The Abbey of Holywood
Start Page & Notes Photo Tour Church History All Memorial Inscriptions Full MI Index
Introduction Abbey of Holywood Carved Stones Druid Temple Statistical Accounts Sources
The Abbey of Holywood was one of three monasteries founded in Dumfriesshire and Galloway in the 12th century by the Praemonstratensian order. The date for the dissolution of Holywood is 1606 but no precise founding date can be given. Most authorities agree that it had existed for at least 400 years. Established in France in 1121, the Praemonstratensian order spread into Britain during the 12th century.
There is however, what Chris Crowe refers to as a 'folkloric' tradition associating the location with a much earlier ecclesiastical history.  This tradition makes connections with an Irish monk of the Celtic church whose name is variously rendered as Congal, Dercongal and the more modern usage of Conal. Conal or Connel is retained today in the Kirkconnel place name to be found near Eaglesfield in the east, near Sanquhar in the north and locally the estates still held by the Maxwell family near New Abbey village.
The name, Holywood is not a puzzle and means simply that, a holy wood.  There are early references to the 'oak wood of Congall'. The site was also referred to in Papal Bulls as Monasterium sacris nemoris ("monastery of the sacred grove").
The Celtic name Dercongal contains the element 'der' an oak wood.
The idea of sacred groves of oak however, takes the folklore into the realm of the Druids, the pre Christian order of priests said by the Romans to have practiced human sacrifice.  Their resistance to the Roman invasion of Britain probably accounts for much of the negative propaganda recorded about them.
The location nearby of a stone circle, sometimes referred to as a Druid temple by the early writers, serves to reinforce this  connection with sacred oak groves, human sacrifice and sun worship. 
Rev. Dr Bryce Johnston, parish Minister of Holywood in the late 18th and early 19th century, writes of  "a large Druidical temple, still standing, within half a mile of the church".  
Rev. Robert Kirkwood, writing some fifty years later continues in this same tradition. 
Modern archaeology however, places the builders of these stone circles many centuries before this pre-Christian Celtic order of priests and their sacred groves.
Builders of this and others stone circles are more likely to have been Bronze Age farmers of c. 2000 BC.
While "Sacri Nemoris", (sacred grove) and the Holywood derivation is established, the Druid connection with Holywood may not be founded on much more than these late 18th and early 19th century misunderstandings.
Add to this the evidence that the local farm name, variously recorded on gravestones as Druidvale,  Druid Vale and  Druid Ville, may also be part of this mistaken association. Druid in this context is more likely derived from "druim", a ridge, rather than a place associated with Druid priests.  From the above the conclusion has to be that the Druid connection is not established.
According to Francis Grose (Antiquities of Scotland, 1789) the Abbey itself was Early English and cruciform in shape with an oak roof and a Norman arch the portion remaining in the 18th century, shown in a sketch, below was said to be part of the head of the cross.
Grose states "cross the middle of the building was a fine Gothic arch that supported the oak roof. Under the floor were a number of sepulchral vaults. The entrance was through a handsome semicircular arch".  Similar Gothic arches can be seen in ecclesiastical ruins located throughout SW Scotland.
Sketch based on an earlier sketch and written sources, 
these sources were probably the Riddell Papers
The date given is 1849, 70 years after the ruins were demolished. Unpublished sketchbook by John McCormick 
reproduced here by courtesy of the Dumfries Museum.
 'an arm issuing from a cloud, its right hand grasping a crosier in front of a flourishing tree, with the legend:-- 
"S.Abbatis Sacri Nemoris" 
(Seal of the Abbot of Holywood)
'a monk standing on a bracket between a star and a crescent, with pastoral staff in his left hand, holding a bush in flourish in his right, with the legend:
"S. Abbatis de Sacro Nemore" 
(Seal of the Abbot of Holywood).
The seal impressions shown above and below are from: 
 'Revirosco' 1922, 'Holywood: A Forgotten Dumfriesshire Abbey',
Gallavidian pp 25-40.
Rev Robert Kirkwood, writing the account of Holywood parish for the New Statistical Account refers to a charter seal of the Abbot of Holywood in his possession. His account mentions the date mark, 1264, on his seal. That date is clearly not associated with any of the three seal impression shown here.  Kirkwood records that the seal he refers to was obtained from Alexander McDonald Esq. of the Register Office, Edinburgh.
What became of this seal is not recorded.


The almost total absence of ecclesiastical ruins or artifacts at Holywood today still remains a bit of a puzzle.  This may be partly explained however, by documentary evidence relating to various discoveries being made over the years and how these finds were disposed of. 
Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society records a meeting of members at the Holywood Manse in 1912 when they were shown some sculpted stone fragments of a cross showing figures, possibly of Adam and Eve, serpents and dragon like beasts.  The writer particularly mentions the absence of interlace work on the stones.  This surprised comment is understandable from any reporter familiar with the Ruthwell Cross or the remains of the standing cross near Penpont shown on subsequent pages of this document.
The disposal of this artifact is not documented but a stone with dragon motifs is said to have once decorated the garden of Portrack House.  This garden however, has recently been given a total modernistic redesign so if there was such a stone its final disposal is not know.
Ancient stone crosses in the gardens of local landowners is nothing unique.  A small standing cross with a square socket stone can be seen on the lawn in front of Friars Carse, now a country hotel but once the home of a local landowner and renowned antiquarian.
Seal of Holywood Abbey, exhibiting 'in the centre a dove sitting on an acorn of a tree; in the lower part, two estoiles (stars with wavy rays).
The legend is:
"S coe Abbis et Conventi Sac Nemoris"
(Common seal of the
Abbey and Convent of Holywood)
Introduction Abbey of Holywood Carved Stones Druid Temple Statistical Accounts Sources