Dysart Parish Church (St Andrews diocese)

Dysart Church, exterior, tower and west front from west

Summary description

The partial shell of a large-scale church that eventually had aisles flanking both nave and chancel. A prominent tower is at the west end of the south aisle. Replaced by a new church on a different site in 1802-03, which was itself converted into flats in 2014. 

Historical outline

Dedication: St Serf

A settlement made by Bishop Abraham of Dunblane, Gilbert, archdeacon of Dunblane, and William, abbot of Scone, as papal judges-delegate in 1220, recorded in the register of Dunfermline Abbey, constitutes our earliest surviving reference to the church of Dysart.(1)  This settlement resolved a dispute between the church of Dysart and the church of Kirkcaldy, the latter of which had been granted to Dunfermline by King David I (1124-53), and arranged for 100 shillings annually to be paid from the fruits of Kirkcaldy to the church of Dysart.  The agreement makes it clear that Dysart had originally been the mother church for the whole of the district and that Kirkcaldy had been one of its dependent chapels.

The next occurrence of Dysart is on 26 March 1245/6, when its dedication by David de Bernham, bishop of St Andrews, was recorded in the Pontifical Offices of St Andrews.(2)  Thirty years later in 1274/5 it occurs as the church of ‘Disard’, a free parsonage assessed at 2 merks 5s 4d in the accounts of the papal tax-collector in Scotland.(3)  It remained a free parsonage through the fourteenth and into the third quarter of the fifteenth century, with a number of rectors of the church being recorded.(4)  In 1477, the incumbent rector, William Mowat, resigned in favour of Thomas Kennedy but retaining a 55 merk pension for life from the fruits.  The church was thereupon annexed to the collegiate church of St Mary on the Rock at St Andrews, with both parsonage and vicarage fruits appropriated as a canonry and prebend in the collegiate church for Kennedy.  In addition to the pension of 55 merks for Mowat, Kennedy was enjoined to allocate 60 merks annually ‘for the increase of divine worship’, in effect to pay a vicar pensioner, but following an appeal that he could not sustain both charges on the fruits the vicar’s portion was reduced to 20 merks.(5)  In the late 1510s, Archbishop Andrew Forman of St Andrews attempted to reconstitute the vicarage as a vicarage perpetual, but this effort appears to have failed as a pensionary vicarage was still in place at the Reformation.(6)  At that time, the parsonage and vicarage were in the hands of Robert Danielston, canon and prebendary of St Mary on the Rock, with the vicarage pensionary in the hands of George Strachan, amounting to 40 or 41 merks annually and a manse at the church.(7)

The principal altar of the church was dedicated to St Serf, that dedication being attested in the wills of several parishioners who made provision for burial at the church.(8)  There is reference to an additional altar of St Anne in the parish church.  In August 1549, one Margaret Towers paid for burial before that altar.(9)  A further altar, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St Magnus, is suggested by reference in 1545 to the building of a new aisle in honour of God, the BVM and St Magnus at the church.(10)  The building-work appears to have run into difficulties, as the two chief masons, Alexander Roust and Thomas French – Linlithgow-based craftsmen – complained of non-payment to them for work done under the terms of the contract that they had agreed with Mr John Bothwell, parson of Dalry.  French was a prominent mason, having served as master of the masons working on the New College at St Andrews in 1543-44.(11)

Notes

1. Registrum de Dunfermelyn (Bannatyne Club, 1842), no.111; P C Ferguson, Medieval Papal Representatives in Scotland: Legates, Nuncios, and Judges-Delegate, 1125-1286 (Stair Society, 1997), 229.

2. A O Anderson (ed), Early Sources of Scottish History, ii (Edinburgh, 1922), 525.

3. A I Dunlop (ed), ‘Bagimond’s Roll: Statement of the Tenths of the Kingdom of Scotland’, Miscellany of the Scottish History Society, vi (1939), 37.

4. See, for example: Calendar of Papal Letters to Scotland of Clement VII of Avignon 1378-1394, ed C Burns (Scottish History Society, 1976), 173; Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome, v, 1447-1471, eds J Kirk, R J Tanner, A I Dunlop (Glasgow, 1997), 681.

5. Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland: Papal Letters, xiii, 1471-1484, ed J Twemlow (London, 1955), 563, 578, 590.

6. St Andrews Formulare 1514-1546, eds G Donaldson and C Macrae (Stair Society, 1942-4), nos 124-126.

7. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 70, 71, 188.

8. NRS St Andrews, Register of Testaments, 1 Aug 1549-12 Dec 1551, CC20/4/1, fols. 14, 44, 79, 359, 362.

9. NRS St Andrews, Register of Testaments, 1 Aug 1549-12 Dec 1551, CC20/4/1, fols, 15-16.

10. Protocol Book of Dominus Thomas Johnsoun, 1528-1578, eds J Beveridge and J Russell (Scottish Record Society, 1920), no. 345.  The Magnus dedication should be seen in the context of the close connection of the Sinclair family, lords of nearby Ravenscraig Castle, with the earldoms of Orkney and Caithness, the centres of the Magnus cult.

11. Rentale Sancti Andree (Scottish History Society, 1913), 198.

Summary of relevant documentation

Medieval

Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: Parsonage and vicarage erected into a prebend of collegiate church of St Mary, St Andrews in 1477 with a vicar pensioner to serve the cure. Vicar perpetual erected by Archbishop Forman - appears to have been ineffective as there was still a vicar pensioner at the Reformation.(1)

Place Names of Fife vol. 1:  Originally mother church of Kirkcaldy and Wemyss, chaplaincy of St James in church.

1353 William de Lycton (illegitimate canon of Ross), has the church of Dysart.(2)

1379-92 Dispute between John de Lycton and Hugh Dalmehy, Hugh having held the church for a long time but failed to resign it on promotion to archdeaconry of Moray. David de Trebrim collated in 1379 but John ultimately successful and described as rector in 1392 which he holds until his death in 1402.(3)

1402-1406 Church held by two Crown appointments, firstly Richard Knight (envoy of Robert III) and secondly, from 1406-38, John Leche (chaplain of Robert III); value is £40.(4)

1438 On death of Leche (or man of same name) James Forrester collated (value £45).(5)

1458 John Kennedy (rector of Edzell) collated to church.(6)

1477 William Mowat resigns church in favour of Thomas Kennedy, in return for annual pension of 55 marks from the fruits.

1478 Church erected into a prebend of St Mary on the Rock. Thomas Kennedy becomes a canon and retains the church. He and his successors enjoined to pay 60 marks yearly for the increase of divine worship in the said church. Thomas complains that he cannot afford the 60 marks and the 55 mark pension; 60 marks dropped to 20 marks.(7)

1541-68 John Dennestoun, rector of Dysart, has a natural son called George, succeeded in 1568 by Robert Dennestoun.(8)

1545 (3 October) Protest by Alexander Roust, for himself and in the name of Thomas Francs (Franche), masons in Linlithgow, for damages and expenses occurred through non-implement to them by Mr John Hepburn, rector of Dalry, of his obligations under a contract betwixt them and him for building an aisle in the parish church of Dysart in honour of God Almighty, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Magnus (done in the presence of the said rector in parish church of Linlithgow).(9) [in 1543-44 Francs had worked as Master of the Masons on the New College in St Andrews].(10)

1548-50 6 people (3 women, 3 men) from the parish registered their testaments at the St Andrews Commissary court. Alex Jak (22 Feb 1548, £6 fee), John Unwie (9 Oct 1549), 40s fee), Christine Inglispoone (12 June 1550), Andrew Bissar (19 Apr 1550) and Katherine Davidson (23 June 1550) specified burial in the parish church of St Servani in Dysart (witnessed by the curate of the church John White).(11) Margaret Touris (9 Aug 1549) specifies burial before the altar of St Anne in the parish church of Dysart; she paid 41s toward the burial (witnessed by the vicar pensioner of Dysart Andrew Symson).(12)

Altars and chaplaincies

St Anne

1549 (9 Aug) Testament of Margaret Touris (9 Aug 1549) specifies burial before the altar of St Anne in the parish church of Dysart; she paid 41s toward the burial.(13)

Post-medieval

Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: The Parish church parsonage and vicarage held by Robert Danielson, parsonage in produce, vicarage valued at £26 13s 4d. Vicar pensioner George Strauchin, paid 41 marks pa.(14)

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

#1583 A date stone on the church suggests that it was in that year that the programme of extensive repairs was carried out by the town council whose magistrates appointed a slater to ‘turf and theik’ the whole church and ‘mend the hollis’.(16) A note in the council records from 17 Jan 1583 mentions a contract with a slater anent the repairing of the kirk, £9 paid to the slater.(17)

#1610 More repairs were carried out in that year but 9 years later there was a riot amongst the congregation who took out their annoyance at the deposition of the minister on the fabric of the church.(18) [no reference to this in the burgh court and council records]

1626 (3 Jan) Andrew Hirdfor paid 10 marks for mending the windows opon the southern side of the church and in Sinclair aisle.(19)

1627 (21 Aug) Act that the pulpit be reformed with all expedience with agreement to be made with a workman.(20)

1630 (15 Apr) Record of the stipends of ministers in the Presbytery of Kirkcaldy; the minister gets 150 marks pa and some produce.(21)

1636 (16 June) Visitation of Dysart by the Presbytery of Kirkcaldy finds the minister to be competent but the brethren regretted the estate of the church. My lord Sinclair’s aisle is altogether decayed in the glass windows. Lord Sinclair was present and promised to repair the same with all diligence. Provision was also made for a school master, 300 marks pa. George Hamilton of Blackburn, Lord Sinclair and John Wemyss noted as the main heritors.(22)

1638 (13 Sept) Reference to a certain Martin Berig being detained in the steeple of the church of Dysart. Presbytery of Kirkcaldy finds no conclusive evidence of his guilt (of witchcraft); nothing ‘meriting his death’.(23)

1655 (9 Aug) The kirk session pays Thomas Simpson, slater, £6 for mending of the kirk.(24)

1656 (7 May) Note that a visitation is due to be carried out on that day [a later reference noted that it was kept but gives no details, unfortunately that falls in the gap in the Kirkcaldy Pres records].(25)

1656 (28 Oct) The session asks for an extension of the act which allowed the ‘lent’ money to be used for repairing the church.(26)

1663 (3 Feb) Request by David Christisone, junior, who requests to the kirk session that his late father might be buried in the choir, in the burial place of his predecessors. He is prepared to give the session 100 marks for the poor box. (session concurs).(27)

[Decision taken that substantial work is required on the church]

1667 (6 Oct) The session orders that a voluntary contribution be made for mending of the glasses, pointing of the roof and other things needful for the fabric of the church.(28) It was noted on 3 Nov that only £17 4s was collected. The session note that this is inconsiderable for the necessary work and so need to take another course for raising the money.(29)

1668 (24 Feb) Lady Catherine Carnegie died at Dysart  and was interred in Lord Sinclair’s aisle in the parish church of Dysart.(30)

1668 (30 Aug) The session notes the hazard in which the fabric of the church was if it should not be repaired and helped before the winter, and considering that there was little hope of getting money off the parishioners, they decide to stent the heritors.(31)

1668 (27 Dec) The treasurer John Ballrie presents his compt for the expenses of the repair of the church, the two largest costs were £38 13s 4d to two slaters John Youle and John Anderson, and £41 16s 8d for repairing the glass windows. Total cost of the materials and men was £128 1s 10d.(32)

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev George Muirhead, 1791): ‘The church is old; its date unknown; tradition says it was built by the Picts. The architect, if he intended it for preaching, cannot be praised for its contrivance. It is dark, the side walls low, and the incumbencies of pillars mean that it is difficult to make the voice reach it’.(33)

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev David Murray, 1836): ‘Near to St Dennis’ chapel, stands the old church of Dysart. Its remains bear all the signature of it having been a splendid and venerable building. On one of the windows the date 1570 has been observed. The steeple and porch, however, are evidently of more ancient workmanship’.(34)

‘The (new) parish church was built in 1802’.(35)

Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches: (George Hay): 1802; some late furniture; tower and part medieval kirk extant.(36)

Notes

1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland, 57.

2. CPP, 252.

3. CPL, Clem, 20, 23 & 173.

4. CPL, Ben, 97 & 136, CPP, 622.

5. CSSR, iv, no. 498.

6. CSSR, v, 681.

7. CPL, xiii, 563, 578 & 590.

8. Prot Bk of Dominus Thomas Johnsoun, 1528-1578,  nos. 312,. 716 & 721.

9. Prot Bk of Dominus Thomas Johnsoun, 1528-1578,  no. 345. John Hepburn seems to have been in the entourage of, and was probably related to, Patrick Hepburn, bishop of Moray (1538-73) whose sister Margaret (d.1542) was married to William Sinclair, 2nd earl of Caithness (d. 1513). John witnessed her last charter in 1542 and was also recorded as escorting Elizabeth Sinclair (nee. Keith) to view the body at Ravenscraig castle shortly after, Notices of the Local Records of Dysart, p.8. As Richard suggested the Sinclair connection probably explains the fairly rare (outside of the far north at least) Magnus dedication.

10. Rentale Sancti Andree, p.198.

11. NRS St Andrews, Register of Testaments, 1 Aug 1549-12 Dec 1551, CC20/4/1, fols. 14, 44, 79, 359 & 362.

12. NRS St Andrews, Register of Testaments, 1 Aug 1549-12 Dec 1551, CC20/4/1, fols, 15-16.

13. NRS St Andrews, Register of Testaments, 1 Aug 1549-12 Dec 1551, CC20/4/1, fols, 15-16.

14. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, 70-71 & 188.

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

16. Swan & McNeill, Dysart, A Royal Burgh, p. 78.

17. NRS Dysart Court and Council Book, 1581-1585, B21/8/4, fol. 41.

18. Swan & McNeill, Dysart, A Royal Burgh, p. 79.

19. NRS Dysart Kirk Session, 1619-1643, CH2/390/1, fol. 49.

20. NRS Dysart Kirk Session, 1619-1643, CH2/390/1, fol. 77.

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

22. NRS Presbytery of Kirkcaldy, Minutes, 1630-1653, CH2/224/1, fols. 169-170.

23. NRS Presbytery of Kirkcaldy, Minutes, 1630-1653, CH2/224/1, fol. 244.

24. NRS Dysart Kirk Session, 1654-1695, CH2/390/3, fol. 264.

25. NRS Dysart Kirk Session, 1654-1695, CH2/390/3, fols. 274 & 276.

26. NRS Dysart Kirk Session, 1654-1695, CH2/390/3, fol. 208.

27. NRS Dysart Kirk Session, 1654-1695, CH2/390/3, fol. 11.

28. NRS Dysart Kirk Session, 1654-1695, CH2/390/3, fol. 71.

29. NRS Dysart Kirk Session, 1654-1695, CH2/390/3, fol. 72.

30. Fraser, History of the Carnegies Earls of Southesk, p. 122.

31. NRS Dysart Kirk Session, 1654-1695, CH2/390/3, fols. 79-80.

32. NRS Dysart Kirk Session, 1654-1695, CH2/390/3, fols. 84-85.

33. Statistical Account of Scotland, (1791), xii, 518-19.

34. New Statistical Account of Scotland, (1836), ix, 134.

35. Ibid, 141.

36. Hay, The Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches, p. 257.

Bibliography

NRS Dysart Court and Council Book, 1581-1585, B21/8/4.

NRS Dysart Kirk Session, 1619-1643, CH2/390/1.

NRS Dysart Kirk Session, 1654-1695, CH2/390/3.

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

NRS St Andrews, Register of Testaments, 1 Aug 1549-12 Dec 1551, CC20/4/1.

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

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 1433-47, 1983, ed. A.I. Dunlop and D MacLauchlan, Glasgow.

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.

Fraser, W., 1867, History of the Carnegies Earls of Southesk and of their Kindred, 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.

Notices of the Local Records of Dysart, 1853 (Maitland Club), Glasgow.

Protocol Book of Dominus Thomas Johnsoun, 1528-1578,  1920, eds. J. Beveridge & J. Russell (Scottish Record Society) Edinburgh.

Rentale Sancti Andree, 1913, ed. R. Hannay (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh.

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

Swan, J & C. Macneill, 1997, Dysart, A Royal Burgh, Dysart.

Architectural description

Tradition suggests that the settlement at Dysart, a word that implies a desert or place of retreat, had its origins in a hermitage established by the seventh/eighth-century saint, Serf or Servanus,(1) to whom the later church is dedicated. A small cave in the grounds of Dysart House, the latter now a Carmelite convent, is associated with that hermitage, where Serf is said to have performed a number of miracles.

It is likely that the medieval parish was founded in the twelfth century, at the time that the Scottish parochial network was beginning to take shape; it was certainly in existence before the early thirteenth century, when there was a dispute over whether or not the church of Kirkcaldy was its dependent chapel. The existence of a church soon after then is confirmed by one of Bishop David de Bernham’s many dedications, on 26 March 1245,(2) though there is nothing in the surviving fabric to indicate if that dedication was associated with any particular building operation. The parsonage and vicarage of Dysart became a prebend of the college of St Mary on the Rock in St Andrews in 1477.(3)

The church continued in use after the Reformation, with orders being given for the removal of the rood loft in 1562. The state of the building was to be a cause of continuing concern. As early as 1636 it was said that the windows of Lord Sinclair’s Aisle were decayed,(4) and in 1715 the town council insisted that it should not be the burgh that was held responsible for the cost of repairs.(5) A south elevation and plans of the church by John Dougall drawn up in 1778 show that the area in use by then was the eastern four and a half bays of the nave, with a complex arrangement of pews and galleries directed towards the pulpit that abutted the third pier from the tower on the south side.(6)

Large late medieval mullioned windows along the south aisle had evidently been reduced in size, but three higher windows with gablets that broke through the aisle cornice level had been inserted to light the galleries. Those gablets were inscribed with the dates 1609, 1583 and 1609 from west to east, the middle one of which is still preserved within the ruined church. Two small rectangular clearstorey windows are also shown as having been pierced through the wall above the arcade.

The south chancel aisle was occupied by the family burial place of Colonel Sinclair’s family, which still retained the large rectangular mullioned windows that had been reduced in size along the south nave aisle. Much of the rest of the building was evidently unused, though the north chancel aisle was walled off for some unstated purpose, and there was a small vestibule at its west end; a variant version of the 1778 survey shows a large door cut through its east wall. There is now a large blocked opening with a semi-circular arch of uncertain date in the east wall of the chancel.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, in his brief description of the church in the Statistical Account, the minister, the Rev. George Muirhead, echoed the usual complaints of those of his clerical brethren who were doing their best to conduct reformed worship in medieval buildings that were deemed ill-suited to their needs. He said that his church was ‘dark, the side walls low, and the incumbrance of pillars, &c so many that it is difficult to make the voice reach it’.(7) He also said that an architect had produced plans for improvements, but that nothing had so far been done.

The church was soon afterwards abandoned after being replaced in 1802-3 by a handsome new building designed by Alexander Laing some distance to its north,(8) after which the medieval church was unroofed. The north aisle was demolished in 1805 to permit the creation of a road down to the harbour for coal wagons. What remained of the church was walled off, though the provision of a relieving arch in part of the new north wall suggests it may have been bridging a burial vault at that point.

Following the removal of the roofs, the Sinclair burial aisle in the south chancel chapel was widened and reconstructed as an independently roofed mausoleum for the family that by then held the earldom of Rosslyn. Its walls are of grey droved ashlar beneath a double-pitched roof, which is now gone, and the three rectangular mullioned windows on the south side were reconstructed as dummies with small apertures at the head of the central light, while dummy windows with intersecting tracery were formed in the new wall on the north side. The mausoleum’s east wall appears to be still largely medieval, and has a blocked rectangular window and a blocked ogee-headed recess of uncertain use that may have been relocated here.

Repairs to the ruined church were carried out after Sir Michael Nairn acquired the Dysart estate from the earl of Rosslyn in 1896, when timber floors were re-inserted in the tower and its roof repaired. The church is now deemed to be the property of Fife Council, and recent repairs have been carried out under the aegis of the Dysart Trust. The church of 1802-3 was itself closed for worship in 1972, and, after a period of secular use, is now in a state of increasing decay. The present more compact parish church in a Romanesque style had been built for a Free Church congregation to the designs of Campbell Douglas and Sellars in 1872-4.(9)

In its final medieval state, the church had aisles that ran the full length of the building.(10) The chancel is known from the survey of 1778 to have been of two bays, which were of greater length than those of the nave, while the nave was of six irregularly spaced bays. Responds that were presumably the supports for a chancel arch are shown between chancel and nave, suggesting there was a defined spatial division between the two parts. Nevertheless, the roofs of both central vessel and aisles ran the length of the church without any break, while there was similarly no punctuation in the unbuttressed aisle walls.

The form of the north aisle wall is unrecorded. The south aisle wall of the nave has had three large rectangular windows, with internal reveals in the form of double chamfers, and with stubs to the sills that show they were mullioned. It may be assumed that they were similar to those shown in the south choir aisle in the 1778 survey. But at a later date, presumably in the seventeenth century, smaller windows have been inserted within them, and it is these that are now seen, with their droved tails and polished margins to the stones of the surrounds.

Embedded within the south aisle wall, towards the west end of the chancel, is an engaged shaft with a foliate capital, which was presumably part of a finely detailed priest’s door. Over the arcades, the walls rose a very short distance above the aisle roofs to support the roof of the central vessel. It is unlikely those walls were intended to be pierced by clearstorey windows; the two small windows shown on the south side at clearstorey level in the survey of 1778 have the appearance of post-medieval cuttings.

Emphasis was given to the west front by a large four-light window with paired chamfers to the internal reveal and more complex mouldings externally; the tracery has been lost, and insufficient of its stubs remains to be able to reconstruct its form. Set asymmetrically beneath it is a small round-arched doorway with a broadly chamfered reveal. The west face of the tower, which is considerably elongated on its north-south axis, continues the line of the west front; it rises above the west bay of the south aisle but projects well to its south, and the porch is in the re-entrant angle between tower and nave.

Within the church most of the piers were recorded in 1778 as being cylindrical, as is the remaining first pier from the west of the north nave arcade, while the west respond of the north nave arcade and the east responds of the two chancel arcades can be still be seen to be semi-cylindrical. However, the second pier from the west of the north nave arcade, along with the corresponding pier of the south arcade, were of elongated form, having semi-circular responds at each end of straight sections of varying lengths, and the 1778 survey indicates this was also the case with the piers at the junction of nave and chancel and the intermediate pier of the north chancel arcade.

The capitals are all of relatively simple moulded form, but with no two of those that survive being of the same profile. The surviving arcade arches are pointed, with two orders of chamfers, though it is possible that there was some variation in the arch forms in view of the differing pier heights indicated by the surviving capitals.

The tower which, like the rest of the building, is unbuttressed, was clearly always intended to be the most prominent feature of the church. It rises through no less than eight storeys, albeit the subdivision between the sixth and seventh storeys was probably an open one, with the windows rising through both storeys. Its external appearance is austerely plain, with walls constructed of fine grey ashlar, except for those parts that were concealed within the church, which are of rubble. The only horizontal articulation below the parapet is a pair of string courses: one between the second and third storeys, and the other between the fourth and fifth storeys.

An unusually defensive air for a church tower is introduced by a series of shot holes of inverted keyhole type in the two lower storeys of the south face of the tower. Most other windows are of simple narrow rectangular form, apart from the single tall pointed opening on each face of the two-storeyed belfry stage.

There is a garret in the form of a crow-stepped cap-house behind a parapet carried on a corbel table, and it is flanked by a smaller crow-stepped cap house to the stair in the north-west corner. The survey of 1778 shows an ogee-domed octagonal cupola rising from the garret roof, though it is not clear if this was a proposal – perhaps for a bellcote - rather than a record of what existed. An unexplained feature on the south face at third-storey level is a pair of stones each with relief carving in the form of what appear to be conjoined equal-arm crosses connected to an L with an elongated lower stroke.

Internally, the two lowest storeys of the tower are covered by round barrel vaults pierced only by a single hatch through each; the bottom level has no other communication with the upper storeys; those upper storeys, however, are all interconnected by a spiral stair at the north-west corner. There is a blocked door in the west wall of the lowest storey, while a small elevated blocked opening in the north face at third-storey level evidently permitted access to the gutter between the tower and nave.

The corbels between the sixth and seventh storeys were probably provided to support the timbers of a bell frame rather than a floor, with a door off the stair giving access to that frame (a similar arrangement may be seen in the belfry stage of the smaller tower at Kirkcaldy). The garret storey has a fireplace in its north wall, suggesting it could be occupied by a watchman.

This storey has retained the very rare survival of a medieval roof over both the garret and stair turret, albeit the medieval rafters have been augmented with additional timbers since the works carried out by Sir Michael Nairn after 1896. The rafters, which are of the standard late medieval construction, with sole-pieces and ashlar struts at the wall head and collars around mid-height, have recently been subjected to dendrochronological analysis, which will be discussed below.

The masonry of the south front of the porch is coursed in with the adjacent tower, though possible slight differences in the face line may indicate that, although tusking had been provided when the tower was built, the porch was only completed somewhat later. There is a gap for a gutter between the tower and porch at the higher level of the latter. The round-arched porch entrance has a quirked and filleted angle roll, with a concentric hollow to the south face. Above it is a stepped string course, and above that is a tabernacle, the lily pot on the corbel of which suggests it contained an image of the Virgin (this corbel has recently been damaged by vandals). The gable of the porch is asymmetrically coped, suggesting it has been modified.

The doorway from the porch into the south aisle has the same mouldings as the outer arch, and is presumably of the same date. Above it is an ogee-arched niche, and the way in which the barrel vault over the porch slightly eclipses the apex of this niche might be taken to suggest that the vault is later; however, such vaults have a tendency to settle, which may be the explanation for this.

The overall air of architectural homogeneity now presented by what has survived of Dysart Church is evidently the result of considerable pains having been taken to achieve this appearance in the later stages of building. In a church of such significance it is unfortunate that there is no firm documentation to provide dates for the stages of the church’s construction, but there are tantalising clues to the sequence of works.

As a starting point for any analysis, the form of the elongated piers towards the west end of the nave should be noted. As already indicated, these have semi-cylindrical responds at each end of a section of irregularly coursed walling. It is of particular significance that the caps of those piers are at different levels, and also that they are of different profiles at each end of the section of wall. This points to the possibility that fragments of pre-existing walls have been cut back to form piers, but that this was done in two stages.

One possible interpretation of this is that the original nave, like the great majority of Scottish parish churches, had been an unaisled structure, possibly occupying no more than the area of the four eastern bays of the later nave. It may first have been first extended laterally by the addition of aisles, with the western residues of the original outer walls being adapted to receive the western arcade arch by the addition of semi-cylindrical responds.

The different treatment of the responds on the west side of these presumed wall residues suggests that the two west bays of the nave may have been a later extension, with the wall residues that had already been adapted as arcade responds being further adapted to receive the additional arcade arches. From the survey of 1778 it appears that the two west bays were slightly more elongated than those further east, and it was presumably to accommodate arches that consequently had to rise to a greater height that the caps were set at a lower level on the west side of these wall residue piers.

If the two west bays of the nave were indeed part of a further phase of augmentation, this may well have been prompted by a decision to add the tower and porch; in this connection it should be borne in mind that it would have been difficult to add such a massive tower over an existing part of the building where the foundations would almost certainly have been inadequate.

There is some evidence that this phase of work had to be carefully phased. A break in coursing that runs diagonally across the southern part of the west front suggests that the new west front was started first, along with part of the lower walling of the towers west face. It would then have taken several seasons to build a tower that rises to a height of 22.75 metres, even if faced with finely cut blocks of ashlar, as is the case at Dysart. It is possible that the porch was only built once work on the tower was well advanced, though careful provision was made through the provision of tusking for the two to be coursed in with each other from the start.

So far as the chancel is concerned, the differences between the piers on the two sides of the chancel as depicted on the survey of 1778 may suggest that its flanking aisles had been added at different times. The survey indicates that the north chancel arcade pier was of elongated form and, as with the elongated nave piers, this may be because a section of earlier wall had been incorporated, though nothing remains in place to show if this was indeed the case. The south chancel arcade pier, however, is shown as cylindrical.

If a combination of the surviving architectural evidence and the record of the 1778 survey permit an outline sequence by which the church took on its final shape to be very tentatively attempted, we have to look more closely at the details to make any assessment of the dating of the stages of this sequence. In its overall form, with aisles along the full length of the building and a tower off one corner, some inspiration may have been drawn from two other important Fife churches, at St Andrews and Cupar, which had been relocated to new sites in 1412 and 1415 respectively,(11) though for reasons that will be discussed below, it is perhaps unlikely that Dysart’s final form was achieved as early as that.

One diagnostically significant feature of the phase of work that appears to have embraced construction of the west nave bays, the tower and the porch, is the shot holes of inverted keyhole form in the south face of the tower. This is a type of shot hole of which some of the earliest Scottish examples are to be found about one kilometre south-west of the church, down the coast at Ravenscraig Castle, which was started by James II, on behalf of Queen Mary of Guelders, in 1460.(12)

On account of the unusually militaristic appearance of Dysart’s tower, it has been suggested that, in addition to serving as a bell tower for the church, it was intended to act as an element in the defence of this part of the north coast of the Forth, in combination with Ravenscraig Castle. In possible support of this, it may be added that the moulding of the south doorway and south porch arch is similar to that employed in a fireplace in Ravenscraig Castle, albeit there with a segmental hollow on each side of the roll. While this was to become a relatively common moulding, and could certainly not be seen as conclusive, in this context it may be an additional point of significance, as may also the high quality grey ashlar used at both Ravenscraig and Dysart.

However, if construction of the tower was indeed started as early as the third quarter of the fifteenth century, it appears not to have been completed until perhaps as much as a century later. Recent dendrochronological analysis of the timbers over the garret roof, which are constructed of Scandinavian oak, have given an earliest felling date of 1502 and other felling dates of 1511/12.(13)

Taking account of the fact that several of those timbers are in secondary usage, this suggests that the roof may not have been constructed over the tower garret before the central decades of the sixteenth century. While allowance must be made for the fact that construction of such a lofty tower is likely to have been a protracted process, and it is also a possibility that the garret was a secondary modification of the original design, this must nevertheless cast some doubt on the suggestion that the earlier parts of the tower are coeval with the earliest work at Ravenscraig Castle.

The period at which the tower was achieving its final form was also the period at which other parts of the church were in the final stages of attaining their ultimate medieval state. This was perhaps at least partly an expression of civic pride. By no later than 1510 Dysart had achieved an enhanced status as a burgh of barony under the protection of Lord Sinclair, and it had evidently come to be regarded as a royal burgh by 1535.(14) It is attractive to suspect that this may have fostered a wish to ensure that the church, as the most impressive architectural expression of the burgh’s standing, was fully equal to that role.

It may be significant that there are records of appointments of kirkmasters, who were responsible for the fabric of the building, in the 1530s: John Lathrisk and David Blair in 1534-5 and George Dick and John Halket in 1537.(15) Also pointing to some building activity in the second quarter of the sixteenth century is a record of 1545, which presumably looks back to some years earlier, of a claim for damages by the masons Alexander Roust and Thomas France in pursuance of an unfulfilled contract for building a chapel dedicated to the Virgin and St Magnus.(16)

The dedication to the Orcadian saint, Magnus, might indicate that the chapel in question was Lord Sinclair’s, whose family’s principal estates had earlier been in the Northern Isles. Since the later members of the Sinclair family had their burial place in the south chancel aisle, there is a case for presuming that this is where this chapel mentioned in the case was intended to be.

It would certainly be possible that the chapel was remodelled around that time, since rectangular mullioned windows of the kind shown in the 1778 view of the south chancel aisle are most commonly found in the early sixteenth century, as in St Leonard’s Collegiate Church in St Andrews, which was rebuilt around the time that it attained collegiate status in 1512.(17) It is also likely that it was in the early sixteenth century that the windows along the south nave aisle were inserted, which can be seen to have been of the same kind as those in the chancel aisle.

In conclusion, it must be stressed that any interpretation of the building sequence of such a fragmentary structure where there is so little firm dating evidence can only be offered extremely tentatively. The only means of establishing the building’s architectural history with greater clarity is likely to be through archaeological investigation. The greater clarity following from such investigation at what must be regarded as one of the most important buildings of the area would also be of benefit in reaching a fuller understanding of related churches in this part of the diocese of St Andrews.

Notes

1. Alan Macquarrie, The Saints of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1997, pp. 145-59; Simon Taylor, The Place-Names of Fife, vol. 1, Donington, 2006, pp. 468-70; Alan Macquarrie, ed., Legends of Scottish Saints, Readings, Hymns and Prayers ...in the Aberdeen Breviary, Dublin, 2012, pp. 414-16.

2. Alan Orr Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, Edinburgh, 1922, vol. 2, p. 525.

3. Ian B. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), 1967, p. 57.

4. National Records of Scotland, Pesbytery of Kirkcaldy, Minutes, 1630-54, CH2/224/1, fols 169-70.

5. Andrew S. Cunningham, Dysart Past and Present, Leven, 1912.

6. Reproduced in Jim Swan and Carol McNeill, Dysart, a Royal Burgh, Dysart, 1997, p. 81.

7.. Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-9, ed. J. Sinclair, Edinburgh, vol. 12, p. 518-9.

8. Howard Colvin, A Bibliographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600, 1840, 4th ed., New Haven and London, 2008, p. 626.

9. John Gifford, The Buildings of Scotland, Fife, London, 1988, p. 288.

10. Published descriptions of the building include: David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland, vol. 5, Edinburgh, 1892, pp. 145–49;  David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1896–7, vol. 3, pp. 437–30; Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the Counties of Fife, Kinross and Clackmannan, Edinburgh, 1933, pp. 130–32. There is a valuable set of measured drawings in J. Russell Walker, Pre-Reformation Churches in Fife and the Lothians, Edinburgh, 1885.

11. Bower’s Scotichronicon, ed. Donald Watt et al., Aberdeen and Edinburgh, 1987-90, vol. 8, pp. 83 and 85.

12. W. Douglas Simpson, Ravenscraig Castle, (Aberdeen University Studies), Aberdeen, 1938.

13. Anne Crone, St Serf’s Church, Dysart, Dendrochronological Analysis (AOC Project 22282), Edinburgh, 2013.

14. George Smith Pryde, The Burghs of Scotland, a Critical List, Oxford, 1956, pp. 31 and 59.

15. Henry Docherty, The Parish Church in the Medieval Scottish Burgh, 1400-1500, unpublished Glasgow University MLitt dissertation, 1977

16. Protocol Book of Thomas Johnsoun, 1528-78, eds  J. Beveridge and J. Russell (Scottish Record Society), 1920, no 345.

17. J. Herkless and R.K. Hannay, The College of St Leonard, Edinburgh, 1905, p. 128; Richard Fawcett, ‘Scottish Medieval Window Tracery’, in David J. Breeze, ed., Studies in Scottish Antiquity, Edinburgh, 1984, pp. 183-4.

Map

Images

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

  • 1. Dysart Church, exterior, tower and west front from west

  • 2. Dysart Old Parish Church, 1778 survey

  • 3. Dysart Church, exterior, tower from west

  • 4. Dysart Church, interior, north nave arcade from north west

  • 5. Dysart Church, interior, south nave arcade, west pier

  • 6. Dysart Old Parish Church, east wall

  • 7. Dysart Old Parish Church, ex situ gablet

  • 8. Dysart Old Parish Church, exterior from north east

  • 9. Dysart Old Parish Church, exterior of east wall from north east

  • 10. Dysart Old Parish Church, exterior of mausoleum

  • 11. Dysart Old Parish Church, exterior of south porch

  • 12. Dysart Old Parish Church, exterior south flank from south west

  • 13. Dysart Old Parish Church, exterior south wall, first window from west

  • 14. Dysart Old Parish Church, exterior south wall, second window from west

  • 15. Dysart Old Parish Church, interior south wall, third window from west

  • 16. Dysart Old Parish Church, exterior west front

  • 17. Dysart Old Parish Church, exterior west front, evidence for building break

  • 18. Dysart Old Parish Church, interior looking east

  • 19. Dysart Old Parish Church, interior of south wall

  • 20. Dysart Old Parish Church, interior of mausoleum

  • 21. Dysart Old Parish Church, interior south wall, first window from west

  • 22. Dysart Old Parish Church, interior south wall, second window from west

  • 23. Dysart Old Parish Church, exterior south wall, third window from west

  • 24. Dysart Old Parish Church, jamb of blocked door in south wall

  • 25. Dysart Old Parish Church, north arcade, second pier from west, 1

  • 26. Dysart Old Parish Church, north arcade second pier from west, 2

  • 27. Dysart Old Parish Church, north arcade second pier from west, 3

  • 28. Dysart Old Parish Church, north arcade fifth pier from west

  • 29. Dysart Old Parish Church, north arcade east respond

  • 30. Dysart Old Parish Church, north arcade west respond

  • 31. Dysart Old Parish Church, north arcade, east bay arch

  • 32. Dysart Old Parish Church, north arcade, first pier from west

  • 33. Dysart Old Parish Church, porch tabernacle

  • 34. Dysart Old Parish Church, relief carvings on south face of tower

  • 35. Dysart Old Parish Church, south arcade, first pier east of tower, 1

  • 36. Dysart Old Parish Church, south arcade, first pier east of tower, 2

  • 37. Dysart Old Parish Church, south arcade east respond

  • 38. Dysart Old Parish Church, south porch interior

  • 39. Dysart Old Parish Church, west window

  • 40. Dysart Old Parish Church, tabernacle above south door

  • 41. Dysart Old Parish Church, longitudinal section (Walker)

  • 42. Dysart Old Parish Church, south elevation (Walker)

  • 43. Dysart Old Parish Church, section looking towards west front (Walker)

  • 44. Dysart Old Parish Church, west front elevation (Walker)

  • 45. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower and north arcade

  • 46. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower caphouse

  • 47. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower caphouse interior

  • 48. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower caphouse roof, 2

  • 49. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower caphouse roof, 1

  • 50. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower from south

  • 51. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower from south west, 1

  • 52. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower from south west, 2

  • 53. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower from south west, 3

  • 54. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower interior, first floor

  • 55. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower interior, second floor

  • 56. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower interior, third floor

  • 57. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower interior, fourth floor

  • 58. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower interior, fifth (belfry) floor

  • 59. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower lower storeys of south face

  • 60. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower section looking west (Walker)

  • 61. Dysart Old Parish Church, tower wall head wall-walk

  • 62. Dysart Old Parish Church, viewed from tower

  • 63. Dysart, St Serf's Cave

  • 64. Dysart later Parish Church

  • 65. Dysart present Parish Church