Old Cambus / Aldcambus Parish Church

Old Cambus Church, from north east

Summary description

Fragmentary remains of a twelfth-century two-compartment church that may have been vaulted throughout; modified in the later middle ages. Abandoned in about 1610.

Historical outline

Dedication: unknown

Presumably already a long-established component of the Durham estate in the later twelfth century, no record appears to survive of the church of Aldcambus before its grant 1199x1200 in proprios usus to monks of Durham’s Benedictine priory by Roger, bishop of St Andrews.(1)  Almost immediately, the priory assigned the corn teinds of the parish for the support of the monks of their small dependent cell on Farne Island, who still held church in 1298.(2

Despite the appropriation to Durham, both rector and vicarage of Aldcambus were listed in Bagimond’s Roll in the 1270s, the parsonage revenues being assessed at 20s and the vicarage at 16s 4d.(3

The link to the Farne cell had ended by 1357, when the revenues were recorded as again lying with Durham directly.(4) At some point between 1357 and 1365, the church appears to have been placed in the possession of Durham’s Scottish cell, the priory at Coldingham, for the priory’s accounts for 1365-8 record separate payments for various repair works on the church (12s for repairs and re-glazing of two windows in the chancel and 10s 6d for work on the fabric of the chancel.(5)  Coldingham, however, appears only to have been given the administration of the church under Durham’s over-arching possession of the parsonage, for on 20 March 1445 its prior petitioned the pope for the appropriation of the vicarage to the uses of his community.(6)  His petition appears to have been unsuccessful. 

Following the separation of Coldingham from Durham’s superiority, Aldcambus was one of the churches attached to the priory and remained so at the Reformation, when the teind sheaves were recorded as being heritably in the hands of Alexander, lord Home.(7)


1. J Raine, History and Antiquities of North Durham (London, 1852), Appendix, no.cccclxix.

2. Raine, North Durham, Appendix, no.dccxii.

3. A I Dunlop, ‘Bagimond’s Roll: Statement of the Tenths of the Kingdom of Scotland’, Miscellany of the Scottish History Society, vi (Scottish History Society, 1939), 35.

4. Raine, North Durham, Appendix, 344; I B Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society, 1967), 5.

5. Coldingham Correspondence, Appendix, liv, lv.

6. Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome, iv 1433-1447, eds A I Dunlop and D MacLauchlan (Glasgow, 1983), no.1181.

7. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 199.

Summary of relevant documentation


Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: The church was granted 1199-1200 by Roger, bishop of St Andrews, to Durham, with corn tithes assigned to the monks of Farne Island. Revenues were with the cell of Coldingham 1368-1444.(1)

1444  (December) Pope Eugene IV issues a confirmation of the possession of Durham in Scotland, including the churches of Ayton (chapel), Swinton, Ednam, Stitchel, Old Cambus, Lamberton, Berwick, Fishwick, Edrom and Earlston.(2)

1445 Petition by John, prior of Coldingham, that ‘in the place of Aldecambus (whose parish church is appropriated to the said priory, and the from whose fruits etc a fit portion is assigned to support a perpetual vicar) on account of wars, barrenness and on account of the diminution of the said portion and of the fewness of the parishioners, no vicar has for many years resided and no divine offices celebrated, whereby divine worship is almost entirely abandoned.’ John petitions for appropriation of the vicarage, in which at present there are no more than 6 parishioners [are paying tithes?] and the appointment, at the presentation of Coldingham, of a priest to serve the cure (value £2 maximum). Chaplain or vicar pensioner to serve the cure.(3)

1556 (9 April) Parish church is one of 22 from the Merse specifically mentioned in two letters [the 1555 letter does not have a specific date, McRoberts suggests August] from John Hamilton, archbishop of St Andrews (1547-1571) to the Dean of Christianity of the Merse. Hamilton states that ‘a great many of the parish churches are - their choirs as well as naves - wholly thrown down and as it were levelled to the ground; others were partly ruinous or threatening collapse in respect of their walls and roofs; they were without glazed windows and without a baptismal font and had no vestments for the high altars and no missals or manuals…. The fault and shortcomings belong to the parishioners as well as to the parsons’. The dean was instructed to investigate the fruits, garbal teinds and other rights of the said churches.(4)


Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: The Parish church pertains to Coldingham, set for £26 13s 4d (lands described as Alexander, lord Hume’s ‘heritage’).(5)

1656 (23 Apr) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Dunbar finds the minister to be competent, notes that the earl of Tweedale is the main heritor (no ref to fabric).(6)

[Annexed to the parish of Cocksburnpath sometime post-Reformation, no specific date. Parish church moved to Cocksburnpath.]

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev Andrew Spence, 1791): ‘part of the church still remains at Auldcambus, called St Helen’s Kirk. From the nature of the building, and other circumstances, it is supposed to have been erected sometime in the 7th century’.(7)

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev Andrew Baird, 1834): ‘In the annexed parish of Old Cambus, the ruins of the old church named St Helen’s still remains, overhanging a high precipice on the shore… from the nature of the building, which is a very simple piece of Saxon architecture’.(8) [long story follows regarding 7th century foundation]


1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland, 5.

2. CSSR, iv, no.1111.

3. CSSR, iv, no. 1181, CPL, ix, 471-2.

4. NRS Miscellaneous Ecclesiastical Records, CH8/16. Noted in Donaldson, Scottish Reformation, p. 23 and McRoberts, ‘Material destruction caused by the Scottish Reformation’, 427.

5. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, 199.

6. NRS Presbytery of Dunbar, Minutes, 1652-1657, CH2/99/1, fol. 113.

7. Statistical Account of Scotland, (1791), xiii, 231.

8. New Statistical Account of Scotland, (1834), ii, 304.


NRS Miscellaneous Ecclesiastical Records, CH8/16.

NRS Presbytery of Dunbar, Minutes, 1652-1657, CH2/99/1.

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

Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome 1433-47, 1983, ed. A.I. Dunlop and D MacLauchlan, Glasgow.

Cowan, I.B., 1967, The parishes of medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh.

Donaldson, G., 1960, The Scottish Reformation, Cambridge.

Kirk, J., 1995, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, (British Academy) Oxford.

McRoberts, D., 1962., ‘Material destruction caused by the Scottish Reformation’, in D. McRoberts, Essays on the Scottish Reformation, 1513-1625, Glasgow.

New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45, Edinburgh and London.

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

Architectural description

The ruins of what must have been a notably fine twelfth-century church occupy a high wind-swept site looking out across the North Sea. The existence of two probably eleventh-century hog back stones suggests there may have been a church here from that period.(1) The first, recorded by the east gable, has three panels with beasts on one side and three rows of tiling on the other; the second, which is less complete is recorded south of the chancel, and has a beast on one side and four rows of tegulation on the other.

The parish comes on record in 1199-1200, when it was granted to Durham by Bishop Roger of St Andrews, but it passed to Coldingham before the mid-fifteenth century.(2) In about1610 the parish was united with Cockburnspath, and the church began to fall into decline; parts of the masonry were removed to carry out repairs to farm buildings before 1861 and the east gable was blown down in 1866.(3)

Repairs were carried out to the chancel in 1365,(4) but by 1445, when the prior of Coldingham petitioned to appropriate the vicarage, it was said that there had been no vicar for many years and that worship had been almost completely abandoned at the church.(5) The situation appears not to have improved by 1556, when Oldcambus was one of the churches in the area that was listed as being decayed.(6)

By the mid-nineteenth century the fabric was extensively robbed to provide masonry for farm buildings,(7) but drawings made before it reached its present more advanced state of decay indicate that the earliest parts of the church were probably of a date around the mid-twelfth century. It is built of well-cut red sandstone, with many blocks of cubical form, though the irregularity of the coursing of some of those stones could point to the possibility that they were in secondary use.

It was set out with two rectangular compartments, the nave being considerably wider and longer than the chancel. The chancel was barrel vaulted, and the springing of that vaulting, constructed of narrow courses of rubble, remains along the north wall. More remarkably, early views indicate that the nave was also vaulted, albeit nothing now remains of any nave vault. Those same views show that the internal details were enriched with chevron decoration to the rear-arch of the single small east window and chip carving to the imposts of the chancel arch.(8) The jambs of the chancel arch appear to have had no less than five engaged shafts. Small rectangular recess on each side of the chancel arch may have been associated with nave altars, or perhaps with votive images.

More puzzling is a series of three segmental-arched recesses below the level of the south nave windows, the most likely function of which was to house tombs. In view of the known quality of the church as a whole, it is regrettable that there is nothing more than gaps in the masonry to indicate the location of the doorways in the two sides of the nave.

The west wall has been rebuilt, probably in the fifteenth century. It now stands to a greater height than the rest of the building, and has diagonal buttresses with two levels of offsets below the top gablet. The wall has a large number of what appear to be putlog holes, and embodies much re-used masonry. There are no traces of the nave vault within this wall, though it is possible that the vault shown in early views simply abutted against it.


1. J.T. Lang, ‘Hogback Monuments in Scotland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 105, 1972-4, pp. 218-19. These stones could not be located at the time of the visit in preparation for writing the corpus entry because of the overgrown state of the church enclosure.

2. Ian B. Cowan, the Parishes of Medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), 1967, p. 5.

3. G.A.C. Binnie, the Churches and Churchyards of Berwickshire, Ladykirk, 1995, pp. 76-79.

4. The Correspondence, Inventories, Account Rolls and Law Proceedings of the Priory of Coldingham, ed. John Raine (Surtees Society), 1841, App. pp. liv-lv

5. Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome 1433-47, ed. A.I. Dunlop and D. MacLauchlan, Glasgow, 1983, no 1181; 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, pp. 471-72.

6. National Records of Scotland, Miscellaneous ecclesiastical Records, CH8/16.

7. David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, vol. 1, 1896, fig. 281.

8. T.S. Muir, (1862) ‘Notice of the ancient church of St Helen at Aldcambus, and of fragments apparently of a monastic building at Luffness’, Proceedings of the Society of  Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 3, p. 298; Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, vol. 1, pp. 323-25. In his Characteristics of Old Church Architecture &c. in the Mainland and Western Islands of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1861, Muir states on p. 13 ‘Since first visited by me, the chancel has been in greater part pulled down and the stones, along with most of those which were set over the graves in the surrounding burying-ground, carried off to mend the farmer’s dykes and barns!’.



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

  • 1. Old Cambus Church, from north east

  • 2. Old Cambus Church, chancel north wall, vault springing

  • 3. Old Cambus Church, exterior, nave west wall from south west

  • 4. Old Cambus Church, interior, nave west wall

  • 5. Old Cambus Church, nave south wall, tomb recesses

  • 6. Old Cambus Church, nave west wall, re-used Romanesque masonry

  • 7. Old Cambus, interior (MacGibbon and Ross)