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Aberlady Parish Church

Aberlady Church, exterior from south

Summary description

The only clearly medieval part of the existing structure is the west tower, though it is possible that fragments of the north nave wall might also be of medieval date. Apart from a pair of lairds’ aisles on the north side, which are assumed to be of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, the rest of the building dates from 1886.

Historical outline

Dedication: unknown

Aberlady probably came into the hands of the monastery or bishops of Dunkeld as a component of their landed estate before the twelfth century and, as the parish system developed in the period after 1100, the bishop of Dunkeld ensured that any chapel serving that land was retained under their spiritual lordship when it attained parochial status. In the 1170s Richard, bishop of Dunkeld, held property in Aberlady and, it is assumed, the parsonage of the church there.(1) It is likely that the parsonage had been annexed to the episcopal mensa at an early date, for the church appears only as a vicarage in Bagimond’s Roll in 1274.(2) The parsonage was certainly still annexed to the mensa at the Reformation.(3)

The vicarage was still unappropriated in the first half of the fifteenth century, when it was the subject of various petitions for presentation.(4) Alexander Myln writing in the early sixteenth century claimed that the vicarage had been erected into a prebend of Dunkeld by Bishop Thomas Lauder (1452-81).(5) Confirmation of that annexation survives from 1469, when 6 merks annually were assigned from its fruits towards the funds allocated for the support of six choirboys in Dunkeld cathedral.(6) The union remained in place on the eve of Reformation, when sir Robert Sclater, was presented in January 1550/1 to ‘the vicarage of Aberlady, united and incorporated in one canonry of Dunkeld’.(7) At the Reformation the vicarage was noted as having formerly been set in assedation for 80 merks annually in the return submitted by Abraham Crichton.(8)

As a mensal church, the bishop of Dunkeld was responsible for the upkeep of the chancel area of the building. The surviving financial records of the diocese from the time of Bishop George Brown record substantial expenditure on the building in the 1509 and 1510, charged against the Granitar of Lothian’s accounts submitted on 15 December 1511. The accounts record expenditure of £63 2d for ‘building of the whole choir’ of the church, and for providing lime, cut stones and rubble, roofing, pointing, glass windows, iron and labour.(9)


1. Dryburgh Liber, no 96; Cowan, Parishes, 3.

2. SHS Misc, vi, 48, 72.

3. Kirk (ed.), Book of Assumptions, 302, 343, 346.

4. CSSR, i, 213, 214; CSSR, ii, 87-8.

5. Myln, Vitae, 24.

6. RMS, ii, no 1056.

7. RSS, iv, nos 1034, 1035.

8. Kirk (ed.), Book of Assumptions, 94.

9. Rentale Dunkeldense, 259.

Architectural description

The finding of part of a fine cross shaft in the manse garden walls in 1863 suggests that Aberlady was a centre of the Anglian Church (the shaft itself is now in the collections of the National Museums of Scotland, but a cast of it is displayed in the church).

The west tower, which is the only surviving medieval part of the building, has a vaulted lower storey; it rises through four levels, with a string course between the second and third levels and an intake below the belfry stage. Although the belfry windows are now of Romanesque type, their present form dates largely from 1886, and the detailing of the corbel table below the parapet leaves little doubt that the tower is substantially of fifteenth-century date. Regrettably, nothing remains of the chancel that was rebuilt in 1509-11.

Two adjacent laterally projecting aisles on the north side of the nave, one with a crow-stepped gable and the other with a coped gable, were evidently built for the earls of Wemyss and the lords Elibank; they are assumed to be of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though they have been so extensively modified that their dates can no longer be assessed on the architectural evidence with any confidence. Since the church wall that they abut has not been re-aligned in later remodellings of the church, it is a possibility that parts of it are of medieval date, though it has certainly been extensively remodelled on at least two occasions.

By the eighteenth century, according to the entry in the Statistical Account, published in 1793, the church was ‘a disgrace to the parish’. It apparently measured 100 feet (30.48 metres) by 16½ feet (5.03 metres), with walls of between 10 and 11 feet in height that were partly of mud construction. When it was rebuilt as a large rectangular preaching hall in 1773 the tower and north aisles were the only parts to be retained. On the north side the retention of the lairds’ aisles meant that the main body of the new building projected little further than the north face of the tower. On the south side, however, it was extended well to the south of the tower, and the new south face was pierced by four large pointed windows. Any remains of the choir of 1509-11 that might have survived were presumably removed at this time.

There was a second major rebuilding in 1886, to the designs of William Young, who was remodelling Gosford House for the Earl of Wemyss at that time. Young retained the north aisles and replicated them on the south side, evidently within what had been the area occupied by the southern part of the church of 1773; he also constructed a roof at a lower level than that of 1773. While this presumably resulted in a similar internal floor area as had been provided in the late eighteenth-century church, it created a more sympathetically modulated external mass, even if its new appearance is unlikely to have borne any resemblance to the medieval building. Internally Young adapted the north side by running the lateral aisles together to create a single longitudinal aisle separated from the main space by an arcade, and he repeated this on the south side. He also extended the church eastwards to form a short chancel, with a new liturgical emphasis on a communion table at the east end, while at the west end he added porches against the flanks of the tower.

According to a description of the parish of 1723, and published in Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections, there were the remains of a chapel dedicated to St Mary within the churchyard, said to have been in the area now occupied by the burial ground of the Hope of Luffness family.


Allen, J.R. and Anderson, J., 1903, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, Edinburgh, pt 3, 428-9.

Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome 1418-22, 1934, ed. E.R. Lindsay and A.I. Cameron, (Scottish History Society) Edinburgh, 213, 214.

Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome 1423-28, 1956, ed. A.I. Dunlop, (Scottish History Society) Edinburgh, 87-8.

Cowan, I.B., 1967, The parishes of medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh, 3.

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 48, 72.

Kirk, J., 1995, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, (British Academy) Oxford, 94, 302, 343, 346.

Liber S. Marie de Dryburgh, 1847, ed. W. Fraser, (Bannatyne Club), Edinburgh, no 96.

MacFarlane, M.A., A guide to Aberlady Parish Church, 1967.

Macfarlane, W., 1906, Geographical collections relating to Scotland, ed. A. Mitchell, (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh, i, 375.

New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1845, Edinburgh and London, ii (Haddington), 257-8.

Registrum Secreti Sigilli Regum Scotorum, 1908-82, ed. J.M. Thomson et al., Edinburgh, iv, nos 1034, 1035.

Rentale Dunkeldense, 1915, ed. R.K. Hannay, (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh, 259.

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

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, 1924, Inventory of East Lothian, Edinburgh, 73-4.

Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-9, ed. J. Sinclair, Edinburgh, vi (1793), 548.

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

Wilson, C., in C. McWilliam, 1978, The Buildings of Scotland, Lothian, London, 73-4.



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

  • 1. Aberlady Church, exterior from south

  • 2. Aberlady Church, cross shaft cast

  • 3. Aberlady Church, interior, from west

  • 4. Aberlady Church, exterior, tower, belfry windows

  • 5. Aberlady Church, exterior, tower, from west

  • 6. Aberlady Church, exterior, tower, from north west

  • 7. Aberlady Church, exterior, from north west

  • 8. Aberlady Church,exterior, tower, from south