9.6.1 Churches and Chapels

Church Organisation

The church organisation process gathered parish churches into territories – dioceses or sees – led by a bishop and a chapter of clergy. These were made up of secular canons in the cases of all Scottish dioceses, except St Andrews and Whithorn, where the chapters comprised of the canons regular of monastic communities attached to the cathedrals. These territories were supported by parish teinds (tithes). Much of the teind was diverted from the parishes to support the bishop and cathedral hierarchy through a process known as ‘appropriation’. In some cases the teinds were allocated to institutions some distance away, or to monasteries. For example, Kildonan, Sutherland (a prebendal church of the cathedral at Dornoch) was appropriated to Scone, which allowed the Abbot of Scone a seat in the diocesan chapter. Avoch in Easter Ross was linked to Kinloss in Moray (Cowan 1981, 97). In the more remote western Highlands a few churches managed to not have their revenues appropriated by the diocese or other institutions. These remaining churches were styled ‘free parsonages’ (McDonald 1992, 228). The expansion and prosperity of Chanonry in Ross, where the prebendal canons were based, can be seen to have been at the expense of the parish churches (Cowan 1967; 1981; Cant 1986, 55–6).

The nature of the medieval Highlands, with its different traditions, meant that church organisation was not uniform. The Norse controlled areas, at the beginning of the period looked to Norway for their organisation.  However, an interesting study by Thomas (2018, 173ff) concluded that little Scandinavian influence can be seen in the medieval Scottish churches and organisation even in these areas. Crawford (1999; 2008) has looked at dedications to Saint Clement, whose cult was popular in medieval England and Scandinavia; the dedication of the parish church at Dingwall for example may reflect Scandinavian influence. Overwhelmingly, however, although there are many church dedications in the Highlands to ‘universal’ saints (such as St Peter), the bulk of the dedications are to Scottish and especially culturally Gaelic saints (such as Columba, Donnan or Moluag). This emphasises the strength of the underlying cultural tradition even within areas of heavy Scandinavian settlement. Many of the cults of ‘native’ saints’ in Highland Scotland have been analysed by Alan MacQuarrie (2012).

The Scottish see of Caithness dates from the latter part of the reign of King David (d 1153). It extended to northwest Sutherland and down to the Dornoch Firth (Crawford 2013; Oram 2020a). To the south was the diocese of Ross, its origins perhaps stretching back into the early medieval period (MacDonald 1992; Ross 2011). The diocese of Moray, with its Cathedral church at Elgin, appears to be a mid-twelfth-century creation (Oram 2020a). Its eastern boundary lay to the east of the Spey and included parts of upland Banffshire and Aberdeenshire, while on the west it extended almost to the Atlantic coast (Ross 2011, 67ff; Fawcett and Oram 2015).

In the west, the southwestern Lochaber peninsulas of Ardnamurchan and Moidart were included in the diocese of Argyll, formed in the 1180s from the large diocese of Dunkeld (Watt and Murray 2003; MacDonald 2013). The diocese of Sodor passed into Scottish political control after 1266 (Watt 1996) but remained under the nominal jurisdiction of the Norwegian archdiocese of Nidaros until 1472, when it was taken into the new Scottish archdiocese of St Andrews. Sodor spanned almost all of the islands from the Isle of Man to Lewis, though some islands like Lismore, the location of the cathedral of Argyll diocese, had been detached from Sordor at an early date. Skye was clearly integral to the Diocese of Sodor (Thomas 2014; Woolf 2015). The cathedral located on an island in the River Snizort at Skeabost (MHG5135) was possibly the base for archdeacons and from around1387, the seat of the bishops of Sodor (Thomas 2014a; 2014b).

Each diocese had a central cathedral church. At Dornoch construction of the church presumably began after the Caithness diocese was founded, with the transepts and eastern limb dated to the 13th century and the arcades of the nave late 13th and 14th century (MHG11837; Fawcett 2011).

stone cathedral and graveyard
Dornoch Cathedral. Andrew Puls ©The Highland Council

The diocese of Ross initially was centred at Rosemarkie, with the first cathedral perhaps built on an earlier church site, as some sources suggest a bishop in the Pictish period was based at Rosemarkie (MacDonald 1992; Ross 2011; MacQuarrie 2012; Evans and Noble 2019). Nothing is known about the cathedral church in Rosemarkie, as it is an area that is now intensively settled. Around 1240 the see was moved a short distance away to Fortrose (Chanonry) for reasons unknown but perhaps this decision was driven mainly by the need for more space available than the site at Rosemarkie (Cant 1986, 53–55). There had also been attempts by the Earl of Ross to have the see relocated to his abbey at Fearn where it would have been easier for him to control the diocese (Cant 1986; Fawcett 1987; Oram 2018).

The new site at Fortrose (Chanonry) was on an important ferry link to the south. Ardersier, on the southern side of the crossing was part of the diocese of Ross, not Moray (Oram 2020a). At Fortrose (MHG8881) the physical layout of cathedral with its surrounding ‘close’ of manses for the prebendal canons and diocesan officials, funded from appropriated parish teinds, can still be traced (Alston 1999, 170–175). The original cathedral at Fortrose is thought to have consisted of an aisle-less nave, choir, a two-story range to the north side of the choir, and possibly the tower. At the end of the 14th and 15th centuries an aisle and chapel were added to the south side, which, together with the range to the north of the choir, are the only substantial upstanding remains that survived the plundering of the cathedral for building stone in the mid-1600s (Fawcett 1987; 2011).

Cathedral in a green field with sparse grave stones.
Fortrose Cathedral. Andrew Taylor ©The Highland Council

On Skeabost Island, Skye the churchyard contains remains of two churches, though in a decaying state (MHG5135); one is probably the remains of the Cathedral church. The smaller of the two is a chapel dedicated to St Columba, which later served as the burial aisle of the Nicolsons. It survives as a roofless but otherwise largely intact structure. The remains of the larger church, which was more likely the parish church and later cathedral, survive as spread rubble mounds under turf, in what appears to be an unequal-armed cruciform plan. Geophysical work has shown potential for further work on the island (Thomas 2014b). The cathedral church in turn probably was the mother church for the many Skye chapels (McDonald 1997, 206ff, 226; Thomas 2009).

View of the interior of Nicholson Aisle, Skeabost, Skye. ©FAS Heritage
grave effigy of a man with a sword
Late medieval grave effigy, Skeabost, Skye. ©FAS Heritage

Within each diocese were a number of parishes (Cowan 1967; Watt 1996, 355ff; Origines Parochiales Scotiae). Even in the medieval period, it was not a static situation, with new parishes being formed and others being absorbed, but a recognisable pattern of parishes was well-established by around 1275. The west had a smaller number of parishes, but they covered larger areas, presumably reflecting population levels and the economic resources available to sustain a parish church. These large parishes were more likely to have a range of dependent chapels in outlying areas to service certain spiritual needs of the local population.

Churches and Chapels

With the widespread establishment of the parish system in the 12th and 13th centuries, an ecclesiastical pattern begins to take shape throughout the Highlands which largely survived until the first programmes of parish mergers and church redundancies in the late 20th century. For eight centuries, the parish church was the important centre for most people’s lives; it was where people were baptised and buried, and from the 16th century the church also dealt with the organisation of relief for the poor and schooling (Alston 1999, 45–46).

Each parish had a church. Churches or chapels that can be confidently dated to the earlier period of between AD 1000 and 1200 are hard to find in the Highlands as elsewhere. The earliest churches and chapels appear to have been simple rectangular structures, presenting problems when dating based on plan alone (ScARF Medieval section 4.4.2; RARFA section 9.4). Only at Portmahomack is there a well dated sequence. While most surviving churches appear to be visibly post-medieval in date, many preserve medieval fabric (Case Study Kiltearn Old Kirk). As noted above, the teinds from some parishes were appropriated to larger religious institutions, like cathedrals, collegiate churches or monasteries. This is likely to have had physical repercussions for the development of the church buildings – appropriated churches tended to be relatively small and unadorned, as the bulk of parish revenue was being diverted elsewhere. Private benefactors, however, could pay for physical adornment or enlargement of their parish church, usually in the form of a private burial aisle or side-chapel, or the provision of elaborate fixed liturgical furniture, such as sacrament houses (as survives at Avoch), piscinas and aumbries.

Further work on Highland churches, as has been undertaken for the Corpus of Scottish Medieval Churches elsewhere in Scotland, would shed more light on this.

Portmahomack provides the best evidence of changes through the centuries in the Highlands, with a well-dated series of medieval churches. It is the only parish church in all of the Highlands to have been subject to intensive archaeological examination and standing-building survey, providing a wealth of information on phasing which simply does not exist elsewhere in the Highlands. The first stone church dates to the 12th century.  A small single celled church was built on the hill, over the monastic burial ground.  A small chancel was added shortly after to house a bell; this chancel wer then greatly enlarged during the 14th century and endowed with a crypt containing an aumbry for housing saintly relics in the 15th century (Carver et al 2016, 289ff).

Tarbat Old Parish Church, Portmahomack. Andrew Taylor ©The Highland Council

St Mary’s Chapel, Crosskirk, in Caithness, is a roofless rectangular stone structure that is dated as possibly 12th century; there is little indication as to what this date is based on other than the churches simple form being seen a reflection of greater age (MHG373). St Peter’s Kirk, Thurso may also incorporate substantial medieval remains (MHG1403; Slade and Watson 1989). However, there are other roofless or foundations of rectangular chapels throughout the Highlands, the dates of which is not known. Dating appears to mainly relate to window types, although recent analysis of mortar through radiocarbon dating, from church and chapel sites in Argyll has begun to provide tighter dates for some sites (Mark Thacker pers comm). Further investigation and dating of some of these simple structures would be useful. Clow Chapel in Caithness (MHG1976) was excavated in the 1970s, revealing evidence for multiple phases and a number of burials. Some were located in the chapel and a cluster of decapitated heads was found in small cists. Unfortunately no dating evidence was found, and the finds no longer survive (Richard Oram pers comm).

The remains of St Mary’s Chapel, a possible 12th century chapel in Crosskirk, Caithness. Andrew Puls ©The Highland Council
Rune-inscribed stone incorporated in masonry at St Peter’s Church, Thurso (present location, Caithness Horizons Thurso). ©The Highland Council

The excavations at Cromarty East Church revealed that potentially more evidence survives than is initially apparent for some of the surviving post-Reformation churches. Finds included some fine medieval gravemarkers and medieval pottery (MHG8828; Wood 2010). The current building appears to be a classic post-Reformation church, but in fact excavation showed the later church was built on a medieval foundation that incorporates much of the medieval stonework. The medieval church was an undifferentiated rectangle in shape, with no clear built distinction between nave and chancel. This offers an important insight into what seems to be a regional favouring of unicameral (singe chamber) plans which are also seen, for example, also at Tain. This should be tested by survey and excavation.

At Tain three medieval churches and chapels survive, all dedicated to St Duthac about whom little is known (MacQuarrie 2012; Turpie 2014). A roofless, rectangular church on the shore is thought to be the earliest; it is dated to the 13th century on architectural grounds (MHG8582). The roofless original parish church which is in the churchyard of the still-roofed collegiate church is thought to have been built in the 14th or 15th centuries, and is currently in a decaying condition (MHG8684). Immediately south of the old parish church is a collegiate church (MHG8689) that was built in the 14th century as the cult of St Duthac grew. This housed a college of clergy that were endowed with lands throughout Easter Ross that supported the college, with the prebendaries also possessing stone-built manses in the adjacent town. An area of sanctuary, referred to as a ‘girth’, was established and it is said to have been marked by crosses, though none survive (Oram et al 2009, 24ff, 118ff). The potential for further investigation around the church on the shore was highlighted by the Burgh Survey (Oram et al 2009, 125). While the motivation for pilgrimage was spiritual, the sites led to commercial development, requiring inns, roads, bridges and food (ScARF Medieval section 4.4.3); this almost certainly led to growing development and prosperity in Tain. Detailed examination of metal detecting finds might shed light on this.

A number of chapels also survive in the Highlands or are noted in documentary sources. Dispensation was given for the building of chapels, sometimes with rights of baptism and burial. Some chapels may have been private centres of worship, supported by wealthy laypeople, but others were probably established to cope with the large size of the parishes. In addition, some were formed as cult centres, operating for the most part without direct control of the bishop. Others were established on pilgrimage routes or at bridges or crossings (Thomas 2015; 2018). Further work on mainland Highland chapels, such as Thomas has undertaken on the Sodor examples, might provide further insights, especially if combined with chapel dedications and topographic considerations.

Many of these chapels also had burials, which would have required dispensation from the bishop and the permission of any religious corporation to which the parish church might be appropriated. Few have been excavated but the sites that have include parts of Hilton of Cadboll (MHG8547), a burial site and possibly a chapel site dating to early medieval times (James et al 2008).  Similarly, excavations at St Trolla’s Chapel, Kintradwell, Sutherland concentrated on the human remains rather than the evidence of the chapel, but nevertheless provided dating evidence for the use of the graveyard in the medieval period (MHG11563; Lelong 2003b).

aerial view of chapel site. It appears as an uneven green surface in a field
Aerial view of the early chapel site at Hilton of Cadboll. ©HES

Portable Altars

A small number of portable stone altars have been recovered from the Highlands. They provide evidence for the form and nature of worship experienced by some remote communities. Two of these small cross-incised altars have been recovered from near Wick: one from dredging off the coast at Shaltigoe (MHG2031) and another from Noss Farm (MHG61544).  Both have now been assigned a late medieval date. A comparable example is known from Breckon, Eshaness, Shetland and it is dated to the 12th century. Permission to have a portable altar required papal dispensation and a survey of published supplications to Rome and papal letters might provide important insights into the distribution of the holders of such dispensations and their social status.

alter stone fragment. Has a circular carving and a cross
Noss Head altar stone fragment. ©Andrew Morgan


Case Study: Kiltearn Old Kirk

Leave a Reply