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Cambuskenneth Abbey

Cambuskenneth Abbey, tower west face

Summary description

The parish was housed in the church of Cambuskenneth Augustinian Abbey, a cruciform building augmented secondarily with a north nave aisle and a free-standing bell tower. By 1627 the church was abandoned and the parishioners resorted to Logie. Apart from the bell tower, the church is reduced to its lowest courses; much of the church masonry is thought to have been re-used in building Cowane’s Hospital in Stirling.

Historical outline

Dedication: Our Lady

There is no early reference to a parochial cure attached to the Augustinian abbey at Cambuskenneth.  The ‘ecclesie parochialis monasterii de Cambuskynneth’ occurs in a single medieval source, a charter dated 8 October 1436 by John Barbour, burgess of Stirling, who made the grant of an annual rent from property in the burgh to the altar of St Ninian and the chaplain serving at it, described as located in the parish church of the abbey.(1

The reference to the ‘parish’ church of the abbey might be simply a scribal error but it is possible that the canons had secured status as a parish for the landed properties immediately adjacent to the north of the monastery, served from an altar in the nave of the abbey church, as a device to ensure that all teind income from those properties remained in the hands of the monastic community.  There is no reference to how the cure was served but presumably one of the canons would have performed services at the parish altar.  No specifically parish revenues are referred to in the immediately post-Reformation Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices(2) and no independent parish church was maintained on the site after 1560.


1. Registrum Monasterie S Marie de Cambuskenneth (Grampian Club, 1872), no.209.

2. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 547.

Summary of relevant documentation


Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: Abbey possessed parochial status; reference to this in 1436, revenues pertained to abbey [no reference to cure].(1)

1379 Union of perpetual vicarage of Clackmannan, vacant by promotion of Maurice of Strathearn to archdeaconry of Dunkeld, to the abbey of Cambuskenneth, which already enjoys the patronage and to which rectory is already appropriated, to relieve penury of the abbey after it was struck by lightning.(2)

Altars and Chaplainries

St Ninian, All Saints, Andrew, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Katherine, Lawrence, Nicholas

1436 Grant to St Ninian’s altar in the parochial nave of the abbey by John Barbour, burgess of Stirling.(3)

1446 The endowments of the altars of All Saints, and of Sts Andrew, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, St Katherine, St Lawrence and St Nicholas were reorganised.(4)


Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: The Parish church - reference to the ‘lands of Cambuskenneth’ pertaining to the abbey but not to vicarage or parsonage.(5)

Altars and Chaplainries

Chaplainry of Our Lady in Cambuskenneth held by Alexander Chalmers, £13 6s 4d.(6)

1582 (10 July) James Dalmahoy, minister, charged by the Stirling presbytery with taking money for presiding over the marriage in the kirk of Tullibody and of completing the marriage of John Cousland and Helen Cunningham (being unrepented fornicators) in Cambuskenneth. Having been summoned to appear in front of the presbytery in 24 July, James failed to compear and was threatened with excommunication.(7)

1627 (22 May) Report on the parish by the minister (Henry Shaw) describes the church as now demolished (the parishioners now go to the kirk of Logie).(8)

1630 (2 Sept) Visitation of the church following disturbances there finds the minister (James Galbraith) complaining that Andrew Cowie and John Cowie had come and removed a desk in the church (as had been requested) but having not removed signs affixed to the feet of the ‘cuples’ of the church certain boards with the names and arms of the two men on (brethren order the session to remove the boards).(9)

[Not parochial after the Reformation, joined to Stirling]


1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland, 25.

2. CPL, Clem, 29 & 40.

3. Registrum monasterii S. Marie de Cambuskenneth, no. 209.

4. Registrum monasterii S. Marie de Cambuskenneth,  no. 214.

5. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices,  547.

6. Ibid, 551.

7. Stirling Presbytery Records, pp. 47 & 50.

8. Reports on the State of Certain Parishes in Scotland, pp. 201-206.

9. NRS Presbytery of Stirling, Minutes, 1627-1640, CH2/722/5, fol. 95.


National Records of Scotland, Presbytery of Stirling, Minutes, 1627-1640, CH2/722/5

Calendar of Papal letters to Scotland of Clement VII of Avignon, 1976, ed. C. Burns, (Scottish History 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.

Registrum monasterii S. Marie de Cambuskenneth, 1872, ed. W. Fraser, (Grampian Club), Edinburgh.

Reports on the State of Certain Parishes in Scotland, Made to his Majesty’s Commissioners for Plantation of Kirks, 1835, ed. A. MacGrigor (Maitland Club), Edinburgh.

Stirling Presbytery Records, 1581-1587, 1981, ed. J. Kirk (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh.

Architectural description

Although probably not part of the founder’s initial intention, a reference to the church in 1436 as being parochial suggests that by the later middle ages the abbey of Cambuskenneth accommodated a parish, presumably within the nave.(1) It had been founded as an Arrouaisian house by David I in about 1140,(2) but was subsequently absorbed into the Augustinian order.

The scant surviving details suggest that the church was built in the early thirteenth century(3). It had a short rectangular presbytery, transepts with a two-bay east chapel aisle, and the nave appears initially to have been aisle-less. This is a plan type that is perhaps more commonly found amongst the Cistercians, as seen at Culross in Fife, founded in about 1217.(4) The finest surviving feature from the earlier building campaigns is the doorway at the centre of the west front, which now stands in isolation, serving as the entrance to a post-medieval burial ground. It is badly weathered, but was evidently an imposing composition framed by five orders of en délit shafts, the outer order being framed by bands of dogtooth, all of which indicates an early thirteenth-century date.

Much of what is now seen has undergone extensive consolidation and some reconstruction following excavation of the site in 1864,(5) and not all the details are trustworthy. Nevertheless, the bases course below the presbytery and transepts, with a narrow lower chamfer and a broader upper chamfer, appears to be authentic, as are the triplet wall shafts along the south side of the nave.

The lack of correspondence between the wall-shafts on the south side of the nave and the arcade piers of the north aisle, however, strongly suggests that the aisle was an addition to the original fabric. This was a not uncommon augmentation of aisle-less monastic naves, and seems also to have happened at Cistercian Deer and Balmerino Abbeys(6) and Tironensian Lindores Abbey; in all of those cases, the augmentation was on the side away from the cloister, where it would have involved minimal disruption to the conventual buildings.

A subsequent addition, probably dating from the later decades of the thirteenth century, was a free-standing bell tower flanking the west front on its north side, the side away from the conventual buildings.(7) There are parallels in this at Lindores, where there is what appears to have been the stump of a free-standing bell tower together with a single aisle on the north side of the nave. At Lindores, however, the aisle was presumably later than the tower, since it seems that the existence of the latter prevented the aisle from running the full length of the nave.

The tower at Cambuskenneth rises from a deep base course. The main entrance, in the south face, is framed by two orders: a continuous inner order and an outer order carried on an engaged shaft. The doorway is set within a salient capped by a steep gablet that is decorated with an image niche. There is also a smaller doorway in the east wall, possible of secondary construction, that is now blocked.  There are buttresses both at the angles and at the centre of each face, the central buttress on the south side rising behind the gablet of the entrance doorway.

On the west face, which would have been seen alongside the west front of the abbey church, the middle of the tower’s three stages has triplets of arches on each side of the central buttress, only the central opening being pierced. This is an arrangement reminiscent of the belfry stage at Elgin Cathedral which dates from after the fire of 1270, and it supports a later thirteenth-century date for Cambuskenneth’s tower.

At the belfry stage there pairs are of Y-traceried windows to each stage, and at the head of the tower are restored parapets with double-stepped crenellation. Early views show that there used to be a double pitched roof behind the parapet, but this was removed in the rather invasive restoration of the tower by the town architect, William Mackison, in 1864.(8) Access between the levels of the tower is by a polygonal stair turret at the north-east angle, which is capped by a gableted spirelet above a miniature ribbed vault at the top of the stair well.

Despite its homogeneous external appearance, within the tower there is some evidence of changes of design. Breaks in the masonry coursing within the ground-floor window embrasures could suggest that the walls had to be thickened to support the tierceron vault with a central bell hole that covers that storey. Further changes at the upper levels may be suspected in curious discrepancies between the floor levels and the thresholds of the doors from the stair, and also in the levels of the floors within the window embrasures. The provision of a door in the south wall at first floor level might suggest there had been some form of connection with the west front of the church, possibly even in the form of a bridge, though there is no external evidence of any such connection.

The abbey church suffered at a number of stages. There was said to have been enemy damage in 1350,(9) while in 1378 a tower was struck by lightning and collapsed on the choir;(10) this was presumably in reference to a tower over the crossing rather than the surviving free-standing bell tower. The abbey appears to have been ‘cleansed’ in the first wave of the Reformation. By 1627 the church had been abandoned and largely demolished, with the parishioners resorting to Logie.(11) It is said that much of its masonry was taken away to be used in the construction of Cowane’s Hospital in Stirling in 1639. It was placed in state care in 1908.


1. Registrum Monasterii S. Marie de Cambuskenneth, ed. William Fraser (Grampian Club), 1872, no. 209; Ian B. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society), 1967, p. 25.

2. Registrum de Cambuskenneth, no. 51; Ian B. Cowan and David E. Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, Scotland, 2nd ed., London and New York, 1976, pp. 89-90.

3. This description is based on that in Richard Fawcett, Architecture of the Scottish Medieval Church, New Haven and London, 2011, pp. 87 and 172-73. Published accounts of the church include: David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, the Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1896–7, vol. 2, pp. 225–31; Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Inventory of Stirlingshire, Edinburgh, 1963, pp. 120–29; John Gifford and Frank Arneil Walker, The Buildings of Scotland, Stirling and Central Scotland, New Haven and London, 2002, pp. 303-05.

4. Richard Fawcett, ‘Culross Abbey’, in Terryl N.Kinder, ed., Perspectives for an Architecture of Solitude, Cîteaux, 2004, pp. 81-100.

5. J.E. Curle, ‘An Account of the Excavations at Cambuskenneth Abbey in May 1864, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 6, 1864–6, pp. 14-25

6. Richard Fawcett, ‘The Cistercian Abbey of Deer’, in Katherine Forsyth, ed., Studies on the Book of Deer, Dublin, 2008, pp. 439-62; Richard Fawcett, ‘Balmerino Abbey: the Architecture’, in Terryl Kinder, ed., ‘Life on the edge: the Cistercian Abbey of Balmerino’ Cîteaux: Commentarii Cisterciences, vol. 59, 2008, pp. 81-118.

7. J. Philip Mcaleer, ‘The tradition of detached bell towers at cathedral and monastic churches in medieval England and Scotland’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, vol. 154, 2001, pp. 64–66.

8. See, for example, the view in Robert William Billings, The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1845-52, vol. 1.

9. Registrum de Cambuskenneth, no. 61.

10. Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland: Papal Letters, ed. W.H Bliss et al., London, 1893-. vol. 4, p. 236.

11. Reports on the State of Certain Parishes in Scotland made to his Majesty’s Commissioners for the Plantation of Kirks, ed. A. MacGrigor (Maitland Club), 1835, pp, 201-06.



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

  • 1. Cambuskenneth Abbey, tower west face

  • 2. Cambuskenneth Abbey, elevated view of church

  • 3. Cambuskenneth Abbey, west door

  • 4. Cambuskenneth Abbey, fragment of foliage trail

  • 5. Cambuskenneth Abbey, fragment of knight's effigy

  • 6. Cambuskenneth Abbey, fragment of canopy work

  • 7. Cambuskenneth Abbey, lion footrest, 1

  • 8. Cambuskenneth Abbey, lion footrest, 2

  • 9. Cambuskenneth Abbey, monument, 1

  • 10. Cambuskenneth Abbey, monument, 2

  • 11. Cambuskenneth Abbey, monument, 3

  • 12. Cambuskenneth Abbey, monument, 4

  • 13. Cambuskenneth Abbey, monument, 5

  • 14. Cambuskenneth Abbey, tower stair caphouse

  • 15. Cambuskenneth Abbey, tower stair vault

  • 16. Cambuskenneth Abbey, tower stair vault

  • 17. Cambuskenneth Abbey, tower, first floor, south-east corner

  • 18. Cambuskenneth Abbey, tower, first floor, south-west corner

  • 19. Cambuskenneth Abbey, tower (Billings)

  • 20. Cambuskenneth Abbey, plan