Scottish Gothic Churches and Abbeys

The range of collegiate churches: the revival of the barrel vault; Rosslyn and 15th-century Glasgow

The most characteristic church building of the 14th-16th centuries in Scotland was that of the collegiate foundations generally created for the benefit of the founder's soul or the prestige of their family, but sometimes also with an educational purpose. Apart from the rebuilding of Melrose, begun as an act of reparation by an English king notable for the quality of his art patronage and maintained at that level for a considerable time, though destined to remain incomplete, there is little evidence of either the richest patronage or the most refined European influence on the great churches of Scotland in this period. In the collegiate churches, however, there are numerous examples of at least the Flamboyant window playing a dominant part rather than the Y-tracery or glazed lancets and cusped trefoils of more conservative or austere building.

Maybole Collegiate Church from the SE Maybole Collegiate Church from the SE

An early documented example of this activity appears at Maybole, south of Ayr, where John Kennedy founded a collegiate chapel in 1371 and was licensed to install its canons in 1382 when it was 'almost complete' (Fawcett Architectural History, pp. 24-5). This church is notable not only for the tomb niche already noted (Whithorn) but for the fine Curvilinear tracery, presumably of French Flamboyant inspiration, of the presbytery bay, 3 lights to the East window and 2 light windows flanking it and in the West wall.

Maybole Collegiate Church interior Maybole Collegiate Church East window

The SW door has a more conservative look but a similar hood mould and arch including small dog-tooth like the tomb. The repetition of this detail reduced to small billet-like scale recalls the 13th-century work at Iona and may show a continuing Western Isles tradition in Scotland.

Maybole Collegiate Church, SW door

Maybole's nave and North windows were plain lancets, still cut into solid blocks of stone in the Western Isles tradition.

Maybole Collegiate Church SW lancet window Maybole Collegiate Church NW lancet window

Its ancillary buildings have gone, replaced by a later burial vault and subsequent structures of a similar nature.

Tain, St. Duthus Collegiate Church and the former parish church Tain, St. Duthus Collegiate Church from the South

A similar plan governs the rather later collegiate church of St. Duthus/Duthac at Tain, which eventually became the principal church of the town. Its history is somewhat uncertain, however, though it was certainly affected by a Highlanders' incursion of 1427 in which one of the local churches associated with the saint was burnt. On balance, it would appear that the traditional foundation by William, Earl of Ross, father of the benefactress of Fortrose Cathedral is only an indirect source, perhaps via his daughter, given the use of similar windows and buttresses, derived in turn, perhaps with their actual builders, from the South chancel chapels of Elgin and therefore datable between Elgin's burning in 1390 and Euphemia's death in 1395. Although heavily restored, its tracery probably gives a good idea of the other two buildings (Fawcett Architectural History, pp. 50-54).

It is likely that it was the parish church to the South that was destroyed in 1427, though it could also have been the chapel further out of town.

Tain, St. Duthus chapel

In any case St. Duthus clearly took over their functions by the early 15th century. It has small plain windows to the North, the seaward and windward side, while the South façade is clearly intended not only to light the building but impress: there was a substantial porch added on this side, though the figured headstops of the surviving door are modern.

St. Duthus Collegiate Church East wall St. Duthus Collegiate Church North wall St. Duthus Collegiate Church West wall

Today it has a simple interior, though the statue of a bishop of circa 1400 survives, probably Duthus, perhaps always intended for one of the West wall niches, as well as a good if damaged sedilia and a fine, if reconstructed, 16th-century wooden pulpit, which, moved to the centre of the South wall enabled the church to function as a kirk with some success, and hence to survive the Reformation quite well.

Tain, St. Duthus Collegiate Church interior Tain, St. Duthus Collegiate Church sedilia

The basic form of parish and collegiate church alike in Scotland was such a bare rectangle, enhanced by fine detail where funds permitted. One of the finest examples in its details and furnishings is the 15th-century collegiate church at Foulis Easter.

The most sophisticated of the early foundations was probably Lincluden in Dumfries. This has the particular importance of being almost certainly the 'Nyddysdayll' of John Morow's carved catalogue at Melrose of his work and can be keyed into the other sites at Glasgow and Paisley Abbey. It is a foundation of 1389 by Archibald the Grim (3rd Earl of Douglas, +1400), but predominantly the creation of his daughter-in-law, Princess Margaret(d. ca 1451), wife of the 4th Earl, whose tomb is set in the presbytery with her and her husband's arms. To the north lie the remains of the residential quarters, perhaps using the abandoned nunnery previously at the site.

Lincluden from the SE Lincluden from the nave and crossing

The choir windows are broken, but the curved triangles and occasional drooping mouchettes used elsewhere can be deciphered from their stumps. With its wide transept and nave this was to be one of the earliest cruciform collegiate churches, but it is unlikely that it was ever completed. However, unlike most later cruciform churches the nave was to be aisled; its extant bays show the impact of refined French style at first hand in the delicacy of the general design and the details of its execution, where other Scottish work is generally a very blunt and usually scaled up evocation of its roots, notably at King's College Aberdeen and similar buildings. The choir has not only the tomb but a matching piscina and sedilia and a richly framed sacristy door. Even a couple of the stalls survive in the National Museum.

Lincluden choir Lincluden choir tomb and sacristy door

Lincluden choir sacristy door to NW Lincluden choir piscina and sedilia

Lincluden had few successors in terms of artistic refinement or the scale of church involved, but two major projects stand out, those of Rosslyn and Trinity College, Edinburgh. Lincluden's rich but refined detail lies between the two, much more subtle than Rosslyn but less rarified and more French than the Trinity College.

But before turning to these two, which were intended as major churches comparable to a small abbey or large burgh church in character, and influential on them, it may be worth noting the most distinctive type of collegiate church, rather distinct from the mature form of burgh church, is the cruciform unaisled type that we can see evolving at Dunglass and at Crichton in Lothian in the 1420s/1450s.

Dunglass Collegiate Church, from the NE Dunglass Collegiate Church, from the South Crichton Collegiate Church from the SE

Fawcett (Architectural History, pp. 168-70) considers that both evolved from chancels and naves, perhaps pre-existing at Crichton, though now lost, to which transeptal chapels, and eventually towers were added piecemeal, neither tower fitting altogether comfortably into the resulting spaces. One can see clearly at Dunglass how, as Fawcett spells out, the transepts were cut through the nave at the chancel arch and the tower arches subsequently inserted over and in front of them.

Dunglass Collegiate Church, interior to East Dunglass Collegiate Church, interior of the crossing Dunglass Collegiate Church, crossing and chancel

Each church shares with the simplest plans like Maybole and Foulis a square East end, though Dunglass has lost its East window; they also have NE sacristy chambers, that at Dunglass probably serving also as a tomb chapel.

Dunglass Collegiate Church, sacristy and tomb

Dunglass was turned from a chapel to a college by Alexander Home in 1423 and its foundation given papal confirmation in 1451. It has segmental-headed windows in the chancel with fine reticulated tracery, pointed windows in the nave and round-headed doors, the main North door in the Nave with a gabled niche above, partnered by simpler one to the South and another on the South of the chancel.

Dunglass Collegiate Church, Chancel South wall Dunglass Collegiate Church, Chancel SE window jamb

One of the painted consecration crosses survives. The angular foliage of the sedilia and the chancel arch are dated by Fawcett 'closer to the 1440s than the 1420s', but they probably represent the completion of this phase of work.

Dunglass Collegiate Church, Chancel Arch North capital Dunglass Collegiate Church, Chancel Arch South capital

Crichton was founded by William Lord Crichton in 1449.

Crichton Collegiate Church interior to East from the crossing Crichton Collegiate Church chancel to NE

Crichton Collegiate Church chancel to SE Crichton Collegiate Church chancel to the West

Its earlier chancel windows are two-light designs of essentially 13th/14th-century Geometric type apart from the small scale of the detail and the flattened trefle arches of the lights; the simple ogee arches of the sedilia represent the same early 14th-century idiom.

Crichton Collegiate Church capital at crossing Crichton Collegiate Church North Transept

But the later windows, capitals and main East and transept windows, together with the richly but often crudely carved parapet outside probably reflect the designs of Rosslyn and perhaps employed some of its masons.

Crichton Collegiate Church, parapet detail Crichton Collegiate Church, parapet detail

The significant feature of both churches is that their solid and unaisled walls lend themselves to supporting stone barrel vaults that create powerful but simple spatial effects, and what Fawcett suggests might be a 'positively sought …. compartmentalisation of spaces.'

Rosslyn Collegiate church from the South Rosslyn Collegiate church from the NE

The finest surviving building in Scotland of the 15th century is undoubtedly the incomplete collegiate church at Rosslyn, perhaps the most lavish display of private patronage ever realised in Scotland, though it makes a fascinating contrast to the contemporary royal foundation, Trinity College in Edinburgh, which has been reduced to a rebuilt fragment on a different site. Rosslyn (Roslin) was the foundation of William Sinclair, Earl of Orkney and Caithness, Chancellor of Scotland, perhaps as early as 1446, and is recorded as a college in 1456, with papal confirmation of 1477. By the 1460s Sinclair had lost his lands in the Orkneys to James III's bid for royal expansion after acquiring overlordship of the Norwegian islands as the pledge of his dowry in marrying Margaret of Denmark; this marriage is commemorated in the altarpiece of Holy Trinity College, painted by Hugo van der Goes of Ghent (NGS, Edinburgh). Hugo left the royal couple to an Edinburgh painter to complete, but invented a representation of the prince, James IV, who was to be involved in James III's own demise….. In the circumstances it is not surprising that neither Sinclair's nor the contemporary royal foundation in Edinburgh achieved completion.

Rosslyn Collegiate church from the East

Rosslyn is, rather remarkably, the translation of Glasgow Cathedral into a not much smaller and considerably more ornate barrel-vaulted church. Like Glasgow it has a lower Eastern section, more crypt than undercroft or Lower Church, however, since the lie of the land does not slope as much as at Glasgow.

Rosslyn Collegiate church, roof of lower chamber Rosslyn Collegiate church, lower chamber

Fawcett suggests that this vault was a hall for the canons rather than a sacristy; a burial site would be more appropriate in view of its model, particularly since Sinclair's own tomb has not been traced and was presumably not realised as he intended Perhaps the room was to serve both functions; the sequence of Salomonic piers indicates a strong focus upon the descent into this chamber, and despite the industry in Freemasonic literature at Rosslyn, in the 15th century there is no question of these having anything but an orthodox Christian meaning. The room is notable for its enrichment of the typical Scottish barrel vault with flat bands creating a bay division, as in the 12th-century French banded vault, and for the enrichment of these bands by a scalloped edging and the angel corbels that support them. These are quite well carved, each angel with a shield, the engrailed cross of the Sinclairs nearest the entrance and surely inspiring the scalloped vault bands as well. This heraldic material supports the probability that it was intended as a mausoleum for the Sinclairs, particularly since Slezer, Theatrum Scotiae, 1693, refers to the burial here of the Princes of Orkney, of whom William Sinclair was the last.

Rosslyn Collegiate church, lower chamber vault rib

Despite this evidence of its use as a ceremonial chamber there is also a set of architectural drawings incised into the West wall: the processes of building the church appear to have been recorded in various ways, since as late as 1700 circa Father Richard Hay was able to refer to Earl Sinclair having patterns made for his masons (Fawcett Architectural History, pp. 171).

Rosslyn Collegiate church, lower chamber architectural tracings

Like Glasgow Rosslyn has a 4-bay East end, though the East wall has 2 arches and a single large East window under the pointed barrel vault, which is lavishly encrusted with square carved foliate bosses and divided into bays with arches that have more than semicircular cusping, as drawn out in the undercroft, further enriched with more foliate bosses.

Rosslyn Collegiate church, interior to East Rosslyn Collegiate church, interior to East Rosslyn Collegiate church chancel vault

It also has rather thick and complex arcade piers, one of them in the East ambulatory with a spiral enrichment not only showing off the masons' skill (and giving rise to the typical Gothic legend - by the 17th century at the latest - of the apprentice murdered by a jealous master, a typically fatuous inversion of the roles of patron and artisan created by the disjunction of values and knowledge created by the Reformation) but invoking the Temple of Solomon, or at least the shrine of St. Peter, as at Durham and Dunfermline. The spiral pier indicates the entrance to the undercroft, surely confirmation that it was to be the family's dynastic burial vault.

Rosslyn Collegiate church, East arcade and ambulatory piers Rosslyn Collegiate church, 'Apprentice Pier'

The East wall is a single window carried on a 2-bay arcade; it exploits the space to set a large oculus over the exceptionally wide lancets below. The translation of a giant quatrefoil into a subdivided square is a typical Late Gothic perversion of traditional design that here emphasises also the unusual even number of bays derived from Glasgow.

Rosslyn Collegiate church, East chapel vaults Rosslyn Collegiate church, East chapel vault bosses Rosslyn Collegiate church, aisle vault over South door

Unlike the cathedral, however, Rosslyn is fully vaulted throughout, barrel vault for the main aisle of the chancel and for the lower room, but with small transverse barrel vaults in the aisles, as in 12th-century Cistercian churches. They have richly carved foliage and figured lintels between them. The chapels of the East bay have cross vaults with extravagant bosses descending from their centres and at their springing; these, combined with the cusped ribs from which they emerge, suggest the pendant vaults that appear in late 15th century English fan vaults, but Rosslyn's are earlier. The combination of sources in its vaults is, in fact, even more unexpected than its use of Glasgow's plan.

Rosslyn Collegiate church windows Rosslyn Collegiate church windows Rosslyn Collegiate church windows

The windows of the chancel are simple lancets apart from the East wall, a curious reversion to Glasgow's early 13th-century design. But the aisle windows push the Scottish Flamboyant vocabulary to its limits as far as repertoire of motifs is concerned. We have a quatrefoil expanded into the gap at its base, a cross growing into 4 pine-cone-like shapes as used to fill the tops of Glasgow's North aisle windows, confronted mouchettes, and above all a series of heart-or kidney-shaped pairs of oval lobes drooping like buttocks and combined either with a quatrefoil or divided vertically. These motifs recur but are sufficiently varied for this not to be very obvious. Their large and prominent shapes have a conspicuous life in later 15th-century Scottish architecture.

Rosslyn Collegiate from the NW

Rosslyn was to have a substantial transept, projecting, unlike Glasgow, and is thought to have had a nave of similar length to the chancel and a West tower on its axis laid out. The balance, therefore would have been like Glasgow, but the single tower would have distinguished it from the cathedral type; its wide transept had also become typical of the major collegiate chapel. The vestry-annexe at the West is 19th century.

The exterior of Rosslyn, however, with its windows framed by broad arches in wider bays and flanked by deep buttresses, flyers and very substantial pinnacles, is very much part of a family of important Eastern churches of the period, Holyrood Abbey's rebuilding and St. Salvator's College at St. Andrews its other members.

It is hard to place Rosslyn in its historical context, not because its individual elements are unfamiliar, but their extravagant use and combination in such an unexpected fashion, with extreme reference to 12th- and 13th-century models but also apparently anticipating or influencing current English ones makes it stand apart from its contemporaries, even without the grand transept and nave that were planned.

Trinity College in Edinburgh was never favoured by fortune, despite being founded by the widow of James II, Mary of Guelders, after his death in 1460. Her position and presumable knowledge of fine contemporary Netherlandish church building appear to be reflected in the tall restrained proportions of the church, aisled with a projecting apse as any normal French, Dutch or Flemish collegiate church would be, and with a tierceron vault, conservative in an English context but quite elaborate in a European one and representing high quality Scottish building.

Trinity College, Edinburgh, vault

It will be recalled that Hugo van der Goes of Ghent, the greatest Flemish artist of his day, painted what was probably the high altar. James V was still seeking support for its building in 1531, however, when the transept was probably in building; work on the nave was abandoned.

Trinity College, Edinburgh, rebuilt transept from the West Trinity College, Edinburgh, rebuilt choir to East

Between 1844 and 1848 the church and college were demolished to make way for the railway; only a reduced core of the chancel and transept was eventually rebuilt further up the hill, the main elements now in a very confused relationship to each other, giving little more than an idea of the central space and some of its carved detail. Today it is that epitome of 'Heritage culture', a 'brass-rubbing centre'. Its vault and the surviving capitals give some idea of the original quality of detail intended.

Trinity College, Edinburgh, arcade Trinity College, Edinburgh, capital Trinity College, Edinburgh, capital

It is shown in drawings before its demolition as having a 2-storey interior, with transomed windows in the clerestorey set over a deep expanse of bare wall, and a string course above as relatively tall arcade of clustered piers of 4 main and 4 minor shafts, a modernised version of the naves of Glasgow, Jedburgh and St. Andrews. Its strange cross-shaped East windows recur at Biggar; here their minimalism is perhaps royal restraint, but their essentially non-Gothic non-stone-arch structure suggests associations with Northern Europe, Prussia and Poland and perhaps origins in timber building. Or it may simply be part of the simplification of Gothic from throughout Europe but especially in its more constrained regions like Scotland.

Trinity College, Edinburgh, transept window

The transept of circa 1531 had an ambitious South window, however, culminating in a split heart-shaped oculus inverting a characteristic Rosslyn motif: royal taste had reverted to the norms of wealthier Scottish patronage.

University colleges and other apsed college churches

Some of the later rectangular collegiate structures were apsed, giving them a rather special appearance compared with secular structures that suited their dignified status with a minimum of architectural complication. This was the preferred type of academic college chapel in Scotland, the counterpart of the sometimes huge rectangular boxes of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge in England, where the collegiate structuring of the university had been developed further than in Paris or Bologna. The pattern of their chapels generally involves a long rectangle of which the East third provides the sanctuary, the second third is devoted to choir stalls for the members, masters and students, of the college, and the third near the entrance to a 'lay' area outside the choir, separated by a substantial screen, the pulpitum of a major church. Compared to other collegiate or lay churches, in academic colleges such as King's College, Aberdeen, the nave area is very short and that for the choir stalls very large.

The chapel of St Salvator's College in St. Andrews was founded by Bishop James Kennedy to enhance the possibilities of study at its university in 1450, and his own European experience is reflected in the mace, made in Paris by a royal goldsmith, Jean Mayelle, in 1461. His chapel was (presumably barrel) vaulted, and supported by square piers and flyers like those of Holyrood of a similar date, but unfortunately the vault was ripped out in 1773, and most of its other features have been gutted or replaced since.

King's College, Aberdeen, is probably coarser than St. Salvator's in its details, but remains today as the finest and best preserved example of a collegiate chapel, and in its furnishings, despite the perverse destruction in the late 20th century of the upper storey of its screen, the best preserved Scottish church altogether. It was founded by Bishop William Elphinstone around 1497 (notionally 1500, the date inscribed on the West front) and dedicated in 1509.

Aberdeen, King's College Chapel from the NE Aberdeen, King's College Chapel from the SE Aberdeen, King's College Chapel West front

The chapel has deep buttresses, but no flyers, unlike St. Salvator's, which is considered its overall model, and its sacristy was set to the South, towards the college cloister, necessitating its main windows to be set on the North side.

Aberdeen, King's College Chapel interior

Their extraordinary central mullions dividing the Flamboyant windows in two, and with no internal moulding, are perhaps the result of Netherlandish influence, to some extent, but the flat back is not uncommon in Scottish building of 1450/1500 (Dunkeld gallery, the Blacadder aisle of Glasgow Cathedral). It has also been suggested that the heaviness of design of these large windows is intended to meet the exacting climate with the prevailing NE wind. The chapel has a fine wooden vault, wagon ceiling, with ribs suggesting a stone vault, probably by John Fendour like that of St. Nicholas in the centre of Aberdeen.

The careful planning, perhaps of symbolic intent, and the fine crown steeple above the tower mark this as the work of a refined patron, despite the massiveness of its detail.

The chapel has all its choir stalls virtually intact, the great screen that separated the scholars/choristers and their teachers from the unschooled world outside, fragments of its founder's magnificent French/Flemish Renaissance tomb, and the altar stone, together with a later pulpit. The rather dense occupation of the space by its wooden seating and enclosure structures should be seen as normal.

J. Geddes (ed.), King's College Chapel, Aberdeen, 1500-2000, Leeds, 2000


Castle Semple, Collegiate Church from SE

A late example of the same plan for purely collegiate purposes can be seen at Castle Semple, Renfrews., founded in 1504 by John, Lord Semple, killed like many others at Flodden, 1513: his tomb is on the North side of the presbytery bay.

Castle Semple, Collegiate Church, interior to East Castle Semple, Collegiate Church from SE, tomb

The north side was either unfinished or attached directly to residential quarters for the clergy.

Castle Semple, Collegiate Church from NE

The chapel's square panelled exterior bays and oddly flat-headed windows, echoed in the tomb itself, are described by Fawcett as showing 'architectural illiteracy' and, in the case of the windows of the 'south flank of the choir' 'ultimately - if rather confusedly- inspired by English Perpendicular types.' This inspiration is not very closely followed, however; there are no transoms, and for the flattened arches of this kind European models briefly observed may be as relevant. But for the monolithic heads of the apsidal windows and the way in which the detail of the South windows is run together and chipped from a solid block, the West of Scottish traditions

Castle Semple, Collegiate Church, South choir windows, exterior Castle Semple, Collegiate Church, South choir windows, interior

Castle Semple, Collegiate Church, South choir windows, detail Castle Semple, Collegiate Church, E/NE apse bays

The way in which each bay of the apse is framed not only on each side but at the top may suggest that the 12th/13th-century traditions of West of Scotland masons were still alive or being revived at this late date, and provides support for Fawcett's view that the apse of Ardchattan shows a similar revival rather than being earlier than usually though.


Late cruciform and apsidal colleges: Seton and Biggar

Seton, Collegiate church from the SE

At Seton the large lobed flamboyant tracery that marks modern Scottish architecture from Rosslyn to the Trinity College transept of 1531 is dominant, though without their heart/buttock central motifs: confronted mouchettes with either a central oval oculus or a quatrefoiled space occupy the apsidal windows of an imposing single-storey church, the transept and chancel added to a parish church, itself now destroyed.

Seton, Collegiate church from NE Seton, Collegiate church apse from the SE Seton, Collegiate church from the West: nave foundations

The original chapel of Lady Katherine Seton of the 1430s is lost with it. The collegiate parts added to the East to replace the original chapel are the work of three successive Lords Seton, begun by the first, in the 1470s, the college authorised for the second in 1492 and the church vaulted before his death in 1508, and furnished by the third, who was like Lord Semple killed at Flodden in 1513.

Seton, Collegiate church tomb

The choir is an imposing pointed barrel vaulted interior, with the presbytery distinguished by the addition of ribs imitating a quadripartite-vault to mark its special status. they are clearly not structural, and the contrast with the bald vault to the West is curiously blunt, a typical trait of Scottish Late Gothic.

Seton, Collegiate church, interior to East Seton, Collegiate church, presbytery

The transepts are the work of the third earl's widow considerably later, and only finished after the church was sacked by the Earl of Hertford in 1544, requiring her to refurbish it again.

Seton, Collegiate church, transept from NW

The last collegiate church to be built was at Biggar in southern Lanarkshire, founded by Malcolm Fleming, Lord Chamberlain, in 1545-6, probably added onto an earlier church which was homogenised with the rest by the insertion of similar windows and buttresses by David Bryce in 1869-71.

Biggar, Collegiate church from the SW

Bryce gave the building a rather frigid uniformity alleviated much later by good Arts and Crafts furnishings. The plan is another simple cruciform one, with aisleless nave and chancel and prominent transept, its windows an enlarged 3-light version of the choir windows.

Biggar, Collegiate church from the SE Biggar, Collegiate church interior to the East

Biggar, Collegiate church chancel to the East Biggar, Collegiate church crossing capitals

These are significant in that they take up the Trinity College windows, perhaps a reflection of Lord Fleming's royal duties and allegiance. In taking up its most austere feature so conspicuously Biggar seems to point the way to the Reformation view of the house of God.