Beauly, a beautiful place from the French beau lieu where monks of the Valliscaulian order came to build their priory around eight hundred years ago.
Close to a series of bends in the river the monks would have found little more than perhaps a chapel and isolated farmsteads. This was not just a pretty spot but somewhere with good agricultural land and excellent fishing that would be able to support a community of up to twenty monks, as well as the lay bretheren who undertook their agricultural work and other duties.
Today, the ruined church is all that survives of the complex of buildings that once stood within the priory precinct. On the south side of the church, a range of two story buildings enclosed an open cloister; their stubs can be seen jutting out from the wall. Beyond were orchards, gardens and probably agricultural buildings, stores and accommodation used by the lay brothers.
Beauly is one of only three Valliscaulian foundations known in Britain, all of which are in the Scottish Highlands.
The priory was founded by the Bisset family who lived nearby, in around 1230. The order was named after Val des Choux (the 'valley of the cabbages') near Dijon in France and was bound by very strict rules. Only the prior was allowed access to the outside world and the remoteness of this and the other foundations at Pluscarden (Moray) and Ardchatten (Argyll) must have appealed to them.
The reformation in 1560 bought about an end to the religious life of the priory.
Beauly was unable to maintain itself as an independent house for long and its considerable holdings shortly became private property. While the church remained in use as a buriel ground, the other buildings were substantially robbed, not least to build Cromwell's fort in Inverness in 1563. The building has been in the care of the State since 1909.
Work on the church (The Priory Church of St Mary and St John the Baptist) began after the priory's foundation in around 1230, once the monks had built their accommodation. it was originally concieved as an elongated rectangle with a chapel or sacristy on the north side. As far as is known the church remained much as it was until the fifteenth century when records of repairs and additions begin to appear. the Frasers of Lovat, local benefactors, built the chapel of the Holy Cross around 1416 and continued to make repairs throughout the century.
As with many monastic foundations, Beauly suffered towards the end of the Middle Ages, including being plundered in 1506. A decision was made to abandon the Valliscaulian way of life in favour of the Cistercian order and with this came a brief period of spiritual renaissance. Robert Reid, the commendator (lay administrator) from 1531, was particularly active, building a spacious prior's house and rebuilding the church's west end after a lightning strike in 1541; his coat of arms as Bishop of Orkney can be seen over the west door.
Within the church are many tombs and gravestones, including those from families still connected with Beauly today. The splendid tombs of Prior Mackenzie (d.1479) and Sir Kenneth Mackenzie (d.1492), his half brother, can be seen opposite each other in the monks' choir. The North Chapel, the buriel place of the family, was restored in 1900 by the architect Thomas Ross. It is not known where the monks of the priory were buried but in and around the church are the gravestones of the many townsfolk who were buried here in modern times.
In the summer of 1564 Mary Queen of Scots travelled through the Highlands to Easter Ross. She stopped at Beauly Priory before visiting Dingwall, capital of the Earldom of Ross. it is known that Mary wa touched by the beauty of the priory which was enhanced by a fine orchard. She is reputed to have said: "Oui, c'est un beau lieu".
The Queen used such tours to gain knowledge of her kingdom, to spare expenses on the royal household, to see her subjects and most importantly let them see her. She frequently stayed in monasteries during her progress, because they had the necessary accommodation and supplies for royal guests. Her host, Walter Reid, was the Protestant commendator of kinloss Abbey and Beauly Priory. during the civil wars which followed the flight of Mary into England in 1568, Reid initially favoured the Queen's Party, but he later joined the King's Party, the supporters of the infant James VI.