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North Berwick Priory, nunnery 60m north east of 4 Priory Gate

A Scheduled Monument in North Berwick Coastal, East Lothian

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Latitude: 56.0557 / 56°3'20"N

Longitude: -2.7299 / 2°43'47"W

OS Eastings: 354640

OS Northings: 684999

OS Grid: NT546849

Mapcode National: GBR 2T.QJN7

Mapcode Global: WH7TL.11BZ

Entry Name: North Berwick Priory, nunnery 60m NE of 4 Priory Gate

Scheduled Date: 30 December 1936

Last Amended: 2 September 2011

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM760

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Ecclesiastical: nunnery

Location: North Berwick

County: East Lothian

Electoral Ward: North Berwick Coastal

Traditional County: East Lothian


The monument comprises the buried and upstanding remains of a medieval nunnery, founded between 1147 and 1153 and suppressed in 1597. Two upstanding structures survive: the first a substantial range of stone buildings surviving to wall-head height, which probably housed the refectory and kitchen; and the second a stone-built arched gateway that gave access into the nunnery from the west. The stone buildings were extended in the late 16th century, apparently when they were converted to form a large domestic house. Originally, these buildings probably formed a north range, standing on the north side of a cloister, with the priory church extending to the east. Buried foundations considered to represent the church were found when a tennis court was laid out east of the Abbey Home and further buried remains of the church are likely to survive here. An extensive cemetery that was probably close to the east end of the church is represented by burials revealed during archaeological excavations in 1995 and 1997. Remains of a tile kiln lie buried within the northern boundary of the monument. The monument lies about 600m WSW of the medieval core of North Berwick, 150m south of the railway station and some 500m inland from the coast. It occupies a ridge of higher ground, aligned WSW-ENE, which limits the availability of level ground in the vicinity. The monument was scheduled in 1936 but the documentation does not meet modern standards: the present rescheduling rectifies this.

The west part of the surviving range is a two-storey building measuring 23m ENE to WSW by 8m transversely. At ground level there are four cellars with semi-circular barrel-vaulted roofs aligned across the width of the structure. At first floor level is a hall, the east and west walls surviving to the tops of the gables. There are traces of a fireplace in the west gable and the east gable has an aperture with a pointed arch for a window or door that opened into the adjacent building to the east. The building to the east has been much modified. The north wall contains a pointed arched window of 14th-century date, but this was blocked and a massive fireplace was added in an extension to the north, suggesting adaptation of the room to form a kitchen. A square tower of late 16th-century appearance, with projecting circular stair turret, stands to the north of the junction between hall and kitchen, indicative of the building's domestic function by this time. To the east of the fireplace, the north wall is pierced by an entrance with a pointed arch. The north wall continues east for 18m beyond this point, suggesting the north range may have been around 50m long in total. The other standing structure relating to the nunnery, the stone gateway, lies 25m south of the west end of the north range. Although probably providing access into a courtyard from the west, it is aligned at more than 90 degrees to the north range, suggesting that the probable cloister may not have been square. The gateway is 3.6m wide with a shallow segmental arched head.

Foundations attributed to the priory church were uncovered in the early 20th century when a tennis court was being created to the east of the Edwardian house that now occupies the centre of the site. At least 50 graves were found further east in 1995 during an archaeological evaluation. The graves lay a minimum of 52m east of the Edwardian house and at least 62m beyond the probable north range. The excavator estimated that they were part of a cemetery that must contain over 300 graves. The layout of a modern residential development was modified to avoid the graves and they remain buried below sloping ground to the east of the former tennis court. Two massive pits, one definitely earlier than the graves, were also revealed; they may have been used to prepare lime mortar for the nunnery buildings. The archaeological evaluation also revealed dumped deposits containing pottery that had been used to infill a former stream channel bounding the nunnery on the south side. The modern buildings have been constructed in order to minimise disturbance of archaeological features that remain below ground. The remains of a rare medieval tile kiln, probably used in the 13th century, lie immediately east of the north gateway into the Abbey Home. Excavation in 1908 suggested floor tiles were made here, but re-excavation in 2011 has uncovered significant quantities of roof tiles.

The area to be scheduled is irregular on plan, to include the remains described above and an area around them within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment may survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The scheduling extends up to but excludes the garden wall on the south side of the garden, west of the Edwardian house known as 'The Abbey'. Other garden walls are included in the scheduling. The scheduling specifically excludes the gates and gate piers on the north edge of the monument. The scheduling specifically excludes the top 300mm of all modern roads, paths, and yards, and the above-ground elements of all fences, gates, street furniture, street lights, telegraph and electricity poles, benches, railings, posts and rubbish bins to allow for their maintenance. The scheduling specifically excludes the above-ground elements of the fire escape that projects west from the Edwardian house known as 'The Abbey' and the above-ground elements of the well that lies to the north-west of the house.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

Cultural Significance

The monument's cultural significance can be expressed as follows:

Intrinsic characteristics

The upstanding structures provide significant evidence for the nature of the conventual buildings that formed an important part of this nunnery. In addition, chance discoveries and a variety of archaeological investigations have demonstrated that very significant buried remains exist, including a cemetery, tile kilns, ancillary buildings, pits, and perhaps the foundations of the priory church. These have great potential to provide information about the layout and economy of a medieval nunnery. The buildings also show how some of the monastic buildings were adapted and extended by an important lay family at the Reformation. Surviving graves may date from the 12th to 16th centuries and can provide information on the population over a relatively long time period. They may enhance our knowledge of status and burial practice, but can also reveal evidence for health, diet, illness, cause of death, and perhaps place of birth and the types of activities people undertook during life. Excavations and historical sources both indicate that an extensive craft zone must have existed to service the monastery. Evaluation just outwith the scheduled area, to the south and south-east of the upstanding gateway, has revealed pits, cobbled surfaces, ditches, walls and a variety of archaeological deposits, some containing 13th-14th century pottery and animal and fish bone. These features probably represent ancillary buildings and working areas that lay south-west of the nunnery. It appears that craft activities were conducted here and to the north of the site around the tile kiln, but there is high potential for similar remains to survive elsewhere on the site, in areas that have seen less investigation. We can expect evidence for a range of crafts and agricultural activities. Waterlogged or charred organic remains may also exist, which would enhance our knowledge of the character of the contemporary local landscape and agricultural practices. It is clear that the site has significant potential to provide further information about many diverse aspects of a wealthy monastic community over a long time period.

Contextual characteristics

North Berwick Priory was one of seven Cistercian nunneries in Scotland listed in a document written around 1516, the others being Haddington, Eccles, Coldstream, St Bothans, Manuel and Elcho. All held the rank of 'priory'. Two other Cistercian nunneries had ceased to exist by this time, and one further nunnery (at Iona) was not Cistercian. There is potential to compare North Berwick nunnery with many of these other sites, but particularly with Haddington nunnery, less than 10km to the south, which is visible as a cropmark. In 1561, the minimum income of North Berwick nunnery was £1,880, second only in Scotland to Haddington's figure of £2,710. There is also potential, through archaeology, to explore North Berwick Nunnery's relationship with the medieval burgh of North Berwick, and to compare and contrast the nature of the artefacts and ecofacts from nunnery and town. Researchers can explore the nunnery's trade and exchange networks. Scottish White Gritty Ware pottery from the site may derive from kilns at Coulston in East Lothian, from Fife, or indeed from hitherto undiscovered kilns much closer to the nunnery.

Associative characteristics

Records suggest that the nunnery was founded by Duncan, Earl of Fife, between 1147 and 1153. Like other nunneries, North Berwick may have been founded as a Benedictine house before becoming Cistercian to obtain the exemptions enjoyed by that order. Documentary sources suggest the house suffered frequent devastations in time of war, and English invasions of 1385 provide a possible context for this. There were 21 nuns plus the prioress in 1544, but by 1587 the buildings were said to be ruinous and the lands and revenues were granted to Alexander Hume, relative of the last prioress.

National Importance

This monument is of national importance because it has an inherent potential to make a significant addition to our understanding of the past, in particular of medieval nunneries. The site retains varied and well-preserved archaeology, including significant upstanding building remains and a cemetery that may contain at least 300 medieval burials. It has the potential to make a significant contribution to our knowledge of monastic layout, economy, and culture. Archaeologists have investigated a relatively small part of the site and there is high potential for other future discoveries. The loss of the monument would significantly diminish our future ability to appreciate and understand early historic nunneries in Scotland and their role in respect of their local economies.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland



RCAHMS records the Priory as NT58SW 3. East Lothian Council HER records the site as MEL1354.


Cowan, I B and Easson, D E, 1976 Medieval Religious Houses; Scotland, Longman: New York

O'Sullivan, J, 1995 'Archaeological evaluation at The Abbey, Glenorchy Road, North Berwick', unpubl client rep

RCAHMS, 1924 Eighth Report with Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the County of East Lothian, Edinburgh, 58-60

Swan, D B, 1929 'The monastery of North Berwick', Trans E Lothian Antiq Fld Natur Soc, 1, 55-63

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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