Kelso Abbey was founded by a community of Tironesian monks Originally from Tiron, near Chartres, in France. The monks had been granted lands near Selkirk in 1113AD, but for reasons unknown they relocated to the abbey's current site in 1128AD. The abbey church was dedicated in 1143AD, and by 1152AD was sufficiently complete for the King David's son to be interred there.
King David of Scotland was keen to develop the Roxburgh economically, and to establish it as an administrative centre for the south of Scotland. This helped Kelso to quickly grow into one of the most powerful border abbeys. Abbot John, who ruled between 1160-1180AD, was the first Scottish abbot to be granted the right to wear a mitre, giving him precedence over the other border abbots.
During the reign of William I of Scotland, the Scottish border shifted north, bringing Kelso into closer proximity with the English border. During the Scottish Wars of Independence that were to follow, Roxburgh was often occupied by the English, and Kelso Abbey frequently came under attack. It was damaged and rebuilt many times.
In 1460AD, Roxburgh Castle was one of the few Scottish border castles remaining under English control. James II laid siege to it, and was killed when a canon misfired and exploded next to him. His infant son, James III, was crowned in Kelso Abbey.
During the first half of the 16th Century, Kelso came under English attack and control on a number of occasions. After the Battle of Flodden in 1513AD, the abbot was expelled and the abbey taken into English possession. In 1523AD, the English set fire to the abbey and removed its roof. What repairs were carried out subsequently are unkown, but the abbey was attacked again in 1542AD, and then once more in 1545AD by the Earl of Hertford, during Henry VIII's "rough wooing". The English again set fire to the abbey, resulting in its almost total destruction. It was defended on this occasion by 12 monks and 90 Scotsmen, most of whom lost their lives.
In 1560AD, the Reformation led to the remaining monks being expelled, with the abbey being largely dismantled. Its possessions became crown property, and its lands were distributed amongst the king's vassals.
Between 1649-1771AD, the restored abbey transept served as a parish church, until the roof collapsed during a Sunday service. In 1805AD, the ruins were cleared of "unsightly additions", and in 1866AD repairs were carried out by the Duke of Roxburgh.
Today, a small patch of land in the centre of Kelso is home to the ruins of the abbey. No sign of its lands and estates remains, and no impression can be gained of the original abbey precinct. The modern town presses up against the abbey's boundaries, and it feels very much like a fragment of history that has survived against the odds. The west transept and tower remain, but other than that, there are only a few fragments of the original church.
Kelso Abbey is an important historic site, and once a religious house of great power, wealth and significance. However, there is little here to see for the present-day visitor, and it can only really be recommended as a destination for those who happen to be in the area for other reasons.