Grant to uncover secret heritage of medieval churches

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THEY have been knocked about, rejigged beyond recognition and disguised as much younger models through centuries of turmoil and change.

Now the medieval origins of some of Scotland’s oldest churches is being uncovered by an investigation into the nation’s rich religious heritage.

It was believed that only around 50 churches across the country built between the start of the 12th century and the Reformation in 1560 had survived.

But an initial survey by academics at St Andrews University found more than 60 in the dioceses of Dunkeld and Dunblane alone and they have now been handed a grant of almost £500,000 to extend the project to other areas of Scotland.

It is hoped the project will help preserve historically important churches whose origins have been obscured and put them at risk.

Principal investigator Professor Richard Fawcett, of the university’s School of Art History, said that the buildings had been “neglected” when it came to documenting their historical and cultural value.

“Our understanding of medieval parish churches in Scotland is a very much more limited than it ought to be,” he said. “I remember when I first came up to Scotland 30 odd years ago I read that there were no more than about 50 parish churches still in use in Scotland that were substantially medieval.

“But as I was going around, it struck me that a lot of parish churches may have been so heavily modified that they didn’t look medieval. But they were essentially medieval structures and should be understood as such.”

The pilot survey for the Corpus of Scottish Medieval Parish Churches project, analysed 105 buildings in Dunkeld and Dunblane, analysing both physical and documentary evidence to uncover clues as to their real age.

Fawcett said: “We quickly found that very many more of the churches than might have been expected were clearly, however much remodelled, essentially medieval structures.”

One clue that a church is medieval in origin lies in its “footprint” – usually a long, rectangular outline, aligned east to west. Churches built post-Reformation, Fawcett said, tended to have a broader construction.

Among the examples uncovered were Dull Church and Moulin Church in Perthshire, both of which appear externally to be relatively modern but whose records and shape betray their medieval roots.

Fawcett described the striking example that persuaded him that it was an area ripe for investigation: “For me, the ‘St Paul on the road to Damascus’ experience was going to the church of Fowlis Wester, which now looks like a medieval building.

“But I came across some early photographs of it which showed that, before the early 20th century, it had looked very much like a classical Georgian building.”

He said that having been transformed once already, during the 1920s, work had been done to strip away the church’s external render and internal plasterwork to expose its medieval origins.

The grant of £490,656, awarded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), will allow the project to document the 258 parishes in the dioceses of St Andrews and Brechin – work that is expected to take three years.