Pencaitland Parish Church

Pencaitland Church, exterior, north chapel and north aisle from north east

Summary description

The earliest element is a thirteenth-century north aisle to the chancel of what may have been a two-compartment church. A west tower was added in 1631 and a lateral north aisle soon afterwards, as parts of a general remodelling. Restored in 1882.

Historical outline

Dedication: unknown

The first surviving reference to the church of Pencaitland is in the charter by which Everard of Pencaitland granted it to the monks of Kelso Abbey.(1)  Ian Cowan dated this grant to c.1160 but as it was made specifically for the souls’ weal of both Everard and King William it must post-date the king’s accession in 1165.(2)  It is likely that the confirmation of the monk’s possession made by Bishop Hugh of St Andrews (1178-88) was made shortly after Everard’s original grant.(3)  Royal confirmation, again naming Everard as donor, was given to Kelso between 1189 and 1195.(4)  This royal confirmation was followed between 1198 and 1202 by a grant of Pencaitland to the monks in proprios usus by Bishop Roger de Beaumont.(5)  Despite these various confirmations it seems that Kelso had been unable to secure its possession and late in the twelfth or early in the thirteenth century the abbey received a second grant of the church from Everard’s son Walter.(6)  That grant, too, appears to have been ineffective and Kelso was unable to make good the appropriation or, indeed, any claim to possession.

St Andrews’ records note that the church of Pencaitland was dedicated by Bishop David de Bernham on 1 May 1242.(7)  It appears as an independent parsonage in the accounts of the papal tax-collector in Scotland in the 1270s, the rector of ‘Pentland’ being entered as having paid 8s in the first year of the accounts in 1275.(8)  In the 1276 tax year, the rector of ‘Penchland’ was recorded as having paid 10s 8d.(9)

Pencaitland appears to have remained an independent parsonage into the third quarter of the fourteenth century, when it was granted to the canons of Dryburgh Abbey by John Maxwell of Pencaitland.  On 23 April 1381, Pope Clement VIII issued a mandate to the bishop of Glasgow to ratify and confirm the grant of the patronage of the church and its dependent chapel of Paston, together with ten acres of land, made to Dryburgh by John, son of the late John de Maxwell, and also the subsequent appropriation of the church and chapel that had been made by Bishop William Landallis of St Andrews.  The appropriation was to become effective when the church fell vacant by the resignation, or death, of Gilbert de Gleir, then rector.  On Gilbert’s death, the abbot and convent of Dryburgh had taken possession and had since held the church and chapel peacefully for over twenty years.  The bishop of Glasgow was required by the papal mandate to appoint a perpetual vicar, if one had not already been appointed, and to assign to him a suitable portion.(10)  Although canons of Dryburgh appear on occasion to have served as vicars in the late Middle Ages,(11) the cure was a vicarage perpetual at the Reformation.  At that date, the parsonage was in the hands of the canons of Dryburgh and valued at £66 13s 4d and the vicarage was held by one John Chatto and valued at £20 annually.(12)


1. Liber S Marie de Calchou (Bannatyne Club, 1846), no.370 [hereafter Kelso Liber]

2. I B Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society, 1967), 162.

3. Kelso Liber, no.84.

4. Regesta Regum Scottorum, ii, The Acts of William I, ed G W S Barrow (Edinburgh, 1971), no.299.

5. Kelso Liber, no.83.

6. Kelso Liber, no.369.

7. A O Anderson (ed), Early Sources of Scottish History, ii (Edinburgh, 1922), 521 [Pontifical Offices of St Andrews].

8. A I Dunlop (ed), ‘Bagimond’s Roll: Statement of the Tenths of the Kingdom of Scotland’, Miscellany of the Scottish History Society, vi (1939), 33.

9. Dunlop (ed), ‘Bagimond’s Roll’, 56.

10. Calendar of Papa Letters to Scotland of Clement VII of Avignon 1378-1394, ed C Burns (Scottish History Society, 1976), 56.

11. Protocol Book of Sir William Corbet, 1529-1555, eds J Anderson and W Angus (Scottish Record Society, 1911), no.60.

12. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 165, 190, 197.

Summary of relevant documentation


Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: Granted to Kelso by Edward de Pencaitland c.1180. A  fresh grant was made by John de Maxwell 1343-44. The parsonage thereafter remained annexed, with the vicarage occasionally served by canons (see Protocol Book Corbett, no. 60).(1)

c.12-1300 The Winton Aisle dates from the 13th century. It is of first pointed architecture.  At some time after the reformation the Winton Aisle housed a Laird’s loft.(2) The Saltoun aisle dates from the late 17th century.(3)

#1460 Vicar James Clerkson witnesses a charter (see Saltoun Hall writs).

1548 Tack of the teind sheaves of Pencaitland made by the canons of Dryburgh, 100 marks and 40s for the glebe.(4)


Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: The Parish church parsonage held by Dryburgh [Cowan says Kelso], set for £66 13s 4d. Vicarage held by John Chatto, (no value mentioned).(5)

1594 (26 Mar) A visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Haddington approves the minister (James Gibson). It reports that the church was well repaired and kept by the parishioners on the Sabbath day.(6)

1628 (30 Oct) During a visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Haddington, the minister informs the brethren that the proprietors of the parish will get about the repair of the church shortly (brethren tell them to get on with it).(7)

Pencaitland Parish Church (Barker): ‘The tower dates from 1631. The bell is dated 1656 and bears the legend ‘Pencaitland, fear ye Lord’.

1657 (27 Dec) Report that two men had been to Edinburgh and that they had spoken to a merchant for a bell.(8)

1657 (27 Dec) William Cairnes reported to the kirk session that he and David Rid had been at Edinburgh and that the Laird of Woodhead and they had spoken to a merchant for a bell of ten stone weight, who promised to send to London on the first occasions.(9)

1658 (14 Mar) That day the session received a letter from Mr John Pringle of Woodhead showing that the two bells for the kirk were come home - the session to acquaint the heritors, who might find a cause for bringing them from Edinburgh.(10)

1659 (2 May) The session notes that they had spoken to John Pringle of Woodhead anent his portion of the money for mending of the kirk windows.(11)

1673 (16 Dec) At that time it was found that treasurer had been necessitated to advance some money in relation to the fabric of the church for the upholding of which the heritors are liable (heritors to return the money).(12)

1675 (5 Aug) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Haddington finds that the fabric of the church stands in need of reparation, that the roof of the manse is ruinous; meeting of the heritors appointed to mend them.(13)

1681 (25 Aug) On a visit to the church, the Presbytery of Haddington notes that the kirk is ruinous and stands in need of reparation. On 26 July 1682 a meeting of the heritors hears a report from Thomas Martin and John Clark, slaters, and James Wilson, wright; they note that for repair of the roof of the church and steeple, and for securing the bell, which is in danger, left in the wind and weather, 250 marks are required for slates; £557 13s 4d in total for the repairs. 200 marks are to be taken from the poor box and that the rest will be contributed by the heritors.(14)

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev Henry Sangster, 1793): ‘The church is in good repair and fitted up in a decent manner’.(15) [no reference to date]

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev A Markellor, 1835): ‘The parish church is a very venerable and picturesque structure. One part of it, called the Pencaitland aisle, from the form and architecture must have been built in the days of Popery. The other and larger portion was erected in 1631’.(16)

Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches (George Hay): Small kirk adapted for Protestant use, pulpit against south wall, baptism basin bracketed to side of pulpit, aisle adapted to accommodate heritor’s loft, resulted in a ‘T’ plan church, displays the initials and arms of Thomas Hepburn (minister 1578-95) and of Margaret Sinclair his wife.(17)


1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland, 162.

2. Barker, Pencaitland Parish Church, pp. 2-3.

3. Barker, Pencaitland Parish Church, p. 4.

4. Prot Bk of Sir William Corbet, no. 60.

5. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, 165, 190 & 197.

6. NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1587-96, CH2/185/1, fols. 91-92.

7. NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1627-1639, CH2/185/4, fols. 23-24.

8. Barker, Pencaitland Parish Church, pp. 4-5.

9. NRS Pencaitland Kirk Session, 1633-1703, CH2/296/1, fol. 66.

10. NRS Pencaitland Kirk Session, 1633-1703, CH2/296/1, fol. 68.

11. NRS Pencaitland Kirk Session, 1633-1703, CH2/296/1, fol. 68.

12. NRS Pencaitland Kirk Session, 1633-1703, CH2/296/1, fol. 98.

13. NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1662-1686, CH2/185/7, fols. 200-201.

14. NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1662-1686, CH2/185/7, fols, 305 & 309-10.

15. Statistical Account of Scotland, (1793), xvii, 41.

16. New Statistical Account of Scotland, (1835), ii, 353.

17. Hay, The Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches, pp. 22, 41, 52, 172, 185, 189, 191, 197, 232 & 233.


NRS Material relating to the parish: North Berwick, Oldhamstocks, Ormiston, Pencaitland, GD1/413/9.

NRS Pencaitland Kirk Session, 1633-1703, CH2/296/1.

NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1587-96, CH2/185/1.

NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1627-1639, CH2/185/4.

NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1662-1686, CH2/185/7.

Barker, R. W., 1975, Pencaitland Parish Church. A short History and Description, Edinburgh.

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

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

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

Protocol Book of Sir William Corbet, 1529-1555, 1911, eds. J. Anderson & W. Angus (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh.

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

Architectural description

There was a church at Pencaitland by no later than around 1180, when an ineffective attempt was made to grant it to the Tironensian abbey of Kelso by Edward of Pencaitland. Subsequently it was successfully granted to the Premonstratensian abbey of Dryburgh by John de Maxwell of Pencaitland and Sir John de Maxwell of Maxwell, and this was confirmed by Bishop William de Landallis of St Andrews in 1343-4. Under this arrangement the vicarage was occasionally served by one of the abbey’s canons.(1) Bishop David de Bernham carried out one of his dedications here on 1 May 1242.(2)

The earliest identifiable part of the building as it now stands is a much modified two-bay projection off the north flank of the part of the building that would presumably have been the chancel.(3) As first built, along the north flank of the addition there were three broad gableted buttresses rising without offsets. Between the buttresses was a pair of large windows rising from a moulded string course. They have continuous reveal mouldings in the form of multiple rolls and hollows, and must once have contained impressive displays of tracery; one is now blocked, while the other has been adapted to contain a door beneath a small circular window.

The window in the east wall was probably once of a similar scale, but was blocked when a forestair and loft door were inserted, and it now contains tracery likely to date from a restoration said to have taken place in 1882.(4) The west window, which is of uncertain date but probably post-Reformation, has a spherical lozenge between the two light heads.

In a later phase of works the buttresses were greatly augmented and the wall head was slightly raised, with an added cavetto cornice decorated with carved heads. These changes were probably associated with the insertion of vaulting, and references to the erstwhile existence of a stone-flagged roof suggest that this vaulting was of pointed barrel form.(5)

Internally it is possible that the offshoot was initially separated from the chancel by an arcade of two arches. The east respond is in the form of a pilaster with inset nook shafts at its angles, which support square capitals of chalice form. The respond has been augmented to the north, perhaps when barrel vaulting was inserted over the aisle. There is now a single three-centred arch that is likely to have been formed when a post-Reformation loft was inserted in the aisle. That loft has since been removed, and the arch is currently supported by centring.

The aisle has the appearance of having been high quality work of the mid or later thirteenth century. But if it was so early it is difficult to know what its function would have been. The thirteenth century would be an early date for the addition of a family chapel, and if it was a sacristy it is difficult to understand why such an ancillary structure should be so finely detailed.

An alternative case can be made that it is an example of the later medieval revival of thirteenth-century forms, and that it was built to house a chaplainry. But there is a consistency in the mouldings and detailing which would be unlikely to be found in the later fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, and the east respond, in particular could hardly be other than of thirteenth-century date. In addition, the great size of the windows would be more in keeping with a thirteenth-century aesthetic, when there was an interest the technical challenge of voiding walls to the maximum extent. On balance a thirteenth-century date must be favoured, perhaps with the possibility that it was a chapel associated with some now unknown saint’s cult.

There is little evidence for the form of the church to which the north aisle was attached. However, a change in the alignment of the wall immediately to the west of the projection suggests that the church was a two-compartment building, with a chancel that was slightly narrower than the nave, and that a chancel arch has been removed to create a more unified space.

At some uncertain stage the main body of the church has been rebuilt to a rectangular plan, with rubble walls rising from a chamfered base course. The south wall is braced by five buttresses of varying kinds, and there is also a buttress at the west end of the north wall and one at the north end of the east wall. There is a possibility that this remodelling was carried out before the Reformation; but, if that is the case, there was certainly subsequent further remodelling.

The most likely date for that further remodelling was in 1631, when a tower was added at the west end of what had been the nave. That date is inscribed above the tower’s west door, together with the initials of the incumbent, John Oswald. The tower is rectangular up to a little above the level of the nave roof, beyond which it becomes an octagon capped by a slated spirelet with flared eaves. The work was presumably nearing completion when a bell dated 1638 was installed in the tower.

A forestair on the north side of the tower gives access to a loft at the west end of the church, the front of which is decorated with paired arches supported by Corinthianesque pilasters. The windows of the main body of the church were probably remodelled at the same time, the south face having three large pointed windows with slightly shouldered rear arches, while the west bay has an elevated window to light the loft. The east window has Y-tracery above a rectangular door.

The last significant addition to the church was a large rectangular laterally projecting north aisle, to the west of the medieval north chapel, which is separated from the body of the church by a segmental arch. This addition was probably also made in the earlier decades of the seventeenth century.

The aisle has a Y-traceried window in the north gable wall, but the main external emphasis is on the west face. A blocked ogee-arched window was evidently of two cusped lights with a quatrefoil between the light heads. The door, to the north of the window, is flanked by Tuscan pilasters which support a broken segmental pediment containing a shield flanked by strapwork. Rising through the breach in the pediment is a cartouche with the initials SIS, thought to be for Sir John Sinclair – perhaps the John Sinclair who is known to have been heir to the Herdmanston estate in 1638.

There have evidently been various campaign of work over later years, though it is difficult to be certain when they were carried out. In 1681 repairs costed at £557.13s.4d were said to be necessary.(6) But later ministers seem to have been unusually happy with a church that was not designed for reformed worship. The minister at the time of the Statistical Account affirmed that the building was in good repair,(7) while his successor at the time of the New Statistical Account verged on the lyrical in describing his church as ‘a very venerable and picturesque structure’.(8)


1. Ian B. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society), 1967, p. 162.

2. Alan Orr Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, Edinburgh, 1922, vol. 2, p. 521.

3. Published accounts of the church include: David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, vol. 2, 1896, pp. 304–06; Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Inventory of East Lothian, Edinburgh, 1924, pp. 82–84; Christopher Wilson in Colin McWilliam, The Buildings of Scotland, Lothian, 1978, pp. 376–78. 

4. Francis H. Groome, Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, vol. 5, 1884.

5. Transactions of the Edinburgh Architectural Association, vol. 1, 1891, p. 127.

6. National Records of Scotland, Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1662-86, CH2/185/7, fols 305 and 309-10.

7. Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-99, vol. 17, p. 41.

8. New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45, vol. 2, p. 353.



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

  • 1. Pencaitland Church, exterior, north chapel and north aisle from north east

  • 2. Pencaitland Church, exterior, from east

  • 3. Pencaitland Church, exterior, from south

  • 4. Pencaitland Church, exterior, from south east, 1

  • 5. Pencaitland Church, exterior, from south east, 2

  • 6. Pencaitland Church, exterior, monument on south wall

  • 7. Pencaitland Church, exterior, north aisle, from west

  • 8. Pencaitland Church, exterior, north chapel, blocked window and buttress

  • 9. Pencaitland Church, exterior, north chapel, from east

  • 10. Pencaitland Church, exterior, north chapel, from north

  • 11. Pencaitland Church, exterior, north chapel, from north east

  • 12. Pencaitland Church, plan (MacGibbon and Ross)

  • 13. Pencaitland Church, west door

  • 14. Pencaitland churchyard, gravestones

  • 15. Pencaitland Church, interior, gallery front

  • 16. Pencaitland Church, interior, looking north east

  • 17. Pencaitland Church, interior, pulpit

  • 18. Pencaitland Church, interior, relocated gallery front

  • 19. Pencaitland Church, interior, looking east

  • 20. Pencaitland Church, interior, looking west

  • 21. Pencaitland Church, interior, north aisle, east arcade respond

  • 22. Pencaitland Church, interior, north aisle, interior

  • 23. Pencaitland Church, interior, Sinclair Aisle