Case Study: Bassendean: re-forming a medieval parish

As part of the Reformation, an increased effort was made to deal with the problems posed by a parochial system that had remained largely unchanged since the thirteenth century and which reflected not only the medieval ‘Catholic’ landscape but also, in some regions, an even older religious tradition associated with the Celtic saints.  Evidence of these attempts to re-organise the landscape can be found in the 60 acts passed between 1592 and 1649, of which 26 were enacted in the 1640s, over 80 years after the Reformation Parliament of 1560 (Spicer 2011).

Micro-historical analysis of one particular case – Bassendean– provides the opportunity to look more closely at the practical consequences of this Reformation-era re-drawing of the landscape and at the problems caused for communities as the geography of worship was rationalised.

The plain rectangular church of St Mary’s, lying to the south of Bassendean village, was founded in the late twelfth century.  Parts of the building as it stands today may date to that early period in its life, but the church has been altered and re-worked more than once during its history, not least during the period of the Reformation.  In 1618 the Commission for the Valuation of Teinds and the Plantation of Kirks decided that the church should be abandoned and the parish united with the neighbouring parish of Gordon which lay to the south.  Some thirty years later, though, the Scottish Parliament passed the ‘Act anent the transplantation of the kirk of Bassendean’, which sought to address the problems faced by this remote part of the border county of Berwickshire.  It had been resolved that the union of Bassendean and Gordon parishes should be dissolved and a new church built for the former parish, but at Westruther in the centre of the old parish, not at Bassendean itself, which lay on the southernmost edge of the parish.  The presbytery undertook a perambulation of the parish and produced a map illustrating the distribution of farmsteads and indicating the population of each, in order to demonstrate that Westruther was the most convenient place for the erection of the new church.  The ‘exact topographie of the paroche of Bassendean’, depicts the simple rectangular medieval church which was to be replaced by a T-plan building at Westruther more in accord with the needs of Reformed worship.  The church erected at Westruther was altered in 1752 and abandoned during the mid-nineteenth century for a new site across the road.  Meanwhile, in 1649, the old church at Bassendean had become a burial ground for the Homes of Bassendean and it continued in that role until 1860.

This case indicates the value of a contextualised and material approach to the history of the Reformation process.  When studied in context and in terms of its material practice, we see the Reformation as more than a change in theology and liturgy: it was, as much as that, about the re-working of place and landscape and it entailed significant changes to people’s routines and movements.  At Bassendean, it is possible to see the abandonment of the medieval parish church and its replacement some distance away by a new, purpose-built structure more appropriate to the new ways of worship.  But the continued life of the old church as it takes on a new role as a burial ground can also be seen.  Beyond the church, the conscious re-planning of the religious landscape and its almost scientific re-formation using technologies like the map and the census is noted.  And the tangible impacts these changes must have had on people’s lives as traditional places of worship were uprooted can be inferred; patterns of movement through the landscape were re-worked and new practices and traditions were set in train.

Bassendean St Mary’s Church © A. Spicer

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