Abercrombie / St Monans Parish Church

St Monans Church, exterior, from south east

Summary description

The roofless and possibly truncated shell of a medieval church, superseded for worship in the mid-seventeenth century by the church at St Monans. At the latter are the choir, transepts and tower of an ambitious votive church of 1362-70, which was adapted for a Dominican community in 1471.

Historical outline

Dedication: St Eoghan/Ewen

The church of Abercrombie was dedicated to St Eohan/Ewen(1) by the bishop of St Andrews on 24 October 1247.(2) A free parsonage until the early fourteenth century, the chronicler Walter Bower noted that on 5 September 1318 Bishop William Lamberton of St Andrews granted both it and the church of Dairsie to the priory of St Andrews in proprios usus on the occasion of the consecration of St Andrews Cathedral.(3

A precept of Bishop Lamberton to the dean of Christianity of Fife and Fothrif, dated Wednesday in the Feast of St Agatha 1319, instructed him to induct the prior and canons in corporal possession of the church of Abercrombie, the gift having been made for the increase of the lights of the high altar in the cathedral at St Andrews.(4)  A century later, on 24 April 1418, the canons of St Andrews petitioned the pope for confirmation of their possession of the church.(5

By 1440 the canons were leasing the church, i.e. the right to collect the teinds, for terms of five years.  On 11 November 1440, it was leased to Master Thomas Marshall, priest, Alexander Johnson and John ‘Cokkare’, and the longest-lived of them, for annual payment of £10 13s 4d.(6)  The cure was a vicarage perpetual and at the Reformation was held by Mr Thomas Young, who gave the rental value of his vicarage as 4 acres of land and £3 silver, the parsonage being valued at £40 and set by the priory.(7)

Notes

1. S Taylor and G Markus, The Place-Names of Fife, iii, St Andrews and the East Neuk (Donington, 2009), 544-545.

2. A O Anderson (ed), Early Sources of Scottish History, ii (Edinburgh, 1922), 526 [Pontifical Offices of St Andrews].

3. Walter Bower, Scotichronicon, eds D E R Watt and others, vi (Aberdeen, 1991), 413-415.

4. St Andrews Liber, p.xxxv, no 19.

5. Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome, i, 1418-1422, eds E R Lindsay and A I Cameron (Scottish History Society, 1934), 11.

6. St Andrews Copiale, no.109.

7. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 16-17, 69.

Summary of relevant documentation

Medieval

Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: Granted in 1319 by William de Lamberton, bishop of SA to St Andrew’s priory for the lighting of the High Altar. The cure was a vicar perpetual.(1)

Place names of Fife (volume three): The old parish church of Abercrombie, the ruins of which are still extant, now lies in the estate of Balcaskie. Its dedication was to St Eoghan (Ewen).(2)

1318 (5 Sept) According to Bower, William Lamberton, bishop of St Andrews, marked the consecration of the newly built St Andrews cathedral with a gift of the churches of Abercrombie and Dairsie to the priory of St Andrews.(3)

1418 (27 Apr) The prior and convent of St Andrews supplicate that the Pope would confirm the union and donation of the parish church of Abercrombie, St Andrews Diocese, formerly made by William [Lamberton] erstwhile bishop of St Andrews to the said church and canons of St Andrews.(4)

Post-medieval

Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: Parsonage with Priory of St Andrews, set for £40. Vicarage of Abercrombie valued at £40. The vicar was Thomas Young.(5)

1630 Kirk session includes list of subscribers for a new bell at Abercrombie. The old bell was taken as part exchange for the new one.(6)

1636 (7 Feb) Records in the kirk session of various payments, for glass for the windows. David Bell paid £13 12s for his work at the bell and bell house. John Roger paid £6 3s for nails and other work on the bell.(7)

1646 Sir James Sandilands held the lands of Newark, which at that time lay in Kilconquhar. In that year he acquired the estate of Abercrombie, and sought the annexation of Newark to what was then Abercrombie parish. Since St Monans at that time lay within his lands of Newark, this had the effect of bringing this church into the parish of Abercrombie. Subsequently the church became the parish church.(8)

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev Archibald Gillies, 1794): [detailed description of the converted Dominican friary now used as parish church]

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev Robert Swan, 1837): [detailed description of state of former Dominican friary and restoration work carried out 1826-;]

Notes

1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland,  2.

2. Taylor & Markus, The Place-Names of Fife. Volume Three, pp. 544-545.

3. Chron. Bower, vi, 413-15.

4.CSSR, i, p. 11.

5. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, 16-17 & 69.

6. NRS Abercrombie/St Monans Kirk Session, 1597-1640, CH2/1056/1, fols. 131-132.

7. NRS Abercrombie/St Monans Kirk Session, 1597-1640, CH2/1056/1, fol. 84.

8. Taylor & Markus, The Place-Names of Fife. Volume Three, pp. 545.

9. Statistical Account of Scotland, (1794), ix, 345-46.

10. New Statistical Account of Scotland, (1837), ix, 350-51.

Bibliography

NRS Abercrombie/St Monans Kirk Session, 1597-1640, CH2/1056/1.

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

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

Donaldson, G., 1949, Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices, (Scottish History 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.

Scotichronicon by Walter Bower in Latin and English, 1987-99, D. E. R. Watt, Aberdeen.

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

Taylor, S & Markus, G., 2009, The Place-Names of Fife. Volume Three. St Andrews and the East Neuk, Donington.

Architectural description

Assuming that they have not been brought from elsewhere, a number of fragments of early medieval cross slabs suggest that Abercrombie was a location of some significance for the early Church in this area.(1) These fragments have been built into the jambs of the north doorway, or in the masonry to its east.

There was a church at Abercrombie by 24 October 1247, when Bishop David de Bernham carried out one of his many dedications.(2) In 1319 the church was granted to St Andrews Cathedral Priory by Bishop William de Lamberton to fund altar lights, and the cure was subsequently a perpetual vicarage.(3)

In 1646, at the behest of Sir James Sandilands of Newark, it was decided that the church had become too ruinous for worship to safely continue within it. It was therefore agreed that it would be better if the hitherto non-parochial chapel of St Monans should be the building used for worship by the parishioners, though arrangements had to be made not to disadvantage the minister of Kilconquhar, who enjoyed the teinds of the barony of St Monans.(4) After that the unroofed church at Abercrombie was used as a burial enclosure by the owners of the Balcaskie estate and the ministers of the parish of St Monans and Abercrombie.(5)

As it now stands the church is an approximately oriented rectangle of 14.15 by 7 metres, built of yellow rubble of a range of types, with dressed masonry to the quoins, crowsteps and openings. There is the stump of a bellcote on the west gable. A chamfered base course at the north east angle, and a small pointed window (now blocked) in the southern part of the east wall, suggest that the present building could have been first constructed around the earlier thirteenth century. Such a date would be supported by the large amount of squared blocks of stone found especially in the eastern parts of the building.

Most other features, however, are clearly later than that, and are likely to be of later medieval or post-medieval date. Along the south wall, starting at the east end, are a rectangular two light window that has lost its mullion, which presumably lit the altar, a smaller rectangular window, and a rectangular door that would have provided access to the chancel for clergy. All of these have chamfered reveals and segmental rear-arches, but all are now blocked. West of these are the lower parts of an elevated window, and a rectangular doorway.

On the north side of the church the only openings are the door that embodies the fragments of the early cross slabs referred to above, and the finely detailed lower part of an elevated window a short distance to its east. Within the church the only features of significance for understanding the medieval building are a rectangular aumbry towards the southern end of the east wall, and another aumbry to the east of the western of the two doors through the south wall.

There have evidently been extensive modifications to the fabric on more than one occasion. The north doorway is clearly a post-Reformation confection, and has been linked with works recorded as being carried out by John Wilson in 1597-1602.(6) It might also be that the western of the two doors in the south wall is of post-Reformation date in its present state, as may be the crow-stepped gables and bellcote. Further works are recorded in the 1840s,(7) amongst which might have been the stabilisation of the east wall by a thickening of its central part and the construction of an axial buttress.

One possibility that should be considered is that the church has been truncated, since its proportions of 2:1 are closer to what might be expected after the Reformation rather than for a medieval church with an axial alignment of chancel and nave. If that is the case, it is unlikely that it was the eastern end that was cut back, since the east wall has the earliest of the diagnostically significant features, including the pointed-arched window, the chamfered base course and the squared masonry.

By contrast, the west wall has no such features, and, although there is some squared masonry, it is intermixed with random rubble in a way that suggests it is in secondary usage. Added to that, an intake at the base of the gable is very roughly formed in a way that might not be expected if it were a medieval feature.

Although there could be no certainty of this without archaeological or geophysical investigation, it may therefore be speculated that the church has been truncated from the west at some stage after the Reformation, at which time both gables were probably provided with crowsteps. If that is the case the nave doors were presumably relocated eastwards as part of the same operation, with that on the north being perhaps a completely new creation.

Such truncation might also explain why the south chancel door is almost at the mid-point of the south wall rather than further east, as might be more expected. Taking this line of speculation further, is it possible that the elevated window to the west of the chancel door was provided to light a rood loft, and that the aumbry a short distance to its west was not associated with the relocated south nave doorway, but with an altar in front of the rood screen?

The church that replaced Abercrombie as the place of worship for the parish originated as a chapel within the parish of Kilconquhar.(8) It was built for David II,9 and between 1362 and 1370, and over £620 was spent on its construction, under the direction of Sir William Dishington of Ardross as master of works.(9) On 3 April 1370 the king formally designated this new work as a chapel dedicated to St Monan.(10)

Its construction is said to have been a thank-offering to the somewhat shadowy saint for his thaumaturgic assistance in David’s recovery from an arrow wound suffered at the battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. It has been suggested as more likely, however, that it was built in thanks for the king’s rescue from shipwreck off the Fife coast.(11)

The building has undergone major modifications on a number of occasions, and these have to be taken account of in any attempt to assess the architectural evidence. On 15 November 1471 James III re-established it as a Dominican friary, and it is thought that his reason for doing this was to give Scotland a sufficient number of houses to justify a separate Dominican province being established. It is doubtful if St Monans ever in fact supported a viable community of friars, though it was enough to ensure that a separate province was indeed set up in 1481.(12)

Account must also be taken of a rather invasive restoration by William Burn in 1826–8, which brought the abandoned transepts back into use and covered them with plaster imitation vaults. Repairs of a more historically sympathetic nature were carried out by Peter MacGregor Chalmers in 1899 and, more recently, in 1955 Iain Lindsay reversed much of Burn’s work and refurnished the interior.

The church was planned as a cruciform structure, though there is no evidence that the nave was ever built above foundation level,(13) and it had a sacristy on the north side of the choir. A low tower over the crossing barely rises above the level of the flanking roofs, and above it an octagonal stone spire with multiple lucarnes emerges. The transepts are lit by a variety of windows, none of which appears to have escaped the hands of successive restorers.

Internally the arches into the transepts are carried on responds of stepped and shafted profile, the details of which are unlikely to be later than the 1360s. The sedilia also bear the hallmarks of fourteenth-century work in the plastic treatment of the intermediate supports, which are in the form of continuously moulded elbow corbels.

The vaulting of the choir is of basically quadripartite form, but the transverse ribs in the middle of the bays are deflected downwards over the window arch apices to create what might be described as pseudo-sexpartite intersections, and tierceron ribs rise up to the point at which they begin their downward deflection. Since there are signs that the tierceron ribs - and perhaps also the miniature sexpartite intersections - could have been inserted secondarily, it may be that the quadripartite arrangement of ribs was part of the original design but that the vault was adapted at the time when modifications were being made for James III.

This would locate the final form of the vault within a context of renewed experiments with sexpartite forms, as in the sacristy at Crossraguel Abbey, and in the towers of Dunfermline Abbey and Stirling Holy Rude Church. Although there are no precise analogies for such unusual treatment, it is thus probably best understood against the background of some of the more experimental late Gothic vaulting types, when there was also a limited revival of sexpartite vaulting.

The series of large choir windows was always intended to be one of the most prominent features of the building, and the reticulated tracery on the north side and in the west window on the south side might arguably be original, though such tracery remained in fashion over a long period. The simply tiered curved dagger forms in the other windows have their closest counterparts at King’s College Aberdeen, suggesting that they are more likely to date from the later fifteenth century. Since the reveal mouldings of the windows on the two sides of the choir are all the same, it must be seen as possible that all of them were replaced for the Dominicans in about 1471.

Taking all of this into account, the balance of probabilities suggests that the shell of the church at St Monans is attributable to the building operations of David II, but that the choir windows, and probably also the final form of its vaulting, may have been part of the work carried out on behalf of the Dominicans for James III.

Notes

1. J. Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1903, vol. 2, pp. 347-50.

2. Alan Orr Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, Edinburgh, 1922, vol. 2, p. 526.

3. Ian B. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society), 1967, p. 2.

4. New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45, vol. 9, p. 337.

5. New Statistical Account, vol. 9, p. 343.

6. John Gifford, The Buildings of Scotland, Fife, London, 1988, pp. 86-87.

7. National Records of Scotland, GD185/1 bundle 27.

8. Accounts of the church include: David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, vol. 2, 1896, pp. 471–79; National Art Survey of Scotland, Edinburgh, vol. 2, 1923; Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Inventory of Fife, Kinross and Clackmannan, Edinburgh, 1933, pp. 262–64; John Gifford, The Buildings of Scotland, Fife, London, 1988, pp. 404–05. 

9. Exchequer Rolls of Scotland,ed. J. Stewart et al., Edinburgh, 1878-1908,  vol. 2, p. 243.

10. Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, ed. J. M.Thomson, et al., Edinburgh, 1882-1914,  vol. 1, no 304.

11. Michael Penman, David II, Edinburgh, 2004, pp. 261-64.

12. Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, ed. J. M.Thomson, et al., Edinburgh, 1882-1914, vol. 2, no 1047; Ian B. Cowan and David E. Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, Scotland, London and New York, 2nd ed., 1976, pp. 120–21.

13. Foundations for the east end of the nave south wall were noted by the author when a trench for services was being dug on the west side of the tower.

Map

Images

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

  • 1. St Monans Church, exterior, from south east

  • 2. St Monans Church, exterior from south east (Billings)

  • 3. St Monans Church, exterior, choir, south flank

  • 4. St Monans Church, exterior, from north west

  • 5. St Monans Church, exterior, from south west

  • 6. St Monans Church, exterior, nave, fragment of north wall

  • 7. St Monans Church, interior (Billings)

  • 8. St Monans Church, interior, choir aumbry

  • 9. St Monans Church, interior, choir from crossing

  • 10. St Monans Church, interior, choir looking west

  • 11. St Monans Church, interior, choir sedilia

  • 12. St Monans Church, interior, choir vault

  • 13. St Monans Church, interior, choir vault detail

  • 14. St Monans Church, interior, choir, from north west

  • 15. St Monans Church, interior, choir, south wall

  • 16. St Monans Church, interior, choir, vault detail 2

  • 17. St Monans Church, interior, north transept arch, west respond

  • 18. St Monans Church, interior, sacristy doorway

  • 19. St Monans Church, interior, south transept arch, west respond

  • 20. St Monans Church, interior, south transept piscina

  • 21. St Monans Church, interior, view across transepts,1

  • 22. St Monans Church, interior, view across transepts, 2

  • 23. St Monans Church, interior, west crossing arch

  • 24. Abercrombie Church, exterior, from north east

  • 25. Abercrombie Church, exterior, eastern part south wall

  • 26. Abercrombie Church, exterior, from south

  • 27. Abercrombie Church, exterior, from south west

  • 28. Abercrombie Church, exterior, base course at north east corner

  • 29. Abercrombie Church, exterior, graves slab against west wall

  • 30. Abercrombie Church, exterior, north door

  • 31. Abercrombie Church, exterior, re-used early stones around north door, 1

  • 32. Abercrombie Church, exterior, re-used early stones around north door, 2

  • 33. Abercrombie Church, exterior, re-used early stones around north door, 3

  • 34. Abercrombie Church, exterior, re-used early stones around north door, 4

  • 35. Abercrombie Church, exterior, window in east wall

  • 36. Abercrombie Church, interior, looking east

  • 37. Abercrombie Church, interior, looking south east

  • 38. Abercrombie Church, interior, western part of south wall

  • 39. Abercrombie Church, early stone, 1 (Allen and Anderson)

  • 40. Abercrombie Church, early stone, 2 (Allen and Anderson)

  • 41. Abercrombie Church, early stone, 3 (Allen and Anderson)

  • 42. Abercrombie Church, early stone, 4 (Allen and Anderson)