Balmerino Abbey

Balmerino Abbey, interior, north nave wall

Summary description

By the earlier thirteenth century parochial worship was probably accommodated in the Cistercian abbey church. The parish was relocated to another site, probably in 1611, where there are no structural remains, and to the present site in 1811.

Historical outline

Dedication: unknown

A church of Balmerino first appears on record in 1225-7 when Ermengarde de Beaumont, widow of King William, acquired the rights of patronage in it when she purchased the lands of Balmerino in preparation for the founding of a Cistercian abbey there.(1)  The whole revenues of the parish were appropriated to the abbey at its foundation and, while the post-Reformation parish church occupies a position outside the precinct to the south-east, it is possible that in the Middle Ages the local population was served at a parochial altar in the abbey’s nave. 

A lost document from the Great Register of St Andrews cathedral-priory recorded an agreement in 1435 between Henry Wardlaw, bishop of St Andrews, and John Hailes, abbot of Balmerino, over provision of a baptismal font and certain other privileges, which had been granted to the chapel of St Al[blank] for the use of the abbey’s servants only, in return for an annual payment of 25d to cover all ecclesiastical dues.(2)  This concession suggests the establishment of some form of quasi-parochial establishment outside of the abbey church at which the spiritual needs of the lay population of the monastic estate might be met and sacraments dispensed. 

It seems that throughout the Pre-Reformation period the cure of souls was discharged by a member of the monastic community, although direct evidence for that is lacking.  Immediately after the Reformation, there was payment of £100 per annum to a minister serving the parishes of Balmerino and Logie, but an additional £10 annually was paid to the reader who served at Balmerino.(3)


1. Liber Sancte Marie de Balmorinach (Abbotsford Club, 1841), nos 4-5.

2. Liber Cartarum Prioratus Sancti Andree in Scotia (Bannatyne Club, 1841), pp xxxviii-xxxix, no.48.

3. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 58.  

Summary of relevant documentation


Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: Rights of patronage of the church relinquished to Queen Ermengade who founded the abbey c.1227; the parochial revenues remained with the abbey with one of the abbey's monks serving the cure.(1)

Place Names of Fife (4): Ermengade bought lands in 1227, moved church 1.2 km, church moved again in 1611.

1225 Lands and church of Balmerino resigned to Ermengade, widow of William I, with all rights.(2)

1227-29 Church with all rights and lands included in foundation charter by Alexander II and his mother Ermengade.(3)

Parochial history in Calendar of entries in the Papal registers; Papal Letters and Papal petitions; Calendar of Scottish supplications to Rome: No references to parochial church or altar.


Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: Parish church ‘reader’ mentioned, paid £10. Church pertains to the abbey of the same name.(4)

1647 (29 July) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Cupar finds that the minister is competent, and that the heritors agree to pay the proportion of the money they owe to the minister for repairing the ministers’ house.(5)

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev Andrew Thomson, 1791): ‘The Abbey Church served as the parish church until 1595 when it was removed to the east side of the Den’.(6) [ruins can still be seen in 1791 in the Abbey precinct]

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev John Thomson, 1843): ‘New church built in 1811’.(7)


1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland, 13.

2. Chartularies of Balmerino, no. 4.

3. Chartularies of Balmerino, no. 1.

4. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, 58.

5. NRS Presbytery of Cupar, Minutes, 1646-1660, CH2/82/1, fols. 52-53.

6. Statistical Account of Scotland, (1791), ix, 224.

7. New Statistical Account of Scotland, (1843), ix, 595.


National Records of Scotland,  Presbytery of Cupar, Minutes, 1646-1660, CH2/82/1.

Chartularies of Balmerino and Lindores, 1841, ed. W. Turnbull (Abbotsford Club), Edinburgh.

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 some uncertainty as to where the medieval parishioners of Balmerino had their place of worship. It appears likely that the parish was originally centred on Coultra, but that it had been moved over a kilometre to the north east, to Balmerino, by no later than 1225. It was evidently accommodated in the nave of the Cistercian abbey church following its foundation.(1)

It has been widely accepted that from 1435 the parishioners were decanted into a chapel dedicated to St Ayle. This is on the basis of an agreement between the abbey and Bishop Wardlaw of St Andrews that a chapel with that dedication could have a font and rights of sacramental ministry, in order to serve the abbot and the abbey’s servants.(2) However, it is now thought more likely that the chapel of St Ayle to which reference was made was in Anstruther, and that the abbey church continued to house the parishioners of Balmerino possibly until as late as 1611.(3)  

Balmerino was one of a small group of Scottish Cistercian abbeys founded in the early thirteenth century, all of which were laid out to a broadly similar plan and a comparably modest scale.(4) As a foundation of the queen dowager Ermengarde, Balmerino is, however, the only royal house of the group. The others – at Culross(5) in Fife and Deer(6) in Aberdeenshire – were founded by magnates, who were presumably anxious to ensure that their territorial standing was reinforced by a suitably located dynastic mausoleum. But all had a common purpose as a place where – amongst much else – prayers were offered by the community for their founder’s welfare in life and salvation in death.

It might have been expected that Queen Ermengarde would have chosen to be buried at the magnificently endowed Tironensian abbey of Arbroath, which had been founded in 1178 by her late husband, William the Lion, and which was sufficiently complete for him to be interred before its high altar in 1214.(7) But in her widowhood the dowager queen appears to have developed a attachment to the area around Balmerino, on the southern shore of the Tay estuary.

It was perhaps with a view to establishing a last resting place for herself that, together with her son, Alexander II, that she set about acquiring the necessary land and bringing together adequate endowments for an abbey of Cistercian monks from perhaps as early as 1225,(8) four years before the first colony of monks was sent to Balmerino from Melrose, and eight years before her own death.

As a consequence of the poor state of preservation of the abbey church, its plan was only partly understood before excavations were carried out in 1896 by the minister of the parish church, the Rev’d James Campbell.(9) By the time that W.B.D.D. Turnbull’s edition of the abbey’s chartulary was published for the Abbotsford Club in 1841, it was appreciated that the church had been a cruciform structure with the cloister on its north side.(10) But the plan engraved by the Reverend G.G. Milne for that volume highly improbably showed single arcades running down the middle of nave, choir and transepts, and a larger pier at the centre of the crossing; five piers were shown in the nave, two in the choir and one in each of the transepts.

The finely drawn plan in George Shaw Aitken’s 1884 study is more architecturally convincing, but is also highly inaccurate so far as the church is concerned. It wrongly, depicted a six-bay nave with a pair of flanking aisles, and transepts with a three-bay chapel aisle on their east side.(11)

It is still not possible to be entirely certain about the plan of the church, since it could hardly be expected that the excavations of 1896 were carried out to modern standards. Nevertheless the plan published by David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross,(12) and reprinted in the second edition of the excavator’s Balmerino and its Abbey of 1899, indicates the layout that might be expected at a modestly endowed early thirteenth-century Scottish Cistercian foundation. The most detailed plan to be published is in the 1933 Inventory of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland,(13) which is accurate for the upstanding buildings, but which had to rely on Campbell’s findings for much of the church.

An important source for the abbey’s building stone was a quarry at Nydie near Strathkinness, which was granted to the community by its owner, Hugo of Nydie,(14) and around the same time rights of access for transporting the stone between the quarry and abbey were negotiated and agreed. This stone has been identified as a calciferous sandstone and, according to the New Statistical Account of 1845, the quarries in that area were still producing large blocks of excellent freestone in the mid-nineteenth century that was in demand for buildings in the burgh of St Andrews.(15) In 1977 it was said that the quarries at Nydie had been amongst the largest in this area and that they were still mostly open.(16)

Presumably this stone was used for the moulded and carved work in the abbey church, and for the extensive areas of ashlar facing that were a feature of the earlier phases of the building that have survived. Certainly the light grey-white colour of the stone used at Balmerino would match well with calciferous sandstone of the type known to have been quarried at Nydie.(17)

Based on the evidence of the 1896 excavations, it appears that the eastern parts of the church had the common Cistercian plan of a short rectangular presbytery, west of which were transepts with a two-bay chapel aisle on the east side of each. The nave had a single aisle along the south flank, on the side away from the cloister, which opened off the main space of the nave through an arcade of seven bays. There may have been a stair turret at the south-west corner of the aisle, though the way in which loose masonry has been piled up her makes certainty difficult.

A lack of correspondence of rhythm between the recorded positions of the south arcade piers and the wall shafts of the north nave wall suggests that the aisle was a secondary addition. Where an existing aisle-less nave was to be expanded it was architecturally less disruptive to do that in the form of a single aisle on the side of the building away from the cloister. It is therefore likely that at first the plan of the church was like that at the sister Fife foundation of Culross, where the nave remained aisle-less throughout its history.(18)

There appears to be another case of the addition of a single aisle on the side away from the cloister at an initially aisle-less Cistercian church at the abbey of Deer,(19) as well as at a number of houses of the other orders, including Augustinian Cambuskenneth (in Stirlingshire)(20) and Tironensian Lindores (in Fife).(21) In the last of those cases, however, it appears that it was not possible for the added aisle to run the full length of the nave because of the existence of a free-standing campanile to the north of the west front.

The only portions of the church at Balmerino that stand above ground are lengths of the north and west walls of the north transept and of the north and west walls of the nave. Although in parts these walls rise to over four metres, in other areas they are reduced to their lower courses. On such meagre evidence it would be dangerous to draw firm conclusions about the sequence of construction. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that the foundations and external base courses were set out in a single operation, but that the building operation was then sufficiently protracted for changes to be introduced in the architectural detailing as work progressed.

The main indicator that the church was set out in a single operation is the survival of sections of a base course of the same type along both the north flank of the north transept chapels and beneath the buttress at what was originally the southern end of the west front. This base course had as its top member a widely projecting roll with a hollowed under surface, which was set at a little distance above a widely projecting sloping section that rises through two courses. Beneath these elements along the surviving transept section is a narrow bottom chamfer, which presumably also once existed beneath the surviving west front section.

Along much of the north nave wall on the cloister side, where it would have been within the south cloister walk, is a simpler single-chamfered base course. The main section of this now starts about 10.5 metres from the junction with the north transept. It is clear, however, that it was once a continuous feature, since there is a short length at the far east end of the wall where it adjoins the transept. This junction, incidentally, indicates that there was no base course along the west wall of the transept.

An intriguing feature of the north base course of the nave is that it extends a short way west of the tusking provided for the east wall of the west conventual range. Since those tusks were presumably constructed at a slightly later stage of building operations than the base course, this suggests that the precise location of the east wall of the west conventual range had not been fixed in the very first phase of work. It may be that in the abbey’s early years the lay brethren were still occupying temporary accommodation that had been provided for them at the time of the foundation, perhaps when they were preparing the site for the reception of the colony of monks from Melrose.

Construction of the permanent west range may only have been instigated once other more urgent works were well advanced. It should be noted, however, that while the cloister appears to have been about 31.8 metres wide from south to north, the tusking provided for the inner line of the west range indicates a width from east to west for the cloister of only about 29.5 metres. While it was common enough for there to be some slight irregularity in the setting out of cloisters, it may nevertheless be that for some reason it was decided to make the west range a little wider than had at first been intended, and to move its inner wall slightly further eastwards. If that were the case, however, that decision could only have been taken once the base course had been continued a little further west than would be necessary under the new arrangements.

Assuming that the west range was eventually built,(22) and that its west wall continued the general line of the west front of the church (as appears to have been the case at both the abbeys of Culross and Deer), the range would have been about 9.5 metres wide over the walls, which is rather less than the 10.5 metres of the part of the east range in which the parlour is situated. It is, however, more than the likely width of the west ranges at Culross and Deer of about 8 and 7.6 metres respectively.

In what may be assumed to be the earliest partly upstanding portions of the church, along the north and west faces of the north transept, the initial intention appears to have been to face the internal walls entirely with ashlar. However, the picture has been confused in areas where the wall has been refaced following the removal of most of the transept arcade responds, or where the upper walls have been rebuilt.

By the time the north nave wall was under construction, there was no more than a single course of ashlar above either the internal floor level or the external base course, though ashlar also continued to be employed for the internal wall shafts. Above that lowest level, the nave wall is faced with rubble in which the individual stones are of irregular size and generally of very slight bed height, albeit with an admixture of some larger stones.

Only three of the doorways into the church show clear evidence of medieval workmanship. In the north wall of the north transept a doorway with chamfered jambs opened into the adjacent sacristy, though the head of this doorway has been removed and the area within the rear-arch has undergone major reconstruction, presumably as part of the post-Reformation modifications. A second doorway on the west side of the transept presumably served as the main access between the cloister and the monks’ choir. Its location there was perhaps necessitated because the monks’ stalls would have extended along the north wall of the nave in the position where, in an aisled building, a processional doorway between church and cloister might be found. The jambs of this doorway were moulded in the form of a pair of small rolls linked by a continuous curve.

The only other obvious access to the cloister is through a doorway about two-thirds of the way down the nave, and there is another doorway that would have opened into the west range. In their present form these openings appear to be largely modern breaches, though some trouble has been taken to create a formed eastern jamb to the first of them. It is no longer clear if they perpetuate the position of medieval predecessors.

The doorway in the west façade, the main processional entrance to the church, was large and subdivided by a trumeau, though any surviving evidence of the latter was destroyed in 1980 when excavations were carried out to insert the existing rustic log steps through the doorway.(23) The chief surviving fragment is a single water-holding base above a polygonal sub-base which formed part of the south jamb. However, MacGibbon and Ross published details of the west doorway that had presumably been discovered in the excavations of 1896, showing that the innermost order had a quirked angle roll which was reflected on each side of the trumeau, and the doorway openings were shown as 3 feet 9 inches (1.14 metres) wide.(24) An element of confusion has been introduced by the modern insertion on the north side of the opening of two courses of re-set stones moulded with a sunk angle roll.

Other than the doorways, the main surviving features with architectural detailing are the lowest parts of the of a number of responds and wall shafts. These are the responds at the north end of the north transept chapel arcade, and at the north-west angle of the crossing; and the wall shafts along the west wall of the transept and parts of the north nave wall.

The transept arcade respond has a polygonal sub-base with a five-part stepped plan; the angles are chamfered back at forty-five degrees. The largest element, on the axis of the respond, appears to have supported a single major shaft, while the two stepped-back parts on either side each carried a smaller shaft, the elements being separated by right-angled spurs of masonry. Where the shaft bases survive they are of water-holding form, with the lower roll overhanging the sub-base to a significant degree.

Similar but smaller sub-bases continue along the west side of the transept and into the eastern part of the nave, although, unlike the arcade respond, those along the west side of the transept had two-stage sub-bases, the stages separated by a chamfered intake. The wall shaft at the north-east angle of the transept was a single shaft, however, and so there was no more than a single part to the sub-base. The triplet shaft at the centre of the west side of the transept had a three-part sub-base with chamfered angles. A similar detail may be seen at the south end of the west transept wall. However, the main body of that respond sub-base, at the east end of the nave, was closer in scale to that of the respond at the north end of the transept arcade.

In those cases where evidence for the bases survives, they are of water-holding form, with the lower roll projecting beyond the sub-base. The size of the north-west crossing respond, and the fact that major piers are shown on the post-excavation plans at the other corners of the crossing, suggests that there was a fully defined crossing. This could suggest a low central tower was planned, though it should be noted that there was no provision for a tower at Culross as first built, despite the fact that Balmerino and Culross were initially so similar in many other respects.

West of the crossing respond, and below the first of the wall shafts in the nave, is the lowest course of a tripartite polygonal sub-base; its similarity to those on the west side of the transept suggests that this part of the nave was built as part of the same phase as the transept. The three surviving triplet shafts along the north nave wall to the west of that point, however, are of significantly differing forms. This implies they were only built one by one as work progressed in a somewhat more piecemeal manner down the rest of the nave.

The second triplet from the east, for example, has a tripartite sub-base of rounded section, while the water-holding base itself may have been less deeply hollowed than those further east, and it does not overhang the sub-base. The third triplet also has a tripartite rounded sub-base below a similar base, but in this case the sub-base is considerably taller than that of its eastern neighbour, and its height is divided into two stages that are separated by a chamfered intake. The westernmost of the triplet wall shafts has lost both its sub-base and base, but the surviving section of the shafts shows that the leading shaft was either keeled or, more probably, narrowly filleted.

The wall shafts along the north wall are very irregularly spaced and, although it is possible that one or more have been lost, it appears more likely that their spacing is a reflection of the liturgical arrangements within the nave. The first triplet is about 10.45 metres west of the north-west crossing respond, centre-to-centre, and it may be suspected that this indicates the extent of the monastic choir, which was presumably in the eastern part of the nave. If this was indeed the case, the similarity of the architectural detailing of that first wall shaft to those in the transept suggests that its construction was regarded as a matter of greater urgency than that of the rest of the nave.

The distance of about 4.35 metres between the centre of that triplet and the next one to the west could represent the width of the area between the pulpitum and rood screen that separated the monks’ choir from that of the lay brethren. A distance of about 6 metres then separates that triplet from the next one, which may indicate the area given to a nave sanctuary. There is then a space of about 10.3 metres, which was probably the area occupied by the stalls of the lay brethren’s choir. The final interval of around 8.2 metres perhaps corresponded to the part of the church used by the parishioners; an alternative might be that the addition of the south aisle was for that purpose.

Apart from the addition of that aisle, there are indications that a number of large traceried windows were inserted.(25) Further changes that have not left identifiable evidence must have been required after the abbey was burned on 27 December 1547 by Thomas Wyndham, the commander of an English fleet in the Tay,(26) and again after June 1559, when the abbey was first attacked by the reformers.(27) But the greatest changes must certainly have been those that followed the Reformation.

Probably in 1611 the parishioners were moved to a new location in what came to be known as Kirkton of Balmerino, at NO 36031 24917.(28) There are no structural remains there, though the most likely site for the church is a platform at the highest point of the churchyard, which is now occupied by the back-to-back burial enclosures of the Wedderburn of Wedderburn and Birkhill and the Morison of Naughton burial enclosures. Some of the materials of the monastic church are said to have been used in building or repairing the churches at Dundee and Monifieth and for a house in St Andrews.(29)

The church was subsequently relocated to its present site at Bottomcraig (NO 36871 24550) by 1811, and it was remodelled in 1884by C. and L. Ower.30 The roof was renewed in 1959. An inscribed tablet states ‘ERECTED 1811 REMODELLED 1884’, to which has been added ‘REROOFED 1959’. It is an oriented rectangular structure built of grey rubble with ashlar dressings, and with a bellcote over the west gable.


1. Simon Taylor, The Place Names of Fife, vol. 4, Donington, 2010, p. 148.

2. William B.D.D. Turnbull, ed., The Chartularies of Balmerino and Lindores (Abbotsford Club), Edinburgh. 1841, app. Iv, p. 63.

3. Taylor, Place Names of Fife, vol. 4, 2010, p. 149.

4. This account is largely based on that in Richard Fawcett, ‘Balmerino Abbey: the Architecture’, in Terryl N. Kinder (ed.), Cîteaux, Commentarii Cistercienses, vol. 59, 2008, pp. 81-118.

5. See Richard Fawcett ‘Culross Abbey’, in Perspectives for an Architecture of Solitude, ed. Terryl N. Kinder, Brecht and Turnhout 2004, pp 81-99.

6. See Richard Fawcett, ‘The Cistercian Abbey of Deer’, in Katherine Forsyth, ed., Studies on the Book of Deer, Dublin 2008, pp 439-462.

7. See Richard Fawcett, ‘Arbroath Abbey: a note on its architecture and early conservation history’, and Keith Stringer, ‘Arbroath Abbey in context, 1178-1320’, both in Geoffrey Barrow, ed., The Declaration of Arbroath, History Significance, Setting, (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland) Edinburgh 2003, pp 50-85 and 116-141.

8. James Campbell, Balmerino and its Abbey, Edinburgh, 1st ed., 1867, pp 110-112; Ian B. Cowan and David E. Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, Scotland, 2nd ed. London and New York, 1976,p. 73.

9. Campbell, Balmerino, p. 291-293.

10. William B.D.D. Turnbull, ed., The Chartularies of Balmerino and Lindores (Abbotsford Club), Edinburgh. 1841. 

11. George Shaw Aitken, The Abbeys of Arbroath, Balmerino and Lindores, Dundee, 1884.

12. David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1896, vol. 2, pp 505-517, plan on p. 507.

13. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions of Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the Counties of Fife, Kinross and Clackmannan, Edinburgh,  1933, pp 33-37, plan on p. 35.

14. R. Fyfe Smith and Norman M. Johnson, ‘Quarry to abbey: an ancient Fife route’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 83, 1848-49, pp 162-167.

15. The New Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. 9, Fife-Kinross, Edinburgh, 1845, p. 475.

16. Ian Hunter Forsyth, James Ian Chisholm et al., Geology of East Fife, Edinburgh, 1977, pp 42 and 253.

17. Personal communication from Ewan Hyslop of the British Geological Survey, for which I am grateful. I am also grateful for the guidance of my colleague at Historic Scotland, Roger Curtis.

18. Plan published in R.C.A.H.M.S., Fife, p. 35.

19. Plan published by W. Douglas Simpson, Deer Abbey (official guide), (Edinburgh 1952), pp 4-5.

20. Plan published in R.C.A.H.M.S., Inventory of Stirlingshire, Edinburgh, 1963, vol. 2, p. 123.

21. Plan published in R.C.A.H.M.S., Fife, p. 126. For further discussion of the inter-relationships between these buildings see Fawcett, ‘Culross Abbey’, p. 90.

22. The combined evidence of the tusking and the absence of areas of facing masonry suggests that it was built, and presumably demolished as part of the post-Reformation creation of the commendator’s residence.

26. James B. Kenworthy, Excavations at Balmerino Abbey…July 1980, St Andrews, 1980.

24. MacGibbon and Ross, Ecclesiastical architecture, p. 509.

25. Currently stored within the parlour of the conventual buildings are several carved or moulded fragments, including part of the torso of a knight’s effigy and a number of tracery form pieces. The form pieces are said to have been found at locations within the village. 

26. Calendar of state papers relating to Scotland, 1509-1603, vol. 1, (London 1858), p. 74; Campbell, Balmerino, pp 237-239; David McRoberts, ‘Material Destruction Caused by the Scottish Reformation’, Innes Review, vol. 10, 1959, p. 135.

27. John Lesley, The History of Scotland from the Death of King James I in the Year 1436 to the Year 1561 (Bannatyne Club) Edinburgh, 1830, p. 273; Campbell, Balmerino, p. 254.

28. Campbell, Balmerino, pp. 286 and 349;  Taylor, Place Names of Fife, vol. 4, 2010, p. 149 .

29. Campbell, Balmerino, pp. 287 and 293.

30. John Gifford, The Buildings of Scotland, Fife, London, 1988.



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

  • 1. Balmerino Abbey, interior, north nave wall

  • 2. Balmerino Abbey, exterior, nave, north wall

  • 3. Balmerino Abbey, exterior, chapter house from east

  • 4. Balmerino Abbey, interior, chapter house looking west

  • 5. Balmerino Abbey, interior, chapter house vestibule

  • 6. Balmerino Abbey, west door

  • 7. Balmerino Abbey, interior, north transept, 1

  • 8. Balmerino Abbey, interior, north transept, 2

  • 9. Balmerino Abbey, interior, north transept, 3

  • 10. Balmerino Abbey, plan

  • 11. Balmerino Parish Church, exterior, 1

  • 12. Balmerino Parish Church, exterior, 2

  • 13. Balmerino Parish Church, exterior, date stone