The vast majority of present day visitors to Balmerino Abbey would strongly dispute this assertion. This Cistercian monastery was founded in 1229 by the widowed queen of William the Lyon, then destroyed during the Reformation. A Spanish Chestnut tree here is one of the oldest of its kind in the country. Balmerino Abbey, was the landing-place of the Lady Ermengarde, second wife and widow of William the Lyon, daughter of the Earl of Beaumont, and great-granddaughter of the Conqueror, mother of Alexander II. She was ancestress of the succeeding sovereigns of Scotland — when, out of gratitude for the health and the peace she had found at ‘Balmurynach’ (there is a choice of 36 ways of spelling the name), she resolved to plant here a house of Cistercian monks, dedicated to the Virgin and to her relative ‘the most holy King Edward,’ the Confessor.
This resolve, made sometime at the beginning of the second quarter of the thirteenth century, was promptly carried into execution, and on St Lucy’s Day, 1229, a company of monks from Melrose, under Alan, their first Abbot, was able to enter and take possession. The Abbey was a monument of sacrifice, as well as of gratitude, for the foundress had first to purchase with a thousand marks the lands representing nearly the whole of the present parish, to which the Abernethies of Carpow had succeeded as Lay Abbots of the Culdee seat of Abernethy. It was built of a red stone from Nydie, beyond the Eden.
In its great days it must have been a beautiful habitation of peace, with a plan conforming to the Mother Church of Melrose, in having the cloister on the north side of the sanctuary and in other details. Ermengarde and her son Alexander, another great benefactor, visited here repeatedly. They would ferry over from Dundee, or from Invergowrie when coming from the royal palace at Forfar; for the Queen much affected the haunts, as well as the religious example, of her grandmother-in-law, the saintly Margaret.
In 1234 the body of the foundress was laid to rest here. But, like other landmarks of Balmerino, the grave will be looked for in vain. Her stone coffin, containing her skeleton, was supposed to have been found, on the spot indicated by the records, by the tenant of the farm while, in the summer of 1831, he was engaged in ‘carting away hewn stones from the piers and south wall of the church’ to build a house in St Andrews. It was covered by a grave slab, which was ‘broken in pieces,’ while the bones found within were ‘dispersed as curiosities through the country.’
Mary Queen of Scots was certainly a visitor here in 1565, and more than likely lodged in the Abbot’s House as a guest of Sir John Hay, the first Lay Commendator of the Abbey. Later the lands were erected into a barony in favour of Sir James Elphinston of Barnton, the first Lord Balmerino, who after being sentenced to death, died quietly of a ‘fever’ at the Abbey. The more ill-fated Arthur, the sixth lord, who suffered for his part in the 1745 rebellion, is supposed to have hidden in the ruins after an earlier adventure in 1715, and before he escaped to a vessel in the Firth of Tay which took him to France.
Of the Church itself there remains above ground only portions of the walls of the nave and north transept. Enough of the Chapter-House is left to show how endowed it was in ornament and proportions. What remains of Balmerino Abbey is now kept in good order and condition. Although Daniel Defoe, who visited it in 1727, saw ‘nothing worthy of observation, the very ruins being almost eaten up by time.’ It is well deserving of this reverent care if only for the ancient trees that are gathered around it. Chief amongst these are a magnificent old Spanish chestnut and a walnut of like or superior age.
Another reason to visit Balmerino is the beautiful views of the Firth of Tay, the Carse of Gowrie, and the Sidlaw range of hills, with glimpses of the more remote Grampians, including Ben Vorlich on Loch Earn – a distance of about fifty miles in a straight line.
Research by Robert Richmond