Case Study: Re-drawing the religious landscape

Graveyard of St Mary of the Lowes church, in the Scottish Borders, a church abandoned due to parochial reorganization (the new church was built at Yarrow), © A. Spicer

In the wake of the Reformation there was an attempt to redraw the sacral or religious landscape of Scotland. The reasons for this were twofold. Firstly, there was an attempt to ‘deconsecrate’ or destroy places that had become the focus of religious devotion and to discourage people from frequenting them: holy wells, caves, sites associated with the veneration of saints. Such places and the practices associated with them were regarded as superstitious by the Kirk. Secondly, there was an attempt to reorganise the ecclesiastical landscape, so that the Kirk could more easily meet the religious needs of the people, as it perceived them to be. The parochial landscape that the Reformed Kirk inherited had emerged from different religious traditions and was not uniform across the country. Some parish churches lay in remote locations that were not readily accessible from all parts of the parish throughout the year. The Kirk’s requirement of weekly church attendance meant that the existing ecclesiastical organisation of the landscape was not sustainable. Furthermore, although Scotland had only around 1100 parishes at the Reformation, the Kirk struggled to find suitable pastors to serve these cures.

There was therefore an attempt to redraw the ecclesiastical landscape so that churches were readily accessible and parishes were of a manageable size. This meant the creation of new parishes or the alteration of parish boundaries so that settlements and farmsteads were assigned to their nearest parish church. This involved the careful measuring and mapping of the distances within the parish between settlements and the nearest church. In some instances this led to abandonment of existing parish churches for new sites, although the burial ground often remained in situ. The archaeological potential for investigating these changes in the religious landscape has been shown through the recent examination of the lost medieval parish of Gogar (Morrison, Oram and Ross 2009).

Graveyard of St Mary of the Lowes church, in the Scottish Borders, a church abandoned due to parochial reorganization (the new church was built at Yarrow), © A. Spicer

This redrawing of the parochial landscape contrasts dramatically with the situation in England (including the northern uplands where in some other respects cultural developments were closer to Scottish than to southern English norms). English parish/township boundaries and church locations were rarely altered until the 19th century. While the Scottish policy of rationalist reorganisation could be viewed as a precursor of Enlightenment attitudes, the contrasting Scottish and English policies could alternatively be viewed more symbolically, as contrasting statements of severance from and continuity with the Medieval religious landscape. Given the importance of churches as meeting-places for their communities, of the Kirk as social and moral controller of the community, and of parishes and townships as civil administrative units, the redrawing of the parochial landscape will have had implications far beyond the religious aspects of life.

For further reading see Brown et al. 2007-9; Clarke and Claydon 2010; Coster and Spicer 2005; Cowan 1961; 1967; Halvorson and Spierling 2008; Hindle 2008; Mitchell and Christie 1896; Peterkin 1838; Spicer 2005; 2007; 2010; 2011; forthcoming; Thomson 1839-45; Thomson and Innes 1814-75; Todd 2002; Walsham 2011; Whyte 2007.

Return to Section 8.4 Political landscapes

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