Dunning Parish Church

Dunning Church, exterior from south east

Summary description

The church has at its core a twelfth-century three-compartment building, consisting of a rectangular chancel, a larger rectangular nave, and a western tower. However, much of its present appearance dates from a remodelling dated by inscription to 1810, when a symmetrical façade was formed along the south side of both nave and chancel, and a large lateral aisle was constructed off the north side of the church, resulting in a T-shaped plan for the building as a whole.

Historical outline

Dedication: St Serf/Servanus

There is no pre-thirteenth-century reference to a church at Dunning, but its dedication to St Serf and its position at the heart of the former royal thanage of Dunning suggests that it may have very early origins. The church was probably constructed under the patronage of the twelfth-century earls of Strathearn, to whom possession of the thanage had been given by the king of Scots. Although it was not amongst the churches granted to the canons of Inchaffray in 1200 by Gillebrigte, earl of Strathearn, on the refoundation of the monastery as an Augustinian priory, he added it to the canons’ possessions sometime before 1203, when possession was confirmed by Pope Innocent III and King William.(1) The canons did not receive full corporal possession at the time of the original grant and in a settlement between Bishop Clement of Dunblane and Inchaffray in 1234 it was named as one of five parish churches of which they were still seeking full appropriation.(2) A vicarage settlement had been agreed by February 1239, when it was confirmed by the dean and chapter of Dunblane, whereafter the cure was served by a vicar pensionary.(3) The settlement remained in force at the Reformation, with the canons having the use of both parsonage and vicarage revenues. In the fifteenth century, these revenues were diverted for a time to other purposes. In 1430, the pope confirmed an arrangement made by the canons in chapter and agreed by both the king and the bishop of Dunblane, that the teinds and fruits of Dunning should be allocated as part of a pension of £40 per annum to be paid to Donald of Dunfermline, who had resigned the abbacy of Inchaffray.(4) The fruits were inalienable by Donald and were to return to the uses of the canons on his death or resignation of the same.

Although a vicar is recorded in 1509, the vicarage pensionary may simply have been served by a chaplain, the office being described as ‘the chaplainry’ of Dunning in 1561/2.(5) At some time after 1510/11, the vicarage appears to have been annexed to the prebend of Kippen in the cathedral of Dunblane, which was held before 1566 by sir John Hummill and in April that year were given first to William Bannerman, then sir William Drummond.(6) As the latter received only the vicarage, the union with Kippen appears to have been purely a personal one and was dissolved on Hummill’s death. The cure seems to have been served by a chaplain for some time before March 1537/8, when sir John Learmonth succeeded sir John Chisholm in the chaplainry and chapel of St Serf within the town of Dunning.(7) In 1566, a Great Seal confirmation was issued of a charter by Learmonth, who was still described as ‘chaplain of the chapel and chaplainry of St Serf within the village of Dunning’, feuing the lands of Granco, known as ‘the Chapell-landis of Doning’.(8) This does not seem to be referring to a chapel separate from the parish church, the latter otherwise having no presence in the Book of Assumptions.


1. Inchaffray Charters, no XXI; RRS, ii, no 439.

2. Inchaffray Charters, no LXI.

3. Inchaffray Charters, no LXVII.

4. CSSR, iii, 119-120.

5. RMS, ii, no 3398; Kirk (ed.), Book of Assumptions, 314.

6. RSS, v, pt.ii, nos 2743, 3155.

7. RSS, ii, no 2463.

8. RMS, iv, no 1746.

Architectural description

The area centred on Dunning appears to have had a long association with Christian worship on the evidence of a cross slab found in the nineteenth century and now displayed within the church.

The church at Dunning is a particularly interesting illustration of the ways in which a relatively complex medieval church might be remodelled to meet both the requirements of reformed worship and the architectural tastes of the early nineteenth century. As first built it can be seen that the church had a nave of about 13.53 metres from east to west and 8.3 metres from north to south; the chancel extended a further 7.15 metres to the east, and had a north-south width of 6.92 metres. The chancel had a lower wall head than that of the nave, on the evidence of the badly weathered surviving corbels of the wall-head cornice that would have run along the north side of the chancel. Some of the diagonally tooled masonry of the short section of the east nave wall is still to be seen in the re-entrant angle at the junction of the chancel with the east wall of the early nineteenth-century lateral north aisle. The best surviving external feature of the twelfth-century nave is the blocked north door, which until recently was largely concealed behind the forestair built to give access to the lofts in the north aisle and west end of the nave, but which has now been exposed by the partial removal of the stair. This doorway had plain jambs of rectangular section to the inner order, which carried an arch moulded with an angle roll and a quirked cavetto. The outer order had a plain arch carried on detached nook shafts; there was a cushion cap to the east shaft and a cap of unknown form to the west. A reused stone with a nook-shaft cushion cap at the lower level of the south wall appears to be from a doorway and, since it must be thought likely there was also an entrance on the south side of the nave, there is a possibility that the cap originally formed part of that doorway.

The west tower survives in a virtually complete state, and is about 4.65 metres square in plan. The main changes to it have been the cutting of a doorway in its south face at an unknown date, and the slight heightening to provide a firm base for a double pitched roof. The tower’s lower storeys are generally plain, other than a number of irregularly placed window openings and a series of what appear to be putlog holes, some of which may have been associated with a bell frame. Towards the top, however, there are two levels of string courses, the upper string providing a base for a round-arched belfry opening in all four faces, each opening containing a pair of sub-arches carried on a cushion-capped mid-wall shaft. Internally there is a spiral stair in a square projection within the south-west corner, and towards the church there is an unusually fine tower arch. This is supported on massive engaged three-quarter-round responds with scallop caps, while the arch is of pointed form and has an outer order decorated with deeply cut scallops emerging from an angle roll. There is nothing in the north doorway and external forms of the tower that would be out of place around the second quarter and middle decades of the twelfth century, and such a date range seems most likely for the first construction of the church. However, the pointed form and deep scalloping of the tower arch appears unlikely to be earlier than the later decades of the twelfth century and it may therefore be a secondary insertion.

The only medieval changes for which there is evidence were the slight heightening of the tower and the construction over it of a double-pitched roof within crow-stepped gables; they may have been carried out in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries. But most of the changes for which there is evidence were clearly aimed at fitting the church for reformed worship. As principal heritors of the parish the Lords Rollo are likely to have taken over the chancel by no later than the seventeenth century, and the elevated door to the loft inserted in the chancel has the arms and initials of the third Lord Rollo and his wife, along with the date 1687. Following on from the laird’s loft being placed in the chancel it may be assumed that the pulpit, the chief focus of the reformed services, would have already been set against one of the long walls, and presumably the south wall. Associated with the insertion of the Rollo loft may have been the removal of the chancel arch and the heightening of chancel wall head, though these are perhaps more likely to have been carried out in the next campaign to have left its mark on the building.

That campaign was the work of Alexander Bowie and John Frazer between 1808 and 1811, and it is commemorated on a tablet at the centre of the newly created south front which bears the date 1810. The works of around 1810 had a major impact on both the external appearance and the internal arrangement of the church. To give external unity to the principal face of the church, the south wall of the chancel was brought out to the same line as the nave south wall and, if it had not already been heightened, it was raised to the same height as the nave. A symmetrical arrangement of openings was contrived within the remodelled wall. There is a pair of pointed windows on each side of the central axis, where the pulpit was presumably located; these now contain timber Y-tracery, which probably reflects the original intention; on each side of this pair of windows is a rectangular doorway, the western one of which is now blocked; and there is a superimposed pair of rectangular windows at each end of the wall to light the areas below and above the east and west lofts.

On the north – and perhaps less visible - side of the church there was evidently felt to be less need for such extensive updating of the details. The main change here was the addition of a large lateral aisle, with two tiers of two windows through its east and west flanks and a rectangular doorway in the north face. It was decided that the east wall of the new aisle should abut the main body of the church at the point where the chancel and nave adjoined, and the reason for this must have been at least partly a wish to avoid having to widen the chancel on this side. There were, however, the consequences that the new aisle had to be located a little to the west of the central north-south axis, and that the east gable was asymmetrical. There was also the requirement in this arrangement to raise the wall head on the north side of the chancel. In the re-entrant angle between the nave and the new north aisle a forestair was provided to give access to the lofts in those two parts, while the existing forestair to the laird’s loft in the old chancel was retained.

In the new internal arrangements lofts occupied most of the upper parts of the three arms, though, because of the slight westward location of the aisle, the loft in the old chancel did not reach the junction with the north aisle in the way that the loft in the west part of the old nave did. Each of the lofts is carried on a pair of square timber piers, and has a panelled front.

Following a union of parishes the church passed out of use for worship in 1978, and was taken into state care, being now maintained by Historic Scotland.


Allen, J.R. and Anderson, J., 1903. The Early Christian monuments of Scotland, Edinburgh, pt. 3, 319-20.

Anderson, A.A., 1939, ‘Scottish medieval churches still used for divine service’, Transactions of the Scottish Ecclesiological Society, xii, 111-16.

Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome 1428-32, 1970, ed. A.I. Dunlop; and I.B. Cowan, (Scottish History Society) Edinburgh, 119-20.

Charters, Bulls and other Documents relating to the Abbey of Inchaffray, 1908, (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh, nos XXI, XI, LXVII.

Cockburn, J.H., 1961, ‘Parochial clergy of the medieval diocese of Dunblane, part 2’, Society of Friends of Dunblane Cathdral, viii, 146-53.

Cowan, I.B., 1967, The parishes of medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh, 54

Cross, M., St Serf’s Dunning: interior fixtures, furnishings and north aisle. Documentary research report, 2002 (Historic Scotland), Edinburgh.

Donaldson, G., 1974, ‘Scotland’s earliest church buildings’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, xviii, 1-9.

Kirk, J., 1995, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, (British Academy) Oxford, 314.

Kirkdale Archaeology, 2001, ‘St Serf’s Church, Dunning, Archaeological monitoring of pipe trench February 2001’  (unpublished report for Historic Scotland)

Lindsay, I.G., 1950, ‘The kirks of the diocese of Dunblane’, Society of Friends of Dunblane Cathedral, vi, 8-17.

MacGibbon, D. and Ross, T., 1896-7, The ecclesiastical architecture of Scotland, i (1896), Edinburgh, 204-11.

Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum, 1882, ii (1424-1513), Edinburgh, no 3398.

Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum, 1886, iv (1546-1580), Edinburgh, no 1746.

Registrum Secreti Sigilli Regum Scotorum, 1908-82, ed. J.M. Thomson et al., Edinburgh, ii, no 2463.        

Registrum Secreti Sigilli Regum Scotorum, 1908-82, ed. J.M. Thomson et al., Edinburgh, v pt 11, nos 2743, 3155.

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

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Dunning St Serf, record sheet, 1975.

Wilson, J., Dunning, its parochial history, 1906, Perth.



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

  • 1. Dunning Church, exterior from south east

  • 2. Dunning Churchyard, monument 1

  • 3. Dunning Churchyard, coped gravestones

  • 4. Dunning Church, early stone, cross slab

  • 5. Dunning Church, interior, tower arch (MacGibbon and Ross)

  • 6. Dunning Church, west elevation (Historic Sotland)

  • 7. Dunning Church, exterior, east elevation (Historic Scotland)

  • 8. Dunning Church, exterior, north elevation (Historic Scotland)

  • 9. Dunning Church, exterior, south elevation (Historic Scotland)

  • 10. Dunning Church, plans (Historic Scotland)

  • 11. Dunning Church, interior, looking west

  • 12. Dunning Church, interior, looking east

  • 13. Dunning Church, interior, tower arch, detail

  • 14. Dunning Church, interior, tower arch respons

  • 15. Dunning Church, interior, tower arch

  • 16. Dunning Church, exterior, stair to galleries

  • 17. Dunning Church, exterior, chancel, doorway to Rollo loft

  • 18. Dunning Church, exterior, nave, south wall, reused nook shaft cap

  • 19. Dunning Church, exterior, nave, north door

  • 20. Dunning Church, exterior, nave, north door when blocked

  • 21. Dunning Church, exterior, chancel and nave, junction on north

  • 22. Dunning Church, exterior, chancel, wallhead corbel table

  • 23. Dunning Church, exterior, chancel, from north

  • 24. Dunning Church, exterior, from north east

  • 25. Dunning Church, exterior, tower, belfry opening

  • 26. Dunning Church, exterior, tower, upper stages

  • 27. Dunning Church, exterior, tower, from west

  • 28. Dunning Church, exterior, tower, from north west

  • 29. Dunning Church, exterior, tower, from south east

  • 30. Dunning Church, exterior, from south