Yester / Bothans / Yestrith Collegiate Church

Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, west front, 1

Summary description

The modified fragment of a cruciform church that housed a college founded in 1421. The east limb was truncated in 1635. A new church was built in Gifford in 1708, after which the old church was adapted as a mausoleum. A new west front was built across the truncated nave in 1753-4 to the designs of one of the Adam brothers. 

Historical outline

Dedication: St Cuthbert

First recorded as the church of ‘Yestrith’ at its dedication in 1241 by Bishop David de Bernham of St Andrews,(1) the church appears to have been a free parsonage in the gift of the Giffard lords of Yester and their successors.  It was recorded as a free parsonage in Bagimond’s Roll, with a tax valuation of 3 merks in the first year of assessment.(2)  Little else is known of it before the fifteenth century beyond the names of two incumbent rectors of the fourteenth century – Peter de Donvico, clerk of Glasgow in 1305, and William Cunningham in 1392(3) – and the record of a miraculous escape from injury of a workman during building operations on the chancel roof in March 1282/3, recounted in the Chronicle of Lanercost.(4)

In 1420, the four co-lords of Yester, William Hay, sheriff of Peebles, Thomas Boyd, Eustace Maxwell, and Dougal MacDowell, who were patrons in turn of the church, petitioned Bishop Henry Wardlaw of St Andrews that it might be erected into a collegiate church with a provost and prebendaries.(5)  Permission was secured and in 1421 Bothans was erected into a collegiate church, the patrons committing themselves to endow it appropriately and to be responsible for the provision of all necessary ornaments and vestments.(6

The fruits of the parish of Bothans were annexed to the collegiate foundation butwith certain reservations including a portion for a vicar pensioner.  The vicar, however, was to be a member of the collegiate establishment.(7)  To augment the resources of the new college, the fruits of the church of Morham were annexed to it, the cure there to be served in future by a chaplain.(8)

Despite the apparent unanimity shown by the patrons in 1420, there appears to have been disagreement amongst them from the outset and a petition to the pope of 6 August 1440 narrated circumstances.(9)  It was stated that Bishop Wardlaw had erected the parish church (described as lying in the right of several lay patrons) into a provostship with the consent of the predecessor of Stephen Ker, presently provost and then rector.  While three of the four patrons had agreed with the erection one, Robert Boyd, had been opposed.  Wardlaw’s foundation ordinance had required that three prebends should be established: a provost as head to keep continual residence and hospitality and to be bound to pay the episcopal and archidiaconal dues; and two perpetual chaplains with an annual income of thirty merks Scots between them for exercising divine office. 

Despite the promises of the patrons made in 1421 to provide adequate resources for the college, the income available did not exceed £20, equivalent to 40 florins of gold approximately.  The thirty merks for the chaplains accounted for 36 florins and the episcopal and archidiaconal dues a further eight florins, exhausting the income before allowance was made for the provost and his obligations.  Accordingly, Ker and Boyd, the dissenting patron, supplicated for a papal mandate to appoint a suitable investigator to summon the patrons who had consented to the erection, or their heirs, with authority to require them to provide adequate resources to sustain the provost and chaplains and enable them to discharge their responsibilities, within an agreed time.  If the patrons failed to do this, then the mandated investigator should be empowered to annul by apostolic authority the erection and restore the said church to its former state, with Stephen Ker as rector.

The outcome of this petition seems to have been the bestowal of a raft of new endowments on the collegiate church by members of the patronal families and by beneficed clerics.  In 1443, David Hay, lord Borthwick, endowed the prebend of Morham with additional income.(10) A significant step forward came on 23 February 1447 [confirmed under the Great Seal 23 Feb 1449-50] when Alice Hay, widow of William Hay of Yester, endowed the altar and chaplainry of the Blessed Virgin Mary with rents from various lands in East Lothian and Haddington, while her son, Sir David Hay of Yester, granted land with houses and buildings for the chaplains’ manse.(11)  Further gifts came that same year from David Hay again, but also from his co-patrons Dougal MacDowell of Mackerstoun and, significantly, Robert Boyd, lord of Kilmarnock.(12

The driving force behind the establishment and further endowment of the college appears to have been the Hays, for whom it evolved into the principal focus of their religious devotion.  Most of the secondary altars in the church appear to have been Hay foundations and by 1513 when the interests of the MacDowells in the patronage of the collegiate church were surrendered to the Hays, it had become effectively the Hays’ chief chantry.(13)

After the initial uncertainty over the future of the college, the middle decades of the fifteenth century appear to have witnessed a rapid improvement in the fortunes of the church.  This is most evident in the record of additional altars and chaplainries that were established within the college before 1500.  The first recorded of these additional devotional foci was the altar of St Edmund (of East Anglia), which in 1456 received an endowment from William Ramsay of Dalhousie.(14)  This unusual dedication in a Scottish church might be explained by the patronage of the altar by Edmund Hay of Talla, whose widow added further endowments to sustain the chaplain there in 1467, augmenting a 1465 gift by William Hay of Talla and a 1464 endowment by Dougal MacDowell.(15

In 1531, a later William Hay of Talla, described as patron of the chapel and heir of the founders, secured an indulgence for all those visiting the altar on specific days.(16)  In 1542, a second chaplainry, founded by a kinsman Thomas Hay, who was Dean of Dunbar, was recorded at the altar of St Edmund.(17)  Altars of St Ninian and St Nicholas were on record by 1470, both being the focus for one of the prebends of the collegiate church.(18)  A fourth altar and chaplainry, the Rude or Holy Cross altar, was established by 1489, when it received endowments from Nicholas Hay, provost of the collegiate church.(19

Further endowments flowed to the Rude altar from other members of the Hay family and later provosts.(20)  Like Our Lady, St Nicholas and St Ninian altars, the Rude altar was the basis of one of the four prebends that represented the final complement of the collegiate establishment beneath the provost.  A final chaplainry, that of SS Cosmo and Damian, is recorded only in post-Reformation sources, but appears to have been a well-endowed establishment.(21)  It might be identified with one of the second chaplainries established at the other altars.

Although never one of the richest collegiate churches and, as its initially shaky start indicates, always stretching its resources to sustain the provost, four prebendaries and additional chaplains, Bothans at the Reformation was valued at £100 annually.  An additional £10 was reserved for the vicar, with 10 merks for one William Cockburn (who may have been the curate).(22)  In addition to the chaplainry of SS Cosmo and Damian, which was valued at £13 6s 8d, the chaplainry of St Edmund was valued at £7 3s 4d.(23)


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

2. 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.

3. Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers for Great Britain and Ireland: Papal Letters, ii, 1305-1342, ed W H Bliss (London, 1895), 10; Calendar of Papal Letters of Pope Clement VII of Avignon 1378-1394, ed C Burns (Scottish History Society, 1976), 175-176.

4. Chronicon de Lanercost, ed J Stevenson (Bannatyne Club, 1839), 108-109.

5. Calendar of Writs Preserved at Yester House 1166-1503, eds C C H Harvey and J Macleod (Scottish Record Society, 1930), no.53 [hereafter Yester Writs].

6. Yester Writs, no.54.

7. I B Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society, 1967), 21.

8. Yester Writs, no.55.

9. Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome, iv, 1433-1447, eds A I Dunlop and D MacLauchlan (Glasgow, 1983), no.659 [hereafter CSSR, iv].  CSSR, iv, no.708 corrects the foregoing, stating that it was not Robert Boyd but his late father who had opposed the erection.

10. Yester Writs, no.79.

11. Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum, ii, 1424-1513, ed J Balfour Paul (Edinburgh, 1883), no.322.

12. Yester Writs, no.85.

13. Yester Writs, no.350.

14. Yester Writs, no.116a.

15. Yester Writs, 125a, 128, 134.

16. St Ninian: Yester Writs, no.153.  St Nicholas: Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome, v, 1447-1471, eds J Kirk, R J Tanner and A I Dunlop (Glasgow, 1997), no.1432; Yester Writs, no.451.

17. Yester Writs, no.478.

18. Yester Writs, no.602.

19. Yester Writs, no.229.

20. Yester Writs, 404, 522, 555.

21. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 175-176 [hereafter Kirk (ed), Books of Assumption].

22. Kirk (ed), Books of Assumption, 172.

23. Kirk (ed), Books of Assumption, 175-176.

Summary of relevant documentation


Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: The church was made collegiate in 1421, when both parsonage and vicarage were annexed to the provostry. A vicar pensionary served the cure thereafter, with the vicar to be a member of the college.(1)

1305 Peter de Donvico (clerk of Glasgow) holds a church in diocese of Norwich and has resigned Bothans.(2)

1420 Petition for erection of church into a college by William de Hay, sheriff of Peebles, Thomas Boyd, Eustace Maxwell and Dougal Mcdowell, co-lords of the lordship of Yester and patrons in turn of the church.(3)

1420 Petition by William de Hay, Thomas Boyd, Eustace Maxwell and Dougal McDowell (sent to Henry Wardlaw, bishop of St Andrews) to have the parish church of Bothans, of which they are the joint patrons, into a college with provost and 4 prebendaries.(4)

1421 Church granted collegiate status; patrons obliged to provide church with all necessary vestments etc.(5)

1421 Church of Morham annexed to Bothans on its erection as a college, chaplain to serve church with an honest portion [no specific].(6)

1440 Henry, bishop of St Andrews, erected the church of Bothons (which is in the right of several lay patrons), into a provostship with the consent of the predecessor Stephen Kerr, present provost and then rector, and of most of the patrons, although it was opposed by Robert Boyd…. The rents and profits only add up to 20-40 gold florins which is not sufficient to sustain the provost. Bishop enjoined to summon the patrons and persuade them to provide further rents to the church or to deprive the church of collegiate status.(7)

1443 Gift to the prebend of Morham (former vicar John is now chaplain) by David of Hay, Lord of Borthwick.(8)

1454 David Ramsay, vicar of Carrington presented to the provostry of Bothans, vacant by death of Stephen Ker.(9)

1513 John Hay of Yester receives full patronage of the college on the resignation of Andrew Macdowell of Mackistoun.(10)

Altars and chaplaincies

Blessed Virgin Mary

1447 Chaplaincy augmented with further gift by David Hay, Lord Borthwick, Dougal Macdowell of Malcarrison and Robert Boyd, lord of Kilmarnock.(11) Richard Knowlis described as vicar of Bothans.

1447 Charter by Alicia Hay, for God, Blessed Virgin Mary and St Cuthbert, making bequest to chaplain of altar of Blessed Virgin Mary. Witnessed by Richard Knowlis, vicar of Bothans, John Ker vicar of Haddington and John de Strathhavane, rector of Morham.(12)

Holy Cross

1489 Gift of lands to the altar by Nicholas Hay, Provost of Bothans, for souls of his family and James IV, two annuals of 13s 4d, one more of 40s.(13)

1523 Endowment of a further chaplain at the altare to sing matins, vespers, and masses and other divine offices by John Hay, lord of Yester.(14)

1531 Hew Bald chaplain of the Rude altar.(15)

1535 Foundation of a further secular chaplain at the altar by Robert Waltersoun, provost of Bothans. To sing matins, mass and vespers, in the choir and celebrate mass at the altar of the Holy Rude for the souls of James V the earl of Bothwell and his sons, the Hays of Yester and his family.(16)

#1563 John Hay described as prebend of the Rude Altar in Bothans; altar in presentation of the Hays of Yester (see Stevinson’s protocol book).(17)

St Edmund (of East Anglia)

1456 William Ramsay of Dalhousie (brother to Lord Alexander) makes a donation to the altar of St Edmond in Bothans and to chaplain Robert Morham.(18)

1464 Further donation to altar by Douglas Macdowell of a piece of land in Gamilstoun.(19)

1465 Further donation by William Hay of Tallow; Morham still chaplain, 26s 8d annual.(20)

1467 Gift to the altar by Annabella Boyd, relict of Edmund Hay of Tallow, of lands in Duncanlaw to augment infeftment by her late husband [presumably Edmund’s involvement in foundation explains the unusual dedication?](21)

1531 Indulgence - William Hay of Tallow (patron) desires that the chapel of St Edmund (founded by his predecessors) should be visited by the faithful, maintained and furnished with books, cups, lights and other necessaries, gains an indulgence of a relaxation of 100 days penance to those who visit the chapel or altar of St Edmund in the parish church of Bothans  on the feasts of the Assumption,  St John the Evangelist, Easter day, Whitmonday and St Cuthbert, aid the work and have likewise prayed for the souls of William Hay (when he shall die) and his kinsman the founders of the chapel (indulgence agreed by Alexander Farnese, cardinal of Ostia).(22)

1542 Reference to a further chaplainry founded at the altar by Thomas Hay (professor of Theology and dean of Dunbar). Patrick Anderson is the first chaplain.(23)

St Nicholas

1470 Robert Lock described as the perpetual chaplain of the chapel of St Nicholas in the collegiate church of Bothans.(24)

1529 Thomas, prebendare of St Nicholas altar situated in the parish church of Bothans, is witness to a charter.(25)

St Ninian

1470 David Gundy collated to the prebend of altar of St Ninian in church of Bothans, in the presentation of David Hay of Borthwick.(26)


Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: The Parish church provostry of college of Bothans valued at £100; vicar Andrew Hayes £10 fee; William Cockburn (curate?) 10 marks.(27)

Altars and Chaplainries

Chaplainry of St Edmund, £7 3s 4d.

Chaplainry of St Cosmo and Damian, £13 6s 8d.(28)

1592 (4 Oct) Visitation of Haddington presbytery finds that doctrine was well kept on the Sabbath in all its churches except in North Berwick in the harvest and sometimes at Baro and Bothans.(29)

1593 (12 June) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Haddington finds a complaint by the minister that he regrets that the elders do not converse with him (the kirk session does not appear to be in operation).(30)

1600 Arbitration between James, Lord Hay of Yester and others; finds that William Hay of Limplum [and of Tallow, patrons of Edmund altar] has the heritable right to the south aisle of the college kirk of Bothans, and he is to uphold the same, repairing the aisle with ‘daskis and ane chancellerie wall and durr for his awin uses’.(31) [presumably formerly Edmund’s aisle?]

1607 Hay of Limplum complains that he is disbarred from his family’s aisle and burial place in Bothans by James, Lord of Yester.(32)

1627 (18 June) Report on the parish by the minister (George Redpat) describes the parishes of Strafontaine and Bothans as being conjoined together since the Reformation; the church of Bothans within the old nunnery has the king as patron; the church of Strafontaines was a pendicle of the College of Dunglass.(33)

1628 (Aug) Visitation of the church of Bothans by the Presbytery of Haddington, finds the fabric to damaged [no specifics]; the minister ordered by the presbytery to organise a stent according to the estimates of workmen.(34)

1632 (31 Oct) Brethren of the Presbytery of Haddington appointed to attend a meeting with the heritors for repairing of the ‘sleippet, kirk door, table stones glass of the kirk and the kirk yard dykes. The brethren report that they have met Lord Yester and agree that 500 marks are required to mend the church.(35)

1675 (20 May) Report on a visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Haddington; it was found that the church stands in need of reparation, that they are not provided with all the utensils for the sacraments (meeting appointed with the heritors to discuss issue).(36)

1685 (22 July) A visitation finds that nothing has been done and the church is still in need of reparation.(37) The following year (21 July 1686) a meeting of the heritors hears a report from Thomas Marton, slater, on the reparation of the church, noting that the fabric for the present is in tolerable condition but that the choir stands in need of 300 slates and 3 cartloads of lime.(38)

1702 (8 Oct) The minister presented to the kirk session the plans for the annexation of the parishes of Baro and Garvald and the alterations made to the parish of Yester (some parts conjoined to Garvald/Baro and others taken from those parishes and Bolton, most notably Gifford).(39)

1708 (30 Mar) The representative of the Marquis of Tweedale on behalf of the heritors notes that as a consequence of the late annexation of the parishes of Baro and Garvald and the alterations thereof made in the parish of Yester, the Marquis is ready and willing to build a new church and manse in the town of Gifford. The presbytery agree.(40)

1708 (29 Nov) Minister notes that a new pulpit is required but it can wait until the new church is built.(41)

1710 The kirk session notes that the last sermon preached in the old church was on the 17 September, while the first sermon in the new church was on 24 September.(42)

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev James Innes, 1791 ): ‘The church and manse were built in 1708’.(43) [located in the village of Gifford]

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev John Thomson, 1835): ‘The old church of St Bathans stands near Yester House about a mile from the present church. It is now used as a burial place for the family of Yester. It is a small but very handsome building of Red Sandstone, and has evidently been renewed at different period’.(44)

Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches (George Hay): 1710; renovated 1830, 17th century pulpit and 1687 carved panel, 1492 bell; chancel and transepts of medieval kirk with gothic revival façade. At Yester the little medieval church of St Bothans was given a neo-gothic facade of near Portuguese exuberance.(45)


1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland, 21.

2. CPL, ii, 10.

3. Yester Writs, no. 53.

4. Yester Writs, no. 53.

5. Yester Writs, no. 54.

6. Yester Writs, no.55.

7. CSSR, iv, no. 659.

8. Yester Writs, no. 79.

9. Yester Writs, no. 110.

10. Yester Writs, no. 350.

11. Yester Writs, no. 86.

12. Yester Writs, no. 85,

13. Yester Writs, no. 229.

14. Yester Writs, no. 404.

15. Yester Writs, nos. 482 & 483.

16. Confirmed by James V in April of the same year Yester Writs, nos. 522 & 555.

17. NRS Material relating to the parish: Whittinghame, Yester, GD1/413/14.

18. Yester Writs, nos. 116a.

19. Yester Writs, no. 125a.

20. Yester Writs, no. 128.

21. Yester Writs, no. 134.

22. Yester Writs, no. 478.

23. Yester Writs, no. 602.

24. CSSR, v, no. 1432.

25. Yester Writs, no. 451.

26. Yester Writs, no. 153.

27. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, 172.

28. Ibid, 175-6.

29. Synod Records of Lothian and Tweeddale, p. 47.

30. NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1587-96, CH2/185/1, fol. 81.

31. Yester Writs, no. 978.

32. Yester Writs, no. 1044

33. Reports on the State of Certain Parishes in Scotland, pp. 23-24.

34. NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1627-1639, CH2/185/4, fol. 23.

35. NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1627-1639, CH2/185/4, fols. 64-65.

36. NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1662-1686, CH2/185/7, fol. 192

37. NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1662-1686, CH2/185/7, fols. 340-341.

38. NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1662-1686, CH2/185/7, fols. 358-359.

39. NRS Yester Kirk Session, 1643-1708, CH2/377/2, fols. 621-622.

40. NRS Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1698-1716, CH2/185/10, fols. 255-256.

41. NRS Yester Kirk Session, 1708-1880, CH2/377/3, fol. 7.

42. NRS Yester Kirk Session, 1708-1880, CH2/377/3, fol. 13.

43. Statistical Account of Scotland, (1791), i, 346.

44. New Statistical Account of Scotland, (1835), ii, 168.

45. Hay, The Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches, pp. 39, 42, 59, 69, 174, 185, 208 & 256.


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, 1698-1716, CH2/185/10.

NRS Yester Kirk Session, 1643-1708, CH2/377/2.

NRS Yester Kirk Session, 1708-1880, CH2/377/3.

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.

Calendar of writs preserved at Yester House, 1166-1625, 1930, eds. C. Harvey & J. McLeod (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh.

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

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

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

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

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.

Synod Records of Lothian and Tweeddale, 1589-1596, 1640-1649, 1977, ed. J. Kirk (Stair Society), Edinburgh.

Architectural description

A church at Yester, which was also known as Bothans, was dedicated in the name of St Cuthbert by Bishop David de Bernham of St Andrews in 1241, but may have been in existence for some time before then.(1) Virtually nothing is known of the church before the fifteenth century, though it is evident that, as might be expected, it had a timber roof, since there is an account of a miraculous escape by a workman when a machine being used to hoist timbers for a new roof collapsed in about 1282.(2)

Nothing is now identifiable of that thirteenth-century church, though it is assumed to have been on the same site as the collegiate church that was founded for a provost and four chaplains by Sir William Hay, Thomas Boyd, Eustace de Maxwell and Dougald McDowell on 22 April 1421.(3) That foundation was effective, despite a rather puzzling subsequent challenge by one of the patrons; the complement of prebendaries may have been eventually augmented to as many as seven.

The earliest surviving portions of the church now seen were probably built to house that collegiate foundation, though they have undergone far-reaching structural changes, including major truncations to east and west and recasing of considerable extents of the exterior in ashlar. As a consequence of those changes, it is no longer clear if there was a total reconstruction at the time of the college’s foundation, or if the existing building was wholly or partly retained, possibly as the nave, as appears sometimes to have been the case when a college was founded within a parish church.

Because of the post-Reformation changes it has undergone, the only certainty about the plan of the church in its final medieval state is that it was basically cruciform. Internally the most clearly medieval feature is the pointed barrel vaulting that covers all surviving parts of the four arms, with the usual staggered rows of flagging to its extrados.

The eastern limb is now no more than about 3.5 metres long, but excavation in advance of drainage works in 1991 established that it once had a length of over 8.5 metres;(4) excavation was not extended sufficiently far to the east to establish if the choir had terminated in a straight wall or an apse.

There was no defined crossing at the junction of the four arms. However, slight differences in the levels of the vaults on each side of the post-medieval arch that now separates the eastern and western limbs of the main vessel suggest that there must always have been an arch at the entrance to the choir. The two transepts are made subordinate to the central vessel by the way that their vaults are set at a significantly lower level, and contriving the junction of those vaults with the central vessel evidently caused the master mason some difficulty.

The transepts are entered through broad arches of two chamfered orders that are set below the springing of the central vessel vault, and that simply emerge from the east and west wall faces of the transepts at their junction with the central vessel, without any supporting responds. The inner order of those arches is semi-circular, but the outer order is segmental as a result of its greater radius and the restrictions of the east and west walls of the transepts.

Within the transepts the setting of the entrances at a low level resulted in there being a high spandrel of blank wall above the arches. In the south transept there is a blocked rectangular opening in this spandrel, whose function is now unclear: it seems unlikely to have been a window in this position, and if it was provided for maintenance access to the valley between the transept and central vessel it must be wondered why a similar opening was not deemed necessary in the north transept.

There are other enigmatic traces of what appear to have been features in the internal masonry. Some of these may relate to subsequently lost post-Reformation memorials rather than to medieval features, though the loss of any corresponding external evidence as a result of the recasing of the walls makes any conclusion problematic. However, there has evidently been a narrow door on the east side of the south transept, adjacent to the entrance arch, which was presumably of secondary construction; a length of its chamfered south jamb can be seen on the exterior. Traces of what appears to have been an opening in the north wall of the choir could be of a window.

The only windows that may have retained some medieval work are those in the gable walls of the two transepts, and in each of those cases medieval fabric – if any - is likely to be confined to the jambs of the containing arch. In the north transept those jambs have two orders of chamfers both externally and internally, while in the south transept there is a single broad chamfer externally and internally.

The single survivor of the medieval liturgical provisions is a piscina in the north transept, which is framed by a crocketed ogee arch. To one side of this arch is a shield with the arms of Hay and Fraser, presumably in reference to the marriage of Sir Gilbert de Hay of Locherworth and the heiress of Sir Simon Fraser of Oliver in 1306, on which much of the subsequent fortunes of the family was based.(5)

There are known to have been at least five altars in the church, presumably in addition to the principal altar: these were dedicated to Our Lady, the Holy Cross, St Edmund, St Nicholas and St Ninian. It may be wondered if the altar of Our Lady was in the north transept, and that of the Holy Cross before the rood at the entrance to the choir.

The altar of St Edmund, which was founded by William Hay of Tallow,(6) appears to have been in the south transept, since in an arbitration of 1600 it was agreed that he had a heritable right over that part of the church.(7) As part of that arbitration he agreed to maintain the transept and to provide ‘daskis and ane chancellerie wall and durr for his awin uses’. The ‘chancellerie wall’ was presumably a screen of some kind, and it can be seen how the arch springings have been cut back on the side towards the transept to accommodate such a screen. Paintings on the vault of the south transept recently been discovered, and it would be interesting to know if they involved iconography of St Edmund, an East Anglian saint who appears to be otherwise unrepresented in Scotland.(8

On 31 October 1632 a meeting of the presbytery and heritors discussed the need for repairs to the church,(9) and the truncation of the eastern limb is assumed to have taken place soon afterwards, in 1635, since that date inscribed in the central light head of the east window. This operation appears likely to have been accompanied by the recasing in ashlar above a broadly chamfered base course of much of the current fabric, apart from the west front.

Presumably also dating from this phase was the formation of the new east choir window, and of windows in the gable walls of the transepts. The east window is of three lights with trifoliate heads, above which are two tiers of quatrefoils, the closest parallel for which is one of the chapel windows of Heriot’s Hospital in Edinburgh, where work was started in 1628. This window is contained within an arch of two chamfered orders, like the jambs of the north transept window, and it cannot be ruled out that the masonry of the arch is medieval and has been reused in this position. The transept gable wall windows, which were possibly set within existing – albeit cut-down – jambs, were given three trifoliate-headed lights, deeply set below a segmental arch.

The apices of the remodelled east and the transept gables have cross finials. A possibly medieval carved fragment has been re-set into the base of the east gable on the south side.

It may be that it was also as part of the operations of the 1630s that a new arch was inserted at the entrance to the truncated choir, east of the arches to the transepts, where it masked the junction of the slightly differing levels of the medieval vaults. As has already been suggested, it is likely there must have been a medieval chancel arch at this point. The new arch is carried on responds with a sunken angle roll on the west side, and there are foliate consoles below the abaci.

Slots in the jambs suggest that what had been the choir in the medieval church, had by then been fenced off as the chief burial place of the Hay family, who, as principal heritors of the parish would presumably have acquired rectorial rights over the chancel as part of the settlement of Charles I in 1633.(10)

The condition of the building was a matter of concern in the 1670s and ’80s. The need for repairs was reported to presbytery on 20 May 1675,(11) though on 22 July it was reported that nothing had yet been done, and the slater Thomas Marton stated that the work on the choir choir needed 300 slates and three cartloads of lime.(12)

It has been suggested above that the present arch at the entrance to the eastern limb could date from the 1630s. But it is perhaps equally possible that it dates from further alterations that were carried out within the truncated area of the old choir in 1688, when Alexander Eizat was paid to make a panelled balustrade above the family burial vault in the choir, and to plaster the vault above it.(13) Little survives in place of his work, other than the ghosting of a decorative application of plaster ribs on the soffit of the choir vault.

On 30 March 1708 the representatives of the second marquess of Tweeddale said that, in view of changes to parochial boundaries he was prepared to build a new church and manse in the town of Gifford, to which presbytery agreed.(14) The kirk session noted that the last sermon was preached in the old church on 17 September 1710, and the first in the new church on 24 September of that year.(15)

In addition to any response to changes in parochial boundaries, the move to Gifford is likely to have been prompted by a wish to remove the parish’s place of worship from the immediate vicinity of the great house of the Hay family. That family had risen through the ranks of nobility to be successively Lords Hay, earls and then marquesses of Tweeddale, and a grand new house was under construction for the second marquess to the designs of James Smith and Alexander McGill between about 1700 and 1715.(16) It was probably those same architects who also designed the new church at Gifford.

A number of furnishings were relocated from the old church to the new place of worship. Amongst these was a panel reset on the front of the family loft, which was presumably part of the phase of work on the old church in which Eizatt had been involved, since it bears the date 1687. Could this perhaps have been part of the panelled balustrade above the family burial vault in the choir of the old church? It is decorated with the intertwined initials of John Hay and his wife Margaret Scott, below an earl’s coronet and within a roundel; the initials somewhat presumptuously echo the form of the sacred monogram. Also relocated to the new church was the fine seventeenth-century pulpit.

The medieval church was subsequently used solely as a family mausoleum, and the most striking change that was to follow its abandonment for parochial worship was the construction of a new west front about forty years later. This was almost certainly done at the behest of the fourth marquess, who presumably wished to provide a more architecturally striking eye-catcher within the immediate policies of the house, on which he was carrying out major works at the time.

It was presumably at this stage that the greater part of the nave was demolished, leaving a stump of no more than about 0.6 metres. There are references to the construction of a machine in 1750-51 by the wright Charles Douglas for the masons who were taking the stone from the old church, and the nave is the most likely candidate for such attention at that time.(17

It may be wondered if the nave had been a relic of the parish church that predated the foundation of the college, as appears to have been the case at the collegiate churches of Biggar, Crichton and Seton, for example. If that is the case, it is possible that it was less substantially built and less richly detailed than the more lavishly funded collegiate eastern parts, and that its retention for the reduced functions of a mausoleum in the setting of the family’s palatial house was less justifiable.

The new west front is a delightful Gothick confection. Diagonal buttresses capped by pinnacles are set to each side of the truncated nave, between which is a tall crocketed gable that rises well above the slabbed roof behind. This gable rests on short lengths of flat cornice carried on elaborate arched corbel tables, and is enlivened by a series of overgrown cusps below a vigorous growth of vegetal crocketing along the skyline.

At the centre of the front is a giant containing arch with an ogee-flipped hood moulding terminating in a massive finial; within that containing arch is the tall ogee-arched door, a pair of elaborately carved tabernacles and a heraldic achievement, and there is a traceried oval window near the apex of the arch. Flanking the front, across the wall-head of the west faces of the transepts, there is openwork cresting supported by consoles decorated with heads, and there are further diagonal buttresses topped by pinnacles at the outer angles.

This front was almost certainly built to the designs of one of the Adam brothers, who were working on Yester House in the 1750s.(18) The design was evidently in progress by 15 March 1753, since a letter from the Adam office stated that ‘we are busy with the drawings of the old church’.(19) Work was presumably nearing completion in 1754, a date that has been found to be incised on the rear of the cross finial of the east gable.(20)

The design of the new front accords well with some of the ideas for Gothic designs with which the Adam brothers were experimenting at this time, and parallels have been drawn, for example, with designs for the Tombreac Dairy in the policies of Inveraray Castle, which was begun in 1752.(21) Parallels may also be found with some of Robert Adam’s later designs for the duke of Northumberland, such as one for Ratcheugh Crag near Alnwick of 1784.(22)


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

2. Chronicon de Lanercost, ed. Joseph Stevenson (Bannatyne Club), 1839, pp. 108-9.

3. Calendar of Writs preserved at Yester House, eds C.C.H. Harvey and J. Macleod, Scottish Record Society, 1925, nos 53 and 55; Ian B. Cowan and David E Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, Scotland, 2nd ed. London and New York, 1976, pp. 215-6.

4. Scotia Archaeology Limited, Yester Chapel 1991, Report of March 1991Excavation, Edinburgh, 1991, p. 1.

5. Per pale, dexter, on an inescutcheon three escutcheons gules, sinister, three cinqufoiles argent.

6. Yester Writs, no 478.

7. Yester Writs, no 978.

8. Information on the discovery of the paintings from Tom Addyman. There is no reference to St Edmund in James Murray Mackinlay, Ancient Church Dedications in Scotland, Non-Scriptural Dedications, Edinburgh, 1904.

9. National Records of Scotland, Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1627-39, CH2/185/4, fols 64-65.

10. A.A. Cormack, Teinds and Agriculture: an Historical Survey, London, 1930, pp. 98-108.

11. National Records of Scotland, Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1627-39, CH2/185/7, fol. 192

12. National Records of Scotland, Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1662-86, CH2/185/7, fols 385-389.

13. Colin McWilliam, The Buildings of Scotland, Lothian, Harmondsworth, 1978, p. 214.

14. National Records of Scotland, Presbytery of Haddington, Minutes, 1698-1716, CH2/185/10, fols 255-256.

15. National Records of Scotland, Yester Kirk Session, 1708-1880, CH2/377/3, fol. 13.

16. J.G. Dunbar, ‘The Building of Yester House, Transactions of the East Lothian Antiquarian and Field Naturalists Society, vol. 13, 1972, p. 40.

17. National Library of Scotland, Yester Papers, accession no 4862, 98/3; Dunbar, ‘Building of Yester’, p. 31.

18. Dunbar, ‘Building of Yester’, pp. 42-44.

19. National Library of Scotland, Yester Papers, accession no 4862, 98/2; Dunbar, ‘Building of Yester’, p. 31.

20. Personal communication from Tom Addyman.

21. David King, The Complete Works of Robert and James Adam, Oxford, 1991, p. 357 n. 38 and p. 358, n. 87. The dairy is illustrated in Ian G. Lindsay and Mary Cosh, Inveraray and the Dukes of Argyll, Edinburgh, 1973, fig. 49.

22. Reproduced in James Macaulay, The Gothic Revival 1746-1845, Glasgow and London, 1975, pl. 31.



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

  • 1. Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, west front, 1

  • 2. Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, west front, 2

  • 3. Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, from south-east, 1

  • 4. Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, from south east, 2

  • 5. Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, north transept, from north east

  • 6. Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, south transept from south, 1

  • 7. Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, south transept from south, 2

  • 8. Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, east window

  • 9. Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, east window, inscribed date

  • 10. Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, carving of east gablesouth skewputt

  • 11. Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, south transept west cornice

  • 12. Yester Collegiate Church, chancel, vault

  • 13. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, choir and nave vault

  • 14. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, choir arch north respond, 1

  • 15. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, choir arch north respond, 2

  • 16. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, choir vault, 1

  • 17. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, choir vault, 2

  • 18. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, choir vault, 3

  • 19. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, choir vault, 4

  • 20. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, choir

  • 21. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, ledger slab, 1 (in choir)

  • 22. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, ledger slab, 2

  • 23. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, looking east

  • 24. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, north transept, north window east respond

  • 25. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, relocated gravestone

  • 26. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, south transept piscina

  • 27. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, south transept, blocked opening above arch

  • 28. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, south transept, disturbed masonry in east wall, 1

  • 29. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, south transept, disturbed masonry in east wall, 2

  • 30. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, south transept, south window, east respond

  • 31. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, view across transept

  • 32. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, view across transepts

  • 33. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, view across transepts looking north

  • 34. Gifford Church, arms on tower parapet

  • 35. Gifford Church, exterior, 1

  • 36. Gifford Church, exterior, 2

  • 37. Gifford Church, interior

  • 38. Gifford Church, loft front

  • 39. Gifford Church, pulpit from old church

  • 40. Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, east gable cross finial, west side

  • 41. Yester Collegiate Church, exterior, south transept, east face jamb of suppressed door

  • 42. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, north transept, piscina

  • 43. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, painting traces, 1

  • 44. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, painting traces, 2

  • 45. Yester Collegiate Church, interior, south transept, entrance arch, cut back mouldings