Historic Jedburgh

Julian Humphrys visits Jedburgh, a vibrant town with a violent history.

Mary Queen of Scots' house © Dreamstime

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I’ve always considered Jedburgh (Jeddart to its residents) to be one of the most welcoming towns in Britain. It’s a lively place and the staff in its large visitor centre are unfailingly polite, helpful, patient and friendly.

Yet there were times in the past when an Englishman, like me, would have been greeted in Jedburgh not with a smile and a free town map, but with a personal introduction to the damaging effects of the locals’ weapon of choice, the fearsome Jeddart axe. For Jedburgh’s position just 12 miles from the border between England and Scotland ensured that for centuries the town suffered more than its fair share of unwelcome English visitors.

During the Scottish Wars of Independence in the late 13th and early 14th century Jedburgh and its castle were frequently occupied by the English, and the 15th century saw both town and abbey burned on three occasions.

Jedburgh was again burned by the Earl of Surrey in 1523 and two further attacks followed in the mid-16th century during Henry VIIIs ‘Rough Wooing’ – his bid to force the Scots to agree to a marriage between his son, Edward, and Mary Queen of Scots.

The Union of the Crowns of 1603 brought an end to these invasions and, partly thanks to ‘Jeddart Justice’ – summary execution without trial – the destructive activities of Reivers on both sides of the Border were also curtailed. As a result, in the 17th century the town briefly flourished as a trading centre, but the taxation on traditional Scottish trades that followed the Union of 1707 saw a decline in Jedburgh’s industries and a fall in its population, and the Industrial Revolution largely passed the town by.

Although a small town, Jedburgh has been home to a number of notable residents. James Thompson (1700-1748) who penned the words to Rule Britannia was educated in the town, as was Mary Somerville (1780-1872) the mathematician and scientist who gave her name to Somerville College, Oxford. 

The year 1781 saw the birth in Jedburgh of David Brewster. A child prodigy who constructed a telescope when he was only ten and went to Edinburgh University at the age of 12, Brewster was known in later life for his ground-breaking studies into the diffraction of light and is credited with the invention of the kaleidoscope.

 

Canongate Bridge

Now only used as a footbridge, this 16th-century three-arched bridge was once the principal route into and out of Jedburgh. Note the refuges to enable pedestrians to avoid the carriages that once rumbled across it and the way that, for defensive reasons, the approaches are virtually at right angles to the bridge.

 

Jedburgh Abbey

This major Augustinian abbey is one of the most complete in Scotland. It was founded as a priory by King David I of Scotland in 1138, both as an act of piety and as a statement of his power and authority. Its status was raised to that of an abbey in 1154 but its proximity to what was to be for four centuries a frequently hostile border, meant it was repeatedly attacked, pillaged and burned.

Although the abbey was suppressed in 1559 as part of the Scottish Reformation, its church was used as Jedburgh’s parish church until 1875. Major excavations in the 1980s have uncovered the remains of the domestic buildings that once stood around the great church.

Artefacts on display in the abbey visitor centre include part of a beautifully carved 8th century stone shrine and a thousand-year-old ivory comb, again with superb carvings.

 

Jedburgh Castle Gaol

The royal castle that once stood here frequently changed hands with the result that it was demolished in 1409 to prevent it from being used by the English. The castellated buildings you see today were built as a prison in the 1820s.

Influenced by the ideas of the penal reformer John Howard, the buildings feature separate heated cells, an open exercise yard and a purpose-built kitchen. The building now serves as a museum of prison life and local history.

 

Mary Queen of Scots’ Visitor Centre

One of a number of defensible tower houses built after Jedburgh had been burned by the English in 1523. It was once believed that Mary Queen of Scots lodged here during her visit to the town in 1566, and the building now houses displays telling the story of her life and death.

 

Friary Gardens

The site of a Franciscan Friary founded in the 15th century by Sir Andrew Ker of Ferniehirst. The location of the original walls and drains are marked out with gravel and cobbles while the garden contains examples of the sort of plants the friars would have grown, both for food and medicine.

 

Market Place

Jeburgh was first granted the right to hold a market by King William the Lion of Scotland in the 12th century and a panel in the middle of the road marks the position of the original Mercat Cross.

The ornamental gothic column topped by a unicorn was erected to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The Market Place is the starting point for Jedburgh’s annual 'Handba’ game in which the ‘Uppies’ (those born above the Mercat Cross) take on the ‘Doonies’ (those born below it) with the Castle Gaol and the lower end of the town as the two goals.

 

Prince Charlie’s House

Note the plaque on this much-restored 17th-century merchant’s house recalling the fact that Charles Edward Stuart is believed to have stayed here on 6th and 7th November 1745, prior to his invasion of England.

 

Hutton’s Unconformity

Head south through Lothian Park and about 300 yards outside the town beside the River Jed you’ll come to Hutton’s Unconformity, one of the most important geological sites in Britain.

It was after studying the rock formations here and at other sites in Scotland that James Hutton, an 18th-century farmer and doctor from Berwickshire, was able to put forward the theory that the world’s surface had evolved over millions of years, not the thousands previously thought.
 

Information

Jedburgh is on the A68, 55 miles north-west of Newcastle and 48 miles south-east of Edinburgh.

Jedburgh Tourist Information

Tel: 01835 863170
www.jedburgh.org.uk

Jedburgh Abbey

Tel: 01835 863925
www.historic-scotland.gov.uk

 

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