Case Study: The Development of religious buildings

The ruins of St Andrews Cathedral viewed from St Rule’s Tower, © RCAHMS

Religious buildings stand as important confessional statements within both the rural and urban environment. Monumental cathedrals such as Glasgow or the ruins of St Andrews are evocative reminders of the complex liturgies and ceremonies that were associated with the medieval mystery of the mass. At the Reformation, some cathedrals, like St Andrews and Elgin, were abandoned for local parish churches which were more suitable for the more intimate arrangements required for preaching in the Reformed Kirk. The cathedral at Glasgow was abandoned before being divided into several separate churches. At a parochial level the buildings were reconfigured and where there was a chancel it was frequently abandoned, often becoming a burial aisle. These were structural alterations that were not always successful in their attempts to reorganise the ritual space that had been constructed for different confessional practices. As Burns noted: 'What a poor pimping business is a Presbyterian place of worship! Dirty, narrow, squalid: stuck in a corner of old popish grandeur such as Linlithgow'.

The restoration of churches, such as Haddington and Stirling in the twentieth century, has recreated to some extent the medieval appearance of these buildings, and something of their Catholic grandeur. This has, however, been at the expense of the more recent Reformed church interior which has been regarded as an intrusion. The 17th-century sectarianism which divided the parish church of Holy Rood in Stirling is now only a matter of historical and photograph record, rather than an archaeological and architectural statement. Here, then, a heritage concern for the original and most ancient form of the building has resulted in the erasure of direct and tangible reminders of the Reformation history of these buildings and the communities to which they relate.

Churches have, of course, been transformed in more recent times as well: Al-Furqan Mosque in Glasgow and Dundee Central Mosque were established in former churches while, in Edinburgh, the United Free Church of Scotland building in Queensferry Road, Blackhall, became a mosque in 2009. Some structural elements commonly found in churches, such as galleries, translate well across faiths, but other features need to be altered, adapted, removed or added to meet new religious purposes.

The evolution and adaptation of such buildings to meet the demands of different denominations and faiths speaks to Scotland's complex religious history and these buildings have a place in the histories and ongoing stories of many groups within Scottish society. These buildings have played a prominent role in key social, religious and political changes in the modern Scottish past and they have much to tell about still-resonant historical conflicts and differences between groups. But they also speak of shared spaces, beliefs, traditions and practices and of commonality, co-existence and creative adaptation.


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