-off, but I’m proud indeed to be asked to deliver this oration, and I only hope I can do the subject justice.
Today we meet to celebrate two elements that have greatly enriched the history of the town of Kelso; they are Freemasonry and Kelso Abbey.
Firstly we are here to mark a new chapter in the history of Freemasonry in Kelso with the amalgamation of the two Kelso Masonic Lodges of Kelso No.58 and Tweed No.261 to form this new Lodge titled Lodge Kelso and Tweed, and they have kept the number 58, thus preserving a vital link with the past
And what a history they can look back on, but unfortunately time prevents me from covering that subject in anything but the most perfunctory detail
We can prove Freemasonry has existed in Kelso since 1701, as the minute book from that date still exists, but in it there are references to “previous meetings and former sederunts” and other comments, which suggest it was working as a Lodge for a considerable time before that date.
However we can also speculate that Freemasonry is even more ancient than that. The foundation stone of the Abbey here at Kelso was laid in 1128 and solemnly dedicated to the name of the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist.
Now as the Abbey was dedicated to Holy St John the Evangelist, who is the patron Saint of stonemasons, and the first records of the Lodge state they met “under the protection of Holy St John”, here immediately we have a connecting link between the Abbey and the Craft of Freemasonry. If as is often claimed by other Lodges, the origins of Freemasonry stem from the influences of the first stonemasons, who were brought in from France to build the Border Abbeys, then there must be a distinct possibility that Freemasonry would have begun here in Kelso, As this was the first of the great Abbeys to be founded. That would mean Kelso would have a very strong claim to be the oldest and therefore the premier Lodge in Scotland.
How I wish that documentary evidence could be unearthed to settle the argument one way or the other, but as practically all written records were lost with the destruction of the Abbeys, there is little chance there will ever be a definitive answer to that dispute.
But at least it gives plenty of ammunition for a good argument (Especially with the masons from Melrose!)
The recorded history of Kelso as a town really starts with t he foundation of the Abbey in 1128, when King David the First, closed a small monastery at Selkirk and sent the monks to Kelso to establish the first of his four great Border Abbeys.
However there is some slight evidence of a dwelling here from much earlier. Kelso is built on a chalky heugh (remembered still in the street name of Chalkheugh Terrace) and in the old scots language that translates as Calkou or Calchou, which is mentioned in an account of a raid into England in around 600AD.
The wording of the founding Charter granted to Kelso by King David when the monks were gifted land to build the abbey on the site of “The church of the blessed virgin on the banks of the Tweed at a place called Calchou or Kelso” indicate it was already a religious site, by the time the monks from Selkirk arrived.
Before the establishment of the Abbey, Kelso was very much overshadowed by the town and Castle of Roxburgh. The site at Roxburgh was an obvious place to build a stronghold, standing as it did on a on a long oblong mound, bounded by the river Teviot on one side and the Tweed on the other, and it is said the castle rose to a height of some eighty feet thus dominating the undulating landscape around it. To the east of where the castle stood on the peninsula where the Teviot and Tweed join David established his new Burgh. The castle acted as his royal palace and was at the centre of Scottish politics for more than a century. In the mid twelfth century the Scottish royal mint was established there, where silver pennies were minted, which were among the first Scottish coins in circulation. The great annual fair “the St James’s fair” held at Roxburgh was the most important in Scotland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries continuing to be a Royal fair long after the Royal Burgh of Roxburgh had disappeared.
I only refer to the importance of Roxburgh as wishing to have a cathedral or an abbey alongside the Royal Palace was the main reason that David 1 established the first of his four great border abbeys here at Kelso. As the Tironesian monks who staffed it were the first of the new reformed monastic orders, it was a bold and risky choice in bringing them to Kelso and founding an Abbey so close to the English border, many people seeing that as a deliberate provocation to the English, and so it proved.
The foundation stone was laid in 1128 enough of the building was completed in less than ten years for it to be consecrated as an Abbey Church, but the construction of the Abbey and the associated buildings would take the best part of another one hundred years.
Indeed for much of its early history Kelso Abbey would have resembled a building site with the monks, the masons and the workmen housed in temporary accommodation in the village while more permanent structures were under construction.
The stone with which the Abbey was built was quarried at Hendersyde and Sprouston on the other side of the Tweed. The stone from which it was built is local sandstone which has the advantage of being reasonably easy to carve, but has the drawback of suffering badly from erosion as you can see from the surviving stonework and from the old headstones in the graveyard.
Now I’m sure you can appreciate how big an operation in was simply getting the stone blocks to the site, never mind dressing and carving the stones, using only mallets and chisels, and the logistics of lifting the blocks into place using ropes and pulleys on wooden scaffolding. Obviously this was very labour intensive and it has been speculated that the number of men working on the various parts of the site would be in the several thousands, at least initially. But the ingenuity and skill of those ancient craftsmen can only be marvelled at and admired. From what is left standing we can fully appreciate the craftsmanship contained in structures they built, and but for the ravages of war, they would have still have been standing today, some nine hundred years later. How many of the buildings constructed today using all our modern technology will stand that test of time: that is tribute enough to the skill of those operative masons.
We are fortunate that we actually have a fairly accurate description of the original building as papers relating to its building were found in the Vatican archives in the early sixteenth century detailing its construction and layout.
Today it is only the western end, which is left standing, but using those records it is possible to estimate where the rest of the buildings would have stood. The Eastern end would have been somewhere beyond the Abbey Row centre towards the car park where we assembled earlier though we cannot be entirely sure of its full extent having suffered such destruction especially in the sixteenth century.
The design of Kelso Abbey was very unusual if not unique for its time, as it was in the shape of a double cross with transepts at both the West and East ends, with a high tower above each. It was also built not only as a place of worship, but was as strongly built as a small castle and fortified against attack. It could be used as a place of refuge where the local population could take shelter in times of war. Although built of stone with its outer walls three meters thick it only had a wooden roof, which was its Achilles heel when under attack.
The interior would have been highly decorated in rich blues, golds and reds with carved statues of the saints adorning the plinths set into the walls. The floor would have been partly paved in stone and partly just bare earth. There were no pews the congregation would stand during the mass and kneel for prayer .We are also told it contained “many sweet sounding bells which were rung daily before the Mass” and it contained twelve smaller chapels with individual altars on which smaller masses were sung daily. The area on the left there was where the cloisters stood and beyond that the living accommodations.
The influence of Abbey in the middle ages was considerable and because of its royal patronage, it rapidly became not only very wealthy but also one of the most politically important. This is borne out by the fact that in 1165, less than forty years from its foundation, the Pope awarded John the abbot of Kelso a bishop’s mitre. That meant simply that he held equal rank with any bishop and was answerable only to the Pope himself, making Kelso Abbey a very important and potent force within the Scottish church. To such an extent that on the death of David’s eldest son Henry, he had him buried at Kelso Abbey rather than among his royal ancestors in Dunfermline. King James the Third, only eight years old at the time, was crowned in Kelso Abbey after his father James the Second was buried there having been killed at Roxburgh when a cannon exploded.
But the Abbey had a very chequered history, standing as a completed Abbey for only some one hundred years before being ravaged, damaged and burned on several occasions by invading English armies. Along with the town of Kelso, it was particularly badly damaged during the wars of independence in the early thirteen hundreds (the time of Wallace and Bruce) taking some thirty years to repair. It was also damaged to one degree or another over the next two hundred years before being virtually destroyed in the early fifteen hundreds. In the aftermath of the disaster in 1513 at Flodden Field where King James the Fourth was killed the Abbey was attacked and burned and again in 1523. It was barely repaired when it was attacked twenty years later in 1542, 1544 and in 1545 when, during Henry the Eight’s rampage through the Borders in what became known as the “rough wooing” it was damaged beyond repair. It was reported the reason it was destroyed was because a hundred Scots soldiers had occupied and the fortified the Abbey against the Earl of Hertford’s army, who having unsuccessfully blasted the Abbey walls with cannon fire then had its foundations blown up with gunpowder so virtually destroying the building leaving only the West end standing.
Although sixteen monks returned later, and used the west end (the part we are standing in) as a parish church, there was so much destruction and with the coming of the Reformation it was abandoned in 1560. By an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 1587 it was declared “ the haill monkis of the Abbay of Kelso are decessit.”
Although part of the west wing was saved and continued to be used as a parish church for the next fifty years, Kelso ceased to function as an Abbey having stood for some four hundred and plus years, and only being brought down by needless destruction
The stones from the ruined Abbey were finally stripped from the site and used to build a rough church, some stables and the local jail within the ruins but they were all demolished in 1816, leaving only what you can see today.
The upside of all that destruction however meant that there was virtually continuous building and rebuilding in progress during that four and a half centuries, and with the conversion of the Abbey to a church and all the other building that was taking place in the town itself, we can be sure there would be have a constant need for masons to be employed and live here, and as we know the site was still being used as late as the sixteen fifties and as I have already said, we can prove Lodge 58 dates from before 1701, it is more than likely that interim period would also seen masons active in the town.
It would be unrealistic to claim that one lodge has been in existence all that time. It would almost certainly have been a succession of lodges that were formed and closed as the different stages works were completed, but we can say with some certainty, that the link with those early operative masons will have been virtually unbroken since the Abbey was founded in 1128.
So it is now in your hands Brethren, to keep that Masonic tradition alive in Kelso, and I trust you will undertake those responsibilities with the gravity they demand.
Today the Abbey is the resting place of the Kerr family the Dukes of Roxburgh. In 1866 the then Duke repaired what little was left of the South transept and put it to use as the family burial plot and in 1933 in honour of the 8th Duke a memorial in the form of a cloister was built and is now used for family burials.
The rest of the building and grounds are now in the care of Historic Scotland
On the far wall there is a plaque with the dates 1128 – 1978 commemorating the 850th anniversary celebrations, and I’m sure there will be a similar ceremony in seventeen years time to mark its 900th anniversary
As it did all those centuries ago the Abbey still plays a very important part in the local economy as it attracts thousands of tourists annually, who can now only use their own imagination to try envisage what a magnificent building it must have been and to mourn the fact that such a testament to the skill and ingenuity of those ancient masons was laid to waste.
I do hope all those ancient operative masons are looking down on us today, as we are assembled here to pay tribute to them, and the legacy they left to the town of Kelso.
I also hope if they are they watching from that Grand Lodge above, they will be pleased that the Brethren of this new Lodge, are following in their footsteps and by their commitment to the Craft, willingness to adapt and forward thinking, are keeping Freemasonry alive and strong in Kelso.
We wish you Right Worshipful Master and the Brethren of Lodge Kelso and Tweed No.58 every possible success, as you set out in writing the next chapter in the history of Freemasonry in Kelso. And what more fitting setting could you have found to mark the occasion.
Brethren, thank you for your attention”
At the conclusion of the oration The RWM paid tribute to Bro. Jock Blackie for a fine address, this was warmly received by the Brethren. Bro Allan J Marshall then gave an excellent rendition of Highland Cathedral.
The Brethren formed themselves into procession with the Provincial Grand Director of Ceremonies Bro Harry Wright at the head followed by the daughter Lodges in order of seniority, next came the Brethren of the Lodge of Kelso & Tweed No. 58, next the deputation from the Province of East Lothian and Berwickshire headed by Bro Ronnie Patterson Depute Provincial Grand Master, then the deputation from the Provincial Grand Lodge of Roxburgh Peebles and Selkirk Shires headed by the RW Provincial Grand Master Bro John F. Lamb.
Following on was Bro Bob Wilson, Sword Bearer, carrying the ceremonial sword in front the Lodge Bible, adorned with the square and compasses, this was carried by Bro Bill Heaney PM Bible Bearer and finally the Right Worshipful Master of Lodge Kelso & Tweed No. 58, Bro Graeme White, supported left and right by the Bro Marshall Muirhead IPM and Bro Tim Slater PM.
The procession lead by piper Bro Bob Lilly PM then paraded out the Abbey gates and along Bridge Street turning right into the front of the Town Hall were the procession split out to allow the RWM to lead the Brethren into the Lodge which had been erected in the Town Hall for the occasion.