Now in ruins, this is a splendid red sandstone building in the centre of Arbroath. At least it would have been if the great west front hadn’t been covered in polythene and being restored.
We squeezed into the last place in the small abbey car park. There is on-street parking by the abbey but it is limited to 30 minutes which could be a bit tight for a visit.
A modern Visitor Centre has been built on the side of the west front since we last visited. This is large and we felt the design was intrusive. After St Vigeans visited earlier, this was not turning out to be one of our better days.
Inside the Visitor centre is a small shop and a walk through exhibition covering the history and personalities of the Abbey. This includes a copy of the Declaration of Arbroath. Steps lead up to a glass fronted viewing area. This was a bit underwhelming as you are not really that high up and ivy covered arches of old vaults in the grave yard did restrict views. There was a small model of what the abbey may have looked like in its heyday.
Arbroath Abbey was founded in 1178 by King William the Lion and dedicated to his childhood friend, Thomas Becket, murdered in 1170. He showered it with endowments including the income from 24 parishes, a toft of land in every Royal burgh, lands, fisheries, salt pans, ferries… The monks were given permission to set up a burgh, hold a market and build a harbour.
The first monks were from the Tironensian Order from Kelso Abbey. They were vegetarians and allowed two meals a day. On feast days they were allowed to eat fish. Two legged animals like chicken and other birds were considered acceptable as vegetarian food.
The monks remained at the abbey until the Scottish Reformation in 1560. After this time parts of the abbey were dismantled and removed for use in building a new church and also local houses.
The most important event in its history was the Declaration of Arbroath signed by the assembled Scottish nobility in Arbroath abbey with their seals in 1320. This was addressed to the pope after he had given his support to Edward II and excommunicated Robert the Bruce for his murder of John Comyn. It appealed against English claims on Scotland, that Scotland be an independent sovereign kingdom and gave their support to Robert the Bruce "For, so long as a hundred remain alive, we will never in any degree be subject to the dominion of the English. Since not for glory, riches or honours do we fight, but for freedom alone, which no man loses but with his life."
Out into the ruins, there isn’t a lot left of the abbey, although the Abbot’s House to the south of the west end is one of the best preserved in Scotland. A doorway leads into the undercroft with the kitchen. The abbey had an impressive gatehouse although access to this was restricted because of restoration work.
There is little left of the abbey. Nothing remains of the cloisters, chapter house or other abbey buildings. All that is left of the nave are the foundations of the pillars and part of the south wall. Apart from the (presently closed off) west end, there is the choir, sanctuary and south transept with the empty round window. This is locally known as the Round O and was originally lit up at night as a beacon for mariners. The best preserved part of the abbey is the sacristy off the chancel. Entry is through a wooden door with steps down. There is round top arcading round the walls and a stone bench round the sides. There are the remains of three aumbries with carved borders.
There are a few rather superficial information boards around the site but little attempt to identify what the different parts were. All in all we were disappointed by the visit. There isn’t a lot to see and what there is is poorly presented.
Entry is £5.50 or £4.40 for concessions which we felt was a bit expensive for what there is to see.