Like the first monks I came to Balmerino in Fife on foot. Unlike them I had walked only a few miles along the coast, carrying nothing but a packed lunch and a camera. They came across open country all the way from Melrose, bringing the religious trappings they needed to found a new Cistercian monastery. No doubt they had beasts and covered carts and plenty of help from the lay community. And they had their unswerving faith in those early days. Nevertheless, in 1227 it would have been quite a trek. But then, unlike me, they came at the behest of a queen.
The story goes that Ermengarde de Beaumont, widowed queen of William the Lion and the Abbey's founding patron, planted a Spanish chestnut tree on the site to mark the occasion. It is tempting to believe the story that the tree growing in the grounds today is Ermengarde's gift to her new monastic community. If true, that would make it some eight hundred years old. Sweet chestnuts are certainly confirmed as living to that age in other places. Some Corsican specimens are said to have lived for a milennium. Sadly the tired old giant at Balmerino is likely to be only half that age. Ironically, that would have seen it planted around the time of the Abbey's demise during the Dissolution.
Supported by props, the scars of past amputations patched over with mortar, the Balmerino chestnut could almost be a metaphor for the ruined Abbey itself. The little that remains of this always small, never wealthy, daughter house of Melrose is presently off limits, deemed unsafe by its keepers, Historic Scotland, for clambering visitors. The hope one day is that sufficient funds will be raised to stabilise the masonry that survives and allow full access. Meanwhile, the Balmerino chestnut lives on, instilling a sense of secular awe in latter day pilgrims like me.