Dunnottar Parish Church

Dunnottar Castle, chapel, exterior, from north west

Summary description

The original location is unknown, but by the thirteenth century it was on the castle promontory. In the fourteenth century it was relocated inland. A mortuary aisle added to that church in 1582 survives, but the church itself was rebuilt in 1782 and modified in 1861-62 and 1903.

Historical outline

Dedication: St Bridget(1)

Early references to a church of Dunnottar do not survive, the first record of its existence apparently being the notice of its dedication on 15 May 1276 by William Wishart, bishop of St Andrews.(2)  The church is not mentioned again in a surviving record for almost a century until in 1362 it occurs in a petition to the pope as being in the hands of William Spynie, a familiar of King David II who was also a canon and prebendary of the church of Moray.(3)  Rectors of Dunnottar are recorded in 1382 when Gilbert Airth was collated in place of Adam Angusson, who had failed to secure ordination as a priest within time.(4)

In 1395 it emerges that the original parish church had been located on the rock headland occupied by Dunnottar castle.  In a letter from Pope Benedict XIII to the Bishop of St Andrews, it was stated that Sir William Keith, during a period of warfare in Scotland, had secured consent from the bishop to build a new parish church and cemetery and remove the old one from its ‘crag’, giving him a clear site on which to build his castle despite papal interdict against such actions.  Pope Benedict granted the bishop the right to absolve William and give him permission to retain his castle on the site, provided he paid suitable compensation.(5)

The church was an independent parsonage throughout the fifteenth century but in November 1502 James Stewart, archbishop of St Andrews, annexed both the parsonage and the vicarage fruits to fund two prebends in the collegiate church of the Holy Trinity in Edinburgh.(6)  The revenues were assigned for the support of the prebend of the dean of the collegiate church and a prebend designated as ‘of Dunnottar’.  The cure was to be served by a vicar pensioner, sustained on a stipend of 20 merks.  Ian Cowan suggested that the prebend of Dunnottar was held by the sub-dean of the collegiate church, but apart from a 1580 instrument recording now lost documents of the collegiate church which lists a confirmation of Pope Julius II in 1504 to the dean and sub-dean annexing the church of Dunnottar, the evidence for this seems to be entirely post-Reformation.(7)  At the Reformation the fruits of the church remained annexed to the two prebends at Trinity College.(8)


1. Charters of the Hopspital of Soltre, of Trinity College, Edinburgh, and other Collegiate Churches in Midlothian (Bannatyne Club, 1861), 127 [hereafter Midlothian Charters].

2. A O Anderson (ed), Early Sources of Scottish History, ii (Edinburgh, 1922), 674 [Pontifical Offices of St Andrews].

3. Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland: Petitions to the Pope, ed W H Bliss (London, 1896), 386-387.

4. Calendar of Papal Letters to Scotland of Clement VII of Avignon 1378-1394, ed A I Dunlop (Scottish Record Society, 1976), 80.

5. Calendar of Papal Letters toScotland of Benedict XIII of Avignon 1394-1419, ed F McGurk (Scottush History Society, 1976), 40.

6. Charters and Documents Relating to the Collegiate Church of the Holy Trinity, and the Trinity Hospital, Edinburgh, ed J D Marwick (Scottish Burgh Record Society, 1871), no.VI (for designation of the two prebendal titles, see pages 49-50).

7. I B Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society, 1967), 54; Midlothian Charters, 131, 139, 143.

8. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 404.

Summary of relevant documentation


Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: In 1502 both parsonage and vicarage fruits annexed to two prebends erected by Archbishop James Stewart of St Andrews in Trinity College, Edinburgh; one for the dean and one for the subdean.(1)

1362 William de Spinny (MA canon law) and familiar of David II has the church.(2)

1382 Gilbert de Erth collated to church because previous rector (Adam Angousson) not ordained as priest.(3) Further rector (William of Otterburn) mentioned in 1408.(4)

1425 James Scrymgeour (MA), ambassador of Charles of France (Dauphin) is rector of Dunnottar.(5) Followed in 1434 by Robert Scrymgeour (described as kinsman of James I). Both men also hold church of Glassery (Argyll).(6)

1449 Nicholas Blair referred to as holding the parsonage of Dunnottar (val £18). Suit over parsonage between Alexander Rait and Patrick Reid following death of Nicholas in 1465 (Rait eventually wins).(7)

1465 (4 Nov) Instrument of Resignation and Sasine under the hand of John Hadingtone, chaplain of St. Andrews diocese, notary public, and narrating that Wilfrid Lask of that ilk, standing before the lord earl of Erolle, in a clear voice said that he resigned his lands of Laske and Achlethin, in the earldom of Buchan, sheriffdom of Aberdeen and barony of Slanis, by staff and baton into the hands of said earl as superior, to be disposed of as the earl would. Witnessed by Nichol Blair, parson of Dunottar.(8)

1502 (19 Oct) The King has confirmed in mortmain a charter of Master Walter Stratton, rector of Dunottar, by which, for the salvation of the late Alexander Rait, etc., he granted in pure alms to one chaplain to celebrate mass perpetually at the altar of St Sebastian the Martyr within the parish church of the burgh of Montrose, the lands and annual revenues detailed below within the said burgh.(9)

1523 (18 Nov) Charter of Resignation by William de Keith Marischal of Scotland, in favour of Patrick Hepburn of Wauchtoun, kt., of the lands of Brethirtoun [Brotherton], to be held blench for one silver penny, following on the resignation of the same by the said Patrick. Witnessed by John Leith, vicar of Dunottar.(10)

References to liturgical provision/architecturure/building, indulgences etc

1395 (14 June) William Keith, lord of barony of Dunottar, absolved from excommunication incurred when during a period of warfare in Scotland he…with the consent of the then bishop of St Andrews, had erected a new parish church with a cemetery and thereafter had removed the parish church from its crag leaving vacant, notwithstanding a papal interdict on anyone inhabiting the area, he had built a castle on consecrated land.(11) [allowed to keep castle at the payment of a compensating sum at the discretion of the bishop of St Andrews]


Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: The Parish church parsonage and vicarage revenues form prebends for John Eldar and William Salmon of Trinity College, Edinburgh.Value £80.(12)

Account of Collectors of Thirds of Benefices (G. Donaldson): Third of parsonage and vicarage £26 13s 4d.(13)

1677 (22 Aug) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Fordoun notes that the minister (William Dirkled) has a stipend of 800 marks. The visitors find that the fabric of the church to be in no good condition and recommend that the minister is to speak to the heritors for reparation.(14)

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev James Walker, 1792): ‘Church rebuilt in 1782 and the manse in 1786’.(15)

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev Alexander Irvine, 1842): ‘A roofless building in the churchyard has the name of Marischal aisle, had at some time been the family sepulchre’.(16)

‘Former parish church was taken down and the present one built on the same site in 1782 (manse in 1786)’.(17)


1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland, 54.

2. CPP, 386-87.

3. CPL Clem, 80.

4. CPL Ben, 173-74.

5. CSSR, ii, 93.

6. CPL, viii, 496

7. CSSR, v, nos, 269 & 1006, CPL, x, 199

8. NRS Photocopies of Erroll Charters, RH1/6/68.

9. RMS, ii, no. 2716.

10. NRS Scott of Brotherton Writs, GD70/6.

11. CPL Ben, 40.

12. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, 404.

13. Donaldson, Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices, 10.

14. NRS Presbytery of Fordoun, Records of Visitations, 1677-1688, CH2/157/13, fols. 13-17.

15. Statistical Account of Scotland, (1792), xi, 225.

16. New Statistical Account of Scotland, (1842), xi, 222.

17. Ibid, 229.


NRS Presbytery of Fordoun, Records of Visitations, 1677-1688, CH2/157/13.

NRS Photocopies of Erroll Charters, RH1/6/68.

NRS Scott of Brotherton Writs, GD70/6.

Calendar of entries in the Papal registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland; Papal letters, 1893-, ed. W.H. Bliss, London.

Calendar of entries in the Papal registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland; Papal Petitions, 1893-, ed. W.H. Bliss, London.

Calendar of Papal letters to Scotland of Benedict XIII of Avignon, 1976, ed. F. McGurk, (Scottish History Society) Edinburgh.

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

Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome 1423-28, 1956, ed. A.I. Dunlop, (Scottish History Society) Edinburgh.

Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome 1447-71, 1997, ed. J. Kirk, R.J. Tanner and A.I. Dunlop, 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.

Hay, G., 1957, The Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches, 1560-1843, Oxford.

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

Based on a possible dedication to St Ninian, W. Douglas Simpson included Dunnottar amongst his list of Ninian’s foundations,(1) though the case for this has not received general acceptance.(2) It has been suggested that the first church associated with the area that became the parish may have been where the walled gardens of Dunnottar House were later located,(3) though, again, there has been  limited acceptance of that suggestion.

There was a dedication of the church by Bishop William Wishart on 15 May, 1276.(4) By that stage it is very likely that the church was within the enclosure of Dunnottar castle, on its rock promontory; it certainly appears to have been there by 1297, when the castle – which was then held by an English garrison - was stormed by William Wallace, who then ‘brynt up the kyrk, and all that was tharin’, according to Blind Harry.(5)

By the end of the fourteenth century, however, the church had been moved by Sir William Keith off the castle promontory to its present site, about a mile west-south-west of Stonehaven. This was a move prompted by the need to ensure the security of the castle, but it appears to have caused great unhappiness amongst some parishioners and resulted in Keith’s excommunication. Consequently, in 1395, Pope Benedict XIII issued a mandate to the bishop of St Andrews to investigate the case and, if appropriate, to absolve Keith of the penalty of excommunication.(6)

In 1502 Archbishop James Stewart provided for the parsonage and vicarage to be annexed to the prebends of the dean and subdean of Trinity College in Edinburgh. The cure was then served by a vicar pensioner.(7)

The building within the castle that almost certainly served as the parish church before its removal to the present site is an oriented rectangular structure of 19.4 by 6.5 metres overall. Its shell may be that of the church that was dedicated in 1276, though it has been much altered since then on more than one occasion, and it has also undergone extensive consolidation that has possibly confused some of the evidence. It forms the south side of the courtyard that eventually took shape at the heart of the castle. It appears to have been initially free-standing, but its eastern end eventually abutted the L-shaped arrangement of ranges that are thought to have accommodated the first-floor lodgings of the Earl Marischal and his countess.(8)

Two small pointed-arched windows in the south wall of the church, which are rebated for external glazing frames, could be as early as the thirteenth century. Such an early date is also a possibility for a small pointed-arch aumbry in the east wall, and the west doorway, with its chamfered reveal and hood mould.

But in its present state the building appears to owe many of its details to extensive alterations following the relocation of the parish church. The earliest of these were possibly to adapt it for use as a domestic chapel, as suggested by the evidence for a belfry over its west gable, and the opposed doors cut through the south and north walls. This possibility is supported by the knowledge that it is said to have housed a number of monuments to the Earls Marischal,(9) while in 1660 it was said that it still contained a pulpit.

At some stage it seems that it must have been heightened, on the evidence of a change of masonry that can seen most clearly along the interior of the north wall. However, this heightening appears to have been carried out when the building was still in ecclesiastical use, because it is associated with the base of a bellcote on the west gable, and the provision of a large west window, traces of which are to be seen around the one that is now in place

The building may later have been divided horizontally and put to secular uses. The chief evidence for this is what appears to have been a fireplace in the east wall and a number of upper windows.

No structural evidence survives in place of the parish church that was built after it was relocated the mainland before 1395, and that was referred to in papal correspondence. However, if what appears to be an arcade voussoir within the Marischal Aisle came from that church, it must have been a building of some pretensions, since that voussoir has mouldings in the form of five rolls. The c. 1395 church was replaced in 1782(10) by a new building in approximately the same location, albeit on a north- south axis; it was extended in 1861-62 by William Smith,(11) and remodelled in 1903 by George P.K. Young.(12)

The earliest building to survive on the site is the mortuary aisle already mentioned, which was built for George, fifth Earl Marischal and is dated to 1582 by an inscription on the door lintel in its west wall. It appears to have projected from the south flank of the medieval church. It was described as ‘a large Vault and an Isle ceiled above, and decored with Scutcheons of the deceased Worthies joyne to the Wall of this Church’.(13)

By the later nineteenth century the aisle was roofless, and there was eventually a limited campaign of restoration between 1885 and 1897. It was more thoroughly – and perhaps more invasively – restored by the University of Aberdeen in 1913-14, in memory of its builder, who was also the founder of Marischal College. This work, carried out by the architect George P.K. Young,(14) is commemorated on a plaque set into the west wall, to the south of the entrance. There are now arched tomb-like recesses around the internal walls and three-light windows in the north and south walls, though it is unclear how far these were based on surviving evidence.


1. W. Douglas Simpson, St Ninian and the Origins of the Christian Church in Scotland, Edinburgh, 1940.

2. John MacQueen, St Nynia, 2nd ed., Edinburgh, 1990, p. 71.

3. Francis Carolus Eeles, Stonehaven: Historical and Descriptive, Aberdeen, 1897, p. 31.

4. Pontifical Ecclesiae S. Andreae, ed. C. Wordsworth, Edinburgh, 1885, p. xx.

5. The Actis and Deidis of the Illustere and Vailzeand Campioun Schir William Wallace...by Henry the Minstrel, ed. James Moir (Scottish Text Society, 1889,pp. 172-73.

6. Calendar of Papal Letters to Scotland of Benedict XIII of Avignon, 1394-1419, ed. Francis McGurk (Scottish History Society), 1976, p. 40.

7. Ian Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland Scottish (Scottish record Society), 1967, p. 54.

8. W. Douglas Simpson, Dunnottar Castle Historical and Descriptive, 13th edn, Aberdeen, 1976, pp. 46-54.

9. David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, vol. 1, 1987, p. 571.

10. Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-99, vol. 11, p. 225;  New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45, vol. 11, p. 229.

11. National Records of Scotland, HR205/5/1

12. National Records of Scotland, HR205/5/1.

13. Geographical Collections...made by Walter Macfarlane, ed. Arthur Mitchell and James Toshach Clark (Scottish History Society), vol. 3, 1908, p. 231.

14. Henry Cowan, ‘The Tomb and the Family of the Founder of Marischal College’, Aberdeen University Review, 1814, pp. 1-2.



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

  • 1. Dunnottar Castle, chapel, exterior, from north west

  • 2. Dunnottar Castle, chapel

  • 3. Dunnottar Castle, chapel, exterior, from north

  • 4. Dunnottar Castle, chapel, exterior, from south west

  • 5. Dunnottar Castle, chapel, exterior, south wall

  • 6. Dunnottar Castle, chapel, exterior, from west

  • 7. Dunnottar Castle, chapel, exterior, west door

  • 8. Dunnottar Castle, chapel, exterior, window in south wall

  • 9. Dunnottar Castle, chapel, interior, aumbries in east and north walls

  • 10. Dunnottar Castle, chapel, interior, looking east

  • 11. Dunnottar Castle, chapel, interior, looking west

  • 12. Dunnottar Castle, chapel, interior, looking west, 2

  • 13. Dunnottar Castle, chapel, interior, south-east corner

  • 14. Dunnottar Castle, plan (MacGibbon and Ross)

  • 15. Dunnottar Church, exterior, 1

  • 16. Dunnottar Church, exterior, 2

  • 17. Dunnottar Church, exterior, 3

  • 18. Dunnottar Church, Marischal Aisle, exterior, 1

  • 19. Dunnottar Church, Marischal Aisle, exterior, 2

  • 20. Dunnottar Church, Marischal Aisle, exterior, armorial tablet recess above entrance

  • 21. Dunnottar Church, Marischal Aisle, exterior, foundation inscription on entrance

  • 22. Dunnottar Church, Marischal Aisle, exterior, stone commemorating inscription

  • 23. Dunnottar Church, Marischal Aisle, interior, 1

  • 24. Dunnottar Church, Marischal Aisle, interior, 2

  • 25. Dunnottar Church, Marischal Aisle, interior, armorial gablet

  • 26. Dunnottar Church, Marischal Aisle, interior, moulded fragment