Beauly Priory

Written by Chris Thornton | 27th of October 2021
The ruined church of Beauly Priory

Beauly Priory was the penultimate destination on our tour around the Inverness area after our visit to Redcastle. We had never been to this area of Scotland, but it was really lovely. Beauly itself seems like a vibrant wee town with a busy centre with many great shops and amenities which I wish we had more time to check out.

At the east side of Beauly lies Beauly Priory, a fairly magnificent ruin of a church founded in 1230 by Valliscaulian monastic monks and one of three priories founded in Scotland at this time. Looking up pictures of the priory before our visit, I thought it looked like a small ruin, but it is a fairly large building with many interesting architectural features and historical graves.

It is very picturesque, situated on the River Beauly, it's easy to see why the monks named it "Beau Lieu" or "beautiful place". This quote is also attributed to Mary Queen of Scots who is said to have endorsed the name during a visit to Beauly Priory in 1564.

We parked in the town centre, there is ample space available.

Car park in central Beauly

Graveyard entrance with ancient Sycamore

Arriving at the graveyard and perimeter of the site, there are great information boards provided by Historic Scotland to tell you all about the priory. To the right of the entrance is a huge gnarled sycamore tree said to be 200 years old, it looks quite spooky and reminded me of the whomping willow tree from Harry Potter.

The lead up to the priory is very pretty, with a path curving round to the main west front of the building, there are big ancient Elm trees and many old graves in the cemetery.

Entrance to the cemetery

The spooky 200 year old Sycamore tree near Beauly Priory.

Inside Beauly Priory

Entering through the large doorless doorframe my wife and I peered into the now roofless church. It is a large open space and you can see right through the entirety of the central area. We gingerly made our way through the building, trying to avoid standing on the many graves within the building. This space was originally partitioned off into different zones.

The large windows at the far end in the Chancel must have looked impressive in its day.

The main west range entrance of Beauly Priory

Interior of Beauly Priory looking west

Interior of Beauly Priory looking east

Tomb of Sir Kenneth Mackenzie of Kintail

To the left of the entrance is the north transept. This section is off-limits and secured by a thick wooden door, inside lies the tomb of Sir Kenneth Mackenzie of Kintail - an important clan chief - who died in 1491. There is a window to the right of the door you can just see the exquisite tomb, I managed to grab the photo below, although I felt I shouldn't be intruding on this quiet place of rest.

Interior of the north trancept, showing the elaborate tomb of Sir Kenneth Mackenzie

We made our way through the remaining interior areas and then lapped the building outside, taking in many of its fine features.

Another interior show of the chancel at Beauly Priory

History of Beauly Priory

Here is a very brief history of the centuries at Beauly Priory.

1230 - Valliscaulian order from France establishes this holy place on the banks of the River Beauly, with the help of the Anglo-Norman nobleman Sir John Bisset. Pluscarden Abbey was also founded in 1230 by Alexander II, King of Scotland for the Valliscaulian Order along with Ardchattan Priory in Argyll.

Part of the south wall of Beauly Priory

1430 - Sir Hugh Fraser Lovat complains directly to the Pope of the priories mismanagement as buildings were becoming dilapidated. This prompted repairs and renovation of the priory.

1506 - William Thomson travels from Beauly Priory to the mother house in Valle de Choux in France only to be berated by prior general James Courtois for not regularly sending shipments of Scottish salmon.

1510 - Beauly Priory changes to the order of Cistercians.

The south wall of Beauly Priory

1530 - The west side tall lancet windows were rebuilt by Robert Reid who was the prior from 1530 to 1558. Robert Reid was also the Abbot at Kinloss Abbey and Bishop of Orkney. Upon his death, funds from his estate were used to found Edinburgh University.

1541 - The priory is struck by lightning with the west end requiring repair work.

1544 - Hugh Fraser, Lord Lovat, was entombed here after he was slain at the clan Battle of Swampy Meadow against Clan Mcdonald and Clan Cameron.

1560 - After the reformation, the priory church became popular as a burial ground for local people. This is why there are many graves within the boundary walls of the Priory.

Window detail of the chancel

1561 - John Mackenzie, 9th of Kintail is buried at Beauly Priory.

1568 - Kenneth Mackenzie, 10th of Kintail is buried at the priory after is death at the Battle of Langside.

1582 - As a direct result of the reformation the priory fell into disuse and the valuable lead from the roof was stripped. Parts of the now ruined building were taken to build structures in Beauly.

1594 - Colin Cam Mackenzie, 11th of Kintail was buried here after his death at Redcastle.

1653 - Parts of the buildings are stripped to build Oliver Cromwell's fort in Inverness. The clock tower still remains in Inverness today, the only remnant of the fort.

The east end, looking into the chancel

1721 - After the Battle of Glen Affric, Walter Ross, son of William Ross, the provost of Tain was buried at the priory.

1901 - The north transept is rebuilt by architect Alexander Ross as a mausoleum for the Mackenzie family.

Looking south towards the chancel

The Monks of Beauly Priory

The monks based at Beauly Priory lived by a strict set of rules, including vows of poverty and chastity. The monks originated from France, in the Burgundy region - Val des Choux or "Valley of the cabbages" not far from Dijon. Only the prior was allowed to have contact with the wider community.

"You shall observe silence. You shall not pass the outer bounds. You shall wear hairshirts next to your skin."

Despite these vows, the priority was a seat of wealth and power in the area. With its riverside location, the monks had been granted extensive fishing rights to the nearby river which provided food and income.

A typical day for a monk would have begun at sunrise with matins for morning prayer. The prayers were for their own salvation. Reading, contemplation and gardening were all part of monastic life.

A' Mhanachainn (the Gaelic name for Beauly) means "place of the monks". The monks would have spoken Gaelic, as well as Latin.

The priory at Beauly would have had many other buildings that no longer exist today including the prior's lodging.

The north transept

What is the difference between a church and a priory?

A priory is more of a lived-in convent/monastery where people would live and worship. A church is just a place of worship.

Outlander TV show

Beauly Priory was used as a filming location for the hit TV show Outlander. The main character, Claire, meets the seer Maisri here. Diana Gabaldon author of the book series has also held book signings and talk in Beauly. A perfect place to visit on the Outlander trail!

Historic Environment Scotland

Since 1913 has been in the care of the state and is now in the safe hands of Scottish Charity - Historic Environment Scotland. The priory is a scheduled monument and has protected status.

North side, showing the transept.

Conclusion

We had a brilliant wee visit to Beauly Priory and really need to explore this whole area more extensively at a later date. If you're looking for something to do west of Inverness or in the Highlands of Scotland, you won't go wrong with a visit to Beauly and the ruins of its Priory.

We headed on to our final destination of Clava Cairns on our mini tour of the Inverness area.

Beauly Priory location map

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