Not far from the Abbey Bridge, just to the east of Haddington, there grows an ancient Sycamore tree.

Its bark is twisted and crinkled with age and its deep set trunk supports old branches that fan upwards like ageing arms. I don’t know how old it is, but sycamores can live for more than 400 years and this one is already in its old age.

I walked by this old tree last week and paused by it. I noticed how its roots are entwined round dressed stones which once clearly formed part of a man-made structure. Perhaps this was part of the channel that led water to the now derelict nearby mill? But perhaps also these stones were once part of the abbey which used to stand proudly on this very spot?

Look around today at this tranquil place and it’s almost impossible to believe that an abbey once stood on the banks of the river here. But the name Abbey Bridge gives away the fact that this was once the site of a thriving religious community. What did it look like? I am not aware of any drawings or portraits of the abbey, so we will have to use our imagination.

It had ancient origins for it was founded in the 12th century by a Northumbrian countess who became a princess in Scotland. Her name was Ada de Warenne. She became the wife of Prince Henry, who was the son of David I of Scotland. The lands around Hadddington were granted to her as part of her marriage settlement.

We get mere glimpses of her from history. She lived in Haddington, which in those days was one of the major market towns of the kingdom. She had seven children, two of them became kings of Scotland. Ada was deeply religious and committed to promoting the church, just as her father-in law’s mother had been.

And so in 1178, towards the end of her life, she founded a Cistercian Abbey just east of where the Abbey Bridge now stands. It was occupied by an order of nuns and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

It looked over the Tyne here for about 400 years, yet barely a trace of it is now left. But maybe if we look hard enough we will find something. That is what enticed my imagination when I saw the ancient sycamore entwined round building stones from times long past. Were they a connection to this once great, but now lost, abbey? I wished the tree could speak.

But the voice of legend echoes here, and tells us of a great event that took place in the year 1358.

It was September 8, an important date for the church as it was the feast of the nativity of the Virgin. In essence it was the Virgin Mary’s birthday, and a celebratory feast was taking place inside the abbey.

Prayers were being said, and singing swirled round the columns of the abbey. But outside, the river was swelling and rising. Days of heavy rain had raised the level of the river and now it threatened to breach its banks. Further upstream, villages had been swept away and the barony of Nungate had been overwhelmed and completely destroyed.

Evidence of the devastation upstream could now be seen in the murky and rising waters. The nuns inside the abbey ceased their devotions and ventured outside to assess the danger. As they looked upstream they saw a raging torrent approaching. The water was full of debris, scraping along the banks. When it arrived at the curve where the abbey stood, the nuns were forced to retreat. The river no longer had banks, it was a violent vein of water pouring deathly dark waters in all directions.

And then another wave of anger approached. This time the water was sweeping all before it like an angry vengeful hand. Trees were uprooted as the banks collapsed. It was an inland tsunami, and the abbey was in its path.

The nuns, who had been praying, took flight before this flood of biblical proportions. Except one; she ran into the Lady Chapel. But she did not fall to her knees and pray this time. Instead she climbed up onto the altar and wrapped her arms around the statue of the Virgin Mary. She lifted it from the plinth and carried it out of the abbey and to the edge of the raging waters outside.

She stood with a rage of her own. With all her strength she raised the statue of the Virgin above her head. The water began to swirl around her ankles and before her another wall of flood was sweeping all before it, and heading directly for the abbey.

“Sister!” cried one of her fellow nuns “Sister, you will be swept away, all is lost, come save yourself!” But the warrior nun stood firm in her faith and determination.

“I defy you in the name of her Lady,” she cried out. “I call on the Virgin Mother, lay your hands upon this vengeful tide, I beseech you, make it subside!” But the wall of water approached with undying speed.

“Sister, in the name of mercy, come away,” cried the fellow nun, who was now running for her life.

The abbey seemed doomed. But the warrior nun stood defiantly.

“Virgin Mary,” she cried out, “the abbey and my life is dedicated to you. I call on you to save us!” She paused, then took in a deep breath so she could yell at the top of her voice. And what she said was very unorthodox: “Otherwise I will cast your sacred image into the water where it will perish!” This was blackmail! Blackmailing the mother of God was not part of church teaching!

But suddenly, the wall of water that had threatened the abbey just dissipated. It slapped harmlessly on its walls and soon the flood began to withdraw, harmlessly sweeping over the feet of the warrior nun who still stood, holding the Virgin Mary to the heavens.

The abbey was saved!

The warrior nun wept and gave thanks, while her sisters fell to their knees, proclaiming a miracle. She carefully lowered the statue and walked back into the abbey. She put the statue back onto its plinth, and now she too fell to her knees in humble submission and thanks.

Legend gives this nun no name, so I have given her the title of warrior. Her bravery and the divine intervention it enlisted made the abbey all the more famous.

But this was not the last dramatic moment the abbey would witness. The next one that we know of was on July 7, 1548. It involved the fate of another Mary; Mary Queen of Scots. And this time we have a written record of it happening.

It was on this day that a great cavalcade of nobility arrived at the abbey to hold a parliament. The Abbey Bridge was built by this time and it is very likely that the procession crossed it. It must have been a truly impressive spectacle, as not only were Scottish nobility present, but a contingent of French. They were here to discuss the issue of Mary’s marriage to the French Dauphin.

The young Queen of Scots was only five years old, but her fate was sealed here on the banks of the Tyne, in the abbey that now leaves no trace. The Treaty of Haddington was agreed and the young queen set sail the following month for France.

The winds of the Reformation swept away both the reign of Mary and the nuns of Haddington Abbey. The last prioress signed over the abbey in 1567.

And so the ancient abbey fell into ruin, used as a quarry until nothing remained. But look carefully, and perhaps evidence of the abbey can still be seen. The stones embraced by the roots of the old sycamore, the masonry that forms part of the ruined old mill nearby, the walls of the nearby crumbling houses; they all may be originally part of the once proud Haddington Abbey.

And they have their own tales: one is of a ghost, one of a brutal murder. But now is not the time to tell these.

For this is the story of the abbey, and one final discovery awaits: its lost graveyard. I had read of it, and when I searched for it I couldn’t at first find it. But then my eye was drawn to a clump of trees on the fringe of where the abbey once stood. They stood on a small rise, untouched by the plough.

I entered and stood under the branches. The atmosphere told me I had found the lost graveyard. It seemed to be guarded by the ancient trees. Then I saw a solitary gravestone, half buried and half revealed. Then a grave slab, half buried in the ground.

I had found the probable resting place of Princess Ada and the Warrior Nun, and countless others whom history has left nameless and forgotten. It is a place of almost eerie atmosphere. Exactly how long it has been disused I’m not sure, but for many generations.

And so I returned to the sycamore and stood under its shade. It stands close to the river, the very place where, so many centuries ago, the warrior nun had defied the flood.

From that spot the river still curves is way and the view of the Abbey Bridge is quite magnificent. It is, without doubt, a medieval treasure of our county.

It stands as evidence to the remarkable lost history of this area. How many, I wondered, who go by this way know of the abbey, and its founder, Ada the Princess or the warrior nun and the lost graveyard. And of the great drama that sealed the fate of a young queen.

She was a mother to seven children, two of whom became kings of Scotland.