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The Medieval Parish Churches of Scotland:
AHRC-Funded Pilot Study in the Dioceses of Dunblane and Dunkeld

Muthil Church
Muthill Church from the south

Introduction (1)

In a paper published by Arthur Anderson in 1939, it was suggested that there were no more than about sixty substantially medieval churches in the whole of Scotland that were still in use for worship. (2) Within the area covered by this present study the only churches to be listed by Anderson were the cathedrals of Dunblane and Dunkeld and the parish churches of Abercorn, Aberdour, Fowlis Wester and Kilmaveonaig. (The abbey church of Culross was also listed, but that is not included in this study since it was not formally taken over as the church of the parish until 1633.) However, it is the view of those involved in this project that a higher proportion of the stock of parochial churches still in use may either embody medieval fabric, or may have been closely governed by medieval predecessors, than might appear from the superficial appearance of the individual buildings. It was a principal purpose of this study to test this view through critical analysis of the fabric and recorded history of all churches and church sites within the dioceses of Dunblane and Dunkeld that have served parishes of medieval origins.

Since Anderson’s paper was published, a number of the churches listed there - albeit none of those in the study area - have passed out of use, and it might therefore seem that the picture of survival and active care of medieval churches is even more bleak than appeared on the eve of the Second World War. The situation was perhaps never quite so architecturally forlorn as was suggested in Anderson’s paper, however. Naturally enough, Anderson’s chief interest in the churches was as places of worship; but, while the preferred use for buildings erected for a particular function is generally the continuation of that function, large numbers of churches survive as ruins, and the architectural evidence afforded by buildings that have passed out of use can be of equal value as that afforded by buildings still in use. Indeed, whatever one’s regrets about the cessation of active use, it can sometimes be easier to assess the structural evidence of an abandoned building than of one that has retained all of its later fixtures and surface finishes, even if the long-term future of those abandoned buildings is often uncertain. It might also be added that significant numbers of the monastic and cathedral sites in Scotland are maintained by the state, (3) and many of these also served a parochial function. Within the study area the majority of the monastic and cathedral sites in state care are roofless and structurally incomplete, including the nave of Dunkeld Cathedral, Inchmahome Priory and the conventual buildings of Culross Abbey; exceptionally, and despite the fact that it remains in use for worship, Dunblane Cathedral is also maintained by the state.

The starting point for the present study was the list of medieval parishes published by Ian Cowan in 1967, (4) from which 38 sites were identified as having been in the diocese of Dunblane, and 67 in the diocese of Dunkeld, giving a total of 105. (See appendices 1 and 2.) All these sites were visited at least once in the course of the study. Of the 105 sites, only eleven were found to have no structural remains of any kind of church building. It must also be said, however, that no more than about fourteen wholly or partly roofed churches, together with about twenty-two ruined churches, have retained a significant part of their medieval appearance. In all other cases it was necessary to attempt a careful evaluation of the evidence in order to assess the likelihood of medieval fabric having survived or having conditioned what survived.

On the basis of that evaluation, it has been concluded that considerably more medieval work survives in the churches within the study area than has been generally assumed. At a number of churches it has been possible to identify with some confidence medieval masonry that had previously been overlooked. In other cases it is the form of the building that points to the underlying presence of medieval fabric, with the clearest indicators of the retention of medieval work frequently being a combination of the orientation, the size and the relative proportions of the building.

It must be conceded, however, that in many of those other cases none of the indicators mentioned could be regarded as sufficient evidence of medieval fabric if considered in isolation. So far as orientation of the building is concerned, this was not always possible for medieval churches on account of the topography of some sites, and, conversely, a wish for south-facing windows might mean that an oriented alignment could be preferred for an entirely post-Reformation church. As a result there are some clearly post-medieval churches that are more accurately oriented than some medieval churches on difficult sites.

So far as size is concerned, this was to a great extent a function of the relative wealth and population size of the parish. Considered in isolation it would therefore be of little significance.

Proportions, however, do appear to be of a rather higher level of significance. The liturgical requirement in a medieval church for a spatially – if not structurally – distinct chancel to the east of a nave almost inevitably resulted in a relatively slender elongated plan for rectangular churches, and it will be shown that this was commonly in the order of 1:2.69. By the eighteenth century, and probably for long before then, the complaints of ministers make clear that such proportions were not regarded as best suited to services in which preaching was predominant, and for which proportions in the order of no more than 1:2 might be preferred. Unfortunately, this did mean that some – perhaps many – retained medieval churches were truncated in order to make them easier to use, though if the width of the building is between 6.5 and 8 metres it is often worth giving further consideration to the possibility of a medieval plan underlying the building. In other cases, we know that one wall might be demolished and rebuilt further out, so as to achieve the required width, but, unless identifiable medieval work survives in the parts that were not rebuilt, it can be very difficult to determine if pre-Reformation work has survived.

Nevertheless, while giving due weight to such caveats it is believed that the assessments of the architectural and historical information relating to the individual sites listed in the entries below provides good evidence for higher survival rates of medieval work at the parish churches in the study area than has generally been believed.


The authors of this report wish to thank a number of bodies and individuals for their support of the project. Our principal – and warmest - thanks are, of course, to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for the generous financial backing that made the project possible. Our next thanks are to the Universities of St Andrews and Stirling, who provided support and hosted the project in the former case. Within the University of St Andrews we are particularly grateful to Dawn Waddell and Annette Carruthers who provided assistance in many forms, to Birgit Plietsch, Mary Woodcock-Kroble, Robert Scott and Sean Dooley who shouldered the burden of the information technology aspects, and to Alasdair Gibson, who was of great assistance in putting together our initial bid for funding.


1. For further details on, and illustrations of, the churches refer to the individual entries.

2. Anderson, A.A., 1939, ‘Scottish medieval churches still used for divine service’, Transactions of the Scottish Ecclesiological Society, xii (1938-9), 111-6.

3. Something of the early background to this history of state care in Scotland is discussed in Fawcett, R., 2002, ‘Robert Reid and the early involvement of the state in the care of Scottish ecclesiastical buildings and sites’, Antiquaries Journal, lxxxii, 269-84.

4. Cowan, I.B., 1967, The parishes of medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh.


1. Medieval Parishes in the Diocese of Dunblane

Aberfoyle, Abernethy, Aberuthven, Auchterarder, Balquhidder, Callander, Comrie, Culross, Dron, Dunblane, Dunning, Dupplin, Ecclesiamagirdle, Findo Gask, Fossoway, Fowlis Wester, Glendevon, Kilbryde, Kilmadock, Kilmahog, Kincardine, Kinkell, Kippen, Leny, Logie, Menteith, Monzie, Monzievaird, Muthill, St Madoes, Strageath, Strowan, Tillicoultry, Trinity Gask, Tulliallan, Tullibody, Tullibole, Tullichettle.

2. Medieval Parishes in the Diocese of Dunkeld

Abercorn, Aberdalgie, Aberdour, Aberlady, Abernyte, Alva, Alyth, Ardeonaig, Auchtergaven, Auchterhouse, Auchtertool, Beath, Bendochy, Blair, Bunkle, Caputh, Cargill, Clunie, Coupar Angus, Cramond, Crieff, Crombie, Dalgety, Dollar, Dowally, Dull, Dunkeld (Holy Trinity and St Columba), Fern, Forgandenny, Fortingall, Kenmore, Killin, Kilmaveonaig, Kinclaven, Kinloch, Kirkmichael, Lagganallachie, Lecropt, Leslie, Lethendy, Little Dunkeld, Logiebride, Logierait, Lude, Maddertie, Meigle, Menmuir, Moneydie, Moulin, Muckairn, Muckersie, Obney, Pitcairn, Preston, Rannoch, Rattray, Redgorton, Rosyth, Ruthven, St Martins, Saline, Strathfillan, Strathmiglo, Struan, Tealing, Tibbermore, Weem.