Cistercian Hospice at Spital Farm, Creetown

Introduction :

To the west of Creetown is Spital Farm, a name that preserves possibly the oldest religious centre in the area. This hospice, sited near the Ferry Town of Cree, would have been a necessary help to those on pilgrimage towards St. Ninian's shrine at Whithorn, as well as to local people. The Spital appears to have been run by the monks of Dundrennan Abbey, further east between Kirkcudbright and Auchencairn.

The Work of the Cistercian Order :

Although a contemplative and introspective Order, the Cistercians were probably the most remarkable engineers, farmers, brewsters and millers in Mediaeval Europe. As a severe offshoot of the Benedictine Order, the Cistercians were used to going into rough country and living off their own efforts, whilst at the same time following a Rule that gave them much prayer, little food and little rest. Their single-mindedness made them determined to cultivate even the hardest of ground, draining, liming and manuring in what was later called 'High Farming'. As in Yorkshire, much of their profits at Dundrennan Abbey came from the extensive sheep-ranges that gave them a lot of wool to trade. Whilst they would have had hives for honey and wax, some vegetables and a certain amount of barley, oats and herbs, commodities such as wine and malt would have to come in by sea.

It is important to remember that for much of their time the Cistercian Order was divided up into Choir Monks and Lay Brothers. The Monks spent most of their time enclosed in the Abbey (or were supposed to) whilst the Lay Brethren went out into the world to work the Abbey estates. A Lay Brother might be illiterate and a labourer at the start of his time, but had the opportunity to gain education enough to become a Choir Monk, a few even rising to the status of a Priest. This was not the general rule; a Lay Brother could be little more than a farm labourer, with the Abbey or one of its Granges as a home. The Black Death destroyed from a third to a half of the population of the British Isles, forcing many landowners and merchants to pay wages, so the hard life of a Lay Brother came to be a less popular option, except for the devout.

Food, Health and Hospices :

The Cistercians were strictly vegetarian, eating meat only late in their existence and in their Infirmaries, or Abbey Hospitals. As the Infirmaries were sometimes as much as half the size of the main cloister, it can be seen that the monks had to learn to be good healers to have even a chance of living in the harsh climate of Scotland. The same skills were their contribution to life in this area; it served God and showed humility, whilst at the same time attracting donations of goods, lands and money, from those so assisted.

Cistercians in Local History :

Dundrennan Abbey eventually established a daughter house at Glen Luce ('Valle Lucis'), whose claims to fame included running a leper hospital near the Wells of the Rees. Seen in that context, the site at Spital Farm can be seen as one in a chain of monastic hospices.

During the Scottish Wars of Independence the forces of Edward 1 of England and his son twice fought battles at the nearby crossing of the River Fleet at Minnigaff. It is probable that casualties from the battle would have been attended by the Cistercian monks on duty. Unfortunately, it is also likely to be true that both sides plundered Abbey lands; the Abbot at Dundrennan insisted that King Edward repay him damages of £ 1,116 for depredations done by his armies - amazingly, the King found it politic to pay up.

Physical Evidence and Archaeological Activity :

We know very little about the Spital at Cree; a farmer found remains of stained glass, worked stone and lead, in the field below his farm in 1780. This was recorded in the Statistical Account for the Parish of Kirkmabreck. It is tempting to suggest that the lead came from local workings, deposits of lead being worked intermittently right up to the 1920s.

It is proposed that Channel Four's Time Team be approached to conduct geophysical surveys and trial excavations, to establish the layout of the Spital Farm Hospice, to encourage interest in the town and to further develop the museum facilities. Any information that can be obtained to expand knowledge of the Hospice would benefit the town and an understanding of local mediaeval history.