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Scotland Magazine Issue 37
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John Hannavy explores historic churches, abbeys and cathedrals in Scotland's north east.
When a group of Benedictine monks arrived at the remains of Pluscarden Priory in Kale Glen near Elgin 60 years ago, it must have taken an enormous amount of belief, and considerable vision, to ever imagine that the ruins which greeted them could be brought back to life as a monastic community.
They had travelled north from Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire in 1948 to undertake their task, and within seven years, the central tower of the church had been reroofed.
By 1960, they had completed work on the domestic range which runs south from the south transept, and today, the choir and transepts of the abbey church are back in full use. There is a question mark over whether or not there was ever a nave to the church, although the foundations can be seen at ground level, and a roofline is visible in the west wall.
The priory was originally established by King Alexander II in 1230 and the monks came from Vallis Caulium – ‘the valley of the cabbage’ or kale – in France to establish one of only three monasteries of the order in Scotland. By 1454, however, the Valliscaulian monks had gone, and the abbey, now under the Benedictine order, was populated by monks from Dunfermline Abbey in Fife. The Benedictines only left in the closing years of the 16th century, long after the Reformation had dismantled monasticism in Scotland.
Throughout the following three centuries, under a variety of owners, the buildings fell into disrepair and many were used as quarries, but there was still more than enough left standing in 1943 for the monks of Prinknash to welcome the gift of the priory and its immediate lands. The 65 years since then have seen a remarkable rebirth, and the result gives the visitor a unique opportunity to visit a medieval abbey – for the priory was elevated to abbey status in 1974 – still being lived and worked in much as it was seven centuries ago.
The Valliscaulians’ priory at Beauly was conceived on a much less grand scale, and when it fell into disrepair at the Reformation, there was never any way it would be brought back to life. Indeed, Oliver Cromwell’s troops hastened the monastery’s demise when they dismantled some of the buildings and used the stone to build the Citadel at nearby Inverness in the 1650s. By that time the church was already roofless and in considerable disrepair. Today all that remains are the simple yet beautiful ruins of the church, standing amidst trees.
A similar fate befell the beautiful 13th-15th century Fortrose Cathedral in Ross & Cromarty. The cathedral itself was completely dismantled and shipped to Inverness, leaving only two of the domestic buildings which were once attached to it.
Northern Scotland’s other great mainland cathedral, at Elgin – described in the 14th century as the ‘glory of the kingdom’ – is sadly also in ruins, although they are dramatic and magnificent ruins indeed. Once second in size only to St Andrews, this huge church was the most ornate and richly decorated of all Scotland’s medieval cathedrals, and one of the very richest. Like everywhere else, though, neglect in the 16th and 17th centuries saw it fall into disrepair, and when the tall central tower collapsed in 1711, it caused enormous damage.
Dornoch Cathedral in Sutherland was reduced to a ruinous shell in 1570, only to rise again in the middle of the 19th century and become the parish church, while the region’s smaller churches fared a lot better. After all, even in the 16th century, every town and village needed a parish church – so it was only natural for the former collegiate churches at Tain, Cullen and elsewhere to continue to be used as places of worship, albeit under the reformed religion. Some abbey and priory churches also found new life under the new church – Fearn Abbey church in Ross & Cromarty became the parish church of the nearby village, and the medieval church survived until the roof collapsed in 1742, killing more than 40 of the parishioners while at their prayers. Traces of the old church can still be seen in the replacement, while outside the 18th century church, a few tantilising fragments of the abbey can still be seen.
So our story from the north east is one of loss and of rebirth – the loss of some of the country’s finest medieval buildings, and the rebirth of Pluscarden. Sadly, the Pluscarden story will remain unique, for in the zealous religious upheavals of the second half of the 16th century, much of the work of centuries of craftsmanship and vision was reduced to rubble in a very few years.