Sweetheart Abbey, Dumfriesshire

Be swept away by a charming ruined abbey, built in memory of a lost lover. 

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This corner of southern Scotland, somewhat off the beaten track, has its fair share of natural beauty and romantic atmosphere.

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It was in this area, between the prominent hill Criffel and the Solway Firth, that Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway founded a Cistercian abbey in memory of her dearly beloved husband. Called Dulce Cor – Latin for sweet heart – the striking red-sandstone monument to earthly and divine love was established in 1273, five years after Lord
John Balliol died.

Today the graceful ruin exudes a strong sense of drama and is a popular wedding location. Dervorgilla and John Balliol were inseparable in life. After his death, this “lady of substance” undertook charitable acts in recognition of her husband, including the consolidation of Oxford’s famous Balliol College.

In 1268, when John Balliol died, his grieving widow had his heart removed, embalmed and placed in an ivory casket bound with silver.

It is said that she carried the casket with her everywhere. Upon her death, some 20 years later, Dervorgilla was laid to rest beside the high altar in Sweetheart Abbey with her precious casket.

What’s in a name?

The monks, touched by this devotion, named the monastery after it. It was the last Cistercian house to be founded in Scotland and lies at the edge of the village of New Abbey to the south of Dumfries. The finest approach, however, is from the west, along the coastal road from Dalbeattie.

This gives superb views across the huge Solway Firth, with the mountains and fells of Cumbria in the distance. As you enter the attractive village of New Abbey, you’ll find Sweetheart Abbey on your right. Do try to visit when the sun is shining as then the extensive ruin glows with an almost magical red brilliance.

The best preserved part is the abbey church of St Mary the Virgin which has survived fairly intact, albeit roofless. In contrast only small sections of the monks’ cloister remain. The church was planned in the shape of a cross, with side-chapels, a six-bay nave to the west and a presbytery at the eastern end where the high altar once stood. Lady Dervorgilla was buried here – a monument marks the location.

The original effigy was destroyed during the Reformation, but a newer one, made in the 16th century, is now on display in the south transept. She is dressed in a gown and mantle, cradling her husband’s heart to her bosom.

The south transept is in particularly good condition. Here you can gaze up through the finely ornate circular window and ponder on the lovers from a bygone era.

Useful Information

HOW TO GET THERE

Parking is available 90 metres from the abbey in New Abbey on the A710. By bus from Dumfries take Stagecoach Western bus number 372 to New Abbey post office.

FIND OUT MORE

Historic Scotland

01387 850397

www.historic-scotland.gov.uk

EAT

Cavens Arms
20 Buccleuch Street
Dumfries
DG1 2AH

01387 252896

Popular bar for its extensive ale selection and good pub food.

STAY

Mabie House Hotel
Mabie
Dumfriesshire
DG2 8HB

01387 263188

www.mabiehousehotel.co.uk 

Located close to New Abbey, this country house hotel is welcoming, warm, and ideal for a romantic break. Also serves excellent locally sourced food.

NEARBY

New Abbey Corn Mill
New Abbey
DG2 8BX

01387 850 260

www.historic-scotland.gov.uk

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Carefully restored mill with working displays in summer months. Joint ticket with Sweetheart Abbey entrance.