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Issue 15 - A history pursued religiously

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 15
July 2004


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A history pursued religiously

Unsurprisingly for a country where religion has meant so much, Scotland has some stunning churches. David Gordan visits some of them

Throughout history, Scotland has found itself involved in religion. This important history can be seen in the number and variety of religious buildings and sites throughout the country, from the smallest kirk to the largest cathedral.

Here are some of the more interesting ones.

Pluscarden Abbey

Situated near Elgin, Pluscarden Abbey is one of northern Scotland’s most unusual attractions. It is the only medieval monastery in Britain still inhabited by monks and being used for its original purpose. Alexander II founded the Abbey in 1230.

The monks at Pluscarden are succeeding in ensuring the Abbey is returned to its former splendour and are doing so in an atmosphere of quiet reflection. Visitors are welcome – the Abbey is open daily from 9am to 5pm. Admission Free.

Croick Church

Croick Church is steeped in history and whilst worshippers attend the church today, they are surrounded by memories of the past.

At the time it was built, the population was made up of tenant farmers who practised subsistence grazing. By the end of the 18th century the landlords of the area were introducing commercial sheep farming, leading to a complete change of lives for the tenants – infamously known, as ‘The Clearances’.

The Clearances arrived in Croick in 1842 when the landowner attempted to evict the tenants to make way for sheep. At first the attempts were strongly resisted. But on 24th May 1845, some 18 families were evicted from homes their families had lived in for generations. Many took shelter in the Croick churchyard and their plight is recorded in messages etched in the windows of the east window of the church.

The church is open daily.

Cathedral of the Isles

Millport on Great Cumbrae is home to the smallest cathedral in Europe. With seating for around 100 people, the Cathedral of the Isles is the island’s most intriguing and beautiful attraction. It provides a ’Disney-esque’ illusion of size. The casual visitor approaching the building is surprised at how big it seems.

The illusion is caused by a number of factors. Firstly, the spire reaches to 123 feet, more than three times the length of the nave and more than six times its width.

Secondly, the cathedral is raised above the land immediately to its south and west. In fact it is the land that has been lowered, due to quarrying which formed terraces, which add to its height.

Thirdly, the structures around the cathedral add to its ‘height’, particularly the group of buildings in the east that resemble a medieval cloister. The building has been used since 1876. The cathedral is open daily.

Paisley Abbey

The charter to establish the priory at Paisley was signed in 1163. The priory was sited on a church founded by St Mirin around 560AD and was raised to the status of Abbey in 1245. The original abbey was burned down in 1307 by King Edward I. The abbey was completely rebuilt in the 14th century. Considerable damage was caused over time by further fires and the collapse of a tower which led to parts of the abbey being open to the elements for 350 years.

In the 19th century the building was completely re-roofed. A historic building, it is popular with visitors. Open daily.

Dunkeld Cathedral

The site which Dunkeld Cathedral stands on was once the religious centre of Scotland and has been holy ground since 730AD.

The cathedral was built in stages over 250 years and shows both Gothic and Norman influences. It is dedicated to St Columba, whose relics were buried under the chancel steps.

The cathedral has suffered from desecration and destruction in its past, particularly during the reformation, but also during the Jacobite uprising when parts of the building were burned down.

Dunkeld Cathedral is a building of two halves. Its east end is an attractive parish church and its west end is largely a roofless ruin.

Sweetheart Abbey

Sweetheart Abbey, as the name suggests, has connections with love. Indeed the abbey was built by one person for the love of another.

It was founded in 1273 by Lady Devorgilla of Galloway in memory of her late husband, John Balliol. Upon her own death in 1289, her body was laid to rest before the high altar and it is recorded that her husband’s embalmed heart was placed beside her.

The monks of the abbey therefore chose ‘sweetheart’ as the name of the abbey in her memory. Sadly the abbey is now a ruin.

Many of Scotland’s historic churches are still in use today as places of worship and for services and meetings. Many welcome visitors, though facilities may be limited.