Blair Parish Church

Blair Old Church, exterior, from north west

Summary description

The core of the building is an elongated medieval rectangular structure, to which a laird’s aisle has been attached on the S side; these elements stand virtually complete to the wall head. There may also have been a sacristy on the north side at an earlier stage, and there are the lower courses of a tower porch against the west front.

Historical outline

Dedication: St Brigid

No record of the church of Blair Atholl survives before its entry as a free parsonage in Bagimond’s Roll in the 1270s.(1) The church appears to have been in the patronage of the earls of Atholl throughout the medieval period, although it is only in a letter from the regent for the young King James V to Pope Leo X dated to c.1513-4 that the earl’s possession of the patronage is explicitly stated.(2) At that date, the parsonage was held conjointly with the prebend of Craigie by Andrew Stewart, but the union appears to have been an entirely personal one. It appears that the church may have been held fairly regularly by canons of Dunkeld in conjunction with their prebend, Alexander Myln, for example, noting that David Meldrum, prebendary of Fonghort, and Walter Leslie, prebendary of Menmuir, were also rectors of Blair whilst in possession of their prebends.(3) Myln also recorded that during Leslie’s possession of the church he instituted a vicarage settlement for the benefit of his own soul and those of the parishioners who, presumably, would otherwise not have been well provided for spiritually.(4) This arrangement remained in place at the Reformation, with the vicar pensionary receiving 20 merks from the 100 merks annual income of the parson. (5)

In the 1470s, in the upheavals in Highland Scotland occasioned by King James III’s forfeiture of John MacDonald, earl of Ross, the church of St Brigid or Bride at Blair was reportedly the scene of an attack on the king’s representatives by a force of MacDonalds. According to George Buchanan’s sixteenth-century History of Scotland, the king’s uncle, John Stewart, earl of Atholl, who was heavily involved in the actions against the Earl of Ross and the MacDonald’s more generally, was warned of the approach of a hostile force and, distrusting the strength of his castle at Blair, fled with his wife, Margaret Douglas, for refuge to the nearby church. Atholl, however, was too important a prize to be allowed to escape, so the MacDonald’s broke into the church and carried off the earl, his wife, and the valuables of the local people which had been placed there for protection.(6)

Notes

1. SHS Misc, vi, 47, 73.

2. James V Letters, 6.

3. Myln, Vitae, 61, 63.

4. Myln, Vitae, 64.

5. Kirk (ed.), Book of Assumptions, 318-9.

6. Buchanan, History of Scotland, ii, 185.

Architectural description

The medieval core of Blair Church is an elongated rectangle built of grey rubble and measuring 19.9 metres from east to west and 6.78 metres from north to south. There appe to have been a sacristy on the north side of the church, since there is a spur of wall a short distance from the east end of that wall, and a blocked doorway a little further west. The only certainly medieval architectural features are two doorways in the south wall, one for the clergy towards the east end, and one for the laity towards the west end. The former is lintelled and has chamfered surrounds; the latter is now blocked and has lost its lintel, but was certainly framed in dressed stone. Neither doorway appears likely to be earlier than the fifteenth century. The church is said to have been rebuilt by Angus of Islayfollowing the attack of the 1470s. If reliance can be placed on that statement, it may be suspected that the core of the church was first built to its exisiting plan as part of that rebuilding.

Apart from he presumed sacristy, which was perhaps a part of the later fifteenth-century rebuilding, the first addition to the church was probably the laterally projecting aisle on the south side of the chancel area. This is covered by a groin vault, has a doorway in its west wall for private access, and has high-set windows in all the external walls. On first appearance this might be assumed to be a medieval chapel, and it certainly cannot be ruled out that it originated as such. On balance, however, it is perhaps more likely to have been built as a burial place and housing for the pew of the post-Reformation earls of Atholl. The presence of the arms of John Stewart, earl of Atholl, who died in 1579, and of his wife, Margaret Fleming, which are set within ogee-headed panels on the west side of the aisle, suggest that its construction took place not long after the Reformation. The original internal relationship of church and aisle has been confused by the construction in 1865 of an arch at the entrance to the aisle by the architect David Bryce, who was working on the adjacent ducal castle at that time. Within the aisle are now displayed a font of uncertain date and provenance, and two medieval grave slabs.

There are frequent references to the poor state of repair of the building in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1672 an Act of Parliament permitted the second Earl of Atholl to apply the stipend of the living, which was then vacant, to the repair of the church, which was said to be altogether ruinous. The Atholl Aisle on the south side of the church was to be the burial place of Graham of Claverhouse, viscount Dundee, who was killed at the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. Further building and repairs were estimated for in 1727 and 1742; nevertheless, Daniel Defoe in 1769 referred to it as ‘a poor old kirk, the pews all broken down, doors open, full of dirt’.

Although roofless, the church still stands virtually complete to the wall heads, and the first impression is that it is unusually tall for a medieval Scottish rural church. On close inspection of the fabric, however, particularly along the north wall, it can be see that there is a slight horizontal break in the masonry at about half the wall’s height. On this evidence, it appears very likely that the walls have been doubled in height at some stage in the building’s history, and it is reasonable to suspect that this was part of the work carried out by the earl in 1672. The justification for this heightening was presumably to increase headroom for the construction of galleries at each end of the church. Elevated doorways that would have been approached by external forestairs were provided to give access to the lofts at the west end of the south wall and the east end of the north wall, and some of the pockets for the floor of the east loft may still be seen. The arrangements for access to the west loft involved blocking of medieval nave doorway, and it was thus presumably as part of the same process that a new entrance was formed in the west wall.

Subsequently, in the course of the works carried out in 1727, a tower-porch of oblong plan was built against the west wall, which had dimensions of 2.7 metres from east to west and 4.88 metres from north to south. A sketch of the church on an estate map of 1744 indicates that it rose through four storeys and was apparently capped by a pyramidal roof. Only the lowest courses of this addition have survived, but from these it is evident that it simply abutted the masonry of the west gable wall at that level, and was therefore clearly an addition to that part. But at the base of the west gable of the church, within the area of the masonry that it has been suggested represents secondary heightening, there are pockets in the masonry which were presumably provided for the tower to be bonded into the wall at that level.

In 1819 the duke of Atholl proposed to suppress the churches of Blair and Struan, both of which were in a poor structural condition, replacing them with a single new – and more imposing - church at Blair. It was decided, however, that new churches should be built at both places, the new one at Blair being built close to the park gates, to the designs of Archibald Elliot, in 1824-5.

Bibliography

Atholl, Duke of, 1908, Chronicles of the Atholl and Tullibardine families, Edinburgh, 349.

Buchanan, G., Rerum Scoticarum Historia, 1827, ed. J Aikman, Glasgow and Edinburgh, ii, 185.

Cowan, I.B., 1967, The parishes of medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh, 18.

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 47, 73.

Gifford, J., 2007, The Buildings of Scotland, Perth and Kinross, New Haven and London, 208-9.

Hannay, R.K. and D. Hay, (eds), 1954, The letters of James V, Edinburgh, 6.

Hay, G., 1957, The architecture of Scottish post-Reformation churches, Oxford, 268.

Kerr, J., 1998, Church and social history of Atholl, Perth, 93-113.

Kirk, J., 1995, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, (British Academy) Oxford, 318-19.

MacGibbon, D. and Ross, T., 1896-7, The ecclesiastical architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, iii (1897), 544-5.

Mackinlay, J.M., 1914, Ancient church dedications in Scotland, non-scriptural dedications, Edinburgh, 128.

New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1845, Edinburgh and London, x, 573.

Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-9, ed. J. Sinclair, Edinburgh, ii (1792), 469.

Vitae Dunkeldensis Ecclesiae Episcoporum…Ad Annum Mdxv, 1823, ed. T. Thomson, (Bannatyne Club), Edinburgh, 61, 63, 64.

Map

Images

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

  • 1. Blair Old Church, exterior, from north west

  • 2. Blair Old Church, interior, font basin in south aisle

  • 3. Blair Old Church, interior, cross-incised slab in south aisle

  • 4. Blair Old Church and Churchyard

  • 5. Blair Old Church, (estate map of 1744)

  • 6. Blair Old Church, plan (MacGibbon and Ross)

  • 7. Blair Church, plan

  • 8. Blair Old Church, interior, south aisle

  • 9. Blair Old Church, interior, north wall east end, evidence for gallery

  • 10. Blair Old Church, interior, south wall west end, masonry changes

  • 11. Blair Old Church, interior, from west

  • 12. Blair Old Church, interior, from east

  • 13. Blair Old Church, exterior, south aisle west wall, armorial plaques

  • 14. Blair Old Church, exterior, west tower base

  • 15. Blair Old Church, exterior, north wall, from west

  • 16. Blair Old Church, exterior, east wall

  • 17. Blair Old Church, exterior, from south west

  • 18. Blair Old Church, exterior, from south east