Inchaffray Abbey

Inchaffray Abbey at Madderty  - our forgotten heritage !

I wrote at some length about Inchaffray Abbey in my fourth and last book " More Tales of Crieff & Strathearn " . I have a strong fascination  with the old Abbey and an equally strong indignation that it has  been badly  neglected " by the powers  that be ". In Scotland  we have the right to roam . This is our heritage - please  feel free -where ever you are from-  to visit this  tranquil spot so steeped in our past . Read 
on ! 

Sketch of the Abbey ruins in 1794

The solitary gable remaining 

The vault or crypt still remarkably intact !

This is where the High Alter was located and the burial place of Malise Earl of Strathearn 

Some of the stonework  remains intact 
Trees and shrubbery chokes much

Hewn stonework is scattered around the site


I first visited Inchaffray  in the 1980s before it was encompassed  by the  modern dwelling that has now been  erected  immediately to the south . Why that erection ever received  planning  permission remains a source of  never ending incredulity !This  together  with a total absence of signage and displayed information is quite inexcusable . Inchaffray  is located about six miles  east of Crieff .How  do you get there ?  Leave  Crieff on the A85 Trunk Road  and head through Gilmerton. Look for the sign to Madderty on the right hand side . Proceed  about a mile until  you get to the copse of trees on an elevated mound . That is INCHAFFRAY ! You will have  to climb  over the small wall into  what now remains . From the attached pictures  you will note the standing gable  , various small walls and an arched vault . You can clearly see the  scorch marks of the fire in the 17th century !

The Abbey of Inchaffray is a part of  Strathearn’s  heritage  which has  not been well looked  after . Although generally regarded as an Augustinian Abbey founded  about 1200 , it  does in fact pre date this  by more than a few centuries. The site was originally occupied by “ brethren “ which was the old Celtic  Church or the Church of the Culdees .  It was run by the brethren of St John of Strathearn , the head of whom is designated “ Hermit “.

The Augustinian Abbey was founded in 1199 by Earl Gilbert , Earl of Strathearn . Gilbert is reputed also to have also founded the See of Dunblane . The Abbey was dedicated to the honour of God , the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist . The Charters refer to and designate it “ Insular Missarum “ or the “ Island of Masses “ . This is translation from the original Gaelic name of Inchaffray . It is supposed originally to have been an island set in the Pow at a time prior to that Burn being turned into a natural drainage channel for the low lying areas around it .

Gilbert appeared to have considerable influence in the  religious circles of the time . It was stated that his Family of Strathearn of which he was the progenitor “ were the only Scots subjects who can claim the distinction of having founded a Bishopric , and inheriting its Patronage , unless we accept the great Lords of Galloway , who appear to removed the Foundation of the See of St Ninian “ .

The first Charter by Earl Gilbert in favour of the Abbey is witnessed by Countess Matilda, his wife, and his six sons, the last named being Gilchrist, who died in 1198. Before this, the Earl had founded the House of Inchaffray; but then, the parents having chosen it as a place of burial for their son they recorded their sorrow in an extended foundation and endowment of their monastery. Malise, the Hermit, “in whose piety and discretion the founders had all confidence,” was to be head, and to have the selection. The Earl and Countess declared their affection for the place – 

“ So much do we love it, that we have chosen a Place of Sepulture in it for us and our successors, and have already buried there our eldest born. ”

By its Great Charter, AD 1200, this Abbey was endowed with the Churches of St. Kettanus of Aberuthven, of St Ethirnanus of Madderty, of St. Patrick of Strogeath,  of St. Mechesseock of Auchterarder, of S. Beanus of Kinkell ; with the Tithe of the Earl’s cain ** (** cheese) and Rents of wheat, meal, malt, cheese and all provisions used throughout the year in his Court; with the Tithe of all fish brought into his kitchen, and of the produce of his hunting; and the tithe of all the profits of his courts of justice , and all offerings . The Convent had the liberty of fishing in the Peffer, and of fishing and birding over all the Earl’s lands, waters and lakes. . They might take timber for building, and other uses from his woods, and have their pannage or mast – feeding for pigs as well as bark and firewood, in whatever places and as much as they chose. Some years later, Earl Gilbert granted to the Canons, now seated at Inchaffray, the Church of S. Beanus at Foulis, with the “ dower ” land of the Church, and the common pasturage of the parish, and the church of the Holy Trinity of Gask, with the same privileges.

In his old age, Earl Gilbert took a second wife, Ysenda, the daughter of a knightly family of the surname of Gask. A Chronicle, which seems to have been written in the Diocese, or to be in some other way peculiarly connected with Dunblane, records Earl Gilbert’s death – “ Gilbertus fundator canonicorum Insule Missarum et episcopatus Dunblanensis, obiit AD 1223 “. Earl Gilbert was succeeded by his son Robert, who was also the good Patron of the Canons of Inchaffray.  One of his Charters, indeed, savours of some estrangement and reconciliation  - Earl Robert, in the Church of Strogeath, in the presence of Abraham, Bishop of Dunblane, Gilbert the Archdeacon, and other notable witnesses, binds himself towards Innocent, the Abbot, that he will never in all his life vex the said Abbot, or his Convent, unjustly; nay, will love and every where honour them as his most special friends, and will add to the possessions of their House whatever he may, by the counsel of his friends  . In particular, he confirms to them the Churches of Gask and Strogeath.

 As early as 1218, the Canons of Inchaffray had reclaimed apportion of the vast marsh in which their “ Isle of Masses “ stood. Nearly 500 years afterwards, the “ heritors upon the Pow of Inchaffray ” applied to Parliament to appoint Commissioners for draining the whole marsh for common benefit. The Act, which followed upon their petition, dated 9th October 1696, given in the Appendix to the Registrum of Inchaffery, is curious, as perhaps the single instance of a great agricultural improvement effected under the authority of the Scottish Parliament.

The Abbey of Inchaffray, though respectably endowed, does not seem to rank among the greater monasteries of Scotland such as Melrose or Dryburgh . The Abbots, though Prelates of Parliament, occur rarely in public affairs, or in transactions which so frequently brought together Churchman of various religious houses. We have thus only a very few names of the successive Abbots preserved. 

I will conclude this " blog "  with a tale I copied many years ago which  explains the sad demise of this fascinating but forgotten and neglected Abbey right on our own door step ! 

A Strange tale about Inchaffray Abbey

( contained within the Perthshire Collection of the historian Fittes in the Sandeman collection and copied in 2003 in the AK Bell Library  )

“Fiercely gleams the old monk’s home
To other lands thy now must roam
Their Abbey grey is clothed in fire
From lowest stone to topmost spire .“

Inchaffray is located in the Parish of Madderty , and was at one time one of the largest Abbeys in Scotland . It is said to have contained upwards of 200 monks . One of the Abbots , as historical readers will remember , carried the arm of St Fillan , and performed mass before the Scottish Army , on the field of Bannockburn , where Scotland’s independence was fought and won . The numerous church roads through that part of the country where it is situated , show the paths on which trod many  a ghostly father  , as , leaving its hallowed sanctuary , they went to their respective allocations in the vicinity  to preach , pray and bless .  Though now only a gable wall , small arch  , and a few crumbling ivy clad walls  are almost all that remains of its former magnificence , it is reported to have been of vast extent .  The solitary gable  has already stood the test of many a winter storm , and from its present state of solidity , may yet remain as a memorial of the past for many a century to come . Trees now grow amid the ruins of  the ancient place  , and where once was heard  the matin bell , or the sweet voice of midnight prayer , nought now breaks the solitude but the wind  , as it sighs amid the branches  , or whistles drearily among the decaying walls .

Connected with this ecclesiastical edifice  hangs a strange tale . In 1665 , London was afflicted with that awful scourge – the plague . Its victims were so frightfully numerous  that the living  could scarcely bury the dead . Stalwart men arose in the morning  and ere evening were numbered with the dead .  The kiss of love had scarcely faded from the lips of beauty ere she slept in the grave . Parents saw the children of their affection seized with the dread  distemper and almost instantly expire . No class escaped its ravages . The very air seemed pregnant with death   . Terror seized hold of the mind – the better feelings of humanity were for the time forgotten . Thousands  fled to the country in their excitement , they knew not where – they seemed not to care – if they only left that dreadful charnel house behind .  A lady , resident in London , filled with the common fear , went , along with her servants , to Scotland and took up her residence in Inchaffray Abbey  ( by this time untenanted in consequence of the abolition of the monasteries ) , expecting to find safety and repose . But vain was the hope ! Scarcely had she arrived at her destination ere one of her servants died of the very disease from whose scourge she had fled . The inhabitants around heard that the plague was amongst them , and their terror became extreme .  They rose en masse and barricaded the doors , and set fire to the whole building , mercilessly determined to consume every soul within . Sickening was it to see and hear those frantic maidens wringing their hands in intensest agony , and pleading at the latticed windows to the stern hearted multitudes  below for mercy , as the greedy flames were almost encircling the place where they stood – but needless their prayer . Some ascended to the highest turret , but the whole mass soon became enveloped in fire , and with terrific shrieks , they disappeared amid the devouring ruin . Terrible was it to see the midnight sky illuminated by the tremendous glare , and a s the wind ever and anon blew sheets of flame around , to hear , in fancy’s ear , the despairing cries of the helpless mortals , who had already perished amid the blazing element !

All perished , save a small dog , which by some means escaped  , and ran eastwards , carrying the infection with it .Another romantic reminiscence is connected with the event . Two cousins , Bessy Bell and Mary Gray – desirous of escaping from the contagion  , went to the lonely banks of the Almond, and with their own hands , erected a rude hut , in which for a considerable time they lived a hermetical life . They held communication with none , until the lover of one of them , anxious to see the lady of his choice , paid a fatal visit to their solitary dwelling . He was not long gone when both fell victims to the disease . It is on them that Allan Ramsay composed  the beautiful song of

“Bessy Bell and Mary Gray ,
They were twa bonny lasses ;
They bigged a bower on yon burn brae ,
And theeked it owre wi’ rashes .“

For long years the Abbey was shunned as a haunted place . Numerous wild legends connected with it were repeated . The ploughman whose duties occasionally impelled him to its neighbourhood hastened

“ Like one that on a lonesome road ,
Doth walk in fear and dread  ;
And having once turned round , walks on ,
And turns no more his head . “

The schoolboy returning to his home in the evening with beating heart , accelerated pace , and averted head , soon left the inauspicious spot behind .The milk- maid , as she wandered through the contagious fields “ at twilight’s contemplated hour , “ often fancied she heard unearthly sounds echoing from the hoary pile . All looked upon it with a suspicious eye . At “ the wee short hour ayont the twal , “ the boldest heart would have quailed , if , passing the place , even a brown bush rustled in the wind .

Rumour says that a vast quantity of treasure is buried in the ruins . One old man is reported to have recovered a considerable amount of valuables  by digging around the place ; but few , if any , possessed the nerve to make a thorough search . The walls have served the surrounding farmers as a quarry for ages . Many stones , whose quaint inscriptions would have delighted even the heart of a “ Jonathan Oldbuck , “ are built in neighbouring dykes . No doubt the old glebe too , would have long ere now have been removed for similar purposes , were it not for the trouble its demolition would have cost . There is an unworthy spirit of vandalism  abroad , even in Scotland  - the land above every other of historic associations  and noble deeds , which would tear down the remnants of antiquity , or even violate the martyr’s cairn  if the stones would only aid in the construction  of a dyke or drain ! This spirit cannot be too severely condemned . These relics of the past ought to be looked upon with the utmost veneration . in France , they are upheld with the greatest care . Scotland ,  however , leaves them to take care of themselves , and the result will soon be , that many of the monuments of deeds which have made our country immortal  will be destroyed by sacrilegious hands , and the place that knew them once will know them no more again for ever . This is much to be deplored . A Nation’s pride is at stake  , and if it is desirable to leave to future generations a few mementoes of the gallantry or piety of their sires , these ought to be preserved inviolate .    


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