Cambuskenneth Abbey

Cambuskenneth Abbey

1 April to 30 September:
Monday to Sunday, 9.30am to 5.30pm

1 to 31 October:
Monday to Sunday, 10am to 4pm

1 November to 31 March: Closed

There are a number of websites giving the history and pictures of Cambuskenneth Abbey.

The abbey of Cambuskenneth was founded in 1147 by David 1, King of Scots. The Augustinian Order from Arras in France, also established houses at Jedburgh, Holyrood, St.Andrews, Dumfermline and the lake of Menteith (Inchmahome). Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary it has been variously known as “The Monastrey”, “Abbey of Stirling”, “St.Mary of Cambuskenneth” and “St.Mary of Stirling

The Abbey was the scene of many important political events. Between 1303 and 1304 Edward 1 was at Cambuskenneth. In 1308 Sir Neil Campbell, Sir Gilbert Hay and other barons met here, and on the high alter swore fealty to Robert Bruce. In1314 Bruce held one of several Parliaments after his victory at Bannockburn, and in 1326 Robert Bruce, the whole clergy, earls and barons, swore fealty to Bruce’s son David and this convention at Cambuskenneth is the first Parliament of Scotland in which burgesses are mentioned as having a seat. So frequently did the Scottish Parliament meet here that one of the buildings was called “Parliament Hall”.

During the wars with England in the reign of David Bruce the abbey was pillaged of most of its most valuable furniture, books, vestments, alter cups, and ornaments. Intermittently throughout the 14th century the abbey suffered from wars and hostile incursions.

The right of burial within the church precincts was in the Middle Ages considered a desirable privilege and assurance of future bliss, and became a profitable source of income by the clergy. To the community of Cambuskenneth, James111 gave the revenues of a whole parish in return for the burial of his queen in February 1487, and of himself. In June 1488 King James was assassinated at Whins of Milton when fleeing from the battlefield of Sauchieburn, and he was buried beside his queen by the high alter. Part of the royal tomb was uncovered during excavations conducted in 1864, and the bodies were found in an oaken coffin beneath a large block of limestone. The royal remains were subsequently re-interred beneath a memorial at the site of the high alter in 1865, at the command and expense of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.

In 1559 John Knox returned to Scotland and at the Reformation there was dissolution and pillage of the Abbey, and the lands held by the Abbey fell to the noble families who had coveted them for so long. In 1502 Queen Mary granted Adam Erskine the Abbey, which being no use to him, he had it demolished and the stones used to build his house, now known as Mar’s Wark. It subsequently fell into various hands until it was acquired by the Crown in 1908. The stones of the abbey were cannibalised for housing and other projects. There are fragments in Stirling’s Holy Rude church, and in the palace of Mar’s Wark, and Cowane’s Hospital.

Apart from the unusual free-standing bell-tower, little now remains standing of the abbey buildings but their foundations and the western door-way. The detached belfry or campanile, so frequently seen in Italy, is unique and occurs in Scotland only at Cambuskenneth.

The Abbey grounds are open from morning to dusk, entry is free, but there is no guide. Only the ground floor room of the tower is open to the public, but the upper rooms can be accessed by special arrangement.

A Great Ecclesiastical Building

The reconstruction on the left shows what a large and handsome building Cambuskenneth Abbey must have been. All that now remains of one of the greatest Scottish abbeys, within whose walls the Parliament of Scotland frequently met, is a mere ground plan of the building in stones and a solidly built Gothic Tower.

No country was so fortunate in its kings as Scotland, but few so unfortunate in its nobles. David 1st, the youngest son of Malcolm Canmore, the greatest of our kings, in his fight for his people against the lawless barons, founded 11 abbeys,11 bishoprics, and other religious institutions throughout Scotland to spread knowledge, the art of building, and the science of agriculture. The abbeys served Scotland well. Although Scotland was often harried by wars through the Imperialist aggression of England, and suffered severely from its warring barons during the numerous regencies, or when a weak king sat on the throne, Scotland became one of the great trading nations of Europe.

The Foundation of the Abbey

Cambuskenneth was founded by David 1 in 1147, appropriated for the monks of the Order of St.Augustine from Arrouaise Abbey near Arras, France, and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. For about fifty years after its foundation the church was called St.Mary’s of Stirling in all the charters relating to it. In 1201, however, the name was changed to the Church of St.Mary of Cambuskenneth. The name Cambuskenneth signifies the field or creek of Kenneth, after Kenneth 11., who fought a battle in the 9th century with the Picts on the isthmus on which the abbey is built thus helping to ensure his control over most of Scotland.


Cloister – The square open area around which the main buildings were grouped

Abbey Endowments

For perpetual endowment David gave the lands adjoining the abbey, lands in the parish of St.Ninians, the lands of Tullibody, with various fishings and tithes, and afterwards conferred on it the church of Clackmannan and lands near Linlithgow. He also gave the lands of Touch Molar; building sites at Stirling and Linlithgow; and several other possessions. From time to time succeeding Scottish sovereigns conferred lands and churches in every part of the kingdom on its canons and Cambuskenneth became extremely wealthy. Sheep were farmed at the time of the Abbey on the Ochils when much of the Hillfoots belonged to the monks.


South wall of Nave. Divided into bays by triplets of wall shafts, of which the bases only remain

In this lovely fertile valley the monks planted orchards, parts of which remained until the 1960s, and tilled the soil. To the chanting of hymns they cast their nets in the sluggish waters of the Forth, their hymns interrupted now and again to indulge in a little argument with the fishermen from Stirling about fishing rights. In the reign of David 2nd. a claim for damages to cruives and fishings was made against burgesses. In James11.’s time a decree was made ordering the community to cease occupying the fishings belonging to the abbots of Cambuskenneth. A compromise on this matter was reached in 1501, but six years later there was a further outbreak of trouble, and on this occasion the Lords gave a decision in favour of the abbots against the bailies and others for despoiling the nets. It is not suprising that during the 14th century Wars of Independence, the Abbey, on its strategic site in the key waistline of Scotland got involved. When William Wallace won his sweeping victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297, the monks are bound to have watched the movements of both armies.

Refectory The main dining hall. Half way down the left wall was the Lavatorium, with running water and a place for towels

Strategic Position of Stirling

Stirling stands at the gateway to the Scottish Highlands, the first fordable or bridgeable crossing point of the River Forth from Edinburgh. In the middle ages it was a centre of commerce as boats came up to the burgh bringing wine, timber, cloth, and lace; taking away hides, wool and kippered salmon, the latter being the town’s most important source of income. Barrels were shipped to France, The Netherlands and England.

Cambuskenneth Abbey was known throughout Europe. Many of the abbots were renowned scholars, and from the beginning of the 15th century the abbots were often employed in important State duties. The abbot was one of the commissioners appointed to negotiate the liberation of James 1 from his long captivity in England. The Abbot Henry was appointed High Treasurer of the kingdom in 1493; the abbot Patrick Panther, one of the most accomplished scholars of his age, was secretary to James IV., a Privy Councillor, and afterwards Ambassador to the French Court. Many later abbots held high office in the affairs of state in Scotland.

The Chapter House The main meeting room where business was discussed and sins confessed. It took its name from a daily reading of a chapter of the Monastic Rule

The First Scottish Parliaments

Many important episodes in the history of Scotland were enacted within the walls of the abbey. Sir Neil Campbell, Sir Gilbert Hay, and other barons met in the abbey and entered into a contract to defend the title of Robert Bruce to the Scottish throne. Here in 1326 the barons and clergy, together with representatives from the cities and burghs, met in the first democratic Scottish Parliament, and swore fealty to David Bruce as heir-apparent to the throne. So frequently did the the Scottish Parliament meet here that one of the buildings was called Parliament Hall. The wealth of the abbey attracted the cupidity of the English armies that successively invaded Scotland in the wars of Independence. In the troubled reign of David 11. and Robert 11. it was wrecked and pillaged. In the reign of David Bruce the belfry was struck with lightening and set on fire. The building was afterwards extensively renovated, and the revenues increased by the abbot.

The Reformation

The storm clouds of the Reformation were piling up against the church. The Black Death which had swept over Europe was taking a heavy toll in Scotland. The economic structure of the Middle Ages was destroyed. It

was a time of depression, and envious eyes were cast by the nobles on the well tilled lands of the church. The storm burst, and the nobles swooped down on the lands they had coveted for so long. The Erskine family secured the revenues of the Abbey after a limited portion had been deducted by the Privy Council for the reformed clergy. In 1562, Queen Mary granted Adam Erskine the Abbey. The Abbey was of no use to him, but he required a mansion house in Stirling, and here were stones ready hewn. He had the Abbey demolished and the stones used to build his house, now known as Mar’s Wark, adjacent Stirling’s Holy Rude Church which also contains Abbey stone. Cowane’s Hospital, an almhouse built in 1637 also contains Cambuskenneth stones.

Church of the Holy Rude

Of course, John Knox and his army are accused of the destruction of the Abbey, but there is no truth in the accusation. Knox protested against Mar’s vandalism and we know what deep resentment was created among the people of Stirling. Several accounts say that in 1559 resentful crowds wrecked the Abbey, and subsequently the walls were pulled down.

The Lasting Remains of the Abbey

All that now remains of the abbey is the beautiful arch of the west doorway of the church, and the graceful bell tower. The doorway was the main entrance to the nave, but now leads into a graveyard. The abbey after time became a source of building stone for people of the surrounding district, and many of the older houses near Cambuskenneth were built with stones taken from it. A stone about a foot square, said to have been the keystone of the great entrance arch, was found at Alloa and is now preserved in the ruin of Menstry house. Intricately carved letters on the stone form the name Cambuskenneth, and all the letters of the Roman alphabet can be read on close examination. Around 1860 the alms box of the Abbey and the keys were found among the ruins. The box is of iron and made in the ornate Gothic manner. A small piece of bronze plate probably from the coffin of James111. is now in Stirling’s Smith Museum and Gallery.

There was in the tower until the 1990s the hulk of a boat which was found in the forth and is said to have been used by the monks. The boat was hollowed out by fire, and is therefore probably much older than the Abbey itself. The monks did not make boats in this crude manner. The Cambuskenneth ferry used until the footbridge was built in 1935, was not the one the monks used. Their ferry was a little further down river.

 Tomb of James 111 and Queen Margaret

A corner of a ruined building known as the Abbey dovecot is to be found east of the bell tower, outwith the present outline of the Abbey. There are several low walls outlining an original group of buildings, possibly the monk’s infirmary but also possibly store houses, leading down to the river which is fordable at this point at low tide. These buildings may have been built later by a farmer with stones from the Abbey when it was in decay.

The Grave of James III

In 1709 Stirling Town Council, as Patrons of Cowane’s Hospital, bought the lands of Cambuskenneth from the Alva branch of the Erskines. 1864 the Council spent about £1000 in pointing and repairing the tower, and laying out the grounds. During these excavations the foundations of the naïve, transept, chancel and chapter house were laid bare. Also they discovered the burial place of King James 111. and his Queen, Margaret of Denmark. In the middle Ages it was considered desirable to be buried within the church precincts and the monks accepted endowments to that end. James 111. gave revenues of a whole parish in return for the burial of his Queen.

Queen  Margaret died at Stirling and was buried near the high altar in 1487; in June 1488, King

James was assassinated at Whins of Milton when fleeing from the battlefield of Sauchieburn and he was interred beside his Queen, in an oaken coffin beneath a large block of limestone. Queen Victoria paid a visit to Cambuskenneth and commanded a finely designed monument be erected over the re-interred remains.

The Abbey Today

The Abbey is now maintained by Historic Scotland who have placed indicators to show the parts of the abbey walls, and who cut the grass and keep this historic monument tidy.

The church measures 180 ft by 37ft, and was cruciform. The remaining foundations trace the pupitum, each of the transepts, the sacristy, the infirmary, the chapterhouse, the refectory, the cloister walk and much else. A lavatorium, with running fresh water and cupboards stood near the refectory doorway

The King who lost his throne

On 11 June 1488, two armies fought beside the Sauchie Burn. On one side was King James 3 and his Royalist army; on the other his son, Prince James and the rebels. It was civil war.

The King left the field before the fighting started. He scuttled away on his horse without escort and soon he fell into the hands of vile persons and was slain. His son took the throne as King James IV. The body of the king was brought to Cambuskenneth Abbey and buried beside his Queen.

Personal Reign

James III was only one of two Scottish kings to forfeit their throne in the later Middle Ages. His idea of kingship was the ruthless exercise of power. He almost met his end during the crisis of 1482, when he was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle, and an attempt was made to force him to abdicate in favour of his 9 year old son. On that occasion he regained his freedom and his power, six years later he was not so lucky.