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A Brief Coldingham History

A Brief History of Coldingham


As early as 660AD, Coldingham was the site of a religious establishment of high order, when it is recorded that Etheldrida, the Queen of Egfrid, became a nun at the Abbey of Coldingham, then under the management of Aebbe the Elder, aunt of her husband.

In 679AD, Bede described it as "the Monastery of Virgins".

The Abbey was burnt down in 679AD.

It was rebuilt, but was again destroyed by fire at the hands of a raiding party of Danes in 870. This time the ruins were not rebuilt, it would appear, until 1098, when the Priory of Coldingham was founded by King Edgar in honour of St. Cuthbert. It became the caput for the Barony of Coldingham, the Prior being the feudal lord.

The Priory continued in its religious purposes until 1560 when it was partially destroyed during the Scottish Reformation. However a portion of it continued its religious activities until 1650 when it was fortified against Oliver Cromwell. After a siege of two days, the main tower in which the besieged defended themselves was so shattered by artillery, that they were forced to capitulate. This great tower of the original Priory finally collapsed about 1777. The ruins of about 40% of the original Priory church were reconstructed in 1855 and it is today used as the parish church, the most notable building in the parish.

Nearby, St. Abbs was originally called Coldingham Shore.

Prior to any buildings the fishermen who worked their boats from the beach resided at Fisher's Brae in Coldingham. These fishermen had to carry their fishing gear the one and a half miles down a path. The path is now known as the Creel Path, Creel is the local name for a Lobster pot.


Image: Sign at start of Creel Path, St Abbs Road


The first building in St. Abbs was constructed about the middle of the 18th century followed later by a row of 5 cottages. This first row of houses were constructed in a traditional Scottish style with a central fire and a wide chimney. The walls where constructed of "Clat and Clay" a framework of wood interlaced with straw and daubed over with moist clay.

By 1832 it is recorded that the inhabitants of the Shore comprised sixteen families, who with twenty others residing in Coldingham, obtained their livelihood by fishing. In addition to these, thirty people proceeded annually to the North for the Herring fishing, which gave employment for fourteen boats from the village.

The village was renamed at the end of the 19th century by the then Laird Mr Andrew Usher, to its present title St. Abbs.


A More Detailed Look at the historical aspect of Coldingham Village.


Coldingham Village, the Norman Times

The first documentary evidence of Coldingham is in the founding charter for a church to be built here dated to 1098 at the start of the Normanisation of Scotland. It is likely that a church had been here previous to this but this has not been proved. About the year 600 the depleted native British population in S.E. Scotland had to accommodate the Angles who had arrived from southern Denmark. Their kingdom became known as Northumbria the core of which extended from the Humber to the Forth [the lands north of the Humber]. Almost all the place names in S.E. Scotland [and N.E. England] are Anglian. 

Origin of the name Coldingham

The name Coldingham has an ending that indicates an early English name for a settlement. 

Coldingham literally means the village of the descendents of Colud. Colud is not an Anglian personal name. In the early 700s the first English historian Bede used an interesting name for what we now call the Kirk Hill on St Abb’s Head, namely urbs Coludi meaning Colud’s fort. Within this fort the royal princess Æbbe was in charge of a monastery from about 643. Shortly after Æbbe’s death the monastery was accidentally burnt down in 683 and not rebuilt. At some period between this fire and the start of Normanisation the name Colud and the local people moved from the Head to the nearby and now fertile hollow called Coldingham.

So who was this Colud? It is necessary here to refer to the conspicuous snake-like [colubrid-like] finger of rock that sticks out into the sea from the base of the Kirk Hill. At present it is known as Waimie Carr [Belly Rock]. In the bible the snake [serpent] was condemned to move on its belly. A fanciful and yet more explicit suggestion for the name for Coldingham is that it is the village of the descendents of the inhabitants of the fort beside the sea serpent. [In Britain there are other headlands associated with reptiles.]

At the entrance to the churchyard from the car park there is a small building said to have been a mortuary with suitable ventilation. Previously there had been a watch-house here. Its purpose was to house guards to stop the unscrupulous [known as lifters or resurrectionists] stealing bodies so that they could sell them to the medical school in Edinburgh for demonstration. In 1820 a body hidden in a trunk was apprehended as it was about to leave the village. A local doctor, Dr Lawrie, who stayed at HOMEFIELD, was implicated. He spent the next six months in jail at Greenlaw, then the county town for Berwickshire. He was tried and found guilty at the Canongate Tolbooth in Edinburgh. He was incarcerated there for a further six weeks and then released.


The Norman Church

In 1100 Edgar, King of Scots, came to the dedication of the new church and he gave it to the monks of St Cuthbert, that means DURHAM. The foundations of Edgar’s church lie below the present church, their sizes being almost equal.


The Priory, about 1200

One of the priors recorded events over the previous 50/100 years and these were added to Symeon’s authoritative HISTORY OF THE CHURCH AT DURHAM. Some of the monks at Coldingham wrote a book called the LIFE OF ÆBBE. The lands of the Priory were expanding to an area of about half of present day Berwickshire. The monks were helping at a hospital in Auld Cambus.

After being found by two shepherds on the Kirk Hill, the people of Coldingham took Æbbe’s alleged “relics” to the Church of St Mary in Coldingham. 


A New Church, assocoated with Prior Thomas De Melsonby

After the church had been damaged by the men of King John of England a new priory church was started in 1216 according to documents or started in c1195 according to the architectural style and in that case the new building received a setback in 1216. Either way Prior Thomas de Melsonby is associated with the new building at some early stage. [A copy of one of his seals is on the village street signs]. Later he was responsible for the building of an east transept on to Durham cathedral. This was necessary as the east end of the building was collapsing.

In Thomas’ church the isolated arch seen today was at the junction of the south aisle of the nave and the south transept. It had been “restored” before 1789. When part of Thomas’s church the top of the arch would never have been semi-circular [see its east side].


Some Burials

Near to the arch is a good place to be aware of burials:-

A few graves have been found where the corpse has been completely packed in with clay.

On one side of the arch are the graves of two priors from c1200. It is known that one of them, Ærnaldus, held at least one court in the open at the Homili Knowe, Coldingham Sands. These burials are likely to have been put under the tower of Edgar’s Church.

On the other side of the arch are grave covers standing upright. These were incised with crosses and swords. The Knights Templar claim them and suggest they are from about 1472 when the pope temporarily suppressed Coldingham Priory and these knights were given some responsibilities at Coldingham. The initial purpose of these Knights was to protect pilgrims to the Holy Land.

 Towards the end of the 18th century the church tower fell down and exposed a skeleton of a female. The person had been built into the wall alive. This could have been a punishment for some wrong deed. It also could have been a sacrifice to try and insure that the building would not fall down.


Edgar's Wa' 

The ruins of the other main monastic buildings lie to the south of the present church and so to the south of the east end of Thomas’ church. This is an unusual position and is probably explained by these buildings being first positioned south of Edgar’s church. During the rebuild their positions did not alter. The highest remaining wall is known as “Edgar’s walls”. It seems that the last use for the “building” there was for a cattle shed. Most of what is standing now is from a post priory rebuild. The stone used is probably from a quarry at Coldingham Law. On the other hand some of the original blocks of dressed red sandstone used for the chapter house can be seen at the east end of the exposed ruins. It is more likely that Edgar’s Wa’ refers to the well, much more sacred than a wall. The well has the mystery of live-giving water emerging from the ground.



It was from Coldingham Law that Cromwell’s cannon almost finished the Priory buildings. After the Battle of Dunbar [1650] “Cothingham Abbey (sic) was one of the five strongholds quitted and left” by the Scots. Only two walls were left standing.

The buildings were damaged at other times including:

Prior William Drax smoked out some Scottish Reivers who had barricaded themselves in the Priory [1420].

In 1532 the English burned the Priory.

During Hereford’s “rough wooing” [1544] the English attempted to burn the Priory but the wind changed direction and little damage was done. In the following year the English were in possession. Arran appeared with guns, but the English proved stronger than he had expected and he started to withdraw abandoning his guns. Scottish reinforcements under Angus then appeared and they quickly seized the guns and took them to Dunbar.

[It appears that often reports from these times talk about great destructions only to have the buildings back in operation in a short time.]


An early 20th Century Wreck

Near to the rear gate and on the east side of the path there is a gravestone on which the writing is obliterated but on the edge there is a rope and at the top apex an anchor. This must be the grave of the lost crew of the Danish vessel the “Alfred Erlandsen” bound from Riga to Grangemouth with a cargo of timber. In mountainous seas and thick fog she struck Ebb Carrs on 1907/10/17.


Two Ministers, 18th and 19th Centuries

South of the path across the field is the former Manse [1801]. This is a Georgian house with external grey plastered walls and regularly spaced large window openings, the windows themselves being small paned.

The first minister to stay there was James Landell. He composed several pieces of music including the psalm tune COLDINGHAM.

One of his predecessors was John Dysart [minister 1694-1732] who as a Presbyterian felt his position insecure. At this time most of the local people were in favour of a hierarchy in the church. When this minister went to public services he took two loaded pistols that lay on either side of the bible when he was in the pulpit.


Chariot Road

Formerly a fine broad road came from the Sands to about the top of Fishers’ Brae. In the 18th century it was fancifully called CHARIOT ROAD. Previously it had been called the SHIRE. Probably this is a corruption of SHORE as in “Shore Road”. At present the top end of this ancient road has been diverted into a modern house. While some in the past have visualised chariots carrying nuns to and from the Sands the road most likely was for carts carrying supplies from beached boats to the Priory. The various pinks and buff sandstone of which the Priory was made could have been quarried from the cliff on the east side of Greenheugh [neighbouring Pease Bay]. Near to this abandoned quarry there is a natural harbour and the name KIRK RIGGING. One can postulate boats carrying building stone from here to the Sands. The stone would have been put in carts for the last part of its journey.


St Michael's Knowe

It is more than likely that there was an outside shrine dedicated to [St] Michael about here. The LIFE OF ÆBBE c1200 tells of Henry a simple man of Coldingham. Over his adulthood he became involved with three women. When he had tired of the first and left her she promptly poisoned him. He became violently mad. His friends bound him and took him to the shrine of St Michael.

Image: Map showing St Michael's Knowe



He improved and returned to his second lady. In dreams two men told Henry to build a little chapel on the Kirk Hill, a remote place with nowhere to celebrate the divine mysteries. People thought he was daft so he did nothing. Woman number three, that was Æbbe, appeared in another dream and told him to get on with the chapel. He took up the task with great enthusiasm and Henry became known as “St Æbbe’s Man”. When miracles started to happen at Henry’s simple chapel the monks came along and replaced the structure with one of stone and mortar. There is a later record of a garden at St Michael’s.


The sites of Crosses round about

The likely sites of four crosses about Coldingham are known from place-names but it seems that there were also other crosses. In local folklore these crosses are said to mark sanctuary limits in which the fugitive had protection One would have thought that the mother-house of Coldingham that is Durham with its huge sanctuary knocker could help on this point but it does not. In fact it is among the records of Ripon Cathedral that there is a clearer picture of sanctuary. There all the sanctuary crosses were a mile from the cathedral. Applying this criterion to Coldingham then perhaps Whitecross qualifies. The monks had in addition other reasons for erecting crosses.

One reason was as route markers and it seems that Crosslaw and Cairncross might fall into this category. Another reason for the placing of a cross could have been to mark where the approaching traveler has a first view of the church. Applin Cross could have fulfilled this for the traveller returning from the headland. It is generally taken that Applin comes from Applying. However a quality Scots dictionary suggests Applin is from Appin for Opening. It has already been noted that Coldingham lies in a hollow. The easiest access route is by the burn to the coast.


We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Rennie Weatherhead in preparing this information.

Taken From: History of the Priory of Coldingham by William King Hunter, Edinburgh & London, 1858





A Brief Coldingham History