Burntisland / Kinghorn-Wester / Parva Kinghorn Parish Church

Burntisland Old Church, exterior, from north east, 1

Summary description

A fragmentary two-compartment church probably of the twelfth or thirteenth century, with an aisle added along the south flank of the nave, and a chamber of uncertain use off the south-east angle of the aisle. Abandoned after a new church of centralised design was built elsewhere in 1592, that later church being an early example of a model for worship on reformed principles.

Historical outline

Dedication: St Serf?

Possibly dedicated to St Serf,(1) the first surviving reference to the church of Kinghorn Wester as it was then known is in a general confirmation of churches in its possession made to the abbey of Dunfermline by Bishop Arnold of St Andrews (1160-1162).(2)  It was confirmed in Dunfermline’s possession by Bishop Richard and then appropriated to the abbey by Bishop Hugh (1178-88).(3)  According to Hugh’s charter, by which the fruits of the church of Kellie were annexed to the abbey along with those of Kinghorn Wester, the appropriation was to help defray the costs of the great burden of hospitality maintained by the monks at Dunfermline.

Further confirmation was received from Bishop David de Bernham in 1240.  In his charter, which confirmed also the annexation of the church of Woolmet, where the monks were to establish a perpetual vicarage, Bishop David stated that the fruits of Kinghorn Wester were so small that if a vicar was instituted the profit to the monks would be so slight that they were to be permitted instead to serve it with a chaplain.(4)  Bishop David also was recorded as dedicating the church on 19 May 1243.(5)  His annexation appears to have been immediately effective, no reference to the church being made in the account rolls of the papal tax-collector in Scotland in 1274/5, presumably being wrapped up in the global figure for Dunfermline.  At the Reformation it was recorded that the parsonage and vicarage were both in the hands of the monks of Dunfermline and were at that time set for £12 annually.(6)


1. S Taylor and G Markus, The Place-Names of Fife, i, West Fife between Leven and Forth, Donington, 2006), 186.

2. Registrum de Dunfermelyn (Bannatyne Club, 1842), no.93 [hereafter Dunfermline Registrum].

3. Dunfermline Registrum, nos 97, 99.

4. Dunfermline Registrum, no.118.

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

6. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 26, 38.

Summary of relevant documentation


Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: Parva Kinghorn, church confirmed to Dunfermline by Aernald, bishop of St Andrews 1160x62. Parsonage and vicarage fruits annexed, served by chaplain.(1)

Place Names of Fife vol. 1  notes that ‘tradition has it that it was dedicated to St Serf’.(2)


Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: The Parish church parsonage and vicarage with Dunfermline, set for £12.(3)

1588 Advowson of the church of Wester Kinghorn (along with various lands) granted by George, earl of Huntly to Robert Melville of Murdocairney, Treasurer depute.(4)

1592 [new church built]

1594 (14 May) The General assembly approves the judgement of the Provincial Assembly of Fife ordaining the newly built church in Burntisland as the new parish church.(5)

1630 (15 Apr) Record of the stipends of ministers in the Presbytery of Kirkcaldy; the minister gets 800 marks pa.(6)

1636 (28 July) Visitation of Burntisland by the Presbytery of Kirkcaldy approves the minister and reader, ordains that a school is required in the parish and orders that 300 marks pa should be put aside for the schoolmaster; 200 by the town and 100 by the heritors.(7)

1638 (6 Sept) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Kirkcaldy finds John Michaelson (minister) to be old and infirm and proposes (with the support of the elders and parishioners of the parish) that he be replaced with William Livingstone. It is noted that Michaelson has not signed the National Covenant.(8) On 24 Jan 1639 following discussion of the minister in the general assembly, he was accused in front of the Presbytery of Cupar and Kirkcaldy by witnesses of not catechising the parishioners for the previous 12 years and he had been heard stating that ‘nobels  in their meeting, were doing nothing but taking the crown from the king’s head and putting it upon their own’. He is also accused of calling the National Covenant the ‘black Covenent’. The presbyteries find him guilty and order Michaelson deposed.(9)

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev James Weymss, 1791): ‘The place of worship for the parish, was formerly, about half a mile north of the town… The remains of it are still to be seen…. The new church was built in 1592’.(10)

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev David Couper, 1836): ‘In the village of Kirktoun, are the ruins of the original parish church… The date of erection is unknown, but it bears the mark of great antiquity’.(11)


1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland, 112

2. Taylor & Markus, The Place-Names of Fife. Volume One., pp. 186.

3. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, 26 & 38.

4. Yester Writs, no. 863.

5. Acts and Proceedings of the General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland, iii, 835.

6. NRS Presbytery of Kirkcaldy, Minutes, 1630-1653, CH2/224/1, fol. 8.

7. NRS Presbytery of Kirkcaldy, Minutes, 1630-1653, CH2/224/1, fols. 176-177.

8. NRS Presbytery of Kirkcaldy, Minutes, 1630-1653, CH2/224/1, fols. 242-243.

9. NRS Presbytery of Kirkcaldy, Minutes, 1630-1653, CH2/224/1, fols. 253-254.

10. Statistical Account of Scotland, (1791), ii, 430-31.

11. New Statistical Account of Scotland, (1836), ix, 414.


National Records of Scotland, Presbytery of Kirkcaldy, Minutes, 1630-1653, CH2/224/1.

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

Calendar of writs preserved at Yester House, 1166-1625, 1930, eds. C. Harvey and J. McLeod (Scottish Record Society), 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.

Taylor, S and Markus G., 2006, The Place-Names of Fife. Volume One. West Fife between Leven and Forth, Donington.

Architectural description

The church of the medieval parish of what is now Burntisland, but that was previously known as Kinghorn Wester or Parva Kinghorn, is about a kilometre to the north of the town, at Kirkton. The parish was confirmed to Dunfermline Abbey by Bishop Arnold, between 1160 and 1162, and was granted to the uses of the abbey by Bishop Hugh (1178-88).(1)

The parochial income was evidently so slight that Bishop David de Bernham determined it should be regarded as a chapel rather than a parochial church.(2) Despite that, he dedicated it on 19 May 1243,(3) suggesting that it still served some parochial functions, and it remained in use as the parish church until a new building was erected on a more central site in the 1590s.

The medieval church now survives as a fragmentary ruin in an increasingly parlous structural state, over which a predatory growth of ivy is relentlessly encroaching. In its first state it consisted of two rectangular compartments: a chancel of 8.1 by 5.4 metres, and a nave of 12.75 by 6.25 metres. The most complete surviving parts are the walls of the chancel and the west wall of the nave, together with fragments of the north nave wall. It is built of grey masonry composed mainly of cubical blocks.

The twelfth- or thirteenth-century date suggested by the plan and character of the masonry are clarified by the form of the chancel arch and the west window, the latter being the only window to be currently visible. The chancel arch is pointed, with jambs and arch of rectangular profile and imposts with a bottom chamfer; the arch itself may have been rebuilt. The west window is a narrow pointed-arched opening with a lintelled rear arch. These indicate a date in the earlier thirteenth century.

Surveys of the church published in 1888 and 1933 showed a number of other features that are now either lost or obscured by ivy.(4) In the south wall of the chancel two pointed-arched windows and a doorway are recorded, one of the former being depicted with a widely splayed rear arch and an external rebate, presumably for a glazing frame.

Doors are shown towards the west end of the south and north walls, though there must be some doubt about the former, since a south aisle has been added at some stage. The evidence for that aisle, however, is so incomplete that there can be no certainty about its form or extent, or about how it was entered from the nave.

An unusual feature is a small rectangular chamber against the south-east angle of the south aisle, which is recorded as having had a door in its west  wall, a window in its east wall, and another opening of some kind at the east end of its south wall. It is said to have been covered by a pointed barrel vault,(5) though it is now so completely enveloped in ivy that none of these features remain visible. It seems most likely to have been a post-Reformation mortuary chamber.

When the medieval building was replaced by a new church the chancel was adapted as a burial chamber. This involved blocking the windows and door in the south wall, and the partial infilling of the chancel arch, leaving a lintelled doorway as the only access, above which is an inscribed tablet.

The new church was built in 1592,(6) to a highly innovative form that represented a radical re-evaluation of the architectural needs of reformed worship.(7) It is set out to a square plan, within which is set a central square. That central square is defined by four square piers braced by diagonal arches internally and by diagonal buttresses externally. The piers support four arches below what was initially a very low tower, but that may always have been intended to be higher. There are two levels of seating, the upper level in the form of lofts that are set back from the central square. The pulpit is against the south-west pier.

The tower was heightened by two additional ashlar-built stages designed and built by Samuel Neilson in 1748-9.(8) The lower storey is square with a single pointed window to each face and banded rustication at the angles. The upper storey is octagonal below a pyramidal roof, with a circular window to the cardinal faces, and with pinnacles above the corners of the lower storey. There is banded rustication to the windows and pinnacles, and blocked dentils to the cornice. The baroque detailing of this superstructure is in marked contrast to the simplicity of the harled walls and rectangular windows of the main body of the church.


1. Ian B. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society), 1967, p. 112.

2. Simon Taylor, The Place-names of Fife, Donington, vol. 1, 2006, p. 186.

3. Alan Orr Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, Edinburgh, 1922, vol. 2, p. 523.

4. J. Russell Walker, Pre-Reformation Churches in Fife and the Lothians, Edinburgh; Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Inventory of Fife, Kinross and Clackmannan, Edinburgh, 1933, pp. 39-40.

5. Inventory of Fife, p. 40.

6. Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-99, vol. 2, p. 432.

7. Accounts of the new church will be found in: Inventory of Fife, pp. 38-39; George Hay, The Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches, Oxford, 1957, pp. 32-34;  John Gifford, The Buildings of Scotland, Fife, London, 1988, pp. 110-13; Deborah Howard, Scottish Architecture from the Reformation to the Restoration, Edinburgh, 1995, pp. 179-83.

8. Howard Colvin, Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 4th ed., New Haven and London, 2008; National Records of Scotland, B9/12/17, pp. 424, 429, 436.



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

  • 1. Burntisland Old Church, exterior, from north east, 1

  • 2. Burntisland Old Church, exterior, from north east, 2

  • 3. Burntisland Old Church, exterior, from east

  • 4. Burntisland Old Church, exterior, from south east

  • 5. Burntisland Old Church, exterior, from west

  • 6. Burntisland Old Church, exterior, west wall from east

  • 7. Burntisland Old Church, interior, chancel arch, from west

  • 8. Burntisland Old Church, interior, chancel arch, north jamb, from east

  • 9. Burntisland Old Church, interior, west window, from east

  • 10. Burntisland New Church, exterior

  • 11. Burntisland New Church, from south east

  • 12. Burntisland post-Reformation Church, interior, 1

  • 13. Burntisland post-Reformation Church, interior, 2

  • 14. Burntisland post-Reformation Church, interior, magistrates' pew

  • 15. Burntisland Old Church, plan and sections (Walker)