Little Dunkeld Parish Church

Little Dunkeld, possible site of earlier church, from north east

Summary description

The church is a large rectangular structure dating from 1797. The site of the medieval church may have been to its east, where linear mounds may mark the lines of some of its walls.

Historical outline

Dedication: unknown

The church of Little Dunkeld, located on the west bank of the Tay just downstream from the cathedral in Dunkeld on the east bank, was mother church of a parish which, until the early sixteenth century, extended down the valley from beyond Dowally in the north to Caputh in the south and east. Shortly after 1500, Bishop George Brown disjoined the estensive portion of the parish east of the river and set it up first as a single, independent parish with its church at Caputh but shortly after subdivided it by establishing its northern portion centred on Dowally as a second independent parish.(1) Brown’s division of the parish had been eased by his possession of Little Dunkeld as a mensal church. It is unknown when the annexation of the church to the episcopal mensa occurred, but as it is not listed in Bagimond’s Roll in 1274 it is likely that the union was made in the twelfth or early thirteenth century. No vicarage is listed in Bagimond either, and it is likely that its annexation to the prebend of the treasurer of Dunkeld had also occurred long before that date. Both annexations remained in place at the Reformation.(2) The cure was served by a vicar pensionar, on record by the time of Bishop William Sinclair (1312-37), and remaining so in the sixteenth century when successive members of the McNair family, Robert and Duncan, held it in the 1550s.(3) Various prebends and chaplainries are recorded in association with places which fell within the boundaries of the pre-1500 parish, including both Caputh and Dowally. These, however, appear to have been endowed benefices within the cathedral founded on rents from lands at those places rather than upon ecclesiastical revenues attached to churches or chapels in those locations. The chaplainry of St Mary of Inver, for example, founded by Bishop Thomas Lauder,(4) was located within the cathedral, serving at one of the altars there, and was merely supported on the fruits of the lands of Inver in Little Dunkeld parish.


1. Myln, Vitae, 42-3.

2. Kirk (ed.), Book of Assumptions, 303.

3. Myln, Vitae, 13; RSS, iv, 1659.

4. Myln, Vitae, 24.

Architectural analysis

In the entry in the Statistical Account, published in 1793, it was said that the church which then existed was ‘mean uncomfortable, and ruinous’, though the author believed that the heritors were about to construct a new building. In that account it was also stated that the existing church was an extraordinary 130 feet (39.62 metres) long by less than 20 feet (6.1 metres) wide. The width of 6.1 metres, which was presumably an internal measurement, would accord well with what might be expected of a medieval parish church and, although a length of over 39 metres would be unusual, this could have been partly a consequence of later additions.

The new church that was anticipated in 1792 was eventually built in 1797-8, to the designs of John Stewart. When a medieval building was replaced by a new church within the same churchyard the decision was often taken to construct the new building on the site of the old one. Although this had the disadvantage that the old building could not continue in use until the new one became available, it might have the advantage of permitting some re-use of foundations and walls, and it also reduced the disturbance to surrounding burials. However, while it can be seen from the stripped back walling in the western lobby of the late eighteenth-century church that there has been at least some re-use of masonry from the old church at Little Dunkeld, there is reason to think that the decision was taken to set the new church to the west of its predecessor. 

The reason for considering this possibility is the survival of what appear to be wall alignments to the east of the present church. Running on an east-west axis a little to the south of that of the new church may be seen what appears to be a pair of parallel linear mounds at a distance of about 7.5 metres from each other, which extend about 20 metres to the east of the church. The dimensions and orientation of any building represented by those linear mounds would be consistent what might be expected of a medieval church. In addition to this, it may be noted that there are a number of memorials set on what could have been the line of the east wall. One of those, a large aedicular monument to the Rev’d Alexander Irvine, who died in 1824, is set against a section of masonry, and in such a position it is a possibility that it had initially been mounted against a retained section of the east gable wall of the earlier church.

Neither of these potential pieces of evidence for the location and form of the medieval parish church could be regarded as in themselves conclusive, though they do appear to strongly suggest that the previous church had been to the east of that now seen.


Cowan, I.B., 1967, The parishes of medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh, 134.

Gifford, J., 2007, The Buildings of Scotland, Perth and Kinross, New Haven and London, 196-7.

Hay, G., 1957, The architecture of Scottish post-Reformation churches, Oxford, 80, 269.

Kirk, J., 1995, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, (British Academy) Oxford, 303,

New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1845, Edinburgh and London, x, 1013.

Registrum Secreti Sigilli Regum Scotorum, 1908-82, ed. J.M. Thomson et al., Edinburgh, iv, 1659.

Rentale Dunkeldense, 1915, ed. R.K. Hannay, (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh, 156.

Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-9, ed. J. Sinclair, Edinburgh, vi (1793), 371.

Vitae Dunkeldensis Ecclesiae Episcoporum…Ad Annum Mdxv, 1823, ed. T. Thomson, (Bannatyne Club), Edinburgh, 13, 24, 42-3.



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

  • 1. Little Dunkeld, possible site of earlier church, from north east

  • 2. Little Dunkeld Churchyard, memorial 3

  • 3. Little Dunkeld Churchyard, memorial 2

  • 4. Little Dunkeld Churchyard, memorial 1

  • 5. Little Dunkeld Church, interior, re-used stone in west vestibule

  • 6. Little Dunkeld Church, interior, from west

  • 7. Little Dunkeld Church, exterior, from south

  • 8. Little Dunkeld, monument at east end of possible site of earlier church

  • 9. Little Dunkeld, possible site of earlier church, from south east