What you never knew about Scottish churches…

Medieval section on the east end of Leuchars parish church.
Medieval section on the east end of Leuchars parish church.

Most people have a good understanding of what happened during the Reformation.  The town of St Andrews itself is saturated with stories from this rather turbulent time in history.  While the theological and social developments of this period have been well studied, however, not much attention has been given to the physical churches themselves.  The aim of my research, therefore, is to analyze the impact of the Reformation on churches within the dioceses of St Andrews and Brechin and compare the results with adjacent dioceses. By doing so, I hope to obtain a better understanding of how much medieval masonry survived the post-Reformation period, as well as the various methods used to adapt these buildings to Reformed worship.

What exactly am I looking for?  Let’s back up.  Following the Reformation, church services tended to concentrate on scripture and the pulpit (much more so than the Catholic mass, which revolves around the altar).  This adjustment gradually resulted in a desire for better acoustics and more comfortable interior spaces in post-Reformation churches.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, parishes began to modify the long, rectangular medieval buildings in ways that would enable the congregation to better see, hear and ultimately participate in the service.  Some churches were truncated to improve sound quality; others were augmented by lateral side aisles and galleries to provide more seating.  The list of possible alterations is endless.

As a result of such modifications, many of the medieval churches lost significant portions of their original masonry.  Central to my project, therefore, is the classification of each building according to the degree of its surviving medieval fabric, and looking for any potential correlation between the type of modification and the extent to which the medieval masonry was retained.  Additionally, I hope to identify any patterns in the external features such as geographic location and parish wealth – factors which may have affected the speed and scope of these innovations.

Based on the surviving evidence from other dioceses there is a strong possibility that more medieval fabric survives than meets the eye.  Indeed, my results are indicating that the foundations and original proportions of the medieval church played a considerable role in the reconstruction process.  Additionally, medieval stonework and liturgical features have been identified in many of the post-Reformation churches in the study area.

In terms of current status, I’ve just finished the first phase of analysis (i.e. classifying the churches) and am now ready to begin the fun part!  This involves sitting down with a cup of coffee and transforming the data into various graphs and visual illustrations to help me identify potential links between the aforementioned points.  The final stage will be to compare my results with information from adjacent dioceses in what could  develop into a nation-wide survey.

The most challenging aspect I’ve encountered thus far has been what I call ‘data crunching’.  This is the familiar yet grueling task of sifting through heaps of information (in my case, architectural reports, measurements and floor plans), extracting the relevant bits and pieces, and plugging them into the research framework to look for patterns and anomalies.  Patience, I have found, is not my forte, and it’s been difficult at times to concentrate on what can appear to be a nebulous task.  The throngs of enthusiastic golf fans during The Open didn’t help…

Fortunately, I’ve found that the most effective way to avoid this mental rut is to engage the brain in new ways and make the data relatable.  For me, the best opportunity to fully comprehend and appreciate the past is when the evidence is tangible and can be experienced directly.  One of the great things about my project is that it’s relatively local.  Many of the churches are within a day’s journey from St Andrews and I’ve had various opportunities to visit some of the major sites (see image).  Experiencing the churches – walking through them and seeing firsthand how the architecture has changed over the centuries – has provided me with a personal connection to these structures and a visual resource which I can apply to the more tedious aspects of the research process.

I’m looking forward to what the next few weeks will bring and wish you all the best of luck with your projects!


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