Alyth Parish Church

Alyth Old Church, north arcade, from south

Summary description

The structural remains of the medieval church consist of the three arches of what was probably the north arcade, together with the wall that divided the chancel from a chapel at the east end of the north aisle.

Historical outline

Dedication: St Moluag

The dedication of this church suggests that it may have been an early foundation but there is no surviving contemporary documentary evidence for its existence before the fourteenth century. The church appears to be identified first in a letter of King David II, dated 5 March 1352, which prohibited the holding of fairs at the church of Alyth and other locations in eastern Perthshire and north Angus.(1) As the church does not appear in Bagimond’s Roll, it seems that it had been annexed to the episcopal mensa of Dunkeld from an early date. It emerges in July 1405 that only the parsonage was so annexed, for in that year Pope Benedict XIII issued an indult removing all stain, inhability and infamy from one Alexander de Brochi, subdeacon of the Church of Moray, who had held the vicarage (valued at £10) for a period of nine years.(2) Brochi, it seems, had obtained possession on the death of the previous vicar, Donald of Alyth, and had been provided to the vicarage by Bishop Robert de Cardeny, despite legal impediments including the fact that he was not in priest’s orders. His supplication appears to have been stimulated by a challenge to his possession on the grounds of failure to disclose the impediments, and on 30 July a second supplication in respect of the vicarage was made by one John Cometi or Colini, vicar of Glenisla.(3) The church of Alyth was declared vacant and John provided in place of Alexander, with instruction to demit Glenisla on his collation to Alyth. Brochi, however, appears to have successfully retained possession and held the vicarage until his death.(4)

Following Brochi’s death, the bishop of Dunkeld appears to have provided a priest, Michael, to the vicarage, but in May 1423, the perpetual vicarage of Alyth was claimed by John Winchester, who had obtained provision by an expectative grace but not possession.(5) The vicarage was valued in his supplication at £24. John Colini, however, also claimed to have obtained provision and in May 1424 supplicated for a fresh provision for greater security.(6) Winchester appears to have secured possession and held the vicarage until 1430, when he resigned it. Provision was then granted to Alexander Ogilvy, who, although under age, already held a canonry and prebend of Aberdeen.(7) Ogilvy may have obtained a fresh provision but is not clear if he gained possession, and in January 1432 one John of Leuchars, priest, supplicated for provision to the vicarage.(8) After this supplication, the flurry of letters and litigation surrounding the vicarage comes to an end.

According to Alexander Myln in his Vitae Episcoporum Dunkeldense, the vicarage was annexed to a prebend of Dunkeld by Bishop Thomas Lauder (1452-81).(9) The first reference to a prebendary of Alyth occurs in 1486, when Mr John Whitelaw held that designation when he witnessed charters in that year.(10) In 1500, Whitelaw, styled canon of Dunkeld and prebendary of Alyth, made a joint grant with the bishop of land for the support of the chaplain serving the chapel of St Ninian at Alyth.(11) Following the establishment of the prebend, the church of Alyth was served by a chaplain or vicar pensionar. A notarial instrument of 1528 records the election by the parishioners of sir Rober Fullour to be chaplain following the death of the previous chaplain, sir George Fyf.(12) In 1534, a second vicar pensionar is named in a notarial instrument recording a legal process in the church of Alyth which throws interesting light not only on the conduct of services but also on the use of churches for the storing of private documents and valuables. In this notarial account, Alexander Ramsay of Bamff presented a deposition to sir David Freirtoun, vicar pensionar of Alyth, who was in the pulpit for the sermon during mass. Freirtoun then read out the document, which narrated the circumstances of the theft of muniments belonging to the Ramsays which had been deposited in ‘publick in the Quier of Alyth’ for their security.(13) In April 1550, during a vacancy in the see, the dean as vicar-general of Dunkeld presented sir Robert Fullour as vicar pensionar in succession to sir Robert Rollock.(14)

Unspecified repairs to the choir of the church were recorded in the accounts of the Granitar of Dunkeld for 26 March 1506 to 26 October 1506.(15) This work had been undertaken by sir Robert Henry, who had entered into a contract for the project. Unfortunately, no details of the contract survive. Further work was paid for in the period 29 October 1506 to 5 November 1507. Alexander Myln had instructed work on three glass windows in the church, which was completed by the vicar, costing a total of 45s 4d.(16)

Distinct from the chaplainry or vicarage pensionary that was set up in the mid-fifteenth century was a separate chapel and chaplainry of St Ninian or Ringan ‘in the ‘kirkyarde of Alyth’. In April 1482, a marriage contract between the families of Ogilvy of Airlie and Ramsay of Woodwray was ratified on payment of 190 merks in the chapel.(17) The chapel was endowed in 1500 with land at Buchan in the parish by the bishop and the prebendary of Alyth for the support of a chaplainry, the incumbent then being sir Alexander Pullour.(18) Pullour served the ‘chaplaincy of St Ninian of Boquhaine within the churchyard of the parish church of Alyth’ for 37 years, resigning it in August 1537 into the hands of the bishop of Dunkeld.(19) His successor was sir Robert Fullour, the man who in 1550 was presented to the vicarage pensionary of the church.

No mention is made of the chaplainry of St Ninian in the Book of Assumptions of Thirds of Benefices, but it is noted there in the rental of the bishopric of Dunkeld that the parsonage was still mensal, but that a pension of £133 6s 8d paid to the dean of Dunkeld was drawn from the fruits of the church.(20) The vicarage and prebend was in the hands of Mr Robert Graham.(21) The first notice of work on the church building following the Reformation occurs in c.1590, when various individuals were discharged for payment of their contribution towards the costs of unspecified repairs.(22)

Notes

1. RRS, vi, no 121.

2. CPL Benedict XIII, 140.

3. CPL Benedict XIII, 142.

4. CSSR, ii, 51.

5. CSSR, ii, 23, 51. Winchester was seeking for provision to the church of Markinch in May 1423 and Innerleithen in December 1423 (CSSR, ii, 23, 43-4), for the latter of which he was offering to demit the vicarage of Alyth. In February 1424, it emerged that he had also sought provision to the perpetual vicarage of Strageath (CSSR, ii, 50).

6. CSSR, ii, 67.

7. CSSR, iii, 87.

8. CSSR, iii, 213.

9. Myln, Vitae, 24.

10. RMS, ii, nos 1655, 2582.

11. NAS GD16/12/209.

12. NAS GD16/46/7.

13. Bamff Charters, no 45.

14. NAS GD16/46/10.

15. Rentale Dunkeldense, 79.

16. Rentale Dunkeldense, 91.

17. Bamff Charters, no 13.

18. Myln, Vitae, 44; NAS GD16/12/209.

19. NAS GD16/12/210.

20. Kirk (ed.), Book of Assumptions, 301, 303.

21. Kirk (ed.), Book of Assumptions, 396.

NAS GD30/1979.

Architectural description

The possibility of Alyth having been an early ecclesiastical centre is suggested by the finding of a class II Pictish cross slab in the vicinity of the manse in 1887. The present parish church, which is about 200 metres to the north of its medieval predecessor, was built in 1836-9 to the designs of Thomas Hamilton.

The medieval church was said by the author of the New Statistical Account in 1845 to have been ‘ruinous for upwards of two hundred years before it was disused’, though this was clearly an exaggeration, since in the Statistical Account of 1793 his predecessor had said it was in ‘tolerable good order’. However, this discrepancy may be explained by the likelihood that the eastern parts of the building had been abandoned and left in a ruined state before the rest, since one of the burial enclosures within the area once occupied by the eastern parts is of eighteenth-century date. Earlier abandonment of the eastern parts is also suggested by a description of the church written in 1727, and published in Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections, which stated that the church was ‘49 and ½ foot in breadth and 50 in length, abstracting from the Quire’. Since the total length of the existing fragment is about 82 feet (25.05 metres), part of it was clearly excluded from the measurement given in 1727.

That description also stated that the church ‘stands on two rows of pillars’, indicating that it was flanked by two arcades and thus presumably by longitudinal aisles. One of those ‘rows of pillars’ survives, though there has been some disagreement over which of the two it is. However, the existence of a length of plinth course along part of the north side of the wall to the east of the arcade strongly suggests that wall was originally on the north side of a building that had nothing beyond it on that side. On that basis, it must therefore be the northern arcade that we now see. That conclusion gains further support from the evidence of a round-headed window in the wall immediately to the east of the arcade, since it has chamfered reveals on its north side and what appears to have been a rear-arch on its south side. It therefore looked out towards the north. The first addition to the chancel may have been a sacristy on its north side, since there is a blocked round-headed doorway that has a chamfered surround on the side towards the chancel; this indicates that it was designed to open out of the chancel into a space beyond. It appears likely that the sacristy was subsequently converted into a chapel, presumably when the north nave aisle was added. Towards the east end of the north side of the wall there is a small square aumbry, while a little further west is a triangular-headed aumbry with a rebate for a door frame; on the south side of the wall, within what would have been the chancel, is a rectangular aumbry with a rebate for a door frame.

The surviving arcade is of three bays. The piers and responds are of octagonal profile, while the rounded arches are of two broadly chamfered orders. The bases are simply chamfered, and the caps each have an undecorated curved bell between a flat-faced abacus and a roll-moulded necking. A date of around 1500 has been generally accepted for this arcade, and it cannot be ruled out that its construction was linked with a larger campaign of works that is partly indicated in the payments recorded in the Granitar of Dunkeld’s accounts for 1506-7. However, architectural details of this kind are particularly difficult to date, and similarities with the detailing of the caps and bases of such as the arcades at St Andrews Holy Trinity, of around 1410, might suggest that the arcade is several decades earlier than that.

The retention of this fragment of the old church provides an interesting reflection on developing attitudes to the conservation of medieval architecture in the mid-nineteenth century. The minister who wrote the parish entry in the New Statistical Account of 1845 clearly had no qualms in abandoning the old church, saying that it ‘had never any pretensions to architectural beauty’. But he went on to say that ‘some pillars and arches in the Saxon style of architecture are apparently much more ancient than the rest of the building. It was originally intended to preserve them when the church was pulled down; but this, it is feared, will be found impracticable’. However, it was clearly found to be practicable, and the retained arcade and walls were consolidated and coped in order to ensure their preservation. It is perhaps ironic that the decision to retain was based on a seriously mistaken view of their date.

Bibliography

Allen, J.R. and Anderson, J., 1903, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, Edinburgh, pt 3, 286.

Bamff Charters, 1232-1703, 1915, ed. J.H. Ramsay, London, nos 13, 45.

Bowler, D., 1999, ‘25-27 Toutie Street, Alyth, nineteenth century groundworks beside medieval church’, Discovery and Excavation Scotland, 70.

Calendar of Papal letters to Scotland of Benedict XIII of Avignon, 1976, ed. F. McGurk, (Scottish History Society) Edinburgh, 140, 142.

Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome 1423-28, 1956, ed. A.I. Dunlop, (Scottish History Society) Edinburgh, 23, 43-4, 50, 51, 67.

Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome 1428-32, 1970, ed. A.I. Dunlop; and I.B. Cowan, (Scottish History Society) Edinburgh, 87, 213.

Cowan, I.B., 1967, The parishes of medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh, 6.

Gifford, J., 2007, The Buildings of Scotland, Perth and Kinross, New Haven and London, 150.

Kirk, J., 1995, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, (British Academy) Oxford, 301, 303, 396.

Macfarlane, W., 1906, Geographical collections relating to Scotland, ed. A. Mitchell, (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh, i, 109.

MacGibbon, D. and Ross, T., 1896-7, The ecclesiastical architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, iii (1897), 487-8.

Mackinlay, J.M., 1914, Ancient church dedications in Scotland, non-scriptural dedications, Edinburgh, 160.

Meikle, J., 1933, The history of Alyth Parish Church, Edinburgh.

New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1845, Edinburgh and London, viii (Stirlings), 188-9.

Regesta Regum Scottorum, Acts of David II (1329-71), 1982, Edinburgh, no 121.

Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scottorum, 1882, Edinburgh, ii (1414-1513), nos 1655, 2582.

Rentale Dunkeldense, 1915, ed. R.K. Hannay, (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh, 79, 91.

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Canmore database.

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, 1990, North-East Perth, an archaeological landscape, Edinburgh, 86.

Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-9, ed. J. Sinclair, Edinburgh, xviii (1796), 137-9.

Vitae Dunkeldensis Ecclesiae Episcoporum…Ad Annum Mdxv, 1823, ed. T. Thomson, (Bannatyne Club), Edinburgh, 24, 44.

Map

Images

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

  • 1. Alyth Old Church, north arcade, from south

  • 2. Alyth New Church

  • 3. Alyth Old Churchyard, table tomb

  • 4. Alyth Old Church, plan (RCAHMS)

  • 5. Alyth Old Church, north chapel, south wall aumbries

  • 6. Alyth Old Church, north chapel, south wall

  • 7. Alyth Old Church, north arcade wall, east end from north

  • 8. Alyth Old Church, chancel, possible evidence for loft

  • 9. Alyth Old Church, chancel, aumbry

  • 10. Alyth Old Church, north wall chancel, sacristy door

  • 11. Alyth Old Church, interior, chancel, fragment of window in north wall

  • 12. Alyth Old Church, north arcade cap

  • 13. Alyth Old Church, north arcade pier

  • 14. Alyth Old Church, north arcade, from north west