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Aberdour Parish Church

Aberdour Church, exterior, from south

Summary description

The church is within a walled enclosure to the south-east of Aberdour Castle. It consists of a rectangular chancel and a larger rectangular nave, with an aisle of secondary construction running along the south side of the latter; a porch has been added to the south side and a lateral aisle to the north side of the nave. Having been earlier abandoned, the church is complete and in use for worship following restoration in 1925-6.

Historical outline

Dedication: St Fillan

In c.1180, William de Mortimer, lord of Aberdour, admitted that his efforts to present Robert, clerk of David, younger brother of King William, to the church of Aberdour were wholly illegal.(1) In the formal record of his admission, he stated that he had been advised that the canons of Inchcolm had possessed the church since the time of King Alexander I and ‘held it as their own and adjacent to the mother church of the Isle (i.e. Inchcolm).’  It appears from this statement that the church may have formed one of the properties assigned to the canons by King Alexander at his foundation of their monastery in the early 1120s. There is, however, no surviving record of the original grant and it is only in March 1178/9 in a bull of Pope Celestine III that the abbey’s possession of the church of Aberdour was confirmed.(2) It is possible that the papal confirmation was secured in the aftermath of the struggle over possession with William de Mortimer and the clerk, Robert. That struggle, it emerges, was physically violent as well as parchment-based. When William had arrived to install Robert they had found the canons of Inchcolm blocking their way to the door of the church with their processional cross raised and carrying relics, and announcing that they were placing themselves under papal protection. William’s men had attacked them, beaten them and dragged them away from the door, then installed Robert in possession. William, however, had by unrecorded means been persuaded of the error of his ways and formally surrendered any right that he had in the church to the canons, but that document has not survived. Robert, too, had renounced his claim to the church.

In the two documents which record this early possession of the church of Aberdour by the canons it is nowhere made explicit what that possession actually entailed, and it is possible that they initially had held only the patronage. Corporal possession was gained in the episcopate of Bishop Richard de Inverkeithing (consecrated 1251, died 1272), who appropriated the church and the chapel of Beath (q.v.) to the abbey and gave the canons the right to serve the cure with chaplains.(3) The church is not listed in Bagimond’s Roll, which suggests that the annexation had been effective. At an unknown date after 1275, it appears that a vicarage pensionary had been set up to serve the cure. In 1474, it is recorded that the vicarage was held by one of the canons of Inchcolm, John Scott, and it is likely that this arrangement had been followed since the establishment of the vicarage pensionary.(4) It does not appear that the holder of the vicarage was always a canon of Inchcolm, for in 1553 first sir William Laing, chaplain, then the untitled Arthur Hamilton, were presented in succession to John Gerves, who appears to have been a canon.(5) At the Reformation, the parsonage remained annexed to Inchcolm, with Lord St Colme described as ‘parson’, while the vicarage, formerly valued at £35, was held by Walter Robertson as vicar.(6)

In the fourteenth century the lands of Aberdour passed into the hands of the family of Douglas of Dalkeith. The church was amongst the many ecclesiastical beneficiaries named in the will of Sir James Douglas in September 1390.(7) He instructed that the quite substantial sum of £3 6s 8d should be given for the buying of a mass vestment for the church of St Fillan of Aberdour, an act designed to secure his commemoration in the central act of medieval Christian worship and thereby win him spiritual benefits in the hereafter, speeding his way through purgatory.


1. Inchcolm Charters, no 5.

2. Inchcolm Charters, no 2.

3. Inchcolm Charters, no 22.

4. Morton Registrum, ii, no 231.

5. RSS, iv, no 2269, 2310.

6. Kirk (ed.), Book of Assumptions, 62-3, 64, 84-5.

7. ‘Testament of Sir James Douglas’, 105.

Architectural description

As first built, possibly around the central decades of the twelfth century, the church consisted of two rectangular compartments, with the nave being about 16.75 metres from east to west and 6.7 metres from north to south, while the chancel extended a further 7 metres with a width of about 5.3 metres. The walls are generally constructed of well cut and carefully coursed cubical blocks of masonry. Between the two parts is a chancel arch of two orders which, although badly weathered and slightly over-restored, appears to have consisted of a half-round shaft projecting from a rectangular section. The details of the caps and bases are no longer trustworthy, but the abaci had a quirk between the upper vertical face and lower chamfer, and there was a hood moulding around the outer order of the arch. In their original form the windows were small round-headed openings within widely splayed rear-arches; the daylight opening of several of them was later increased. Most of the windows in the chancel and the north nave wall have been restored to something approaching what was assumed to be their original form in 1925.

A three-bay aisle was added along the south flank of the nave, resulting in an overall north-south width of 10.36 metres. In doing so a spur of the original south wall was left at the west end of the newly constructed arcade, into which the respond is rather roughly bonded. The cylindrical piers of this arcade have caps with a simple bell between a vertically faced abacus and a roll necking, and the arches are plainly chamfered. Changes in the masonry of the east wall of the nave on each side of its junction with the chancel, and to a lesser extent in the west gable, show that the addition of the aisle was accompanied by the heightening of the nave itself, with crow-stepped gables being constructed at the higher level. There was no intention of providing a clearstorey, however, and the new roof swept down without a break to the low outer wall of the aisle. While it would be difficult to date the aisle on the stylistic evidence of the rather crude detailing of the arcade alone, the crow-stepped gables, if original, point to a date not before the later fifteenth century.

At a subsequent date a porch was added near the west end of the south wall of the aisle. Apart from the evidence of the pointed outer arch, there are no features by which this porch could be dated. But the cutting of a recess to the east of the doorway into the church presumably indicates that provision was being made for a holy water stoup, which suggests that the porch which protected the entrance was of pre-Reformation date.

In addition to the holy water stoup recess, there are a number of other pointers to the medieval liturgical arrangements. The site of the altar in the chapel at the east end of the south aisle, which is said to have been dedicated to St James, is reflected in a small square aumbry in the south wall. What is thought to have been the basin of the medieval font has been re-set on a modern stem at the east end of the nave. It is of octagonal shape, and has vertical faces to the upper part above a convex lower part; however, its roughly tooled surfaces may indicate that its original function was less exalted than that of a font. More problematically, below the single window in the north chancel wall a locker has been formed; in this position it might be expected to have been a Sacrament House, but since its lintel is inscribed with the date 1670 it evidently served some other purpose.

Following the Reformation, a variety of changes were made to the church to adapt it for new forms of worship. The most structurally significant of these was the addition of a rectangular lateral aisle on the north side of the nave for the Phin of Whitehill family. This has the common arrangement of a gallery raised above a burial vault, and it is dated to 1608 in the gablet above its north window. It is barrel vaulted at both levels. There are records of another gallery above a vault having been provided for the earls of Morton at the west end of the nave, with access to the gallery by way of a forestair and doorway at the west end of the south aisle. Most of the evidence for this has now been removed, though the handsome two-light traceried window in the west wall was probably provided to light the gallery. It is also attractive to suspect that the addition of a square bellcote with a pyramid cap on the west gable, which is dated 1588, may have been part of this phase of work.

Otherwise the main evidence for later changes is the enlarged windows that survive – or have been reconstructed – at a number of points. Rather unusually, drawings made befre the restoration of 1925 show that the windows in the south face of the chancel had been modified through the insertion of larger rectangular openings in their lower parts, presumably in the seventeenth century. There are references to the chancel being used as a burial place for the family of the earls of Moray and those changes may have been associated with that use.

The church was abandoned for worship in 1790, when a new building was erected at a more central location in Wester Aberdour. However, in 1925 the decision was taken to restore the medieval church as Aberdour’s place of worship, and this was carried out to the designs of William Williamson.


Charters of the abbey of Inchcolm, 1938, ed. D.E. Easson and A Mascdonald, (Sottish History Society), Edinburgh, nos 2, 5, 22, 49.

Cowan, I.B., 1967, The parishes of medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh, 2.

Gifford, J., 1988, The Buildings of Scotland, Fife, London, 58-60.

Kirk, J., 1995, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, (British Academy) Oxford, 62-3, 64, 84-5.

MacGibbon, D, and Ross, T, 1887-92, The castellated and domestic architecture of Scotland, ii, (1887), 476-8.

New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1845, Edinburgh and London, ix, 717.

Proudfoot, E., and Proudfoot, B., 1987, ‘St Fillan’s Church, sculptured stone fragment’, Discovery and Excavation, Scotland.

Registrum honoris de Morton, 1853, ed. T. Thomson, (Bannatyne Club), Edinburgh, ii, no 231.

Registrum Secreti Sigilli Regum Scotorum, 1908-82, ed. J.M. Thomson et al., Edinburgh, iv, nos 2269, 2310.

Rentale Dunkeldense, 1915, ed. R.K. Hannay, (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh, 242.

Ross, W., 1885, Aberdour and Inchcolme, Edinburgh, 44, 52.

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

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, 1933, Inventory of Fife, Kinross and Clackmannan, Edinburgh, 58-60.

Rutherford, D.W., St Fillan’s Church Aberdour, n.d.

‘Testament of Sir James Douglas, lord of Dalkeith, knight, 30 Sept 1390’, Bannatyne Miscellany, ii 1836, ed. D Laing, (Bannatyne Club), Edinburgh, 105-112 at p.105.

Walker, J.R., 1888, Pre-Reformation churches, Fife and the Lothians, Edinburgh.



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

  • 1. Aberdour Church, exterior, from south

  • 2. Aberdour Church, interior, font

  • 3. Aberdour Church, interior, north-south section, looking west

  • 4. Aberdour Church, interior, north-south section, looking east (Walker)

  • 5. Aberdour Church, interior, east-west section, looking south (Walker)

  • 6. Aberdour Church, interior, east-west section, looking north (Walker)

  • 7. Aberdour Church, interior, south chapel, aumbry

  • 8. Aberdour Church, interior, arcade, west respond

  • 9. Aberdour Church, interior, nave arcade, pier

  • 10. Aberdour Church, interior, nave arcade, from north east

  • 11. Aberdour Church, interior, nave arcade, from north west

  • 12. Aberdour Church, interior, chancel, north window

  • 13. Aberdour Church, interior, chancel arch, south respond, from north east

  • 14. Aberdour Church, interior, chancel

  • 15. Aberdour Church, interior, from south west

  • 16. Aberdour Church, interior, from west

  • 17. Aberdour Church, exterior, south elevation (Walker)

  • 18. Aberdour Church, exterior, west elevation (Walker)

  • 19. Aberdour Church, exterior, north elevation (Walker)

  • 20. Aberdour Church, exterior, east elevation (Walker)

  • 21. Aberdour Church, plan (RCAHMS)

  • 22. Aberdour Church, exterior, north aisle window

  • 23. Aberdour Church, exterior, south door

  • 24. Aberdour Church, exterior, chancel, north window

  • 25. Aberdour Church, exterior, nave and chancel, south junction

  • 26. Aberdour Church, exterior, chancel, from south

  • 27. Aberdour Church, exterior, from north

  • 28. Aberdour Church, exterior, from south east