An Overview of the Evidence Provided by
the Medieval Churches

Aberdour Church
Aberdour church from the north

The Documentation of Building Operations

In general the level of documentation that might help us to determine the dates of medieval building operations is rather disappointing. As might be expected, the major building operations are better documented than the lesser ones, though even in those cases there is hardly a plethora of information. The main phase of works at Dunblane Cathedral, for example, is datable by nothing more than the assumed terminus a quo of the agreement reached over its finances following a papal mandate of 1237, (1) together with a much later statement that Bishop Clement (1233-59) had built it up as a hallowed sanctuary. (2) For later works initiated by the Chisholm dynasty of bishops there is a little more evidence, which is supported in some cases by heraldry, (3) and supplemented by royal gifts of silver to masons in 1501-2. (4) But any understanding of the building chronology must rely heavily on close analysis of the architectural evidence. There is a similar situation at Inchmahome Priory, which may have been founded on the site of an existing parish church, and where we can only assume that the church was built as funds allowed following the foundation of the Augustinian community in or around 1238. (5)

The situation is a little better at Dunkeld Cathedral, due largely to an invaluable account of the lives and activities of its bishops by Alexander Myln, abbot of Cambuskenneth (1519-48) and Lord President of James V’s College of Justice, who had earlier been Dean of Angus and Official of the diocese of Dunkeld. (6) Myln’s account appears to be generally accurate for works carried out from the fifteenth century onwards, and to an even greater extent than at Dunblane, there is – or has been - heraldry to supplement the documentary evidence. Nevertheless, the corporate memory of the cathedral chapter, on which Myln presumably had to rely heavily, appears to have been defective for the earlier phases of building, and it would be difficult to accept Myln’s statement that Bishop William Sinclair (1309-37) was indeed responsible for the construction of the choir.

Myln was particularly anxious to chronicle the energetic episcopate of George Brown (1483-1515), in whose time he had himself served the diocese. Brown had done much to ensure that parochial cure was as effectively provided as possible, and this extended to works on a number of churches, the construction of at least one of which resulted from his subdivisions of parishes. We are told by Myln that Brown paid for the construction of the church at the newly founded parish church of Dowally, for example, while at Caputh he funded the building and decoration of the choir, providing a painted reredos and windows. At Pitcairn and Tibbermore he is said to have restored and built the churches . (7) Some supporting documentation for this architectural activity is provided in the surviving accounts of diocesan officers, and particularly of the Granitar, who appears to have been charged with funding this aspect of episcopal activity. In 1506 there were payments for roofing the church at Dowally and for repairs to the choir at Strathmiglo, while in 1508 there were repairs to the choir at Tibbermore, where the bishop had one of his residences. (8) In 1510 payments were made for work on windows at Caputh, Cargill and Dowally. (9) But perhaps the most interesting – and most tantalising - account in that year is for repairs to the east wall of Tibbermore Church, since these were said to have been carried out by a carpenter named as John Fendour, (10) and it must be asked if he was the wright of the same name who contracted for highly prestigious works at the burgh church of Aberdeen in 1495 and 1510, (11) and for the central spire of Aberdeen Cathedral in 1511. (12) In 1511 there were payments for building and glazing the choir at Aberlady and for roofing the choir at Preston, and in 1513 repairs were carried out at Forgandenny and again at Tibbermore. (13)

Regrettably for our present purposes, however, very little of Brown’s recorded activity on the parish churches of his diocese has left identifiable traces. At Aberlady the medieval church has been entirely rebuilt, apart from the tower. At Caputh the chancel survives as a mutilated fragment remodelled as a burial enclosure, and this may also be the case at Cargill. The medieval church at Dowally probably closely conditioned the present rectangular building, but the only identifiably medieval fragment is a mutilated relocated heraldic stone which may have borne Bishop Brown’s arms. As at Dowally, the overall form of Forgandenny Church probably reflects that of its medieval predecessor, but there is nothing that could be specifically associated with Brown’s activity with any confidence. The church at Pitcairn has been lost without trace, and, although Preston survives as an abandoned shell, Brown’s choir roof is long gone. As at Pitcairn, the medieval church at Strathmiglo is lost without trace. Most regrettably of all, any remnants of John Fendour’s work at Tibbermore must have been destroyed when the chancel was completely rebuilt in 1789.

Perhaps the only other form of pointer to the dating of building operations that need be mentioned here is that of statements passed on by later generations; however, as with Myln’s attribution of the choir of Dunkeld to Bishop Sinclair, such statements have to be treated with the greatest caution. One example of this type of record that may be mentioned is Bishop Keith’s assertion that Muthill Church had been built by Michael Ochiltree when Dean of Dunblane (1420-9). (14) Since Muthill is a highly complex composite structure, if that statement has any basis in fact it could be no more than partly true, and perhaps all that can be said is that it is an item of information that should be taken into account in considering the later stages of the church’s architectural history.

The Evidence for Church Planning

There was some variety of church planning across the two dioceses. The most complex churches were, of course, the two cathedrals, which were of broadly similar overall form. Each of them eventually took shape with an extended aisle-less choir flanked to the north by an ancillary block to house the chapter house, sacristy and treasury. In both cases the nave had an aisle running the length of each side, and there was a single bell tower: at Dunblane that tower was an earlier structure that was absorbed asymmetrically into the south nave aisle, while at Dunkeld it was a slightly later structure tacked onto the north-west angle of the nave, a frequently chosen location for single bell towers in major Scottish churches. At Dunblane the aisled part of the building was of two storeys, as was becoming more common for greater churches by the central decades of the thirteenth century, though it is possible the original intention had been to have three storeys. At Dunkeld the nave was an example of the revived interest in three-storeyed elevations that is to be found in a number of major fifteenth-century churches.

The modestly endowed Augustinian priory church at Inchmahome, which may have continued to serve a parochial function for a while, could not aspire to anything approaching the relative splendours of Dunblane and Dunkeld. Nevertheless, in its final form it had an aisle-less choir with a north sacristy annexe, and a nave with a single aisle on the side of the church away from the cloister, together with a rather oddly inserted tower in the western bay of that aisle.

Turning to the churches built to serve a purely parochial function, no four-compartment plans are known to have existed within the study area. At Bunkle, however, one of the diocese of Dunkeld’s outlyers south of the Forth, there is the only survivor of an eastern termination in the form of a rounded apse, and it cannot be ruled out that this was one element in a four-part plan like those at Dalmeny or Tyninghame outside the study area. Three-compartment plans, consisting of a rectangular chancel, a slightly wider and longer rectangular nave, and a western tower, clearly existed at Dunning and almost certainly at Muthill, while the survival of later western towers at Aberlady and Cramond suggests that they could also have been of that plan type. It might be added that the towers at Dunning and Muthill are of a related type to that at Dunblane Cathedral, and provide reminders of how, in the first flush of parochial foundations, the work at the parish churches might vie with that at the cathedrals in quality, if not in scale.

A larger number of churches may once have been of two-compartment plans than now appears, though, as with the three-compartment plans, none has escaped extensive later modifications. Nevertheless, one certainly existed at Aberdour before later augmentations, and there are reasons of varying strength for believing that this was the original plan at Abernethy, Alyth, Auchterhouse, Caputh, Crieff, Dull, Kilmadock, Kincardine, Lecropt, Preston and Tibbermore, and perhaps also at Rosyth. Chancel arches, which presumably invariably marked the junction of chancel and nave in two-cell churches, have generally been swept away as part of the post-Reformation effort to create unified spaces more appropriate for use as preaching halls. The only surviving examples, apart from those at Dunblane and Dunkeld Cathedrals, are now at Aberdour, Auchterhouse and Muthill, though a simple arch at Preston could be in the location of a medieval predecessor, and there are traces of a wall that could have been associated with a chancel arch at Rosyth; there is also an apse arch at Bunkle.

In a small number of cases, churches were enlarged by the addition of aisles, either in the more commonly understood sense of the word as a longitudinal space separated from the nave by an arcade, or in the sense of a unicameral lateral projection. Such additions were presumably made in order to provide additional space for altars, as well as to accommodate the numbers of lay folk who wished to participate in parochial worship. At Aberdour a single longitudinal aisle was added on the south side of the nave. At the considerably larger church of Alyth, where one arcade has survived the demolition of the rest of the building, descriptions establish that there was an aisle down each flank of the nave, though references to differences of detailing indicate that the aisles had almost certainly been added on separate occasions. At Muthill, while the two arcades are attached to the retained tower in differing ways, it seems more likely that the pair of aisles was added in a single campaign. At both Aberdour and Muthill the nave roofs swept across central vessel and aisles without break, and with no clearstorey to introduce direct light into the central vessel. The relationship of the north wall of the chancel to the surviving arcade at Alyth suggests that is also likely to have been the case there.

The addition of laterally projecting rectangular aisles was a relatively common way of augmenting churches in Scotland, though, in the absence of documentation, it can sometimes be difficult to be certain if they were built as chapels in the middle ages, or if they were added after the Reformation as lairds’ aisles. Francis Grose’s engraving of Abernethy may be interpreted as showing that it had a rectangular lateral projection towards the west end of the chancel’s south wall, and in that position it may well have been a medieval chapel. There is a rectangular projection in a related position at the rectangular church of Culross. In both those cases the crow-stepped gables, and in the case of Culross the rectangular mullioned windows, point to a date no earlier than the late fifteenth or sixteenth centuries. In the case of Culross, however, it is significant that the windows are only in the south and west walls, and a common reason for the absence of a window in the east wall in late medieval chapels is assumed to have been that an altar and its retable were to be placed there. In both those cases therefore, it must be seen as at least a possibility that the projections had been built as chapels, even if they were presumably then retained in use a lairds’ aisles.

By the later middle ages churches of the more complex plan types discussed above were exceptional, and most churches were of unaugmented rectangular plan. In these the internal division between chancel and nave would almost certainly have been marked by a screen, with no provision for a chancel arch at the junction of the two parts. Churches of this kind could be of widely varying scale, depending presumably on both the parochial population and the wealth of those responsible for their construction. However, in attempting to assess the evidence provided by such churches, it must be borne in mind that they have all been adapted in varying degrees in the course of the four and a half centuries since the Reformation. In many cases it is now extremely difficult to know if we are looking at a church whose shell is still essentially medieval or one that has been almost completely rebuilt.

To obtain anything approaching an accurate idea of the range of possible sizes and relative proportions of rectangular churches, it would be necessary to have more precise information on all of the churches of this type in the two dioceses. In our present state of understanding, however, it must be accepted that the value of the statistics is vitiated by the difficulty of knowing at which churches the present dimensions still reflect those of the medieval building. In view of this caveat, we shall start by taking the churches of Fowlis Wester and Lude as representing the two extremes of scale that might be encountered within the area of this study. In the former case the dimensions are 31.75 metres from east to west and 8.2 metres from north to south; in the latter case the measurements are 9.2 by 6.32. On this basis the mean dimensions for rectangular churches might be understood as being in the order of 20.475 by 6.84 metres. At Fowlis the proportion of length to breadth is 1:3.87, while that at Lude is 1:1.45. That indicates mean proportions in the order of 1:2.66. To supplement that evidence, a list of the dimensions of rectangular churches is given in the appendix to this section, with an indication of whether or not it is considered that the current plan might reflect that of the medieval church. On the basis of the figures listed there, the average dimensions are 19.34 by 7.19 metres, with average proportions of 1:2.69.

Carved or Moulded Architectural Detailing

Relatively little architectural detail of diagnostic value has survived the succession of changes that most churches have undergone, though it may be suspected that at many – perhaps most – churches the amount of carved or moulded work was always relatively limited. For our present purposes the most obvious consequence of this is that very few churches present features that would help us to date them in the absence of documentation.

The most lavishly finished buildings within the area were, of course, the major cathedrals and religious houses. Dunblane and Dunkeld Cathedrals between them embody some of the most significant Scottish ecclesiastical architecture of the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. There is also fine smaller scale work of the thirteenth century at Inchmahome, while the few surviving ex situ fragments at Coupar Angus make clear that it must have been a building of considerable quality. Some of the same masons who worked at Dunblane in the twelfth century may have moved on to work at Dunning, where the north door is broadly comparable with the door at the base of Dunblane’s tower, while the possibly somewhat later tower arch at Dunning is also the work of a high calibre mason. A doorway at Abercorn is perhaps of lesser quality, albeit of high interest on account of its decoratively carved tympanum. What appears to be a length of Romanesque chevron-decorated hoodmoulding, presumably from a doorway, has been re-set in the south wall at Forgandenny.

Doorways of the later twelfth and earlier thirteenth centuries are represented in fragments at Clunie and Leny, those at the former having been re-set in a modern composite doorway with waterleaf caps and a segmental dogtooth-decorated arch. Doorways of a variety of later dates are to be seen at Auchterhouse, Bendochy, Dalgety and Tullibody; those at Auchterhouse are of particular interest since they appear to represent the post-medieval re-use of late medieval elements interpolated with new elements. There is much to suggest that Auchterhouse was an unusually fine building, and it is the only rural parish church in the study area where there are fragments of what must have been one or more notable traceried windows. Other architectural fragments are to be seen out of their designed context at Bunkle, Culross, Muckairn, Strowan, Tillicoultry and perhaps at Trinity Gask, though it must be conceded that in none of those cases do the fragments add greatly to our understanding of the churches.

Liturgical Fixtures and Furnishings and Monuments

The fixtures and furnishings associated with the celebration of the liturgy were a principal target of the first generation of reformers, and the losses have consequently been great. Nevertheless, more has survived than might perhaps have been expected wthin those areas of the buildings where the principal liturgical furnishings would have been concentrated, around the site of the altars. At Dunblane there is a possible altar recess in the lowest storey of the tower. At Dunkeld there are possible indications of the location of the altar in Bishop Cardeny’s chapel at the east end of the south nave aisle, where there are chases in the wall that appear likely to have been intended for the attachment of a retable. Adjacent to this wall is a piscina recess, confirming the erstwhile proximity of an altar, and there are other piscinas at Dalgety, Dunblane, Dunkeld, Inchmahome and Preston, amongst others. But the most common feature often associated with an altar that has come down to us is the aumbry, which is usually nothing more than a rectangular recess, albeit sometimes with a rebate for a door frame. Amongst a number of other examples these are still to be seen at Aberdour, Aberuthven, Alyth, Auchterarder, Bunkle, Crombie, Dunblane, Ecclesiamagirdle, Inchmahome, Muckairn, Rosyth and Weem. When such simple aumbries are in the north wall, or sometimes in the east wall, as was the case at Crombie and Fowlis Wester, it is possible that they served the more elevated function of a Sacrament House. Anything that was more obviously designed for the reservation of the consecrated host, an idolatrous purpose that was so much a subject of horror to the reformers, would not have been allowed to remain in place, however. Surviving examples of Sacrament Houses at Bendochy and Tealing had clearly been removed, desecrated and buried; it was only once confessional antipathy had been at least partly superseded by antiquarian interest that they were returned to their churches in the nineteenth century.

Sedilia designed with any sort of microarchitectural detailing were unlikely to be found in any but the more important churches, and the only surviving examples are at Dunkeld and Inchmahome, though it is said that a fragment of one also existed at Muthill. Choir stalls are also unlikely to have been provided outside the most splendidly endowed and staffed churches, and the only examples that have come to us are at Dunblane. It may be wondered, however, if the decorative stone arcading that runs along the north wall at Dunkeld may have served as seating for the cathedral clergy as well as being a fine decorative feature.

Needless to say, none of the screens that would have enclosed various parts of the churches have survived. Nevertheless, at Dunkeld Cathedral slots cut into the arcade piers may have been the location for the parclose screens around Bishop Cardeny’s chapel in the south aisle. Dunkeld also has horizontal slots above the east nave arcade responds that nay have been provided for the rood beam. At Dunblane Cathedral the backs of six of the stalls evidently served as the two halves of the chancel screen, and the timber arch that spanned the choir entrance is preserved in the cathedral museum, At a higher level there are pockets that could have been for a cantilevered rood loft. At a parochial level, Tullibody has traces of a high window in the south wall of the kind that was sometimes provided to light the rood loft.

Of the nave furnishings, there is evidence of holy water stoups at Aberdour, Rosyth and Tullibody, for example. Several churches have retained fonts, or in some cases what it has come to be believed were fonts. However, since stone fonts were almost invariably turned out of their churches at the Reformation, it is by no means always certain that they originated in the buildings in which they now find themselves. Perhaps a little perversely, with the enthusiasm for returning fonts to churches that came with growing antiquarian interest, there appear to be a number of cases of domestic mortars being introduced into churches on the mistaken assumption that they were fonts. The finest font bowl within our area is at Meigle, where the eight panels are decorated with scenes of the Crucifixion and Resurrection together with depictions of the instruments of the Passion. The font at Auchterhouse may have been of similar quality, though only its base now survives. Simpler fonts may be seen at Aberdour, Blair, Kilbryde, and Forteviot, while at Madderty the font basin has been cut in half and mounted on the gate piers at the entrance to the churchyard. Elsewhere, as at Ardeonaig, Balquhidder, Dull, Fortingall, Killin and Strathfillan, it may be suspected that what are assumed to be fonts are more likely to have been domestic mortars. Some of these are quite carefully worked but without the drain that would be expected in a font, while others are little more than boulders into which a basin has been hollowed.

A number of types of funerary monument are to be seen across the study area. Coupar Angus, Dunblane, Dunkeld and Inchmahome have preserved fine full-scale effigies of ecclesiastics and of some of the greater magnates and their ladies, while a weathered pair of secular effigies at Muthill was probably once of higher quality than its presently weathered state might suggest. At Dunkeld the canopied tomb which is the setting for the effigy of Bishop de Cardeny has also survived, while at Dunblane there is a rather simpler tomb canopy. At Coupar there is the arcaded front of a tomb chest, within which is a series of unusually finely carved figures. A sixteenth-century incised slab of a canon at Dunkeld is competently rendered, but is hardly a work of the highest quality. Of more clearly outstanding quality, however, is what can be accounted the finest incised slab in Scotland, that at Aberdalgie of Sir William Oliphant, who died in 1329/30; regrettably, although it is now within the church, its long exposure to the elements has resulted in the loss of much detail. Another fine slab has survived at Coupar Angus, that of Abbot John Schanwell, who died in 1506. At a lesser scale there are examples of cross-inscribed slabs at Abercorn, Balquhidder, Blair, Culross, Dull, Dunblane and Ruthven. Incised and decorated slabs are to be seen at Strowan and Tealing, and at Balquhidder there is what is presumably the memorial to one of the priests of the church that is carved with what can only be described as engaging naivety. At Dunblane there are also matrix stones for monumental brasses.


1. Vetera Monumenta Hibernorum et Scotorum Illustrantia, 1864, ed. A. Theiner, Rome, no  xci.

2. Scotichronicon by Walter Bower, 1990, ed. D.E.R. Watt et al., Aberdeen, v, 321.

3. McRoberts, D., 1971, ‘Dunblane Cathedral under the Chisholms’, Journal of the Society of Friends of Dunblane Cathedral, vol. 11/2, 37-52.

4. Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, 1900, Edinburgh, ii, 97, 137.

5. Liber Insule Missarum, 1847, ed. C Innes, (Bannatyne Club), Edinburgh, xxxi.

6. Vitae Dunkeldesis Ecclesiae Episcoporum…ad Annum Mdxv, 1823, ed. T. Thomson, (Bannatyne Club), Edinburgh.

7. Vitae Dunkeldensis, 42-4.

8. Rentale Dunkeldense, 1915, ed. R.K. Hannay, (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh, 89, 198, 207.

9. Rentale Dunkeldense, 109.

10. Rentale Dunkeldense, 213.

11. Extracts from the Council Register of the Burgh of Aberdeen, 1398-1570, 1844, ed. J. Stuart, (Spalding Club), Aberdeen, i, 77-8, 80.

12. Records of the Sheriff Court of Aberdeenshire, 1904, ed. D. Littlejohn, (New Spalding Club), Aberdeen, i, 102.

13. Rentale Dunkeldense, 259, 11-12, 231.

14. Historical Account of the Scottish Bishops down to the year 1688 by the Right Rev. Robert Keith, 1824, ed. M. Russel, Edinburgh and London.


The dimensions of rectangular churches (in metres)

Dunblane Diocese

Aberfoyle: 16.28 x 7.38; medieval plan possibly conditioned later plan.

Aberuthven: 19.6 x 6.67; largely medieval roofless shell; present church on new site.

Auchterarder: c.24.5 x 7.42; largely medieval roofless shell; present church on new site.

Balqhuidder: 22.25 x 7.9; possible truncated medieval core.

Culross: 23.2 x 6.5; largely medieval roofless shell; present church on new site.

Dupplin: c.14.8 x 6; fragmentary medieval shell.

Ecclesiamagirdle: 9.68 x 5.48; largely medieval roofless shell.

Fossoway: c.18.4 ? x c. 7.2 ?; fragmentary remains.

Fowlis Wester: 31.75 x 8.2; largely complete and in use, though heavily restored.

Glendevon: 14.35 x 6.64; medieval plan possibly conditioned later plan.

Kilmadock: c.27? x 6.1; fragmentary medieval shell.

Kincardine: ? x 6.1 ?; fragmentary remains; present church on new site.

Kinkell: c. 19.8 x 7.15; possibly medieval shell.

Kippen: 23.5 ? x 7.63; fragmentary remains; present church on new site.

Leny: 19.25 (or 26.25?) x 7.7 ?; medieval plan possibly conditioned later plan.

Logie: c. 18.91? x 7.54; medieval plan possibly conditioned later plan.

Monzie: ? c. 22 x 6.13; nothing known for certain of medieval form.

Strageath: c. 26 x 7.9; fragmentary medieval shell.

Strowan: c. 20.74 x 7.5; possibly partly medieval partial shell.

Tullibody: 19.22 x 6.8; largely medieval roofless shell.

Tullibole: c. 24.5 x 6.7; fragmentary remains; present church on new site.

Tullichettle: 14.8 x 6.1; fragmentary remains.

Dunkeld Diocese

Abercorn: less than 29.9 x 6.34; probable medieval core; some medieval fragments in situ.

Abernyte: 15.19 x 6.28 (18.12 x 6.4); medieval plan possibly conditioned later plan.

Alva: core of 21.55 x 11.45; medieval plan possibly conditioned later plan; largely demolished.

Ardeonaig: c.16.8 x 7.1; medieval east gable survives

Auchtertool: 18.5 x 7.09; probable medieval core.

Bendochy: 25.17 x 8.13; probable medieval core; some medieval fragments in situ.

Blair: 19.9 x 6.78; probable medieval core; some medieval fragments in situ.

Cargill: ?  x 7.4; possible medieval portion retained for burial vault.

Crombie: 15.75 x 6.1; largely medieval roofless shell.

Dalgety: c. 18.7 x 6.75; largely medieval roofless shell.

Dollar: 14.6 x 8.04; medieval plan possibly conditioned later plan; roofless shell.

Dowally: 13.47 x 7.85; possible truncated medieval core.

Dull: 25.15 x 8.08; probable medieval core.

Forgandenny: 23.5 x 8.2; probable medieval core; some medieval fragments in situ.

Kilmaveonaig: 14.3 x 7.85; probable medieval core.

Kinloch: later church 12.6 x 9; medieval plan possibly conditioned later plan.

Lagganallachie: 16.9 x 8.53; medieval plan possibly conditioned later plan.

Lethendy: 17.2 x 6.92; medieval plan possibly conditioned later plan.

Little Dunkeld: c. 20 x c.7.5; possible footings; later church possibly on adjacent site.

Logiebride : said to have been 10.2 x 4.8 ; no longer visible.

Lude: 9.2 x 6.32; largely medieval roofless shell.

Madderty: 19.15 x 6.98; medieval plan possibly conditioned later plan.

Meigle: 20.9 x 7.74; medieval plan possibly conditioned later plan.

Muckairn: ? x 7.6; largely medieval roofless shell; present church on new site.

Muckersie: ? x 7.23; largely medieval roofless shell; much remodelled.

Redgorton: 16.9 x 8.6; medieval plan possibly conditioned later plan.

Rosyth: c. 17.05 x 5.75; largely medieval roofless shell; later church on new site.

Strathfillan: at least 25 x 9.65; medieval roofless shell.

Tibbermore: 19.75 x 8.13; probable medieval core.

Weem: 20.52 x 7.2; probable medieval core.