Abbey St Bathans Parish Church

Abbey St Bathans Church, exterior, from south east

Summary description

A building largely of 1867-8, but incorporating part of a medieval Cistercian nunnery church. Contains a rare effigy of an abbess. No longer in ecclesiastical use. 

Historical outline

Dedication: St Baithen

The pre-Reformation history of the parish church of St Bathans is utterly obscure.  It is probable that the parish church was annexed to and perhaps shared the same building as was used by the nuns of the Cistercian convent that had been founded here by the thirteenth century.(1)  Certainly, both parsonage and vicarage were recorded at the Reformation as appropriated to the nunnery, yielding teinds in produce.(2)  It was stated in 1627 that the ‘kirk of St Bothanes [lay] within the precinct of monasterie of old for nunes’.(3)


1. I B Cowan and D E Easson, Medieval Religious Houses: Scotland, 2nd edition (London, 1976), 148.

2. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 192-3.

3. Reports on the State of Certain Parishes in Scotland, 1627 (Maitland Club, 1835), 23.

Summary of relevant documentation


Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: Church lay with the nunnery of the same name, to which parsonage and vicarage revenues accrued from 13th century.(1)

Parochial history: No references to parish church as a separate entity in the papal records (Calendar of entries in the Papal registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland, Papal letters, 1893-; Calendar of entries in the Papal registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland; Papal petitions, 1893-; and Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome 1433-47, 1983).


Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: The Parish church parsonage and vicarage with abbey of same name, teinds in produce.(2)

[The parish of Strafontaine was united to Abbey St Bathans at the Reformation with the parish church at the latter location.]

1675 (23 Feb) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Duns, John Swan, mason, William Bowmaker, wright (both from Duns) commissioned to repair the fabric of the kirk and of the manse. Final bill £24 Scots for the church and £125 for the manse.(3) [only minor changes to the church compared to the manse].

1699 (28 Feb) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Duns includes a report by George Reid, mason, George Wallace and Allan Gray, wrights, that for timber, and other materials for repairing the flooring, doors etc of the church; £230 is required.(4)

1703 (18 June) The minister George Hume, regrets that he wants a sum of money that is required for ‘thatching the church’. A visitation on 1st July includes a report by James Cowan, David Horton, wrights and John Bairnfather, mason anent repairing the church. Thatching and other general repairs will cost £327 in total.(5)

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev John Sked, 1791): ‘the church is a very ancient building; it was formerly large, measuring 58 feet by 26, but a part of the wall was lately taken down’.(6)

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev John Wallace, 1835): ‘the north and east walls still bear the marks of antiquity. In the former is to be seen an arched door, now built up, which communicated with the residence of the nuns. The ancient gothic architecture of the east window is still in some measure preserved, and in the wall near the window was a stone font with a leaden pipe in the bottom’.(7)

[No apparent changes to the fabric between 1791 and 1834.]


1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland, 1.

2. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, 192-93.

3. NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1659-1688, CH2/113/1, fols. 137-138.

4. NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1698-1707, CH2/113/3, fols. 3-4.

5. NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1698-1707, CH2/113/3, fol. 63.

6. Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-9, ed. J. Sinclair, Edinburgh, (1791), xii, 64.

7. New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45, Edinburgh and London, (1835), ii, 108-09.


NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1659-1688, CH2/113/1.

NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1698-1707, CH2/113/3.

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

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

New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45, Edinburgh and London.

Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-9, ed. J. Sinclair, Edinburgh.

Architectural description

There is considerable uncertainty about both the origins and the location of the parish church of Abbey St Bathans. It appears from an early date to have been a possession of the Cistercian nunnery of St Bothans,(1) which, according to Spottiswoode, was founded by one of the countesses of March in the reign of William I.(2) On this basis, there has been a general assumption that the foundress was Ada, an illegitimate daughter of that king, and the wife of Earl Patrick of March, which would place the foundation between 1184 and 1200.(3) However, there can be no certainty on that, and Christiana, a later wife of Earl Patrick, and Euphemia, the wife of a later earl, have both been suggested as alternative possibilities.(4)

So far as the location of the parish church is concerned, it has certainly been accommodated within the surviving portion of the nunnery church since the Reformation, and very possibly in the middle ages as well. However, it has been suggested that the medieval parish was housed in a building in Chapel Field, about a quarter of a mile to the south of the church, which was excavated by the owner of the estate, John Turnbull, in 1869-70, and which had overall dimensions of 14 by 6.4 metres.(5) On balance, however, it may perhaps be deemed more likely that the parish shared the convent church with the nuns, and that the excavated building was a dependent chapel.  

Whatever the case, the nunnery church was repaired and remodelled on several occasions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries while in use as a parish church. Repairs in 1675, for example, which were carried out by the mason John Swan and the wright William Bowmaker, cost £24.(6) But much of what is now seen dates from a draconian restoration of 1867-8 carried out by John Lessels for John Turnbull, and of the basically rectangular core, only the lower portion of the east wall and parts of the north wall are now likely to have retained significant medieval parts.

A plan prepared for General George Henry Hutton, probably in 1788,(7)  shows a rectangular structure with one window in the east wall, two windows between two doors in the south wall, and a blocked door in the north wall. The west and south walls are coloured pink, suggesting that they are later in date. The partial extent of the lost part of the church that had lain to the west appears to be indicated by broken double lines: those to the south continued the alignment of the existing south wall, while those to the north appear to have been to the north of the existing north wall

The walls throughout are of whinstone rubble with buff or red ashlar dressings. The east wall appears to be medieval up to the base of the gable, where it is sharply intaken. A sundial at the south-east corner is supported by what may be a thirteenth-century mask corbel. At the centre of the east wall is a partly renewed two-light thirteenth-century plate-traceried window, deeply recessed within a double-splayed embrasure. This window was taken as the cue for a series of two- three- and four-light windows that were inserted in the 1860s. The window appears to be in situ, though it has been pointed out that it appears to be more weathered on the outside than on the inside; this has led to the suggestion that the east wall was in fact originally the west wall of the church, meaning that the medieval church had extended to its east.(8) Support for this view might be taken from the fact that at the north-east angle of the east wall is tusking which points to the existence either of a wall running eastwards or a buttress, and there are also accounts of wall foundations having been traced to the east.

However, the evidence of the plan drawn for Hutton suggests it is more likely that the eastern parts of the church have always been in their present position. Here it should be noted that the conventual buildings appear to have been on the north side of the church, and it is thought that a blocked doorway in the north wall gave access to the nuns’ quarters. According to the Statistical Account they remains of the nunnery were still to be seen on that side, though they were said to have been ‘almost totally demolished’, and by the time of the New Statistical Account they had ‘entirely disappeared’(9). On this basis, the tusking at the north-east corner simply suggests that the conventual buildings extended further east than the church.

The most prominent and highly enriched features of the church as it is now seen date from the restoration of 1867-8; these are a porch for the congregation at the west end of the south wall, and a porch and aisle for the laird at the east end of the north wall. The south-west porch has a Romanesque revival doorway with assertively red nook shafts. But that entrance is altogether surpassed by the laird’s porch on the east side of his new aisle, which is surmounted by a tower with a two-light Romanesque belfry window to the east, and a slated broached spire with a prominent weather vane. The rather plain interior of the church has a hammer-beam roof.

A survival of particular importance that was found in the course of the restoration, and that was set in a specially created recess in the east wall, is the effigy of a nun – presumably one of the prioresses of the convent - that probably dates from the fifteenth-century. The head rests on two tasselled cushions, and there is a kneeling angel at her side.

The church is no longer in use for worship, and is used for community purposes.


1. Ian B. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society), 1967, p. 1.

2. John Spottiswoode, ‘An Account of all the religious houses that were in Scotland’, in Robert Keith, An Historical Catalogue of the Scottish Bishops, new ed., Edinburgh, 1824, p. 460.

3. Ian B. Cowan and David E. Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, Scotland, London and New York, 1976, p. 148.

4. James Robson, The Churches and Churchyards of Berwickshire, Kelso, 1896, p. 4.

5. Robson, Churches and Churchyards, p. 2; G.A.C. Binnie, The Churches and Graveyards of Berwickshire, Ladykirk, 1995, p. 13; Christopher J. Brooke, Safe Sanctuaries, Edinburgh, 2000, p. 50.

6. National Records of Scotland, Presbytry of Duns, Minutes, 1659-88, CH 2/113/1.

7. National Library of Scotland Adv MS 30.5.22 3i. Two other sketches of the church (32 (a) and 32 (b)) are dated 1788.

8. Robson, Churches and Churchyards, p. 6.

9. Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-99, vol. 12, p. 64 ; NewStatistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45, vol. 2, 109.



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

  • 1. Abbey St Bathans Church, exterior, from south east

  • 2. Abbey St Bathans Church, exterior, from north

  • 3. Abbey St Bathans Church, exterior, possible re-used mask corbel below sundial at south-east corner

  • 4. Abbey St Bathans Church, exterior, re-set plate tracery in east window

  • 5. Abbey St Bathans Church, exterior, tusks of north wall continuation

  • 6. Abbey St Bathans Church, abbess effigy, 1

  • 7. Abbey St Bathans Church, abbess effigy, 2

  • 8. Abbey St Bathans Church, abbess effigy, 3

  • 9. Abbey St Bathans Church, abbess effigy, 4

  • 10. Abbey St Bathans Church, effigy of abbess, 5

  • 11. Abbey St Bathans Church, effigy of abbess, detail

  • 12. Abbey St Bathans Church, gravestone