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Issue 42 - In the heart of Scotland

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 42
December 2008


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In the heart of Scotland

From the abbey where the Scottish Declaration of Independence was signed in 1320, to the only Coronation Church still standing in Scotland, this is a journey through Scotland's history, says John Hannavy.

Arbroath Abbey has a special place in Scottish history. It was within the abbey precinct that the Scottish nobles met on April 6th 1320 to sign the Scottish Declaration of Independence. The anonymous writer who prepared the Declaration – held to be the most important document in Scottish history, and one of the most eloquently worded statement of freedom and defiance – is thought by many to have been Arbroath’s Abbot Bernard, who was at the time also Chancellor of Scotland.

In the Declaration, signed by more than 50 of Scotland’s senior noblemen, Scotland asked the Pope to use his influence and intervene between the Scots and the English.

The wars with the English had been going on for generations, but had come to a head with the violence of the attacks under Edward I. “The deeds of cruelty, massacre, violence, pillage, arson, imprisoning prelates, burning down monasteries, robbing and killing monks and nuns, and yet other outrages without number which he committed against our people, sparing neither age nor sex, religion nor rank,” said the Declaration, “no one could describe nor fully imagine unless he had seen them with his own eyes.” The abbey itself had been founded 142 years earlier in 1178 by King William the Lion for a chapter of monks of the Order of Tiron – the Tironensians – and their abbey was the first ever to bear the dedication to St Thomas a Becket the Martyr, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had been murdered in his cathedral only eight years earlier in 1170 after the English King Henry II had uttered the fateful words ‘will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest’.

The central and Grampian areas of Scotland are marked by dramatic scenery – the gateway to the Highlands proper – and among those hills are some wonderful relics of the country’s medieval past. There are dozens of castles and tower houses, great abbeys, priories and cathedrals, and the skeletal remains of some very ancient parish churches. But of the other abbeys in the region, remains are pretty scant. At Coupar Angus for example, once one of the great Cistercian houses, a vaulted passageway and a few scraps of carved stone are all that can still be seen. Many of these great abbeys have served as quarries for generations of builders since they were abandoned at the time of the Reformation.

At Cambuskenneth, a few miles from Stirling, all that survives of the oncepowerful Augustinian Abbey is the detached belfry or campanile – unique in Scotland.

While the abbey itself has largely been reduced to a few foundations mapped out in the grass, the campanile is intact. And from the top of the tower, the plan of the abbey is laid out on the ground below. And of the abbey itself? Well, at the time of the Reformation it was gifted by the King to the Earl of Mar, who quickly set about the dismantling of the buildings, and shipping their stones to Stirling’s Castle Hill, where he built himself a palace. The ruins of Mar’s Wark still stand, just a few yards from the only surviving Coronation church in the country – the Church of the Holy Rude. It was within its walls that the infant King James VI was crowned on July 29th 1567.

In addition to Cambuskenneth, the Augustinians had two priories in the area – the beautiful Inchmahome Priory on an island in Scotland’s only Lake – the Lake of Menteith – and the smaller and simpler Restenneth Priory in Angus. At Inchmahome, the priory builders embraced the latest Gothic style, while, at Restenneth, architectural decoration of any sort is almost completely absent. Getting to Inchmahome involves a short boat trip out to the island, while Restenneth is reached after a short walk round a cornfield.

Not all the medieval churches, of course, were part of abbeys, priories or friaries. In the village of Muthill, a few miles south of Crieff, stand the remains of a medieval parish church. The church, on a site tracing its religious connections back a millennium, was substantially rebuilt by Bishop Michael Ochiltree of Dunblane in the 1420s. The bishops, abbots and priors of the great cathedrals and monasteries were responsible for the building of many of Scotland’s medieval parish churches.

We end our tour of the heart of Scotland with three cathedrals, all of them still in use, in part at least, as parish churches.

Dunblane Cathedral stood roofless for centuries before its late 19th century restoration and re-roofing, and it is amazing how well it stood those centuries of neglect.

Outside, it incorporates a late 11th century tower, elegant 14th century Gothic architecture, and a west door which is unrivalled in Scotland. Dunblane is a small cathedral, but from the outside, it looks much larger – it is as if all the features which made a large Gothic church so magnificent, have been scaled down beautifully. Inside the scale and intimacy of the church is immediately apparent.

Brechin Cathedral from the outside looks like a Victorian pastiche, as a result of some over-vigorous restorations, but inside it is a wealth of original medieval detail. Attached to the south west corner of the nave aisle of the cathedral stands one of only two Celtic round towers to survive in Scotland – and the better of the two. The other is in Abernethy in Fife. Brechin’s round tower probably dates from the Celtic monastery previously on the site, which was founded by King Kenneth II in the closing years of the 10th century.

Standing in parkland on the banks of the River Tay, the remains of Dunkeld Cathedral comprise the choir, still used as the parish church, and the ruined medieval nave with its tall north-western tower.

There was a Celtic monastic settlement on this site long before any cathedral, and when the bishopric was established in the 11th century, the first bishops came from that community. The last bishop was Robert Crichton who saw part of his great cathedral destroyed by reformers, and he himself was imprisoned for a time for retaining his catholic beliefs – an ironic end for a bishop who had previously dispensed justice in his own courts and imprisoned others.

Dunblane and Dunkeld are two of Scotland’s smallest cities, and their cathedrals are both surrounded by largely 17th century buildings, all of which add to their charm.

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