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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Dunnet Parish Church.
By G Watson

Blaeu's map of Caithness shows a church on the east bank of the burn that flows from St Johns loch. Although not published until 1654, Blaeu produced this map from sketches made by Timothy Pont sometime between 1583 and 1596 (1). A fuller description of this building occurred in 1791 when it was noted that, "the corner stones of a small steeple, adjoining, the church, still bear the original marks of the iron, though it has not stood, by the best accounts, less than 200 years." (2)

This traditional, late 16th century, date for the tower is supported by a commission given to Bishop Robert Stewart, in 1563, and renewed in 1568, to plant kirks within his diocese. The Bishop's response must have been satisfactory for in 1570 he was specially thanked by the Assembly for his services (3). It seems reasonable therefore to consider Dunnet one of his 'planted kirks', probably erected on a new site to symbolise the break at the Reformation from Roman influence.

Except for the meagre details given in the Old and New Statistical Accounts of the parish there are few records relating to the construction of the church. Harling now covers the outer walls, while inside a lath and plaster lining effectively hides most of the masonry. Subsequent comments and conclusions, based upon the few areas where masonry can still be seen, will need to be corrected as other parts of the structure are revealed.

In broad outline, for they can seldom be dated with accuracy, the following stages in the development of the building can be identified from the church records or as features of its structure:-

Phase 1 [c1570]. The original church was probably rectangular, with a strong square tower at the west end. Considerable doubt must remain over the exact form of the east end since no trace of it was identified. However, one can be quite sure that the tower and the west gable are of one build, for the wheel staircase within the tower is recessed into the gable and the raggle of an early roof line shows the gable to be substantially intact. Despite this some re-working is obvious at its junction with the south wall of the tower, where the small windows are awkwardly positioned in the angle.

It is not known how the main tower was roofed at this period. In its south east corner, a newel staircase climbed clockwise to two upper floors before terminating in a corbelled roof. It seems likely that the two upper rooms provided accommodation for the officiating cleric, and like Old St Peters, Thurso, the first floor room had an opening in the east wall communicating directly with the church.

All three doorways on the newel stairway have mouldings similar to the round arched doorway, now blocked, in the north wall of the church. Traces of another doorway can be found in the south wall beneath the vestry window. This was almost certainly the main entrance to the church when the two mural memorials which flank it were erected. One is thought to belong to the Rev George Oswald who died in 1725, and the other is dated 1809 (4). At Dunnet, opposing doorways would appear to be a late survival of a medieval tradition that can be seen at Old St Peter's, Thurso and St Magnus, Egilsay.

Associated with the north and south doors of the nave and the lowest door of the newel stair, is a horizontal floor lying about one metre below the present floor of the vestry. Continuity of this lower floor-level suggests that there was direct access between the church and the base of the tower but due to later infilling and walling, no trace of an opening could be found.

Preserved, as a raggle of thick slabs in the west gable, the early roof line clearly shows that the width of the church and the height of the side walls have not altered. No indication was found of the length of the early church, but if common medieval proportion was adhered to then an internal length of about 13.5 metres might be expected.

It follows that little can be said of the east end, where despite its post-Reformation date, there is likely to have been an altar especially during the two periods of Episcopalian rule in the 17th century.

Phase 2. [1778]. According to the inscription on the bell, it was presented to the church by Mrs Mary Oswald of Auchencrue, in 1778. Its installation needed substantial alteration to the top of the tower. A bell-loft was inserted above the original top chamber, this required the removal of part of the newel stair-head. Within the loft a pair of massive semi-circular wooden beams span the tower from east to west. Positioning them would have entailed building or re-building the upper gables of the tower. The bell cradle is mounted on the east end of the beams adjacent to a large belfry opening. All of these modifications including the saddle-back roof can be dated from the bell inscription.

Phase 3. [Between c1786 and c1825]. Lofts are mentioned in the seat letting from 1786 onwards(5). Variable nomenclature makes it difficult to establish their precise layout but north and south lofts are certainly mentioned. Within the tower, the remains of a stone stairway to a blocked doorway on the first floor clearly indicates the presence of a west loft, as does the small window in the flower room which was inserted to provide light beneath this loft. A similar larger window in the west wall of the tower illuminated the stairway. The absence of bevel moulding on the outside of these windows shows that they are not original features, and the angle of the interior splay indicates that they were designed to light the lower floor.

Later, c1799, the north loft was dismantled and rebuilt at the east end (6), a move which suggests that additional space had been created, by lengthening the church. There are no signs of early roof attachments in the east gable (7), which would indicate that a steep pitched roof was in place before the church was lengthened. Certainly the lower flagstone floor, which remains in situ, extends right up to the present east gable, and appears to extend into the north aisle. It is impossible to say when it was laid. The quantity and quality of straight edge flags required would suggest a date after 1825 when the local quarry industry was established on a commercial footing (8).

Phase 4. [After 1786]. In the graveyard, abutting the north wall of the tower is a substantial lean-to whose primary function is now forgotten. Its masonry is not tied into that of the tower and its roof angle follows the steep pitch of the church roof. Its construction must have taken place after c.1786 for one of its roof timbers is supported in a tower window which became blocked when the stairway to the west loft was installed inside the tower.

Phase 5. [1837]. In 1837 the church was repaired and an aisle added (9). This was indeed a major renovation that not only added the north aisle with its gallery but probably included a new roof over the entire church.

From a meeting of the Heritors at this time (10), to divide the sittings of the newly refurbished church, it is possible to reconstruct the internal arrangements which are shown on the attached plan. Pews 1 and 69, on either side of the pulpit, are described as 'Table Seats', that presumably, could be converted to communion tables when required. What is not certain is where the entrances to the north and east lofts were and whether there were other doorways into the church which are now hidden by harling. In 1840 the minister rather optimistically stated that his renovated church could hold 700 people. Little did he realise that within three years he would lose a good portion of his congregation at the Disruption. However the internal seating plan seems to have remained unaltered, for c. 1872 it was noted that the church could seat 600 people (11), indicating that the galleries were still in place.

Phase 6. [Late 19th and early 20th century]. During this period the interior of the church was redesigned. The old galleries and pews were removed and a raised raked floor, with built-in draught-proofing, was installed to carry a smaller number of pews with more generous spacing [See plan]. Although no longer used as such, Pew 19/32 could be converted to a communion table. Sufficient space remained at the west end of the church to create a vestry and flower room. The higher floor level was carried through into the tower, partially blocking all the doors associated with the earlier low floor, i.e. the north and south doors in the church, the door between the tower and the church and the lower entrance to the newel stairway.

A vestibule was created in the lower tower with a new entrance in the south wall. The partially blocked doorway between the vestibule and the church was heightened, which necessitated the removal of the top section of the stone stairway which had led to the west gallery. A new route to the bell room was provided by building a light wooden bridge from the remaining lower section of the stairway to the middle doorway of the wheel stair. An additional entrance, later protected by a porch, was provided in the east wall of the north aisle.

1 The Pont Manuscript Maps of Scotland. J C Stone, 1989, page 5.
2 The Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol XVIII, Sutherland and Caithness, 1979, page 38, Dunnet Parish Church.
3 History of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Caithness, Rev J B Craven, 1908, p 25.
4 Caithness Monumental Inscriptions Pre 1855, A S Cowper & I Ross, 1992, Vol 1, p 66.
5 Ms C Finlayson's notes from the church records.
6 Ms C Finlayson's notes from the church records.
7 Personal communication from architect Lyn Leet.
8 Commercial flagstone working was initiated c 1825 by James Traill one of the heritors of Dunnet church where his father George Traill had been minister from 1751 until his death in 1785.
9 New Statistical Account of Scotland, Dunnet Parish, 1840, p 46.
10 Minutes of Meeting of Heritors, 24 Oct. 1837, SO CH/94616.
11 Ordnance Survey Name Book, Dunnet Parish, Parish Church.

Acknowledgements:- Ms C. Finlayson allowed me to use her notes from the church records and Mr G. Leet provided a number of drawings of the church, including seating plans. One of the drawings is shown below: Others can be provided by Geoff Leet or George Watson.

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Photos Of Dunnet Kirk

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