A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Pluscarden (old forms Ploschardin and Pluscardyn, locally often Pluscarty), a district measuring about 4 miles by 2, and forming the south-western portion of the parish of Elgin. It is a long valley of no great width, with the drainage along the whole length carried off by the Black Burn, a tributary of the river Lossie. The low ground is from 170 to 200 feet above sea-level, and on the NW side the Eildon or Heldun Hill rises very steeply to a height of 767 feet, and on the SE side the Hill of the Wangie rises with a less rapid slope to a height of 1020 feet. At the extreme SW end the valley is contracted into a narrow glen. There is a post office under Elgin, a Free church, and a public school. Though the glen is pretty in itself, the chief interest lies in the well-preserved ruins of a Cistercian priory on a beautiful haugh near its centre, and 6 miles SW of Elgin. This, one of the three monasteries of the Cistercian Order in Scotland, the others being Beauly and Ardchattan, was founded by Alexander II. in 1230. Before the foundation of the priory there seems to have been an older church on a different site, and the valley was known as the Vale of St Andrew, a name which was retained in the new foundation, the dedication of Pluscarden-or Pluscardine, as the name of the priory is often given-being to the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and St Andrew. Although the monks, who were of the Valliscaulian branch of the order, found but few friends after Alexander's death, the community was a very wealthy one, and in Bajimont's Roll in 1274 the monastery is taxed at £533, while Beauly and Ardchattan are entered at £200. Under the protection of the Bishops of Moray, whose authority was fully recognised in 1345, the Cistercians held possession till 1454, when Benedictines were introduced from Urquhart, though there seems to be no truth in the assertion that this was rendered necessary by the corrupt life of the older monks. The last of the Benedictine priors was Alexander Dunbar, who died in 1560; and the first of the lay priors was Lord Alexander Seton -a son of the Lord George who was so faithful a servant to Queen Mary-who in 1577 was succeeded by James Douglas, an illegitimate son of Regent Morton; but on Morton's fall and death in 1581 Seton again resumed possession, parliament expressly declaring ` the pretended gift to James Douglas, son natural to late James Earl of Morton, of nane avail in all times coming.' 'The monks do not seem to have been disturbed in their possession of the priory itself, and they gradually died out, only one remaining in 1586. In 1595, Seton, then Lord Urquhart, sold Pluscarden to Kenneth Mackenzie of Kintail, from whose descendants it passed in 1649 (probably in connection with the rebellion raised in that year by Thomas Mackenzie of Pluscarden) to Sir George Mackenzie of Tarbat. In 1662 the then Sir George sold the priory and lands to the Earl of Caithness, Major George Beatman and Joan Fraser, his wife; and in 1664 the Earl resigned his share to the other owners, from whom, in 1687, the property was purchased by Brodie of Lethen for his grandson, James Grant of Grant, who, in 1710, sold it to Duff of Dipple, and through him it has descended to the present possessor, the Earl of Fife. A considerable portion of the ruins of the priory still remains, and the grey ivy-clad walls, the soft deep green turf, the old trees that must date from the early times of the monastery, and the heights in the background covered with thriving wood, all combine to form a very pleasant picture. The buildings have been partly in the First and partly in the Second Pointed styles. The church lay to the N, and the nave seems never to have been built. To the S of the south transept was a narrow chapel dedicated to St Mary, and farther S still the chapter-house and calefactory. Over the last three buildings were the dormitories. West of the calefactory was the refectory, to the N of which was the cloister court. To the SSE of these buildings are traces of walls where the prior's house is said to have stood. The precinct is still marked out by the high and massive wall with the principal gateway on the E, and in the N wall are recesses where the fathers had kept their bee-hives. The church has consisted of a choir and two transepts, the latter with aisles on their E sides; at the intersection is a square tower. From the S transept a stone stair leads to the dormitories. In the outside angle, between the choir and the north transept, is what is called the Dunbar Vestry, with a good groined ceiling, on the central boss of which are the Dunbar arms. It was probably erected by the last Benedictine prior. The lintel of the window into the choir is formed by a slab of stone, with a finely incised cross, dating probably from the 13th century. St Mary's aisle, to the S of the south transept, used probably as the sacristry, has a curious portion cut off in one of the corners, with a peculiar slit in the wall near the door. It has possibly been used as a confessional. The chapter-house is square, and has a vaulted roof, with groins passing from the side walls to a central pillar. The walls of the choir, the transepts with their side aisles, the pretty little vestry, St Mary's aisle, the square chapter-house, the calefactory, the dormitories, and the central tower, are still almost entire. On the arch over the entrance from the crossing to the choir, and also on an arch in St Mary's aisle, there are traces of fresco painting. The former is described by Cordiner, in 1788, as having been very perfect in his time. " There,, he says, ` St John, about to write in an attitude expressive of attention to the objects before him, is seated under a canopy, and, accompanied by his well-known eagle, lifts his eyes to the concave of the arch above, where the glowing colours of that splendid bow which is seen in the cloud in the day of rain attracts our notice. 'The sitting figure and the rainbow are still visible, but they are sadly weathered and destroyed. According to the same author, there were still more wonderful frescoes in St Mary's aisle, but no trace of these, except the ornament on the arch mentioned, now remains. The buildings that now exist are of various dates from the middle of the 13th to the middle of the 16th century. The first structure had become ruinous by 1398, but how far this was due to slenderness of proportion, and how far to injury by fire, is uncertain. Both the causes mentioned may indeed have operated, for the first is quite apparent from the numerous alterations made for the purpose of giving additional strength -e.g., windows lessened in size, archways partly built up, etc.-and the walls in many places show traces of fire. Probably to injury from the latter cause may be ascribed the curious casing of later masonry by which the pillars supporting the central tower have been strengthened. The calefactory has a vaulted roof supported by two pillars, and is now used as a church for the district, a purpose for which it was fitted up in 1821 by the then Earl of Fife.* At the same time the dormitories were re-roofed, and that part of the building is now used as a ball-room for the district! The church was at first a chapel of ease under Elgin, but at the Disruption, the minister and most of the people joining the Free Church, the Earl of Fife made over the use of the room to the majority. The pulpit is the one procured in 1680 for Old St Giles" Church in Elgin, and sold to the Earl of Fife's factor for £5 when that church was pulled down in 1826 [see Elgin[. It has a rim for the baptismal font, and a stand for an hour-glass, both made of characteristic twisted iron work. The old monastery grounds are now used as nursery grounds for young trees to be used in plantations on the Fife estates in the neighbourhood; but a number of old trees, dating from monastic times, still remain, particularly a fine pear tree which yields large crops of excellent fruit. The Book of Pluscarden is an early history of Scotland based on Bower, and supposed to have been written in the priory, about 1461, by a monk named Maurice Buchanan. It was published in the Historians of Scotland series in 1877. See also the works referred to under Elgin; E. Chisholm Batten's Charters of the Priory of Beauly (Grampian Club, Lond. 1877); and S. R. MacPhail's History of the Religious House of Pluscardyn, (Edinb. 1881).

* This occupation was at first intended to be only temporary till the choir should be fitted up for use in public worship, but various delays and changes led to things being left as they were.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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