Anstruther Parish Church

Anstruther Easter Church, exterior, from south east

Summary description

A building largely of 1846, incorporating a medieval west tower. No longer in ecclesiastical use.

Historical outline

Dedication: unknown

No references to the church of Anstruther survive before 1225, by which date it was a possession of the Cluniac monks of May Island.(1)  Both the parsonage and the vicarage teinds had been annexed to the priory and passed with the rest of its possessions to the Augustinian community at Pettenweem, the church thereafter being served by a vicar pensioner.(2

As part of his programme of canonically dedicating the churches of his diocese, Anstruther was visited and dedicated by Bishop David de Bernham of St Andrews on 28 June 1243.(3)  There are few other pre-Reformation notices of the church or of the clergy serving there, beyond a reference in 1523 to its vicar, Mr Alexander Arbuthnott, who was Dean of Christianity of Fife.(4)

The wealth of the parish is made evident at the Reformation, where the parsonage fruits, expressed as a rental in kind of the teind sheaves, amounted to 1 chalder 9 bolls wheat; 4 chalders 6 bolls bere; 2 chalders 2 bolls 2 firlots oats; 1 chalder 11 bolls beans and peas. The rental of the vicarage of Anstruther came from salt, teind wool, flax, hemp, with fresh and dried fish, herring etc, and other emoluments, was stated as extending annually to £119 12s or thereabouts.(5

This income, appropriated to the priory at Pittenweem, is set into context by the valuation of the vicarage pensionary at only £20 annually, with a toft of 2 acres and the pasture of one horse, and grass for 12 cows.(6)


1. Liber Cartarum Prioratus Sancti Andree in Scotia (Bannatyne Club, 1841), 395-6; Liber S Marie de Dryburgh (Bannatyne Club, 1847), no.192.

2. I B Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society, 1967), 7.

3. A O Anderson (ed), Early Sources of Scottish History, ii (London, 1922), 523 Pontifical Offices of St Andrews].

4. St Andrews Formulare, 1514-46, i, eds. G Donaldson and C Macrae (Stair Society, 1942), 51.

5. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 22 [hereafter Kirk (ed), Books of Assumption].

6. Kirk (ed), Books of Assumption, 74.

Summary of relevant documentation


Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: Belonged to priory of May by 1225, parsonage and vicarage with priory. Cure served thereafter by a vicar pensioner.(1)

Parochial history in Calendar of entries in the Papal registers; Papal Letters and Papal petitions; Calendar of Scottish supplications to Rome: No references in papal records.

1523 Master Alexander Arbuthnot, vicar of church and Dean of Fife.(2)


Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: The Parish church parsonage and vicarage with Pittenweem (May), value of ‘salt, teind wool, flax, hemp, with fresh and dried fish and herring’, £119 12s. Vicar pensioner (unnamed) paid £20, ‘with two acres of toft and pasturage of a horse’.(3)

Account of Collectors of Thirds of Benefices (G. Donaldson): Third of vicar pensionary £6 13s 4d.(4)

1571 (15 Jan) The Minister is nominated to be one of the 21 members of the chapter of the Archbishop of St Andrews.(5)

1661 (6 Mar) During a visitation by the Presbytery of St Andrews, the minister when asked how the fabric of the kirk was maintained, replied that the poor money was used. He also noted that there had been heavy burdens on the heritors with the school masters stipend and previous expenses on the fabric.(6)

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev James Forrester, 1791): ‘The parish church appears to be a very ancient building, from the remains of a large choir, and the gothic structure of the steeple. It was new roofed in the year 1761’.(7)

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev George Milligan, 1838): ‘There does not appear to be any record as to the period in which it [parish church] was built, but, from the style of its architecture it must have existed a considerable time previous to the Reformation. It was new roofed in 1761, and has been frequently repaired at considerable expense to the heritors. At present it is in tolerable condition’.(8)


1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland  7.

2. St Andrews Formulare, i, 51.

3. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, 22 & 74.

4. Donaldson, Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices, Edinburgh, 13.

5. Acts and Proceedings of the General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland, i, 222-23.

6. NRS Presbytery of St Andrews, Minutes, 1656-1687, CH2/1132/19, fols. 104-105.

7. Statistical Account of Scotland, (1791), iii, 81.

8. New Statistical Account of Scotland, (1838), ix, 675.


NRS Presbytery of St Andrews, Minutes, 1656-1687, CH2/1132/19.

Acts and Proceedings of the General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland, 1839-45, ed. T. Thomson (Bannatyne Club), 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.

St Andrews Formulare, 1514-46, 1942-44, eds. G. Donaldson & C. Macrae (Stair Society), Edinburgh, i.

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

Architectural description

There was a church at Anstruther by no later than 1177, when it was valued at 10 merks, and by 1225 it had been appropriated to the priory of May/Pittenweem.(1) In 1243 Bishop David de Bernham carried out one of his many dedications;(2) this was presumably essentially to ensure that the church was properly consecrated for worship, and is unlikely to have any implications for the architectural history.

The principal surviving part of the medieval church is its west tower. A short salient section of wall projecting northwards from its north-east corner may be the relic of the west wall of the medieval nave. The vertical break at its northern end before the wall becomes thinner could perhaps represent the north-west angle of an initially aisle-less nave.

In its final medieval state, however, the church is known to have had an architecturally distinct choir, an aisle on each side of the nave, rising above which there may have been a clearstorey to the central vessel. Although a majority of Scottish medieval parish churches were unicameral structures in their final medieval state, a significant proportion of those along or close to the eastern seaboard of Fife, which was an area of relative prosperity, came to be more complex structures.

Several Fife churches were augmented by one or more aisles, and many also had a bell tower. Amongst those churches of more than unicameral plan may be mentioned Crail, Cupar, Dysart, Kilconquar, Kilrenny, Kinghorn, Kirkckaldy and St Andrews. Anstruther’s plan is therefore not unusual in this area for its relative complexity.

So far as the nave is concerned, the clearest indication that Anstruther had at least one aisle is a spur of wall terminating in a coped half-gable that projects southwards from the west end of the present church; this must almost certainly have been the west wall of a south aisle. It was retained in place because it abutted a later small vestibule between the church tower and the town hall that was built in 1794-5.(3)

The possibility that there was also a north aisle is suggested by references to repairs to aisles (in the plural) in 1756.(4) Further support for the erstwhile existence of more than one aisle comes from a statement by the Rev. J.F.S. Gordon, who had family connections in Anstruther, in his Scotichronicon of 1867, that ‘several alive well remember the rows of fine arches left standing in this church’.(5) A number of semi-circular stones that were found to have been re-used in the west wall of the later church suggest that, as at Crail and Kilconquhar, for example, the arcade piers were cylindrical.

One indicator of the existence of a north aisle is to be found in a painting. A painting of the burgh by George Taylor of 1844, which shows the church from the east immediately before it underwent major remodelling in 1846, appears to shows it with an asymmetrical profile.(6) While allowance must be made for the naive quality of the painting, the way in which the church is depicted as extending significantly to the north of the axis represented by the east gable apex and the location of the tower does suggest that both the central vessel of the medieval nave and its north aisle had been retained under a roof that swept over both.

There is also archaeological evidence for a north aisle that has been provided by a wall footing that was excavated in February 2011to the north of the present church, running parallel to its north wall.(7) On the evidence of this footing, the north aisle may have extended westward to partly overlap the flank of the tower. Taken together, these suggest that no more than the central vessel and the north aisle of the nave had survived into the mid-nineteenth century, though any clearstorey there may once have been had been lost by then.

The principal reason for suspecting that there could have been a clearstorey over the central vessel of the nave is that it was said in 1756 that damage had been caused to the ‘high stories’, which may refer to a clearstorey.(8) This might simply mean, however, that upper tiers of windows had been inserted to light post-Reformation galleries, as happened, for example, in the nave aisles at Dunfermline Abbey.

If there had been any clearstorey, it may be suspected that it was removed when the church is recorded as being re-roofed in 1761,(9) the line of which roof may be indicated by a partial crease against the east side of the tower, within the roof space of the later church, and thus at a level that would not have been sufficiently high to have accommodated a clearstorey.

Mention should also be made here of what might be faint indications in the render on the east side of the tower of a higher roofline, and which might perhaps be at the correct height for a roof above a clearstorey. However, this evidence is so slight that it would be dangerous to place too great a burden of proof upon it, and it might in any case have been expected that the medieval roof would have been more securely attached to the tower.

The most complete part of the medieval church to remain above ground level in identifiable form is the west tower. It appears to have been modified on a number of occasions, both before and after the Reformation. The three lowest storeys are of harled rubble, while the belfry stage appears to be of ashlar, so far as can be discerned through what remains of the harling at that level. Each face of the belfry stage has a pair of round-arched windows, with those in the east face being displaced off the central axis because of the presence of the spiral stair at the north-east corner.

Within the windows in the south and east faces of the belfry stage are flat trifoliate heads that may be insertions. The round arches of the windows in such a context suggest a date for the belfry stage of not before the later fifteenth century, while parallels for the flat trefoils at such as Dunkeld Cathedral, St Leonard’s College Chapel in St Andrews and St Ninian’s Church in Stirling point to a date in the years around 1500. A date for the belfry stage in the early years of the sixteenth century is supported by a dendrochronological felling date of 1507/8 that has been established for a joist above the second floor. This timber has been identified as probably coming from southern Norway, and it has its closest similarities with timbers in the roof of Edinburgh Castle’s great hall.(10)

A combination of the external evidence of the change of masonry and the internal evidence of the manner in which the stair shaft is arched over well below the wall head of the belfry stage suggests that the top stage is a later modification to an earlier tower of uncertain date. Since there is no belfry stage at a lower level, however, it appears either that the tower had never been completed in the earlier phases of construction, or, as is perhaps more likely, that the present belfry stage replaces a predecessor.

Rising behind the parapet, is a low cap house that rests on the inner face of the tower, and that supports a slated splay-foot spire. Cap houses are to be found on a number of medieval towers: they are to be seen below the spires on the west towers of Aberdeen Cathedral and there is one that terminates in a saddle-back roof at Dysart, for example. But the cap house at Anstruther appears to be of relatively late construction, as is also the case at another Fife church, that at Kirkcaldy, though there was evidently no intention of making it such an architecturally significant feature as was the case at Kirkcaldy.

It is recorded that the Anstruther tower accommodated a beacon as an aid to shipping, presumably in the form of a brazier, though it is not known where or how that brazier was located on the tower. References to ‘the insufficiency of the house [the church bell] hangs in’ in 1742, may point to the cap house having been built subsequently to then, and certainly the bell of 1789 hangs within the cap house rather than the medieval belfry stage of the tower. The tower parapet was probably reconstructed at the same time that the cap house was added, with rectangular apertures cut through it to allow the sound of the bell within the cap house to be more audible.

Whether the cap house had a flat roof to accommodate the beacon brazier, or whether there was a predecessor of the present spire is not known. There was certainly a spire there by the time of Taylor’s painting of 1844, which had a bulbous feature at its apex of possibly Netherlandish inspiration. It was said in 1856 that a steeple that existed at that time was in a dangerous state, suggesting it had been there for some time. If the cap house was surmounted by a spire from the start, therefore, it may be that the brazier was simply mounted on the walkway behind the tower parapet, or attached to the parapet itself in some way.

Internally the lowest storey of the tower is barrel-vaulted, and in its final state it served as a porch, though the doorway that gave access to it from the west is of relatively late date. The head of the opening from the church, on the east side, survives, and can be seen to be rebated for a door, though that rebating could be secondary.

The upper levels of the tower at Anstruther are now accessed by way of an external forestair and then through a doorway in its north wall, which opens onto the spiral stair that rises within its north-east corner. Further down that stair is a doorway of evidently secondary construction into the lowest storey of the tower, and there is also a blocked doorway that appears to be original that opened into the church itself, at the point where there is now a wall press.

The threshold levels of the doorways indicate that the internal floor levels of the church are now higher than they were in the middle ages. The floor levels were presumably raised in response to dampness caused by elevated external ground levels that were the inevitable consequence of many centuries of disturbance by burials.

At first-floor level within the tower there are the blocked rear-arches of windows in both the east and west walls, the former presumably originally opening into the upper part of the medieval church nave. In the south wall there is a roughly formed relieving arch of uncertain function, and to its east is a doorway that must date to no earlier than 1794 since it opens into a vestibule that leads into the first-floor council chamber of the town house. Within that vestibule it may be seen that the west wall of the south aisle had a chamfered offset at the base of the half-gable.

There is little to be noted at second-floor level of the tower. At third-floor and cap house levels there are some indicators of modifications, with the way in which the stair well in the north-east corner is arched over at a somewhat arbitrary level suggesting that it was not initially built with the present belfry stage in mind.

Possible indications that when the third-floor was built it was intended to use it as a belfry may be seen in the provision of beam holes around the walls, which were presumably intended to house a bell frame, while the large paired windows that have been noted externally in all four walls would have been to permit the sound of the bell(s) to carry. However, the blocking of the lower parts of these windows and the evident lowering of the ceiling over the chamber are consistent with the bell(s) having been moved up into the cap house when that was added.

The likely original position of the ceiling of the belfry stage is indicated by a wall plate that runs around the inner face of the cap house walls, at a level close to that of the wall-head walkway of the tower. Within the added cap house it can be seen that the timbers of the spire are relatively modern, presumably post-dating the discussions of 1856 on replacing the steeple, and it may be noted that the spire no longer has the bulbous finial depicted by Taylor in 1844.

The towers of several of the more ambitious churches of Fife’s coastal fringes show some commonality of approach in their unadorned and unbuttressed form, with one or more simple openings at belfry level, and a parapet projected outwards on a corbel table. Possibly the earliest of the towers was that at Crail, which has the additional feature of a projecting stair turret, a feature also found at St Andrews. But most of the towers are of square or rectangular plan, with the stair absorbed within the main body, as at Anstruther, which sometimes resulted in a plan that was elongated along one axis, as at Cupar, where it was the east-west axis that was elongated, and Dysart, where it was the north-south axis.

Following the Reformation, such a relatively complex church as evidently existed at Anstruther would not have lent itself particularly well to reformed worship, though little is known with certainty of the form and sequence of the modifications undertaken to adapt the church after the breach with Rome. The earliest of the changes may have been as early as 1598 on the evidence of a dated inscribed stone re-set above the blocked south doorway of the present church.

When the town hall was built to the south of the church tower in 1794-5 the medieval nave was presumably still standing, albeit possible having suffered the loss of any clearstorey in the re-roofing of 1761. In this position the town was able to share the use of the church tower, and a new bell was hung in it in 1789. Sharing of a bell tower by a church and a public building was not unique to Anstruther. At nearby Pittenweem the steeple built after 1588 served both the extended church and the tollbooth. By a rather more extraordinary process, at Greenlaw, in Berwickshire, the medieval church was extended westwards in about 1712 to meet up with a tower that formed part of a court house built around a decade earlier, and when that courthouse was itself demolished in 1830 the tower was retained to serve the church alone.

As one consequence of the modifications, the choir is likely to have passed out of use for worship, though it may have been retained for other uses, and it could still be said in 1628 that there were two doors into it.(11) By the 1790s the parish minister, the Rev. James Forrester, recorded in the Statistical Account that no more than fragments of the choir had survived.(12) It is a possibility that what appear to be faint traces of a rectangular arrangement of linear ridges in the graveyard to the east of the present church, with one of those ridges on a north-south alignment about 16 metres to the east of the present building, may indicate the plan of that choir.

In its present form, the body of the church dates from 1846, and consists of a simple rectangular structure of some 14.2 metres from east to west and 9.9 metres from north to south, which aligns asymmetrically with the medieval west tower. It is thought to have been built to the designs of James Smith, with Andrew Wilson as mason and Andrew Brydie as wright.(13) Adapting medieval churches to reformed needs was seldom a straightforward process, especially when the medieval church was aisled. In pre-Reformation churches there was generally a dominant axis aligned from the choir and sanctuary at the east end to the nave located to their west; in a reformed church however, the need was for a less elongated plan in which the whole congregation was within earshot of the pulpit.

To achieve this end, the rebuilding of 1846 certainly entailed the final abandonment of anything that had survived of the choir, and possibly of the eastern parts of the nave as well. To the west, the retention of the tower limited what could be done on that side, while to the south the relationship of the wall of the remodelled church with the retained west wall of the medieval aisle suggests that the south wall may have been built on the sleeper foundation of the arcade, a course that would have avoided the need for providing new foundations.

The most uncertain point is what was done on the north side. It is perhaps unlikely that the medieval central vessel of the nave was wide enough for the proportions that would be deemed ideal in a church planned as a preaching hall, and it has already been suggested on the evidence of Taylor’s painting of 1844 that the north aisle may have been retained until then as a way of providing sufficient width. If a north aisle had been retained, however, it was certainly abandoned in the remodelling of 1846, and it seems that the north wall built at that time could have been located beyond the line of the medieval north arcade, but within what had been the area of the north aisle.

We do know that there were occasions when a church of medieval origin had one wall moved outwards in order to achieve more suitable proportions for reformed worship, as happened at Moulin in Perthshire in 1704, for example. In further support for the possibility that the church was widened towards the north, it should be said that its width of nearly 10 metres is greater than might be expected for the central vessel of a medieval church of this scale. As a comparison, Crail Church, which probably had a similar plan but was rather larger in scale, had a width over the walls of its central vessel of no more than about 8.85 metres.

An additional reason for suspecting that the church was made wider to the north than the medieval central vessel of the nave is that the enlarged church extends significantly to the north of the central axis of the tower. It is true that it is not unknown for the progressive enlargement of a medieval church to have resulted in a west tower being eventually to one side of the central axis of a church, as was the case at St Vigeans in Angus, for example. Indeed, at Anstruther itself, the rather enigmatic traces of a roof crease that have been mentioned in the east wall of the tower, within the roof space of the church of 1846, may suggest that the east-west axis of the medieval church was a little to the south of the tower’s own axis. Nevertheless, while less than conclusive, the balance of evidence does point to the church having been widened towards the north.

In its ultimate post-Reformation state the church was an architecturally simple rectangular harled structure, with raised margins to the east quoins and a crow-stepped east gable. There are three round-arched windows on the south side and two on the north, all with raised margins punctuated with block keystones and imposts. There was a doorway with raised margins east of centre in both the north and south wall, both of which are now blocked. Above the south door are two relocated inscribed stones, one a rectangle with an arcaded feature carved in relief at its head, and the other, which possibly originated as part of a gablet, is dated 1598. The way in which only two windows are provided on the north side suggests that the pulpit may have been located centrally between them. The east gable wall is blank apart from a blind oculus and a simple cross at the apex of the gable.

The church has been modified more recently on more than one occasion, but most significantly in 1905, when the architects David McArthy and John Watson carried out extensive works.(14) The adaptation of the church as a hall in 1970, following the union of the parishes of Wester and Easter Anstruther in 1961, left the interior with little of interest. The only feature worthy of note is a skeletal screen against the east wall, which presumably dates from 1905, and which presumably provided the backdrop to a communion table and sanctuary area that was located here as part of the re-ordering of that time; only the frame remains in place, against a wall that has been stripped of its plaster.


1. Ian B. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh, 1967, p. 7.

2. A.O. Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, Edinburgh, 1922, p. 523.

3. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Tolbooths and Town-Houses, Edinburgh, 1996, p. 33.

4. Stephanie Stevenson, Anstruther, a History, Edinburgh, 1989, p. 112.

5. Stevenson, Anstruther, p. 114, citing J.F.S. Gordon, Scotichronicon, Glasgow, 1867-8.

6. In the collections of the Anstruther Fisheries Museum; brought to my attention by Steve Liscoe.

7. Information from Steve Liscoe of Fife Council Archaeological Services.

8. Stevenson, Anstruther, p.113.

9. Statistical Account of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1791-9, vol. 3, p. 77.

10. Coralie Mills, Dendrochronological Analysis of an Oak Timber from St Nicholas Tower, Anstruther, unpublished report, January 2014.

11. Stevenson, Anstruther, p.113.

12. Statistical Account of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1791-9, vol. 3, p. 77; New Statistical Account of Scotland, London, 1834-45, vo. 9, p. 611.

13. John Gifford, The Buildings of Scotland, Fife, London, 1988, pp. 69-70.

14. Gifford, 1988, pp. 69-70.



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

  • 1. Anstruther Easter Church, exterior, from south east

  • 2. Anstruther Church, exterior, from south

  • 3. Anstruther Church, exterior, tower from north east

  • 4. Anstruther Church, exterior, from north

  • 5. Anstruther Church, exterior, from south east

  • 6. Anstruther Church, exterior, from east

  • 7. Anstruther Church, interior, fragment of head of door from tower into church

  • 8. Anstruther Church, interior, tower ground floor

  • 9. Anstruther Easter Church, exterior, from north east

  • 10. Anstruther Easter Church, exterior, from south

  • 11. Anstruther Easter Church, exterior, tower from south west

  • 12. Anstruther Easter Church, exterior, tower from south east

  • 13. Anstruther St Nicholas, 1844, Taylor (Fisheries Museum)

  • 14. Anstruther Wester Church and town house

  • 15. Anstruther Wester Church,exterior, inscribed tablet, 1

  • 16. Anstruther Wester Church, exterior, inscribed tablet, 2

  • 17. Anstruther Wester Church, north flank

  • 18. Anstruther Wester Church, exterior, possible west end of south aisle

  • 19. Anstruther Wester Church, exterior, tower from south west

  • 20. Anstruther Wester Church, roof space, marks on east side tower, 1

  • 21. Anstruther Wester Church, roof space, marks on east side tower, 2

  • 22. Anstruther Wester Church, interior