The Cistercian Nunnery of North Berwick and the Hume family
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Reconstruction of North Berwick Nunnery

Artist: Andrew Spratt

Custodian of Dirleton Castle.

These images are the copyright of Mr. Spratt who has generously given permission to display them here. For more about Andrew Spratt click here. For a complete index of Mr. Spratt's castles on this site click here. Other galleries of Mr. Spratt's work may be viewed at Clan Douglas and Clan Sinclair. Click on the castle to the left to view a larger image and scroll down to read more about the castle.


Along from the Nungate road and beside Old Abbey road in North Berwick, hidden by trees, is the fascinating ruins of North Berwick Nunnery. Consisting of a low boundary wall with small postern gate (probably originally reached by a wooden foot bridge) beside a huge chimney stack attached at right angles to a long crowstepped gabled blockhouse with cellars from the original ecclesiastical building. Added to this confused cluster is an oblong Towerhouse raised by the Home/Hume family in the early 1600's. The Tower is oblong in plan with a large turnpike stair well and elongated bartizan facing the ditch side, both originally capped by conical roofs. The location of the main church is now totally obscured by modern buildings. But nearby is a courtyard entrance and with a little imagination it is possible to visualise walking into this courtyard with the skyline filled with buildings, with the noises and smells of a busy community.

It is claimed that this Cistercian church was established in the late 12th century by the MacDuffs Thanes of Fife who locally also built the wooden motte and bailey castle known today as 'Castle Hill'. They endowed the nunnery with considerable revenues and possessions, including the "land called Gillecalmestun, on which the nunnery was built." However, other accounts state the nunnery wasn't established until 1216 which sounds more logical. Within the Lothians there were three Cistercian houses, Newbattle Abbey at Dalkeith (established in 1136),the Haddington nunnery (established in 1178) where the Treaty of Haddington may have been signed in 1548,and the nunnery of North Berwick.

 Cistercians took their name from Citeaux near Di'jon in France. They were known as white monks because of their plain undyed robes, were strict vegetarians and wore no undershirts or woolen breaches (so they would have to be hardy individuals given the winters in Scotland). They preached a simple life of of poverty and prayer, splitting half their day to God and the other to heavy physical work, tending gardens, orchards etc and were skilled craftsmen in several fields, making then the DIY monks of the ecclesiastical world.

They travelled to England and established Waverly Abbey in 1128,then Revaux Abbey in 1131. The Abbot of Revaux commenting on their chosen way of life said "Our food is scanty, our garments rough; our drink is from the stream and our sleep is often upon our book. Under our tired limbs there is but a hard mat; when sleep is sweetest we must rise at the bell's bidding......self will has no place there is no moment for idleness. Everywhere is peace, everywhere is serenity and marvellous freedom from the troubles of the world."

King David I of Scots (1124-1153) was so impressed with the monks at Revaux that he invited them into Scotland to establish Melrose Abbey in 1136. The chosen location of Cistercian orders was usual in a remote secluded valley beside a stream away from the world of mankind. Certainly this is true with the location of Melrose, Newbattle and Haddington but North Berwick, though not in a valley appears to have been beside an ancient stream. The idea that Cistercians lived in poverty and were free "from the troubles of the world" is difficult to equate with the reality of such establishments as they quickly became magnets for commercial, political and at times even military assemble points. Lords fought each other to offer their "protection" and "gifts" of land to such orders because of the revenues they generated.

The monks at Newbattle Abbey for example not only maintained large vegetable gardens, an orchard and watermills. But also mined coal, collected salt from the pans at Prestonpans (salt was a key tradeable commodity) and held the tax duties to ships landing and loading cargo at Preston village harbour. In fact Preston means "Priest's Town" after the monks of Newbattle. They also extracted clay from the Lothians as it produced particularly fine pottery, bricks and ornate floor tiles. Examples of these tiles were found within the ruins of the North Berwick nunnery in the 19th century and show a lion rampant which may well represent the Home heraldry of a silver/white lion on green, as the Homes had a long association with the nunnery prior to the building of the Towerhouse after 1600.

As time progressed the Cistercian views on poverty and piety became untenable with the wealth generated at such Abbeys as Newbattle and her sister house of Melrose which boasted an income from the wool and meat of some 10,000 sheep and the sale of salted fish exported abroad. It is also noted that the monks at Newbattle had affairs with local women. One such indiscretion resulted in the death of Margaret Herris, her maidservant and two monks when caught during their ellicit liaison in a cottage on the Melville estates by her father Sir John Herris, Baron of Gilmerton. Margaret refused to open the door to her father and in blind rage he set fire to the roof to 'smoke out' the occupants. Unfortunately, the cottage quickly burst into flames and collapsed killing all within. Sir John then fled to France to escape arrest but was allowed to return unpunished on condition the lands where the murders took place were donated to the monks of Newbattle. There is also an unconfirmed suggestion that the Prioress of North Berwick expressed her concerns regarding certain nuns climbing over the boundary wall at night to 'visit' the young men in the village.

By the early 16th century the nunnery, apparently in ruins even then, was gradually absorbed by the Humes of Polwarth. The Humes or Homes as they were originally known were, anciently, kin to the Gospatricks Earls of Dunbar and March, who built the great coastal fortress of Dunbar castle, then changed their name to Dunbar after their estate. Likewise the Homes took their name from their estate on the Merse building Hume castle in the late 13th century. The Homes also held many other castles throughout Scotland including Fast castle near St Abbs and Coldingham Priory for a time.

In 1529 "the Bishop of St Andrews lamented the frequent devastation by war of the monastery of North Berwick and its lands, and the burning of its church by the invading enemy." Since there appears to be no mention of an English invasion at this time it likely means that the "invading enemy." responsible for "the burning of its church" were the forces of King James V of Scots (1513-1542) during his siege of the 'Red' Douglas castle of Tantallon in 1528 and 1529. As such large siege armies 'lived off' the land and were usually made up of mercanaries who had no respect for civilians or their property.

Initially the King's cannon proved ineffective during this siege, so he borrowed several great bombards from Dunbar castle. Once in position these devastated Tantallon's outer spur work gun tower and damaged the midtower on the main curtain wall itself. But the garrison still held out as they were being continually re-supplied with food and munitions by sea. So starving the garrison out was not an option. At one point the King did have one of the Dunbar bombards dragged down the old Haven road out of range and view of the castle gunners in an attempt to sink one of these supply vessels as it moored beside the cliff unloading its cargo. Because of the necessity to pack extra gunpowder into the cannon to try and reach the vessel, the weapon misfired and exploded killing two of the gunners instantly and wounding several others, while the ship sailed back out into the Firth of Forth totally unscathed.

News then came that the 'Red' Douglas himself Archibald the 6th Earl of Angus had fled on one of these supply ships, down the coast to Coldingham Priory, some 20miles south of Tantallon. King James quickly gathered together several hundred horsemen and set off at speed towards Coldingham leaving his trusted cannon commander David Falconer to continue the bombardment. However, en route to Coldingham the King's forces passed by Fast castle. But because the Homes were old rivals of the 'Red' Douglases he assumed it was safe to pass through Home land unannounced. As the King and his men encircled Coldingham Priory demanding the release of the fugitive 'Red' Douglas, they were ambushed by a small force of Home horsemen from Fast castle attacking from the north and then by several hundred 'Red' Douglas horsemen from Billie castle attacking from the south. The false story of the Douglas's flight had been an elaborate trap to try and capture the King.

In the ensuing confused conflict King James managed to escape leaving most of his men behind to cover his undignified withdrawal. It is also uncertain wither or not the Homes were in league with the 'Red' Douglas or merely fighting for their own interests as an unknown body of horsemen had violated their territory and appeared to be attacking Coldingham Priory. When the King with a token part of his force returned to Tantallon, he was greeted with the news that more of his men had been killed in an attempt to open the spur work gatehouse and there was now a lack of gunpowder and the correct gauge of shot to continue the bombardment. So after 20days the siege was abandoned. He sent the borrowed bombards with David Falconer back towards Dunbar while his main army marched back through North Berwick, likely burning the Nunnery in retaliation for the Home humiliation at Coldingham. The King was further shamed when, that night, the 'Red' Douglas captured the borrowed bombards before they reached Dunbar and killed David Falconer. He then transported the bombards back to Tantallon using them to reinforce his own defenses.

King James besieged Tantallon again in 1529 but this time he blockade the castle by land and sea. He then starved and bribed the garrison into surrender. The 'Red' Douglas fled into English exile while Tantallon was repaired by the King and only returned to Scotland in 1542 after the King's death. Douglas then used Tantallon as a safe haven for the English Ambassador Ralph Sadler to distribute bribes to various Scots nobles to secure the proposed marriage of the infant Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1567) to the English Prince Edward. When these bribes failed and Sadler fled to Berwick escorted by Douglas, the English resorted to fire and sword burning villages, castles and Abbeys throughout the kingdom from 1544 to 1549. So the days were known as the wars of the 'Rough Wooing'.

In the Lothians and borders in 1544 Melrose, Newbattle and Haddington were all burnt by the invading English. Likely the North Berwick Nunnery also suffered during these times, as it is recorded in 1548 the Prioress, Margaret Hume I "in consideration of 2,000 received for repair and rebuilding of the Monastery, granted to her brother Alexander Hume, the conventh demesne lands of Heuch, extending to 23 and one half husband lands, with the North Meadow and the Law." In 1597 the one remaining nun, Margaret Donaldson "concurred with the Prioress (Margaret Hume II) in the last acts for dissolution of the Monastery." By 1598 the nunnery "mansions, manor-place, houses, biggings and yairds" were in the hands of Sir Alexander Hume. It was he who built the oblong Towerhouse probably cannibalising stone from the surrounding ruins. But by the 1800's it too was abandoned and suffered the indignity of having its roof and stones stolen to build other buildings nearby in North Berwick.

Andrew Spratt

November 2000A.D.