East of Trimontium the Tweed doubles back through 180 degrees to form a loop around a peninsula, known today as Old Melrose but which 2,000 years ago, was bare of trees and the language of the local tribe, was called ‘Mael Ros’, the origin of the modern name for Melrose.
It was a place that seems to have been of religious significance with a double ditch (a ‘Vallum’) dug across the narrow neck of the peninsula to separate the sacred place from the wider world – the Vallum is still visible in the landscape today.
Three hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire, early in the 7th Century AD, the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria had risen to stretch from Yorkshire up to the Firth of Forth. Oswald, King of Northumbria had visited Iona and had embraced Christianity, and he wished to spread the Gospel so that in 635AD he invited a group of Irish monks from Iona to his Kingdom for this purpose. Led by St Aiden, the group established a monastery on Lindisfarne with a daughter house at Mael Ros, where St Boisil was appointed prior.
Like many Celtic monasteries, Mael Ros would have been a modest establishment with a small wooden chapel and a number of wattle-and-daub round cells for individual monks. In 651AD a young man from Lauderdale, called Cuthbert (later St Cuthbert), joined the Mael Ros community, who, after instruction from Boisil, went on to become very influential in the early development of the Christian religion in the Britain.
Following the Synod of Whitby in 664AD, the Roman Church became more established and the Celtic Church went into decline. What remained of Mael Ros was burned around 859AD during then campaign of the early Scottish King, Kenneth McAlpine to push the Northumbrians south of the Tweed.
In 1080, the Bishop of Durham, aware of the story of St Cuthbert, caused a stone chapel dedicated to the saint at the site of Mael Ros, referred to as ‘Chapel Knoll’. This quickly became a major site of pilgrimage in Scotland, but it was completely destroyed during the Reformation in Scotland (after 1560).
The Cistercians had been offered the Mael Ros site by King David I of Scotland in 1136 but they felt the site was too restrictive for their planned Abbey. They chose a site four miles upstream, but they stole the name (which has nothing to do with mason’s hammers or roses) and gave birth to the town of Melrose, with older site they had rejected becoming known as Old Melrose.
The Melrose Historical and Archaeological Association are working in partnership with The Trimontium Trust to propose a project to carry out an archaeological investigation at Old Melrose and the surrounding environs soon.