Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 36 - Medieval treasures

History & Heritage

This article is available in full as part of History & Heritage, visit now for more free articles and information.


Scotland Magazine Issue 36
December 2007


This article is 10 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Medieval treasures

John Hannavy embarks on a new series exploring Scotland's many historic churches, abbeys and cathedrals.

Could Dan Brown have had any idea of the effect his brief mention of Rosslyn Chapel in his bestseller The da Vinci Code would have on the little church a few miles south of Edinburgh? In the months following the publication of the book, the number of visitors making their way to the 15th century building grew from a few hundred each summer month, to more than 100,000. The days when a visitor could often enjoy the peace and quiet of the exquisite building alone were, for a time at least, a thing of the past.

Brown’s assertion that Rosslyn Chapel was built by the Knights Templar in 1446 is a key tenet of his book, but is completely without substance. The Templars, as an order, had been suppressed in Scotland more than a century earlier, and St Matthew’s Church Roslin, as it is more correctly known, was built as a secular college, or Collegiate Church. However flimsy Brown’s claim, though, it has brought this remarkable and unique building to the attention of many thousands of people who might otherwise never have heard of it.

One of the most richly decorated of Scotland’s medieval buildings, Rosslyn’s most stunning feature is the ‘Prentice Pillar,’ an ornate masterpiece of stone carving which, according to the stuff of legend, was created by an apprentice while the master mason was away. Well, the master would have had to have been away for a very long time, as this amazing pillar must have taken many months to create. It is, however, just one of the many remarkable treasures which can be found in Scotland’s old churches, abbeys and priories, and over the next year or so, we will be looking at many of them, some of them immediately recognisable, others much less well known.

In that latter category one would have to include the little collegiate church of Fowlis Easter in Angus – a simple rectangular building with a singularly unimpressive exterior, but inside which survives the significant remains of a late 15th century Crucifixion painting, more than four metres long by almost two metres high. Painted in tempera on oak panels it is a remarkable survival. It reminds us that the interiors of medieval churches would originally have been a blaze of colour.

Many of the places which will be included in this series are in ruins, and were for centuries quarried for their stone. Thus, on the tiny island of Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth, amongst the ruins of the remote Abbey of Augustinian Canons there is little left of the church. The domestic buildings continued to be used as living quarters after the Reformation in 1560 and so remain in a remarkably good and complete state of preservation today – there was little need for a church once the abbey had been abandoned. Now under the care of Historic Scotland, Inchcolm is reached by a short boat trip which leaves from the former ferry slipway at South Queensferry.

Other churches – like Iona Abbey – were ruins before their inspired reconstructions.

To visit Iona today, it is hardto imagine the scene a century and a half ago – most of the abbey buildings little more than foundations, and the church, roofless and abandoned as it had been for centuries. It is only a century ago that the plan to rebuild the abbey was first mooted, and the restored religious centre which greets visitors today is a testament to a wonderful vision, and a great deal of hard work.

Dunblane Cathedral also greeted Victorian visitors as a partially roofless shell – only the medieval choir had been retained as the parish church of the little Perthshire city, the nave having been allowed to decay into ruin. The beautifully restored cathedral today, with more than eight centuries of history to its name, is one of Scotland’s most surprising buildings – a rare flowering of Gothic architecture in a country not usually known for architectural exuberance!

And only a few miles away, in Scotland’s newest city, Stirling, stands the only surviving Coronation church in the country.

It was in the Church of the Holy Rude, only a few yards from Stirling’s imposing castle, that the infant James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots, was carried into the building by the Earl of Mar and crowned King in 1567.

Despite the widespread destruction which took place at the time of the Reformation in the middle of the 16th century, Scotland’s surviving medieval cathedrals, churches, abbeys, priories and friaries number several hundreds, and many offer us wonderful glimpses of their former richness and beauty.

While there are only tantalising fragments remaining of some of them, others survive in remarkably good condition – especially considering the centuries of neglect many have endured. The intricacy of their stonework, the complexity of their design, and the craftsmanship of the masons who built them, are a wonderful memorial to a time, between the 12th and 16th centuries, when such buildings could be conceived and constructed without all the building aids we take for granted today.

But while the buildings themselves are certainly worthy of preservation, and even more worthy of a visit today, it is the stories of the people who lived there, worked there, and worshipped there, which really bring them to life.

We will be telling some of their stories in the coming issues of Scotland Magazine.

Claim your free Scotland Magazine trial issue