Historical Background
Abbey of Aberbrothock
The Smokie
Sir Walter Scott and “The Antiquary”
Stone of Destiny
Declaration of Arbroath
Smuggling in Arbirlot

The Royal Burgh of Arbroath and its Abbey

The Heartland of the Picts

The history of Arbroath (or, to give it its old name, Aberbrothock, meaning "at the mouth of the Brothock", the stream which runs through the town) begins with the building of its great Abbey.

Prior to that it would have been an ordinary coastal settlement comprising rude shacks or huts scattered round the natural break in the rocky shoreline which comprises most of the coast in that area.

Arbroath lies some 14 miles to the south of Brechin, the “Ancient City” - the Heartland of the Picts, famous for its round tower (dating from the 10th century). The surrounding countryside contains some of the finest examples of early Christian/Pictish standing stones to be seen in all Scotland.

The Abbey Church of Aberbrothock

King William the Lion founded the Abbey in 1178, and, although not completed until 1233, the building was sufficiently advanced to receive the remains of its Royal founder King William when he died in 1214.

The Abbey as it may have looked when first built

It was dedicated to his friend Thomas à Becket, Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in 1170. The first monks (brought from Kelso in the Scottish Borders) were of the Tironensian Order who followed the Rule of St Benedict.

The Abbey continued to flourish until about 1500, after which it fell into decline. By the 1560s (in the wake of the Reformation) it had been stripped of its furnishings and shortly thereafter became ruinous.

There are various accounts of its final destruction. One tradition has it that there was a great conflagration, and the molten lead poured from the roof down onto the streets. However, it is more probable that the lead was stripped from the roof to be cast into bullets for use in the civil wars during the minority of King James VI.

Early travellers

In 1693, Slezer sketched the earliest known pictorial record of the ruins for his “Theatrum Scotiae”. In the engraving (seen below) great mounds of rubble are clearly visible. Even by this time, the Abbey ruins had become a convenient quarry for the local townspeople, and it is well known that much of old Arbroath was built from the fallen masonry. Grose, Pennant and Cardonnel (notable early travellers) also made sketches of the ruins.

In 1772, the famous English diarist, Dr Samuel Johnson, passed through the town, and noted: “The Monastery of Aberbrothock is of great renown in the history of Scotland. Its ruins afford ample testimony of its ancient magnificence. I should scarcely have regretted my journey had it afforded nothing more than a sight of Aberbrothock.”

In 1815, the remains were taken into care by the State for preservation (now Historic Scotland), and there they remain, to be seen (much as Slezer sketched them in the late 17th century) by tourist and visitor alike.

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