Abercorn Parish Church

Abercorn Church, exterior, from south

Summary description

The most clearly identifiable medieval feature of the church as now seen is a blocked early or mid-twelfth century south doorway. But it appears likely that the core of the present structure is a church that was of extended rectangular plan by the later middle ages, and which partly survives along the south wall and around the east end, albeit now largely concealed behind post-medieval laird’s aisles and burial enclosures, and much remodelled in a restoration of 1893.

Historical outline

Dedication: unknown

The church of Abercorn was founded in the eighth century as a monastery and seat of a bishopric for the Picts by the king of Northumbria, but went into decline following the defeat and death of King Ecgfrith at the Battle of Dunnichen in 685.(1) The rich sculptural evidence found at the site indicates that the church continued to function long after that date, but its status in the period between the eighth and twelfth centuries is unknown. In the second half of the twelfth century, the lands of Abercorn, together with the church, may have formed part of a secular lordship extending along parts of the south shore of the Firth of Forth from Cramond towards Carriden held by the Avenel family. The church was reported in the sixteenth century by Alexander Myln to have been ‘freed from the right of patronage of John Avenel’ by Bishop Richard of Dunkeld (1170-78).(2) The church was probably annexed to the episcopal mensa at or soon after that date, and was certainly already a vicarage in 1274.(3) There are few subsequent references to the church or its incumbents until the sixteenth century, when its status as a vicarage is confirmed.(4) At the Reformation Abercorn was still annexed to the episcopal mensa and the vicarage was held by John Linlithgow.(5)

Notes

1. Bede, History, 52, 258.

2. Myln, Vitae, 6.

3. SHS Misc, vi, 48.

4. RSS, ii, no 42.

5. Kirk (ed.), Book of Assumptions, 153-4, 302, 342, 436.

Architectural description

Excavations in the 1960s located parts of the stone-faced vallum of a roughly oval early monastic enclosure, together with traces of a number of buildings, one of dry-stone construction and others of timber, the latter including what appears to have been an apsidal chapel. Amongst a group of notable early carved stones now displayed in the session house are fragments of two fine high crosses, one of which had been re-used as a window lintel in the church, while the other had been adapted as the coping for a bridge. The decoration on these crosses relates to that on the Bewcastle Cross of the later seventh century, though in this case they may be no earlier than the eighth century. Later stones include two hogbacks that have been dated to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, along with a coped gravestone also thought to be of the twelfth century.

The earliest identifiable part of the church is a blocked doorway dating from around the second quarter of the twelfth century, which is of particular interest for having a decorated tympanum, one of only two known to have existed in Scotland. The arch, which is carried on nook shafts with cushion capitals, is carved with chevron, while the tympanum is decorated with a rather loosely organised lozenge design. It is likely that the door has lost both a hoodmoulding around the arch and a lintel above the opening. The position of the doorway was presumably originally towards the west end of the south wall, in the location that would be expected for the principal entrance to a parish church of this scale. However, the westward extension of the church in 1893 has given it a position relatively further east, with its west jamb now about 7.8 metres from the west end.

The east end of the church appears to have been rebuilt in the later middle ages on the evidence of the windowless east wall, the chamfered intake at the base of the gable, and the blank shields carved on the east and south faces of the south skewputt. It may be suspected that the eastern limb was somewhat lengthened at the time the present east wall was built, and, although there is no firm evidence for this, it must be considered as a possibility that an apse was being replaced by a rectangular chancel. The presence of considerable quantities of large blocks of roughly squared stone points to the re-use of some earlier masonry in this process. In its final medieval state the church was evidently of rectangular plan, though the inserted chancel arch of 1893, on the line of the east wall of the Binns Aisle, together with the heightened nave wall head west of that inserted arch, gives the appearance of a two-compartment plan. The dimensions of the church were 6.34 metres from north to south, but presumably something less than the present east to west length of 29.9 metres.

Following the Reformation the church underwent many modifications to fit it for changed approaches to worship. There are references to works as early as 1579, but the most significant changes for which there is still evidence involved the addition of a series of aisles and burial enclosures around the periphery of the church, the most complete record of which is a plan by the Rev’d John Sime of 4 August 1851. A vault for the Dundas of Duddingston family against the south side of the chancel bears the dates 1603 and 1612, and Sime shows that there was also a Duddingston aisle on the north side of the east end of the nave. The Dalyell of the Binns Aisle was built opposite the latter, on the south side of the nave, in 1618 on the evidence of the date at the gable apex. A burial enclosure for the Dundas of Philipstoun family was built on the south side of the western part of the nave, and is dated 1727. The most splendid provision for any of the local landholders was that made for the Hopes of Hopetoun, who acquired the estate in 1678 and took over the chancel as their aisle. Linked with the construction of an imposing loft within the chancel, in 1708 that family added a substantial offshoot to its north, with a vault at the lower level and a retiring room above; this was almost certainly the work of Sir William Bruce, who was extending Hopetoun House for the recently created first earl of Hopetoun at that time.

There was a restoration of the church in 1838, but the greatest changes resulted from a major operation carried out by Peter Macgregor Chalmers in 1893. At that time the nave was extended a short distance westwards, and a new north aisle and arcade were built on a similar scale to the existing nave, a process that involved the suppression of the Duddingston Aisle; at the same time over-scaled Romanesque detailing was inserted throughout.

Bibliography

Allen, J.R. and Anderson, J., 1903, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, Edinburgh, pt 3, 418-20.

Bede, A History of the English Church and People, 1968, ed. and trans. L. Sherley-Price, Harmondsworth, 52, 258.

Calder, C.S.T., 1938, ‘Three fragments of a sculptured cross of Anglian type now preserved in Abercorn Church, West Lothian’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, lxxii, 217-23.

Cooper, J., 1904, ‘The parish church of Abercorn’, Transactions of the Scottish Ecclesiological Society, i.

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

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.

Kirk, J., 1995, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, (British Academy) Oxford, 153-4, 302, 436.

MacGibbon, D. and Ross, T., 1896-7, The ecclesiastical architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, i (1896), 346-7.

National Monuments Record of Scotland, plan by John Sime of 4 August 1851, SIM 1/47v/3.

New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1845, Edinburgh and London, ii (Linlithgow), 30.

Registrum Secreti Sigilli Regum Scotorum, 1908-82, ed. J.M. Thomson et al., Edinburgh, ii, no 42.

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

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, 1929, Inventory of Midlothian and West Lothian, Edinburgh, 180-2.

Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-9, ed. J. Sinclair, Edinburgh, xx (1798), 395.

Thomas, A.C., 1968, ‘Abercorn and the Provincia Pictorum, in R Miket and C. Burgess (eds), Between and beyond the walls: essays on the prehistory and history of North Britain, Edinburgh, 324-7.

Vitae Dunkeldensis Ecclesiae Episcoporum…Ad Annum Mdxv, 1823, ed. T. Thomson, (Bannatyne Club), Edinburgh, 6.

Wilson, C., in McWilliam, C., 1978, The Buildings of Scotland, Lothian, London, 69-71.

Map

Images

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  • 1. Abercorn Church, exterior, from south

  • 2. Abercorn Churchyard, monuments 1

  • 3. Abercorn Churchyard, monuments 2

  • 4. Abercorn Church, early stones, hogback 2

  • 5. Abercorn Church, early stones, hogback 1

  • 6. Abercorn Church, early stones, cross shaft 2b

  • 7. Abercorn Church, early stones, cross shaft 2a

  • 8. Abercorn Church, early stones, cross shaft 1

  • 9. Abercorn Church, medieval stones, cross slab

  • 10. Abercorn Church, interior, Binns Aisle

  • 11. Abercorn Church, interior, Dundas vault

  • 12. Abercorn Church, interior, Hopetoun Aisle, painted decoration

  • 13. Abercorn Church, interior, Hopetoun Aisle

  • 14. Abercorn Church, interior, looking east

  • 15. Abercorn Church, exterior, Hopetoun Aisle from north

  • 16. Abercorn Church, exterior, chancel and Hopetoun aisle, from east

  • 17. Abercorn Church, exterior, Dundas vault, south gable heraldic plaque

  • 18. Abercorn Church, exterior, Binns aisle, south gable

  • 19. Abercorn Church, exterior, chancel, south east skewputt

  • 20. Abercorn Church, exterior, chancel, from south east

  • 21. Abercorn Church, exterior, south door, east nookshaft base

  • 22. Abercorn Church, exterior, south door, west nookshaft cap

  • 23. Abercorn Church, exterior, south door, east nookshaft cap

  • 24. Abercorn Church, exterior, south door, arch and tympanum

  • 25. Abercorn Church, exterior, south door

  • 26. Abercorn Church, exterior, chancel, Binns Aisle and Dundas vault, from south