Swinton Parish Church

Swinton Church, exterior, from west

Summary description

Parts of the medieval church may survive in the walls of the present T-plan structure, which has been rebuilt or remodelled on a number of occasions, including 1635, 1729, 1782, 1796, 1800 and 1837. 

Historical outline

Dedication: Our Lady?(1)

The lands of Swinton had been granted to the monks of Durham by King Edgar (1097-1107) and their possession was confirmed around 1116 x 1118 by his youngest brother, David.(2)  Possession of the church presumably flowed from this original general grant but it was not until 1150 that Bishop Robert of St Andrews explicitly confirmed the monks’ possession of it, with application of Swinton’s teind income devoted to the support of Durham’s cell at Coldingham.(3)  The church continued to be confirmed in Durham’s possession into the 1440s.(4)  A vicarage settlement was in place from the early part of the thirteenth century and it is as a vicarage that the church was recorded in the rolls of the papal tax-collector in Scotland for 1274-5, where it was noted that one merk of taxation had been received.(5)  In the surviving tax-roll for the archdeaconry of Lothian produced in the 1290s, Swinton’s vicarage was recorded with a true value of £7 10s and a tax levy of 15s, while the parsonage was recorded under the taxation for Coldingham at £22.(6)  Throughout the protracted dispute over control of Coldingham and its properties from the late fourteenth until late fifteenth centuries, Swinton remained in the possession of that community despite reconfirmations of Durham’s rights in the church, and the annexation to the Berwickshire priory remained effective at the Reformation.  At that time the church was set for £10 worth of victual, while the vicarage was in the hands of John Forret and valued at £11 annually.(7)

There are few other references to the church beyond these basic details concerning its appropriation and revenues.  A named vicar, William Bertram, was recorded in 1448 when he was accused of simony in obtaining the perpetual vicarage.(8)  The outcome of proceedings against him is unknown.  Apart from its general inclusion in details of the property portfolio of Coldingham, there is a gap of over a century after that last record until 1555-6 when Swinton was named amongst twenty-two churches in the deanery of Merse by the Dean of Christianity in a report to Archbishop John Hamilton deploring their physical condition and level of furnishing.  The poor state of these buildings was blamed on both the neglect of the appropriators and the inaction of the patrons and parishioners.  Hamilton instructed the Dean to investigate the state of the teinds of the churches in question and to take whatever steps were necessary to remedy the situation.(9)  It is unknown how far the Dean’s investigations had progressed before the events of 1560 intervened.


1. J M Mackinlay, Ancient Church Dedications in Scotland. Scriptural Dedications (Edinburgh, 1910), 140.  Mackinlay based his suggestion on the Latin inscription on the church’s late fifteenth-century bell, which states ‘My name is Mary’.

2. Charters of David I, ed G W S Barrow (Woodbridge, 1999), nos 9 and 10.

3. J Raine, History and Antiquities of North Durham (London, 1852), Appendix, nos iv, ccccxlix, cccclxix; The Correspondence, Inventories, Account Rolls and Law Proceedings of the Priory of Coldingham, ed J Raine (Surtees Society, 1841), cxiii [hereafter Coldingham Correspondence].

4. Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome, iv, 1433-1447, eds A I Dunlop and D MacLauchlan (Glasgow, 1983), no.1111.

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

6. Coldingham Correspondence, cx, cxiii.

7. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 187, 200, 204.

8. Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome, v, 1447-1471, eds J Kirk, R J Tanner and A I Dunlop (Glasgow, 1997), no.210.

9. NRS Miscellaneous Ecclesiastical Records, CH8/16.

Summary of relevant documentation


Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: The lands and church of Swinton belonged to Durham by 1150, with revenues devoted to Coldingham. A vicarage had been erected by the early 13th century.(1)

Mackinlay notes that the church was probably dedicated to Our Lady ‘if one may judge from the inscription, Maria Est Nomen Meum, which appears on its pre-Reformation bell of date 1499.(2)

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.(3)

1448 Henry Woodman accuses William Bertram of committing simony in obtaining the perpetual vicarage of Swinton, value £20. Full accusation in CPL, William promised a sum of money to Henry Creich, (the previous vicar), to exchange the church.(4)

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.(7)


Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: The Parish church parsonage and vicarage with Coldingham, kirk set for £10 and produce.(6)

[The parishes of Swinton and Simprin were united in 1761, with the parish church of Swinton serving the new parish]

1572 (6 Mar) James, the bishop of St Andrews, accused of having admitted a ‘popish priest’ called John Forret to the church of Swinton. James pleads that Forret had recanted all papistry in the church of St Andrews and therefore had been admitted. Forret ordered to cease ministering the sacraments and appear before the Superintendant of Lothian.(7)

1627 (22 June) Report on the parish by the minister (Andrew Arbuthnot) describes the whole parish as possessed by Robert Swinton of that ilk as having a choir without a roof, and there is only room in the church for half the parishioners.(8)

#1729 The main part of the church was enlarged. A new wing was thrown out known as the ‘feuars aisle’. [Nothing in the kirk session or Presbytery records anent the building work]

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev George Cupples, 1791): ‘At the annexation it was on good grounds believed, that the old church of Swinton would hold all the inhabitants of both parishes…[it proved to be too small]. A very handsome aisle was added in 1782, to the north side of the church which was built in 1729’.(9)

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev James Logan): [Nothing to add to above]

Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches (George Hay): 1729 with earlier fragments; 1782 aisle and later additions, 1499 bell. Rectangular church which embodied original walling. Rebuilt in 1729 is  along rectangle to which a northern aisle was added in 1782.(10)


1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland, 193-94.

2. Mackinlay, Scriptural Dedications, Edinburgh, p. 140.

3. CSSR, iv, no.1111.

4. CSSR, v, no. 210, CPL, x, 460.

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

6. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, 200 & 204.

7. Acts and Proceedings of the General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland, i, 255.

8. Reports on the State of Certain Parishes in Scotland, pp. 5-8.

9. Statistical Account of Scotland, (1791), vi, 332.

10. Hay, The Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches, pp.77 & 252.


NRS Miscellaneous Ecclesiastical Records, CH8/16.

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 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., 1960, The Scottish Reformation, Cambridge.

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.

Mackinlay, J.M, 1910, Ancient Church Dedications in Scotland. Scriptural Dedications, Edinburgh.

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.

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

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

Architectural description

There was a church at Swinton by at least the early twelfth century, when it was in the possession of Durham Cathedral Priory; this was confirmed by Bishop Robert in 1150, with Durham’s daughter house at Coldingham as the beneficiary. By the beginning of the thirteenth century a vicarage had been erected.(1) The church appears to have suffered in the Border warfare of the sixteenth century, since on 9 April 1556 Archbishop John Hamilton listed it as one of the 22 churches in the Merse that were in a poor state of repair.(2)

As now seen, the church is an aggregation of elements of several dates, around a much-rebuilt medieval rectangular core. There may have been some post-Reformation adaptation of the building as early as the end of the sixteenth century, on the basis of a stone now within the south-west porch that is inscribed ‘Mak no delay to turn to the Lord. Anno 1593’, though it is uncertain what may have been done then.

Matters had deteriorated by 1627, when it was said that the choir was without a roof.(3) It was perhaps in response to the condition of the building at that time that works on its eastern part were carried out which are commemorated by an armorial stone set into the east gable with the initials of Sir Alexander Swinton and his wife, Margaret Home, and the date 1635.

According to the author of the parish entry in the Statistical Account there was a major rebuilding in 1729: ‘the old fabric was taken down on account of an apprehension that it was in a ruinous and dangerous state; whereas on setting about pulling it down it appeared to be uncommonly strong, and might have stood for ages’.(4) Nevertheless, the structural evidence, particularly at the east end suggests that the rebuilding may not have been as complete as suggested, since parts of the walls certainly appear to be medieval.

In 1761 the parish was united with that of Simprim,(5) and this may have been one of the prompts to the feuars of Swinton to add a lateral aisle at the centre of the north flank in 1782, giving the church a T-plan. This addition is commemorated in an inscription which states ‘Built in 1782 this ayle is the property of the fewars of Swinton’ This addition possibly necessitated the removal of a barrel vault over the Swinton vault, the lowest courses of which are to be seen along its east side.

Further works, including modifications to windows, are datable to 1796 and 1800 by inscribed gablets, while in 1837 the Feuars’ Aisle was extended westwards. Other post-Reformation augmentations to the rectangular medieval plan were two porches and a forestair on the south front, while along the north side there are a vestry and a small boiler house. In 1910-11 there was a major restoration under the direction of Sir Robert Lorimer, with the involvement of Thomas Marwick.

Apart from the Swinton burial enclosure, the church throughout is rubble-built.(6) The main front, to the south, is a loose composition, with no attempt at symmetry in the placing of the small porches, each of which has a west doorway. Three irregularly-spaced windows rise into gabletted dormers, two of which, as mentioned above, are dated 1796 and 1800. A fourth smaller window lights the space below the Swinton loft, in what was presumably the original chancel area. The Swinton loft is approached by a forestair with a seventeenth-century moulded doorway at its head capped by a steep pediment carved with the Swine of the Swinton family.

The east wall, which rises from what appears to be a medieval chamfered plinth, has a rectangular window lighting the Swinton loft, with an ogee-profiled moulding below its lintel. Over the window is the armorial tablet mentioned above, with the arms of Swinton, the initials of Alexander Swinton and Margaret Home and the date 1635, the year of their marriage.  The west wall, surmounted by a bellcote on a stepped base, is pierced by a three-light simply traceried window of around 1913.

The north side of the church is the most complex. At the east end is the ashlar-built Swinton burial enclosure, which was evidently originally covered by a barrel vault. A panel built into the re-faced north wall of the church has relief carvings of the swine of the Swintons, and the initials of Alexander Swinton and Margaret Home, which points to a seventeenth-century date for its original construction. The window looking from the church into the aisle has the date 1910 in its gablet.

The rest of the north front is dominated by the adjacent gables of the Feuars’ Aisle of 1782 and its westward extension of 1837. In front of the former is a widely-gabled nineteenth-century vestry with a two-light window, and in front of the extension is a low boiler house, incorporating a modern relief cross head in its west wall.

Internally the church is ordered with the furnishings looking towards the pulpit and communion table at the middle of the south wall, with the Swinton loft within what had been the chancel at the east end. In the north wall of chancel is a large rebated rectangular recess of evidently medieval date, with shelf at mid-height and a modern lintel; in this position it might have been a Sacrament House.

Much of the interior and its furnishings in their present form date from 1910-11, when the wall-heads of the north aisle were raised and the ceilings re-formed. The Tuscan columns carrying the roof junction between the main body and N aisle are evidently of 1837, but were elevated on plinths in 1910.

In an arched recess at the middle of the south wall, to the east of the pulpit is the low relief simply carved effigy of a knight with the inscription ‘HIC IACET ALANUS SVINTONIUS MILES DE EODEM’; it is probably post-medieval, albeit crudely carved to give the impression of greater antiquity.


1. Ian B. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society), 1967, pp. 193-94.

2. National Records of Scotland, Miscellaneous Ecclesiastical Records, CH8/16.

3. Reports on the State of Certain Parishes in Scotland, ed. A. MacGrigor (Maitland Club), 1835, pp. 5-8.

4. Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-99, vol. 6, pp. 351-2.

5. Statistical Account, vol. 6, p. 351.

6. This account is based on that in Kitty Cruft, John Dunbar and Richard Fawcett, The Buildings of Scotland, Borders, New Haven and London, 2006, pp. 712-13.



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

  • 1. Swinton Church, exterior, from west

  • 2. Swinton Church, exterior, from north west

  • 3. Swinton Church, exterior, from south

  • 4. Swinton Church, exterior, from north east

  • 5. Swinton Church, exterior, from north west

  • 6. Swinton Church, exterior, from south east

  • 7. Swinton Church, exterior, from south

  • 8. Swinton Church, exterior, dated cartouche in window gablet on north side of chancel

  • 9. Swinton Church, exterior, dated cartouche in window gablet on south side, 2

  • 10. Swinton Church, exterior, east gable, armorial panel

  • 11. Swinton Church, exterior, carved panel in Swinton Aisle

  • 12. Swinton Church, exterior, Swinton Aisle from north

  • 13. Swinton Church, exterior, Swinton Aisle

  • 14. Swinton Church, exterior, Swinton loft, gablet above entrance

  • 15. Swinton Church, interior, aubry in north wall of chancel area

  • 16. Swinton Church, interior, effigy in south wall

  • 17. Swinton Church, interior, looking east

  • 18. Swinton Church, interior, looking into Feuars' Aisle

  • 19. Swinton Church, interior, looking west