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Auchterhouse Parish Church
Dedication: St Mary
Diocese of Dunkeld
Deanery of Angus
County of Angus
NO 3421 3811
As now seen, the church is a three-compartment structure, with what appears to be a rectangular chancel at the east end, a larger rectangular nave and a slender western tower; it is possible that the plans of the two former were at least partly conditioned by those of the medieval building. A number of medieval features survive, though several of these appear to have been relocated in the course of post-medieval reconstruction.
According to Alexander Myln, writing in the early sixteenth century, Auchterhouse had been granted as a common church to the canons of Dunkeld in the mid-thirteenth century by Bishop Geoffrey (1236-49).(1) There seems no reason to doubt Myln’s accuracy on this matter, for the church appears only as a vicarage in Bagimond’s Roll in 1274.(2) It has been suggested that this was only a vicarage pensionary, but it was described as a vicarage perpetual in February 1439 when a settlement was made in litigation over possession between Mr Robert of Eassie and John Steel or Stell.(3) Both men had Expectative Graces in respect of the vicarage and both had accepted provision upon the death of the incumbent, John Cadar. In 1439, Robert withdrew his claim and supplicated the pope to provide Steel to the vicarage, valued at £16, but reserving to Robert a pension of 10 merks for life or until he had obtained provision to another benefice. If the reference to a vicarage perpetual in 1439 is not an error, annexation of the vicarage to the common fund followed at some date before the Reformation, at which time both parsonage and vicarage were recorded as annexed while the vicarage was recorded as pensionary and held by one sir Robert Gray.(4)
The church enjoyed a considerable level of patronage from various members of the Ogilvy family. The most significant gift occurred in January 1426, when Sir Walter Ogilvy of Lintrathen established two chaplainries in the church of St Mary of Auchterhouse.(5) The chaplains were to celebrate masses for the prosperous state of the king and queen (James I and Queen Joan) and for the souls of not only his father, Sir Walter Ogilvy, his mother and his late wife, Isabel, but of all those against whom he had sinned without making amends, and of those who had died in 1411 at the battle of Harlaw. It is not indicated in the 1426 grant if these chaplainries were attached to the main altar of the church or if separate altar(s) were also established. At the Reformation, however, a chaplainry of St John the Baptist in the kirk of Auchterhouse is recorded.(6) This chaplainry, one of three held by Mr David Scrimgeour, may have been one of those established in the fifteenth century.
The main elements of the church are an eastern compartment of 6.56 metres (from west to east) by 8.41 metres (from north to south) that now houses a chancel and vestry above a burial vault; a main body of 17.25 by 10.02 metres; and a western tower of 2.4 by 3.03 metres. The first two of these appear to have taken the chancel and nave of a late medieval two-cell church as their starting point, though they have clearly been extensively remodelled at a number of stages of the church’s structural history.
The only part of the medieval church likely to survive in situ is a handsome chancel arch with polygonal (probably initially semi-octagonal) responds, a pointed arch decorated with a pair of hollow chamfers to each side of the soffit, and a cap with a filleted roll below the vertical face of the abacus and a simply rolled necking. The base is now concealed, but the visible details suggest a date for the arch in the fifteenth century. The south chancel doorway has jambs decorated with a pair of filleted rolls at right angles to each other, and a roll set within the flank of the embrasure, all of which are separated by cavettos. The way in which these mouldings preserve the essentially rectangular profile of the jambs has analogies with those of the west doorway at Dundee St Mary and of a doorway at Innerpeffray Collegiate Church; such comparisons point to a date in the years around 1500.
The jambs of the chancel doorway, however, have an uncomfortable relationship with the lintel, with most of the mouldings of the former simply dying into the soffit of the latter, and it is very likely that the doorway has been reconstructed in modified form at some stage. This may have been in 1630, the date inscribed on a stone projecting from the east wall. That stone appears to be a re-used skew-putt or corbel that could itself be of medieval origin, since a similar stone to its north has an incised fleur-de-lis with the initial M, presumably for Maria. It appears likely that it was in 1630 that the chancel was remodelled as a laird’s aisle, with a partly subterranean burial vault below a family pew and retiring room. According to the Statistical Account of 1795 the vault had once belonged to the Buchan family, but was by then the burial place of the Airlie family. The work on the chancel almost certainly involved its truncation, resulting in a lesser dimension from east to west than that from north to south. Fragments of one or more complex traceried windows, whose form-pieces have been re-set into the north and south gateways and the north wall of the churchyard, may have come from this chancel, and it is attractive to suspect that they could have been from an east window.
Early views of the interior of the church show the Airlie pew before a general restoration and re-ordering that was carried out in 1910 to the designs of James W. Mackison. As a result of that work, the main focus of liturgical interest became a communion table within a chancel created where the Airlie pew had been, with the pulpit in the north-west corner of the nave rather than at the centre of its south wall where it had been earlier. The retiring room of the laird’s aisle was modified as a vestry. The substitution of two pairs of triangular-headed windows for a pair of sash windows in the south wall of the chancel probably took place at the same time.
Like the chancel, the nave is entered through a doorway likely to have originated in the years around 1500. It has a single large diagonally-set filleted roll flanked by cavettos as the main feature of both jambs and arch. But, also like the chancel doorway, it has clearly been reconstructed, and it now has a prominent keystone at the apex of an arch of three-centred form, and there are simple block bases. This was probably done in a major remodelling of the church in 1775, a process that also embraced the addition of the elegantly slender west tower, albeit with what appear to be sixteenth-century roll-moulded jambs incorporated into the doorway at the tower’s base. It may have been in the same operation that the nave was expanded to its present overall width of 17.25 metres, so as to render it more serviceable as a preaching hall. However, while most of the nave masonry is constructed in ‘Aberdeen bond’, with vertical runs of three or four smaller stones between regularly coursed larger blocks, the eastern half of the south wall is of a different build, suggesting this part could have been widened at an earlier stage.
One other medieval fragment that should be mentioned is an octagonal moulded stone, the upper surface of which has been scooped out to serve as a baptismal font basin. The author of the Statistical Account in 1795, who was clearly very proud of the church as remodelled in 1775, said that the font at that time had ‘some images of angels, or saints, in rude sculpture, and [was] but ill-suited to the general elegance of the building’. That description clearly could not be related to the stone presently in use as a font, and it must be feared that the basin was destroyed soon after 1795, leaving only the base. Similarities with the font base at such as Fowlis Easter Collegiate Church, about 5.25 kilometres to the south-west of Auchterhouse, would certainly support the idea that what is now seen was the base of a fine font, and one fears to imagine what has been lost.
Within the churchyard are considerable numbers of handsome eighteenth-century memorials, indicating its long history of use.
1. Myln, Vitae, 10.
2. SHS Misc, vi, 48.
3. Cowan, Parishes, 10; CSSR, iv, nos 517, 520.
4. Kirk (ed.), Book of Assumptions, 301, 339.
5. RMS, ii, no 81.
6. Donaldson (ed.), Thirds of Benefices, 11, 167; 33, 36.
Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome 1433-47, 1983, ed. A.I. Dunlop and D MacLauchlan, Glasgow, nos 517, 520.
Cameron, J.K., and Valentine, M.O., 1932, Auchterhouse old and new, Dundee, 1932.
Cowan, I.B., 1967, The parishes of medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh, 10.
Donaldson, G. 1949, Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices, (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh, 11, 33, 36, 167.
Dunlop, A.I., 1939, ‘Bagimond’s Roll, statement of the tenths of the kingdom of Scotland’, Miscellany of the Scottish History Society, vi, 1-77, at 48.
Hay, G., 1957, The architecture of Scottish post-Reformation churches, Oxford, 240, 245.
Jervise, A., 1885, Memorials of Angus and the Mearns, Dundee, ii, 126-7.
Kirk, J., 1995, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, (British Academy) Oxford, 301, 339.
MacGibbon, D. and Ross, T., 1896-7, The ecclesiastical architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, iii (1897), 541-2.
Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scottorum, 1882 , Edinburgh, ii (1414-1513), no 81.
Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Canmore database.
Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-9, ed. J. Sinclair, Edinburgh, xiv (1795), 524.
Vitae Dunkeldensis Ecclesiae Episcoporum…Ad Annum Mdxv, 1823, ed. T. Thomson, (Bannatyne Club), Edinburgh, 10.
Warden, A.J., 1880-5, Angus or Forfarshire, the land and people, historical and descriptive, Dundee, ii, 384-5.