Luffness friary and the knight’s tomb

The Carmelite friary of Luffness gives us the earliest firm date in Aberlady’s history, November 30, 1293. It also offers a mystery – who was the knight in chain mail and surcoat represented in an effigy in the ruined church?

The east end of the friary church at Luffness, with the ‘arched tomb’ containing an effigy of a knight in armour.

THE EARLIEST KNOWN definite date in the history of Aberlady is November 30, 1293 – St Andrew’s Day, or, as the record puts it, ‘year of grace 1293 at the feast of St Andrew, the apostle’. On that day, an agreement was made ‘between Sir William Lindsay, son of the late Sir David Lindsay, and John, abbot of Newbattle’, the Cistercian abbey in Midlothian. Sir William promised that the abbey would receive ‘twenty pounds sterling’ each year on that same day, ‘in perpetuity’.

The money was ‘to be distributed for the use of the monks of the monastery and for the perpetual alms of all the poor of Christ, for the salvation of his soul and lady Alice, his spouse, and for the soul of Sir David Lindsay, his father, and especially for the soul of Lady Margaret Lindsay, his mother’. In classic medieval style, Sir William was spending big on alms for the poor and the prayers of the monks, in order that his own soul might be saved.

Of the twenty pounds, five pounds and four shillings (£5 4s) were to be spent at Newbattle itself, so that the monks ‘may be able to have every day of Saturday per year, two shillings of sterling to buy for themselves luxurious food, with salted fish for their refreshment’.

The bulk of the money, though, was to be spent for the benefit of the ‘poor, and greatly indigent’ at Haddington on All Souls Day (November 1) each year, including ‘144 pairs of good and bountiful conventual shoes’ (£4 18s 4d) and ‘fifty-two measures of cloth, that each may have four measures for a shirt’ (£1 12s 8d). The monks would also give a shilling in cash to paupers.

Just one mark – two-thirds of a pound, or 13s 4d – was set aside as a reward for the monks who made all this happen, for a feast ‘on the day of the anniversary of Lady Margaret Lindsay, mother of Sir William, if the brothers should solemnly celebrate for her soul on that day … and on the same day they will feed the Carmelite friars of Luffness with a half mark, if they should solemnly celebrate on that day for the soul of Margaret.’

The surviving door probably led into a sacristy, where sacred vessels were washed.

The visible remains of the Carmelite friary of Luffness consist of the outline of a long, narrow church with, at the east end, a tomb featuring the effigy of a knight, set under an arch, and a stone slab marking a second important grave. The remains are hidden in woods halfway between the village of Aberlady and Luffness House, reached by a footpath known as the Postman’s Walk from Aberlady, or by a path called Bickerton’s Walk from the road to Luffness Mains.

There’s no certainty about when the friary was built, which is why it’s so handy to have the record of Sir William Lindsay’s gift to show that it was in existence by 1293. The Carmelite order was introduced to Britain by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land in the mid-1200s. Its earliest house in Scotland might have been one established near Perth in 1262, or at Berwick-on-Tweed in 1270, or at Aberdeen in 1273 – but in almost every case the buildings were influenced by the friary set up at Hulne, Northumberland, about 1242.

White Friars

What made friars different from monks is that they were more willing to engage with the wider community, primarily, although not only, through preaching and teaching. Think Friar Tuck, from the various retellings of the legend of Robin Hood. The Franciscans, known as Grey Friars, took this to the extreme by living and working in towns, as the location of Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh suggests. The Carmelites, known as White Friars from their pale cloaks, were more hermit-like, but still welcomed lay people, both as servants and in ‘confraternities’, participating in the spiritual life of the friary.

The friary consisted of the church itself and various domestic buildings – dormitories, dining halls, kitchens and work spaces – grouped around a cloister on the south side of the church. These have disappeared completely, with just a couple of bits of stone showing where the cloister might have been, sketched during an inspection in 1926.

Sketch plan of the friary, 1926, showing possible location of the cloister buildings.

The church was made up of two parts, the nave (for the public) and chancel (just for the initiated), with two steps up at the east end of the chancel to a raised area known as the sanctuary. There was probably also a passage between nave and chancel, connecting the cloister with the world outside – known as the ‘walking place’, this was a special feature of friary churches.

There’s also another definite date associated with Luffness. On July 3, 1913 it was visited by an inspector from RCAHMS, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, who wrote it up for their inventory of East Lothian, eventually published in 1924. The entry describes the memorial slab as dating to the 1400s and featuring a carved cross and a shield ‘bearing on a chevron a rose, between two lions counter combatant – the Hepburn arms.’ Gothic lettering identifies the grave as that of Kentigern Hepburn of Waughton, who owned Luffness from 1498.

Bickerton or Lindsay?

But RCAHMS could not identify the knight represented by the ‘much weathered effigy’. Tradition from 1723 suggested it that he was ‘Lord Bickerton’, and in 1844 (in the book Lamp of Lothian by James Miller) he was named as ‘Friar Bickerton.’

There is a mention of one John of Bickerton who ‘held the castle of Luffness’ as a tenant of Robert of Pinkeny in 1296; his descendants transferred Luffness to the Hepburns of Waughton in 1464.

The knight has a large shield resting on his chest and appears to be holding a sword.

If we’re trying to be certain about the identity of the knight, there are helpful details in the description of the friary in the scheduled ancient monument listing on the Historic Environment Scotland website. This notes that the knight is in ‘late 13th century armour’, and that the position of the tomb within the church ‘is that normal for a founder’s tomb’. So he’s from the late 1200s, and probably the founder of the friary.

This description could fit John of Bickerton, if he founded the friary. But another local tradition holds that it was founded by Sir David Lindsay, father of Sir William who made the £20 promise. 

The story, a version of which was set down by Nigel Tranter, Aberlady’s great historical storyteller, suggests that Sir David was on crusade in Egypt in 1268–9 where he met a Carmelite friar and offered to establish a friary at Luffness, possibly because Sir David was dying of a wound or illness and the friar promised to bring his embalmed body back to Scotland. So perhaps Bickerton’s tomb is actually Lindsay’s… and Bickerton’s Walk really ought to be renamed.

September 9, 2020 • by Damien Noonan

Image credits

Plan of Carmelite Convent, Luffness, 1926

© Crown copyright: HES. Licensed for personal use but not for distribution.


Agreement by Sir William Lindsay, 1293

Carmelite friaries, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland archives/ view/ psas/ monograph06.cfm

Luffness, Carmelite Friary, Canmore

Site plan and sections, Carmelite Convent, Luffness, 1926

Luffness Friary, scheduled ancient monument listing designation/ SM759

RCAHMS inventory of East Lothian, 1924 digital-volumes/ rcahms-archives/ inventories/ east-lothian-1924/57

‘John of Bickerton held the castle of Luffness’, 1296

Petition by Alice, wife of William of Lindsey, 1296