9.6.4 Monastic Foundations

Queen Margaret is credited with endowing the first Benedictine monastic institution in Scotland in the late 11th century. These endowments then accelerated with her sons, Alexander I (1107–24) and David I (1124–53), in the 1110s and 1120s (Cowan and Easson 1976; Oram 2020a). In the Highlands, however, there were few of these reformed Benedictine or Augustinian monasteries established at any point from the 12th to mid 16th centuries (Table 9.7), probably due to resource availability. With most parishes appropriated to cathedrals or to monasteries outside the region between the late 12th and early 13th centuries (for example, Inverness was annexed to Arbroath, Kildonan to Scone and Kiltarlity to the hospital at Rathven in Banffshire), there were few disposable resources to underwrite new monastic foundations. Public displays of devotion were therefore channelled into either the foundation of chantry chapels within parish churches or donations to the monasteries or cathedral churches. The multiple prebends attached to Tain drew endowments from regional lay-people and from the kings of Scots.

No monastic foundations are known from the Norse or Lordships of the Isles areas. However, the fact that David I instructed the Earls of Orkney to ensure the safety of monks at Dornoch, which was established from the Benedictine order at Dumfermline, suggests that the Earls had influence this far south (Cant 1986, 52). Various monasteries and nunneries appear in local traditions, but apart from those few sites where there is a surviving physical or documentary record, none has been substantiated. All but one of the monasteries and friaries in this area were founded by lay individuals. This is perhaps a reflection on the lack of penetration of royal control into the Highlands until the end of the period, and a lack of the spiritual need on the part of local lairds normally expressed through the foundation of such institutions. Importantly, however, the Highlands saw patronage of some of the more obscure and especially austere monastic orders, with Premonstratensian canons at Fearn; Valliscaulian monks at Pluscarden and Beauly (and also at Ardchattan in Argyll) (Cowan and Easson 1976; Oram 2012; 2018). This emphasises the links the regional nobility had into the religious culture of western Christendom more generally and their awareness of trends in patterns of religious culture. 

These monastic sites have potential for archaeological work. This is particularly true at Beauly where the cloister and wider precinct buildings have been demolished, but the site is largely free from modern over-building, and at Fearn (MHG8451), where there is also significant opportunity to explore cloister and precinct arrangements. A second important consideration at the latter is the identified presence of anthrosols around the abbey site, which might be a legacy of monastic land-management on its home grange lands (Foster and Smout 1994). One rare archaeological opportunity that would be unique in Scotland is the locating and investigating the temporary site of the original Premonstratensian abbey at Mid Fearn (MHG8074) between Edderton and Kincardine. This was where the community was before it relocated to the site occupied by the surviving remains of the monastic church.

Fearn Abbey incorporated into the later church building. Andrew Puls ©The Highland Council
DornochSBenedictine12th centuryDavid I instructed Earls of Orkney to ensure the safety of the monks. MHG11754 Cant 1986, 52  
Fearn AbbeyERPremonstratensian1227Originally at Edderton (1221–2), then moved to Fearn in 1227. Founded by Farquhar, Earl of Ross. Rebuilding additions in 14th and 15th centuriesMHG8451 Cowan 1981, 93; Oram 2018
InvernessIDominican  (Black friars)1233Founded by Alexander II. Little survives.MHG3870 Cowan 1981, 93
BeaulyIValliscaulian, then after 1510 Cistercianc. 1230Founded by Bisset family  Roofless church survivesMHG3336; Cowan 1981, 92–93; Fawcett 1987
KingussieB&SCarmelite (White Friars)Before 1501No structural traces. Founded by Earl of Huntly. Limited excavation revealed locationMHG4413; Birch 2018b; 2020;  Cowan 1981, 93
Table 9.7  Medieval monasteries in the Highlands

A pot quern from Inverness Dominican Friary. ©Inverness Museum and Art Gallery

The limited scope of modern research into the institutions of the medieval church in the Highlands has made it fertile ground for myth and fabrication. Many of the supposed traditions of now-vanished monasteries and nunneries developed in the 18th and 19th centuries and are still circulating which adds to the problems facing modern archaeologists and historians. The Knights Templars are perhaps the biggest focus of such myth making; much of this is fuelled by the aura of mystery and mysticism that has been cultivated around them in recent decades by writers of popular fiction and pseudo-history.

Stripped of the myth, the Templars were an order of fighting monks, that were active from the 12th to the 14th century at which point they were suppressed by Papal order and when the bulk of their assets were given to the Knights Hospitaller or Order of St John of Jerusalem (Cowan and Easson 1976; Cowan et al 1983). Both orders had been present in Scotland since the time of King David I and reached a peak of popularity during the main period of the Crusades down to the later 13th century. Between them they only possessed five establishments in Scotland, none further north than Maryculter on the Dee west of Aberdeen and with their main houses – Balantrodoch/Temple for the Templars and Torphichen for the Hospitallers – were located in Lothian.

Despite many popular local traditions to the contrary and the more recent myths concerning exiled Templar ‘colonies’ in the western Highlands, no Templars were ever based permanently in the region (Cowan and Easson 1976). The source of many of the myths of Templar monasteries lies in the extensive portfolio of landed properties that they did possess, often styled as ‘Templeland/Templand or St John’s X’ that were dispersed throughout Scotland. These were mainly urban tenements and small parcels of agricultural land set for rent in rural locations, but the surviving rental books of the Hospitallers reveals that they possessed no land north of Dingwall and none in the central or west Highlands (Cowan et al 1983, 31, 209–25). 

There are also later 19th century traditions which need critical analysis; these associated lands in Ardersier and Nairn with the Templars (Aitken 1898, 9). The parish of Ardersier, however, was annexed to the prebend of the Dean of Ross and the Hospitallers’ rental book reveals that the Knights held only a very small piece of landed property – described as ‘a gud pece land contenand ij plewchis and pais vs’ (a good piece of land containing two ploughs and pays 5 shillings annually) from which they drew a rental income. In Nairn they seem to have held only two burgh tenements. Such evidence shows that there was no Templar community at Ardersier, just a tenanted property, and it is clear from the rental evidence for their other properties in Dingwall, Glencharnie (Strathdulnain), the Lovat, ‘Muntan’, Nairn, Redcastle/Edradour, Rosemarkie, and St John’s Mains that their remaining Highland properties were also blocks of agricultural land from which they drew an annual rental income. It is important, too, to carefully distinguish between lands given to the Hospitallers and land given to support hospitals, such as that at Killearnan (see 10.4).

Leave a Reply