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An Overview of the Survival of the Churches since the Reformation

Churches that Have Survived in a Relatively Complete
or a Recognisably Medieval Form

As has been made clear in the introductory section, there are relatively few buildings within the study area that have survived in anything approaching their medieval structural state, or in which medieval fabric is predominant. Amongst those exceptions that have survived well, pride of place must be given to the cathedral churches of the two dioceses. Dunblane Cathedral stands complete and continues in use for worship, though the nave was only restored in the late nineteenth century, having been unroofed in the aftermath of the Reformation. At Dunkeld the cathedral is still in the condition of Dunblane before its restoration, with its choir roofed and in use, while its nave is structurally complete and roofless.

A small number of other churches are both roofed and have at least something of the appearance of being medieval. In many cases, however, that appearance is the result of modern restorations in which the reinstated medieval appearance is unlikely to bear a close relationship to the original detailing. A list of some of these churches is given in appendix 1.

A larger number of churches that are no longer in use for worship survive in a condition in which at least parts of them present a recognisably medieval state, and which collectively provide invaluable information in helping us to understand the range of forms that would have been found in the medieval churches of the two dioceses. It would be difficult to present an exhaustive tally of such churches, but a list of some that should be included in that category is given in appendix 2.

Adaptations and Losses of Medieval Church Buildings

The reasons why so few medieval buildings have remained in use are complex. Post-Reformation attitudes to church buildings were ambivalent. There might be abhorrence of them on the part of the leading reformers inasmuch as they were regarded as the focus of idolatrous forms of worship; and yet there was also recognition of the need to preserve them to house the reformed worship that was to supplant the practices deemed to be unacceptable. (1) Thus in 1560 careful instructions were given to those who were to ‘cleanse’ Dunkeld Cathedral to ‘tak guid heyd that neither the dasks, windchs nor durris be ony ways hurt or broken’; the main targets were ‘the altaris and…monuments of idolatrye’. (2) In reading those instructions it must be remembered that the inadequate funding base of the reformed Church meant there could be no question of wholesale replacement of existing church buildings. It should also be recollected that it took many years for the new forms of worship and church governance to be established, and at first it seems it was assumed that weekly communion would be as much a feature of worship as preaching the word, (3) so that there was perhaps initially no settled view on the architectural forms and spaces that would be best fitted to reformed worship.

For two centuries and more after the Reformation the usual approach was simply to adapt existing church buildings to changed forms of worship in the best way that could be achieved. At the largest of the churches in the study area this usually meant retention of only a part of the building and the modification of that retained part to serve as what was in effect a preaching hall, with what must often have been a haphazard arrangement of seating and galleries focused on a pulpit against one of the long walls. Thus at the two cathedrals of Dunblane and Dunkeld the laity abandoned their nave and moved into the unaisled choir. A slightly different approach was adopted at Culross when the parishioners moved from their church to the nearby Cistercian abbey church, where the presbytery, transepts and monks’ choir were adapted for their needs. In a number of smaller churches, the great majority of which were of elongated rectangular plan, with a structurally undifferentiated chancel area to the east of a nave, there may have been some truncation of the length. This was in order to ensure that as many as possible of the congregation were within hearing distance of the preacher, and it is likely that the part most often forfeited was the chancel area. In other cases, however, attempts were eventually made to absorb the chancel into an architecturally more unified structure by rebuilding one or both of its walls on the same alignment as those of the nave, as appears to have happened at Tibbermore in 1789 and at Dunning in 1810.

Another expedient aimed at bringing larger numbers closer to the pulpit that was to be adopted at some churches was to add a single large lateral aisle off the flank that faced across to the pulpit. This resulted in a T-shaped plan, examples of which are to be seen at Dunning in Dunblane diocese, and at Redgorton and Tibbermore in Dunkeld diocese, while one of the medieval transepts at Culross Abbey probably served a similar function. In some ways these projections were a variant on the lairds’ aisles that were added to the flanks of a number of churches for the use of the local landowner and his household, examples of which are to be seen at Aberuthven, Blair, Dalgety and Kincardine. With the latter type, however, as will be discussed more fully below, the family’s seating area was often elevated above a burial vault, and the opening towards the body of the church might be treated more lavishly.

But not all of the inherited medieval buildings could be put to use by the Reformed Church, and amongst the earliest losses were those that resulted from parochial restructuring. Although the geographical pattern of parishes as established in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries even now continues to provide the basis for the territorial organisation of the Church of Scotland, that pattern has always been subject to modifications. In the aftermath of the Reformation, and at a number of subsequent periods, a combination of pastoral and financial considerations resulted in attempts to rationalise parochial boundaries, with some churches consequently being found to be superfluous to requirements. The course that such considerations might take at one stage is well documented in a report prepared in 1628 as part of Charles I’s efforts to place the Scottish Church on a firmer financial and organisational footing. (4) A list of some of the churches abandoned as a consequence of parochial adjustments is given in appendix 3.

At the great majority of churches which continued in use, the willingness to make do and mend with an inherited medieval building appears to have begun to wear increasingly thin from the later eighteenth century. This was perhaps at least partly because of long-term shortcomings in the maintenance of the buildings by the heritors, and many would have echoed the complaint of the minister of Little Dunkeld in the 1790s that his church was ‘mean, uncomfortable and ruinous’. (5) There is also evidence of a growing view that the house of the Lord should be sufficiently seemly for that exalted purpose, and that many existing buildings simply did not lend themselves well to worship in which preaching was the central element. The view of the minister of Clunie that ‘it would be a credit to this country if all the old crazy kirks and manses in it were razed to the foundations, and new ones built in a workmanlike manner, on a decent and convenient plan, and of the most substantial materials’ probably represented the feelings of many hard-pressed ministers. (6) The chief complaint of some ministers was the proportions of the churches they had inherited, as at Auchtergaven, where it was said that ‘its length [was] disproportioned to its width’, (7) or at Fortingall, where the concern was that the building was ‘rather inconveniently narrow’. (8)

It was because of such attitudes that a high proportion of churches eventually came to be extensively remodelled or entirely replaced by new buildings. If a contract for rebuilding the small church at Abernyte may be taken as illustrative of requirements, it seems that the preferred proportions for new churches involved a length that was no more than twice the width. In the case of Abernyte the contract specified dimensions of 40 by 20 feet (12.19 by 6.1 metres). (9)

In considering losses of medieval buildings it should be mentioned here that the situation is once again changing, as the Church of Scotland struggles to deal with a massive over provision of church buildings for its current needs. In this there are perhaps two principal factors. On the one hand a high proportion of parishes has more than one church building because of the secessions that have taken place in the past, and especially as a result of the Disruption of 1843. On the other hand, declining attendances are meaning that it is barely viable to maintain some buildings, and especially in many of the poorly populated rural communities that figure so prominently in the area covered by this study. As a consequence, many churches have passed out of use for worship within recent decades, a list of some of which is given in appendix 4, while the future of others hangs in the balance.

Churches that Have Been Replaced by New Buildings
on the Site of the Medieval Church

When rebuilding a church two considerations were perhaps uppermost in the minds of those involved. Should it be rebuilt on the footprint of the existing church, in which case there might be economies in the re-use of foundations, and perhaps also of walls? or should it be rebuilt on another site, which had the advantage of allowing services to continue without break in the old building until the new one was ready to be brought into use? The former course must frequently have been favoured by the heritors, who in many cases – and especially before an era of rebuilding on a more heroic scale gathered momentum around the middle years of the nineteenth century - were generally not looking to spend more than was strictly necessary. The latter course, which will be discussed in the next section, was presumably more attractive to those ministers who had not yet developed an antiquarian interest in their church and its history.

It hardly needs pointing out that it can be very difficult to know with anything approaching certainty whether or not a church is on the site of its predecessor. It is only in cases such as Madderty, where what appear to be earlier footings project from beneath parts of the wall, that we may suspect the new church has been built on old foundations. A process of this kind may be documented at Aberfoyle, where a contract of 1743-4 stipulated that the church was to be rebuilt from the foundations, though it is possible that parts of the earlier walling were in fact retained.

It can be even more difficult to know if a church that has the appearance of a building dating from the late eighteenth or earlier nineteenth century might be the result of what was in fact little more than a cosmetic remodelling of an earlier structure. It is only in cases such as Fowlis Wester, where a relatively coherent series of earlier features was found in the course of restoration below the rendering that covered the walls, that it became clear that a church which appeared to be a complete rebuilding of 1802 was in fact essentially no more than the remodelling of a medieval building. It must be considered a strong possibility that many other churches within the study area have been treated in the same way, and, where there are no medieval features in evidence, assessment of aspects such as orientation and relative proportions are of some value in assessing if this may have been the case.

Even in the case of buildings with proportions that appear more appropriate for a post-Reformation place of worship, it is possible that they embody medieval work. The process described at Moulin, whereby in 1704 the ‘front wall’ was taken down and the church widened, indicates that this was certainly the case at one site, (10) and it was presumably a course that was followed at other sites as well. At Alva, for example, the core of a church that was successively augmented on a number of occasions was quite precisely oriented, and its length of 21.55 metres was very much what would be expected in a medieval parish church. Yet the width of that core, which was 11.45 metres, was closer to the 2:1 proportion evidently favoured for preaching halls, and it must be considered as a possibility that it had undergone the same process of widening as Moulin. In such cases parsimony was probably one consideration that drove the heritors to keep as much as possible of an existing building. Returning to Moulin, in 1787 the windows were enlarged, the walls plastered and the roof ceiled, with the consequence that, as at Fowlis Wester, the building must have had a fully Georgian appearance, with nothing to suggest its medieval antecedents.

We must be thankful that there are some cases in which patently medieval fabric has been left in evidence in churches that were otherwise extensively remodelled, as a reminder that superficial appearances can be highly misleading. Amongst these are Abercorn, Auchtertool, Bendochy, Forgandenny and Muckersie, where the east walls show evidence of medieval workmanship, and Auchterhouse, where an unusually large number of medieval fragments are to be seen either in place or re-set. In the list is given in appendix 5 are some of those churches that appear to incorporate medieval fabric, and that may therefore be assumed with a high degree of certainty to be on the site of their medieval predecessor.

In the majority of cases, however, there is an inadequate basis for certainty as to whether or not a post-medieval church is on the site of its medieval predecessors. Nevertheless, in appendix 6 an attempt has been made to list those churches that on balance may be thought reasonably likely to be wholly or partly on the historic sites; in each case the basis for that view is discussed in the site entries. In many of those cases there were several phases of post-medieval rebuilding or re-ordering, but the dates of the principal operations are given in brackets, from which it can be seen that the main brunt of rebuildings began around the 1770s and continued into the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Churches that Have Been Replaced by New Buildings within the same Graveyard

It has been suggested above that a leading attraction of building a new church on an adjacent site to the old one, within the established churchyard, was presumably that it involved no interruption to worship; however, it usually carried the disadvantage of disturbing burials, some of which may have been of quite recent date. At Aberdalgie, when a new church was built in 1773 it appears that the churchyard was extended to provide extra space for the new building, and the problem of disturbing burials was probably thus avoided. The same may also have happened at Balquhidder.

In other cases the clue to the possibility that the church may once have been on a different spot within the churchyard is the existence of either linear mounds where the walls once stood or of a level platform, together with either an absence of memorials or the presence only of memorials of later date than the church. At Fern there is such a platform a short distance to the south of the church, together with a local tradition that the church used to be in the middle of the churchyard. (11) There is a similar situation at Struan, where the platform is immediately to the south of the later church. At Trinity Gask there is also a slight platform to the south of the church of 1770 raising the possibility that the site of the church has been shifted, and this has also been suggested for Bendochy, though the authors of this study are inclined to think that at neither of those places has the church in fact been relocated. In such cases, however, geophysical survey is likely to be of great benefit in determining if the church has indeed been relocated within its graveyard.

At a number of sites where the church was relocated within its graveyard, parts of the old church were allowed to remain in place adjacent to the replacement building, most frequently to allow them to be used as burial enclosures, as will be discussed below. At Muckairn, a geographically isolated reminder of the period when the diocese of Dunkeld extended to include the area later cut off to create the diocese of Argyll, the east gable and part of the south wall of the old church stand to the south of its replacement; similarly, at Balquhidder the shell of the old church stands a short way to the south of its successor. Within the graveyard at Bunkle there is the apse of the early twelfth century church, a unique survivor of such an eastern termination in the area of this study. At Dollar there is a church of 1775 within the same churchyard as a building of 1840, and it is possible that the former is on the site of its medieval predecessors. At Leslie a new church was built to the south of the old one, the latter being then demolished, but two burial aisles likely to be of seventeenth-century date that had projected from the north side of the old church were left in place.

Churches that Have Been Replaced by New Churches on other Sites

If a new church was to be provided it was sometimes easiest to look for an entirely new location. This might be because the church to be replaced was not very conveniently sited for the main settlements of the parish, though in some cases it might be because it was within the expanding parkland of the local landholder. The latter was perhaps the case at Blair, Findo Gask, Kenmore and Kippen. In the majority of those cases, however, the new church was within sight of the old one. A list of churches known to have been relocated away from the historic churchyard is given in appendix 7, and, as might be expected, since they were a further aspect of the response to the perceived inadequacy of the existing stock of buildings, the date span of these relocations is significantly comparable with that for rebuilding on the historic site.

Churches that Have at Least Partly Survived Through Mortuary Uses
Following Abandonment for Worship

In the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when a church was abandoned for worship it was common for its shell to be adapted to serve as one or more burial enclosures, or for a mausoleum to be created on part of its site. In many cases this must have been an extension of established practice. In the middle ages many of both the clergy and the leading parishioners would have expected to be buried within their church; but, after the Reformation, changed attitudes to death and the efficacy of prayers for the dead meant that intramural burial came to be frowned upon. (12) As was so often the case, ways could be found around this, however, and recent excavations within the burgh church of Aberdeen, for example, have revealed large numbers of post-medieval burials within the chancel, which had been adapted as the East Kirk for one of the congregations that worshipped in the subdivided building. (13) There is no reason to believe that things were different elsewhere, though for those with means, there might be even more distinctive ways of securing burial within the church.

Where a wealthy medieval family had its own chapel aisle attached to a church, as was perhaps the case at Abernethy and Culross in this study area, such chapels had been the place of choice for burial and soul masses for family members. After the Reformation, though prayers for the dead were no longer sanctioned, such chapel aisles were often deemed to be outside the body of the church, and continued in use for family burials, while also providing a place for the family to sit in isolated splendour during parish worship. Aisles of this kind also offered a precedent for a new generation of family aisles – usually known as lairds’ aisles - that were added to the flanks or ends of many churches in the course of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (14)

There was yet another way in which the leading figures of a parish might secure burial rights within a church. James VI’s Act of Annexation of 1587 had an incidental consequence that those land-holders who were granted the temporal lordships of the old religious houses also acquired responsibility for – and effective ownership of – the chancels of many parish churches. (15) In those cases where the temporal lords were resident in the parish they sometimes chose to construct their family pew within the chancel, with a vault below it for their dead; alternatively, they might choose to wall off the chancel to create an enclosed family mausoleum. The situation with regard to chancels was further formalised in 1633, when Charles I enacted that the parochial teinds should pass to the heritors (principal landowners of the parish), who thus became responsible for the fabric of the church and the provision and maintenance of the minister. (16) It was this change of ownership that lay behind the construction of the splendid loft of the Hope of Hopetoun family at the east end of Abercorn Church, and is the reason why the Lords Rollo had a loft in Dunning Church chancel, approached by a forestair against the east wall. It also allowed the Robertsons of Lude to have their loft in the chancel area of Kilmaveonaig Church, though, as has often happened, that has since been removed.

When a church fell out of use for worship, family piety often meant that, where there were already burials of ancestors within a church, there might be a natural tendency to continue that use, and this was also likely to attract other families to do likewise in other parts of the building. Where adaptation for mortuary purposes was being undertaken at abandoned churches, it generally made sound economic sense to retain as much as possible of the surviving fabric, and a high proportion of those medieval churches that have come down to us have survived in identifiable state as a result of such use. A list of some of those is given in appendix 8.

In other cases, however, the part of the medieval building that was retained was progressively so completely modified or rebuilt that it is difficult to identify medieval fabric with anything approaching certainty. This is perhaps the case at Abernethy, Kincardine and Leny in Dunblane diocese, and at Caputh, Cargill and Lagganallachie in Dunkeld diocese, for example.

Whatever the initial intentions, however, later maintenance of churches that had been adapted for mortuary use was often inadequate, and in some cases the walls of the building were progressively lost. But occasionally in those cases the line of one or more of the walls is still indicated by the survival of mural monuments that have continued to be maintained, occasionally with tidied up sections of wall immediately behind them to provide some measure of support. This appears to have been the case at Caputh, Little Dunkeld and perhaps at Saline, amongst others.

In exceptional cases an entirely new mausoleum might eventually be constructed on the site of the medieval church, leaving nothing at all in evidence of the earlier building. This happened at Kilbryde, Monzievaird and Tulliallan, all of which were in the diocese of Dunblane.

Sites with No Structural Remains of the Medieval Church

In only two cases in the study area, those of Kenmore (Inchadin) and Obney, has there been a serious difficulty in identifying the site of the parish church, with nothing remaining above ground to indicate its location. At a significant number of other sites, however, there is no visible built fabric surviving from a church, of whatever date, though in nearly all such cases there is at least a graveyard with memorials dating back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as an indicator of the long use of the site for worship and burial. A list of these sites in given in appendix 9.


1. Spicer, A., 2003, ‘Iconoclasm and adaptation: the Reformation of the churches in Scotland and the Netherlands’, in D. Gaimster and R. Gilchrist (eds), The archaeology of the Reformation 1480-1590, Leeds, 29-43.

2. McRoberts, D., 1959, ‘Material destruction caused by the Scottish Reformation’, Innes Review, x, 153.

3. Donaldson, G., 1984, ‘Reformation to Covenant’, in D.B. Forrester and D.M. Muray (eds), Studies in the history of worship in Scotland, Edinburgh, 33-51.

4. Reports on the state of certain parishes in Scotland, made to his majesty’s commissioners for plantation of kirks, 1835, ed. Alexander Macdonald, (Maitland Club), Edinburgh.

5. Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-8, ed J. Sinclair, Edinburgh, vi (1793), 371.

6. Statistical Account, ix (1793), 253.

7. Statistical Account, xvii (1796), 552.

8. New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1845, Edinburgh and London, x, 555-6.

9. Heritors’ Records, cited in Historic Scotland’s list of Historic Buildings.

10. Statistical Account, v (1793), 65.

11. Jervise, A., 1882, The history and traditions of the land of the Lindsays in Angus and the Mearns, Edinburgh, 220-6.

12. Spicer, A., 2000, ‘“Defyle not Christs Kirk with your carrion”: the development of burial aisles in post-Reformation Scotland’, in P. Marshall and P. Roberts (eds), The place of the dead in European society, 1400-1700, Cambridge, 149-69.

13. Cameron, A., 2005, ‘East Kirk St Nicholas’, Discovery and excavation Scotland, 9.

14. Hay, G., 1957, The architecture of Scottish post-Reformation churches, Oxford, 29-31.

15. Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, 1814-75, Edinburgh, iii, 431-6, c. 8.

16. Cormack, A.A., 1930, Teinds and agriculture: an historical survey, London, 98-108; Donaldson, G., 1971, Scotland, James V – James VII, Edinburgh, 296-8, 400.


1. Wholly or Partly Roofed Churches that Have Retained a Partly Medieval Appearance

In Dunblane diocese: Dunblane Cathedral, Dunning and Fowlis Wester.

In Dunkeld diocese: Abercorn, Aberdour, Aberlady, Auchterhouse, Auchtertool, Cramond, Dowally, Dunkeld Cathedral, Forgandenny, Kilmaveonaig and Weem.

2. Ruined Churches that Have Retained Something of their Medieval Appearance

In Dunblane diocese: Aberuthven, Auchterarder, Balquhidder, Culross, Ecclesiamagirdle, Kilmadock, Kinkell, Kippen, Muthill, Strowan and Tullibody.

In Dunkeld diocese: Alyth, Ardeonaig, Blair, Bunkle, Crombie, Dalgety, Lude, Muckairn, Preston, Rosyth and Strathfillan.

3. Churches Abandoned as a Result of Post-Reformation Parochial Adjustments

In Dunblane diocese: Aberuthven, Fossoway, Kilbryde, Monzievaird, Strowan, Tullibody, Tullibole and Tullichettle.

In Dunkeld diocese: Ardeonaig, Crombie, Lagganallachie, Lethendy, Logiebride, Lude, Muckersie, Obney, Preston and Rosyth.

4. Churches that Have Passed Out of Use in Recent Decades

In Dunblane diocese: Comrie, Dron and Dunning.

In Dunkeld diocese: Alva, Cargill, Crieff, Dull, Kinloch, Leslie, Moneydie, Moulin, Redgorton, Tealing and Tibbermore.

5. Churches that May Have Been Rebuilt on the Footprint of their Medieval Predecessors

In Dunblane diocese: Aberfoyle, Balquhidder, Glendevon and Logie.

In Dunkeld diocese: Abercorn, Abernyte, Auchtertool, Bendochy, Dollar, Dowally, Fortingall, Kilmaveonaig, Lethendy, Madderty, Meigle, Muckersie and Redgorton.

6. Churches that on Balance May Be Deemed Likely to Be on Medieval Sites

In Dunblane diocese: Dron (1824), Monzie (1830), St Madoes (1798) and Trinity Gask (c.1770).

In Dunkeld diocese: Aberlady (except the tower, 1773), Auchtergaven (1811), Beath (1834), Clunie (1839), Cramond (except the tower, 1656), Crieff (1793), Kinclaven (1848), Kinloch (1792), Kirkmichael (1792), Lethendy (1758), Logierait (1804), Madderty (1689), Meigle (1869), Menmuir (1842), Moneydie (1813), Moulin (1704), Rattray (1820), Redgorton (1776), Ruthven (1859), St Martins (1842), Tealing (1806) and Tibbermore (1632).

7. Churches on Post-Medieval Sites

In Dunblane diocese: Auchterarder (seventeenth century), Callander (1771), Findo Gask (1800), Kilmadock (c.1756), Kincardine (1814), Kippen (1823), Logie (1805), Muthill (1825), Strowan (1803), Tillicoultry (1773) and Tulliallan (1676).

In Dunkeld diocese: Aberdour (1790), Alyth (1836), Ardeonaig (1826), Blair (1824), Bunkle (1820), Caputh (1798), Cargill (1831), Crombie (1696?), Dalgety (1829), Kenmore (c.1579?), Killin (1744), Lecropt (1824), Rannoch (1829), Saline (1844), Strathmiglo (1783).

8. Abandoned Churches Adapted for Mortuary Purposes

In Dunblane diocese: Aberuthven, Auchterarder, Culross, Dalgety, Dupplin, Ecclesiamagirdle, Fossoway, Kilmadock, Kinkell, Kippen, Monzie, Strageath, Strowan, Tullibody and Tullibole.

In Dunkeld diocese: Ardeonaig, Balquhidder, Blair, Bunkle, Crombie, Dalgety, Lude, Muckersie, Preston, Rosyth and Weem.

9. Sites of Medieval Churches where there are No Structural Remains

In Dunblane diocese: Callander and Kilmahog.

In Dunkeld diocese: Kenmore (Inchcadin), Killin, Lecropt, Logiebride, Obney, Pitcairn, Rannoch (Killichonan), Saline and Strathmiglo.