IT was in this week of 1273 that a great love story gave us one of Scotland’s most beautiful religious buildings.

Tomorrow will be the 750th anniversary of the signing of the charter that led to the building of Sweetheart Abbey in the old county of Kirkcudbrightshire in Dumfries and Galloway. It was signed by Devorgilla, the Lady of Galloway, who paid for the Abbey to be built in memory of her husband, John Balliol.

I have written before about Devorgilla who I consider to be one of the most fascinating women in Scottish history, so today I will concentrate on the Abbey itself which has a very interesting history and which survives, albeit in a ruined state.

Devorgilla lived from about 1210 to 1290. She was the daughter of Alan, Lord of Galloway and High Constable of Scotland, and his wife Margaret of Huntingdon, a descendant of King David I of Scotland. When she was 13 or 14, a dynastic marriage was arranged for her to John, the future Fifth Baron de Balliol.

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It seems to have been a genuine love match, because they had 10 children and appear to have been very happy and very wealthy together, with the Balliols having large lands around Barnard Castle in County Durham and Devorgilla inheriting large tracts of the east of Galloway when her father died in 1234. The couple also had lands elsewhere in England and also in France.

John de Balliol fought for England’s King Henry III who had appointed him Protector of Scotland’s young King Alexander III who had married Henry’s daughter when they were both children.

It was reported that De Balliol lost a court case and was forced to endow a new college at Oxford University. He died in 1268 or 1269 but Devorgilla later carried out the endowment of what remains Balliol College to this day – the College retains links to the Abbey and its history society is named after Devorgilla.

She was generous with her immense wealth, for example, paying for a bridge over the River Nith, but her greatest work of charity was the foundation of Sweetheart Abbey 750 years ago. It was first known as Dulce Cor, Latin for sweet heart, because of Devorgilla’s devotion to her husband and Mary, the Mother of Christ, whose many descriptions included Dulce Cor.

Sweetheart Abbey was founded by the Cistercian order of monks, who came from nearby Dundrennan Abbey to establish the New Abbey – the village around the Abbey retains that name.

The charter stated that Devorgilla was endowing the Abbey “to God and the church of St Mary of Sweetheart and the monks of the Cistercian order of the convent of Dundrennan, for the abbey to be built in honour of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary”.

When her husband died, Devorgilla had his heart embalmed and enclosed it in a silver and ivory casket which she took with her everywhere. When she herself died on January 28, 1290, she was buried alongside her husband at the Abbey, and an effigy was made of her clutching the casket. Sadly, their graves have long been lost, but Devorgilla’s effigy can still be seen at the Abbey.

The story of their great love spread far beyond Scotland and even King Edward I of England came to stay at the Abbey a few years later during one of his raids on Scotland – the same Edward who appointed Devorgilla’s son John to be King of Scots. We know him as Toom Tabard for abandoning the throne when Longshanks ordered him into exile.

The Cistercians were noted for their skills in farming and there is evidence that they transformed the local economy almost from the day the Abbey opened in 1275. It took many years to complete and the final touches were not put to the Abbey until the Third Earl of Douglas and Lord of Galloway, Archibald “the Grim”, was given charge of the Abbey which he greatly improved in the 1380s.

A prayer book, The Sweetheart Abbey Breviary, dating from that period is in the care of the National Library of Scotland.

For almost 200 years, thanks largely to the care given it by the powerful Maxwell family, the Abbey continued a relatively peaceful existence but like every other Roman Catholic institution it suffered during the Reformation of 1560. In effect the Abbey was suppressed but its last Abbot, Gilbert Broun, continued to promote Catholic ways until he was eventually imprisoned and sent into exile in France.

The Abbey suffered the fate of many church buildings, being used as a source of stone for buildings around the area. Yet somehow the main core of the Abbey survived, and a group of local gentleman bought it in 1779 with the aim of restoring some of its former glory – an early tourist attraction, you might say.

Historic Environment Scotland has a particularly interesting website on the Abbey. The Statement of Significance about the Abbey brings the story up to date: “Sweetheart Abbey was extensively repaired after being taken into state care in 1927, the work including a major campaign of clearance excavation, both within the church and over the east and south cloister ranges, when the lower walls of the conventual buildings were discovered and laid out.

“The clearance work in the church unearthed several gravestones, including most notably, in 1929, Lady Dervorgilla’s 16th-century effigy, clasping her husband’s heart to her bosom, and that of Abbot John, the first head of the house. A lead drum found in the presbytery in 1930 was analysed by Professor Arthur Robinson in 1931, who found that it contained traces of hair and blood, with the implication that it might be the heart burial of John de Balliol.

“It is likely that this clearance work did little more than remove upper stone debris and follow stone walls. In all probability, there is much of archaeological interest and importance surviving within and around the church and cloister.”

It would appear there is much more to be found out about Sweetheart Abbey which celebrates its 750th birthday tomorrow.