Abernethy Parish and Collegiate Church

Abernethy Churchyard, burial enclosures and tower

Summary description

The most significant architectural feature of this site is a round tower that is likely to date from the late eleventh or early twelfth centuries. Nothing now remains of the medieval parish church, though it appears to have stood within the churchyard, between the round tower and the early nineteenth-century parish church, and possibly on or near the site of three burial enclosures at the centre of the churchyard.

Historical outline

Dedication: unrecorded, probably St Bridget

It is likely that the parish was formed out of the core properties of the early monastery at Abernethy. In the later twelfth century these properties comprised not only the district encompassed by the late medieval parish but included various lands and property rights north of the Tay in Gowrie. This northern extension may have included a portion of land around Errol.(1) The district south of the Tay stretched from the area around Dunbog in the east to Dron in lower Strathearn to the west. This was the extent of the parish as set out in the charter of the lay abbot of Abernethy, Laurence son of Orm of Abernethy, dated to 1189x1199, by which he resigned all his rights to the advowson of the church of Abernethy to the monks of Arbroath Abbey.(2) Laurence’s grant did not include the teinds of the parish, to which he appears to have held title to half, probably by virtue of his family’s hereditary possession of the abbacy of Abernethy. When his charter was confirmed by King William in 1189x1195, however, not only were the monks’ rights in the dependent chapels of Dron, Dunbog and Abdie/Errol confirmed but the king also confirmed possession of the half of the teinds which the abbot of Abernethy obtained from his personal ‘proueniencia’ (animals and crops?), the balance continuing to be enjoyed by the Céli Dé of Abernethy, who also retained possession of the teinds from the abbot’s demesne.(3) The king’s charter, however, granted the monks of Arbroath the teinds of the ‘territory’ of Abernethy, i.e. the district which came to form the parish proper, while specifically excluding the teinds of the churches of Flisk and Coultra, which had been in the possession of the monastery. This arrangement concerning the division of the teinds of Abernethy may have been the subject of litigation between Clement, bishop of Dunblane, who was attempting to place his bishopric on a sound financial footing, and the monks of Arbroath, which was heard by papal judges-delegate in 1237.(4) The settlement of the dispute involved the altarage of the parish church being ceded to the bishop, with the abbot of Arbroath, in place of the rector of Abernethy, becoming a canon of Dunblane. Despite some attempts in the fifteenth century to dissolve the appropriation of the parsonage to Arbroath,(5) the parsonage remained united with the abbey at the time of the Reformation and was held by Mr Alexander Betoun, while the altarage income from the church may have been assigned for the support of the nine chaplainries in the choir of Dunblane cathedral.(6)

The relationship between the parish church and the Céli Dé community, other than their retention of their portion of the teinds, is uncertain. The apportioning of the teinds between them and the monks of Arbroath led to litigation being brought before Bishop Abraham of Dunblane in c.1214, with sentence passed in favour of the monks.(7) Although it seems likely that the church of the Céli Dé served as the parish church, they do not seem to have secured any more extensive rights in it than the teinds confirmed to them by Laurence son of Orm and King William. The Céli Dé, headed by a prior,(8) do seem to have been a functioning religious community into the later thirteenth century. In 1272 or 1273, they appear to have adopted the Augustinian rule and were formed into a regular priory.(9) Despite this reorganisation, the parish establishment remained independent of the monastic one. This separate institutional existence also survived the conversion of the Augustinian priory into a college of secular canons in the second quarter of the fourteenth century.(10) This change appears to have been instituted by one of the last of the male line of the Abernethies, possibly Sir Alexander Abernethy, patronage of the establishment passing through his eldest daughter, Margaret, to the Stewart earls of Angus and thence to their Douglas successors.(11) The clergy of the collegiate chuch comprised a prior and five canons, their prebends apparently provided from the lands and revenues of the earlier monastic establishments. A canonry and prebend of Balmanno is recorded in 1420, Pettinbrog in 1434, Colzie in 1451, and ‘Forevinschip’ in 1513,(12) providing some indication of the properties assigned for the support of the priests. The main body of revenue supporting the collegiate clergy, however, appears to have been the teinds held by their predecessors since the later twelfth century.

Throughout these successive changes in the nature of the ecclesiastical community, the parochial cure appears to have been served by a vicar perpetual. The first surviving clear reference to such a position dates from 1332, when John de Leys, a canon of Dunkeld, was noted as having been dispensed by James Ben, bishop of St Andrews, to hold the vicarage perpetual of Abernethy together with another benefice with cure in his diocese.(13) In 1425, Bishop William Stephenson of Dunblane supplicated the pope that, on account of the reduced state of the mensal revenues of his see, the vicarage of Abernethy (valued at £30 old sterling), should be united to the episcopal mensa on the death of the incumbent vicar, with a sufficient portion reserved for the maintenance of a pensionary vicarage.(14) The supplication was granted and appears to have become effective following the death of the vicar, Thomas Tyninghame, early in 1427, but was quickly challenged thereafter by John Days, a priest of St Andrews diocese, who petitioned for provision.(15) Right to the vicarage was subject to protracted litigation down to December 1431, but it is appears that none of the litigants succeeded in having the union with the episcopal mensa dissolved, for by the 1460s it appears that the vicarage had been used as the endowment for the canonry and prebend of Abernethy in the cathedral church of Dunblane.(16) This position remained in force at the Reformation, when the vicarage pertained to Mr David Gourlay.(17)


1. Geoffrey Barrow in his summary of King William’s confirmatory charter of this grant, RRS, ii, no 229, suggests that the ‘Erolyn’ given in the  is a scribal error for Abdie, which occurs as ‘Ebdyn’ at this date (see Lindores Chartulary, nos 2, 107). This suggestion is strengthened by the juxtaposition of ‘Dunbolc’ (Dunbog) and ‘Erolyn’ in the charter, the later twelfth-century parishes of Dunbog and Abdie sharing a common march. Errol, however, cannot be so easily dismissed as the correct reading as there is no record in the Lindores cartulary of the detaching of the parish of Abdie from Arbroath’s possession and the Leslies, co-heirs in the fourteenth century of the lands and lordship of Abernethy, acquired with that heritage the patronage of churches north of the Tay. Errol, however, was in the hands of the Hays before the end of the twelfth century and, as with Abdie, there is no record of its detachment from Arbroath’s possession.

2. Arbroath Liber, i, no 35.

3. RRS, ii, no 339.

4. Fergusson, Medieval Papal Representatives, 266, no 98; Arbroath Liber, i, no 241.

5. CPL, xiii, 42, 79, 593.

6. Kirk (ed.), Book of Assumptions, 330, 343.

7. Arbroath Liber, i, no 214.

8. Lindores Chartulary, nos LI, LIV.

9. Bower, Scotichronicon, v, 399.

10. Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, 174.

11. Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, 174; CSSR, v, no 1230.

12. CSSR, i, 158; CSSR, iv, no 150; CSSR, v, no 439; RSS, i, no 2051.

13. CPL, Benedict XIII, p. 230.

14. CSSR, ii, 100-101.

15. CSSR, ii, 158, 171-2.

16. CSSR, v, no 1231.

17. Kirk (ed.), Book of Assumptions, 313.

Architectural analysis

Abernethy is a site of great antiquity, as is evident from the fact that at least five Pictish or Early Christian stones have been found here. The free-standing round tower of Irish type, which rises to a height of about 22 metres, and which is the most prominent feature of the site, is one of only two known to have been built in Scotland, the other being at Brechin. At the base of the tower about twelve courses of masonry are of a greyer stone than the upper parts, and it cannot be ruled out that this part belongs to a distinct first campaign of building. Significantly, the entrance doorway, which is constructed of the same yellow-buff stone as the upper parts of the tower, appears to be an intrusion into the lower courses. That doorway is framed by a raised strip, which continues around an arched head that is externally cut into a block lintel, a treatment closely similar to what is to be seen in the south doorway of the square tower at Restenneth Priory. The only other diagnostic features of the tower are the four belfry windows, which appear to have been framed by shallow nookshafts and to have had an edge roll to the arches. Unfortunately these windows were coated in cement, probably in repairs carried out for the twelfth earl of Home in the early years of the twentieth century, and the details are no longer certain. Nevertheless, on the basis of what can be seen, it appears likely that the tower was not completed before the early twelfth century. It has been in the care of the state since 1928.

The medieval parish church was replaced in 1801-2 by a new building at the northern end of the churchyard that was erected to the designs of James Ballingal. The materials of the old church were re-used in the new building and, despite extensive re-dressing, a number of clearly medieval stones are still to be seen in the rear face of the building.

Evidence for the form of the medieval church is perhaps to be found in the background of an engraving of Abernethy in Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland, which is dated 10 September 1790. Assuming, as seems likely, that the building behind and to the left of the tower is the church, that view appears to show that it was the chancel that had remained in use, and that it had a laterally projecting aisle with a crowstepped gable towards the west end of its south wall; what appears to have been the nave is shown as roofless. The post-Reformation retention of the chancel was common at churches that had colleges attached to them, since, as the setting for the collegiate services, the chancel was the part that tended to have been rebuilt in the most architecturally ambitious manner, and it may be that what appears to have been a south lateral chapel had been retained because it housed burials of the family of the earls of Angus.

It is difficult to assess the precise location of the earlier church on the basis of Grose’s view, since the topography of the site is now so different. One possibility is that the church was on or near the site of a group of three burial enclosures close to the middle of the churchyard, and a short distance to the north-east of the tower. These enclosures, which have combined dimensions of 8.5 by 15.8 metres, are aligned on an axis running east-north-east to west-south-west. They appear to be entirely of early nineteenth-century construction, although with some possibly early masonry re-used in the footings. The earliest death recorded in the western enclosure is 1817, and in the middle enclosure 1829; the earliest death recorded in the eastern enclosure in 1793, though the memorial on which that death is referred to is clearly considerably later than that. Taking account of the dimensions and approximate orientation of the enclosures, as well as of their date and proximity to the tower, there must be the suspicion that they had been built on the foundations of part of the medieval parochial and collegiate church after it had been demolished to provide materials for the new church.


Abernethy, Earl of, 1895, ‘An Ogam Inscription at Abernethy’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, xxix, 244-255.

Brash, R.H., 1862, ‘The round tower of Abernethy, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, iii, 303-19.

Butler, D., 1897, The ancient church and parish of Abernethy, Edinburgh, 170-87.

Calendar of Papal letters to Scotland of Benedict XIII of Avignon, 1976, ed. F. McGurk, (Scottish History Society) Edinburgh, 230.

Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome 1418-22, 1934, ed. E.R. Lindsay and A.I. Cameron, (Scottish History Society) Edinburgh, 158.

Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome 1423-28, 1956, ed. A.I. Dunlop, (Scottish History Society) Edinburgh, 100-01, 158, 171-2.

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Chartulary of the Abbey of Lindores, 1903, ed. J. Dowden, (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh, nos 2, 107.

Cowan, I.B., 1974, ‘The post-Columban Church’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, xviii, 245-60.

Cowan, I.B and Easson, D.E., 1976. Medieval Religious Houses, Scotland, London, 46, 89, 215.

Donaldson, G., 1953, ‘Scottish bishop’s sees before the reign of David I’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, lxxxvii, 106-17.

Donaldson, G., 1974, ‘Scotland’s earliest church buildings’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, xviii, 1-9.

Easson, D.E., Medieval religious houses, Scotland, London, 1957, 174.

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Click on any thumbnail to open the image gallery and slideshow.

  • 1. Abernethy Churchyard, burial enclosures and tower

  • 2. Abernethy Tower, Pictish stone

  • 3. Abernethy New Church, exterior

  • 4. Abernethy Church, re-used stone 2

  • 5. Abernethy Church, re-used stone 1

  • 6. Abernethy Church (Francis Grose)

  • 7. Abernethy Tower, exterior, belfry window

  • 8. Abernethy Tower, exterior, doorway

  • 9. Abernethy Tower, exterior, masonry changes 2

  • 10. Abernethy Tower, exterior, masonry changes 1

  • 11. Abernethy Tower, exterior, view from village Square

  • 12. Abernethy Tower, exterior, from churchyard