Arbroath Abbey was founded in 1178 by William the Lion, King of Scots, for a group of Tironensian Benedictine monks from Kelso Abbey. It was consecrated in 1197 with a dedication to the martyred Saint Thomas Becket, whom William had met and admired during his time at the English court. William was buried before the high altar of the church in 1214.
The red sandstone abbey took over sixty years to build, built in the Early English style, its cruciform church measured 276 feet (84 metres) long by 160 feet (49 metres) wide. The distinctive round window in the south transept was originally illuminated at night to serve as a beacon for mariners.
Arbroath was to become one of the richest abbeys in Scotland and is most famous for its association with the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, considered by many to be the most important document in Scottish history in which was signed by eight Scottish Earls and forty-five barons.
The declaration was a dignified plea to the Pope to recognise Scotland as an independent nation with Bruce at its leader and is believed to have been drafted by Abbot Bernard, who was the Chancellor of Scotland under King Robert the Bruce One passage in particular is often quoted :-
'...for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.'
Four years later the Pope addressed Robert the Bruce as King of Scotland.
Following the Reformation, the Abbey fell into ruins after the Reformation and many of its stones were pillaged for buildings in the town of Arbroath. This continued until 1815 when steps were taken to preserve the remaining ruins.
On Christmas Day 1950, the historic Stone of Destiny was stolen from Westminster Abbey by a group of four Scottish students, namely, Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson, and Alan Stuart. On April 11, 1951, the stone was found lying on the site of Arbroath Abbey's altar.
The abbey is maintained by Historic Scotland, who built a major new visitor centre which opened in 2001. The red sandstone-clad centre has a distinctive 'wave-shaped' organic roof, planted with sedum. The centre provides extensive displays and allows interpretation of the abbey remains and explains the significance of the Declaration of Arbroath.