The History of Leith

August 13, 2007

Did South Leith Church look like this in the Past?

It may seem strange describing Torphichen Church on a website dedicated to the history of Leith. However in 1230 Gilbert son of Henry of Leith donated the site on which South Leith Church now stands to Godfrey de Saulton who was the Grand Master of the knights of St John at Torphichen. Nothing happened with this donation until 1327 when the Knights of St John came into Leith possibly to treat Robert the Bruce as according to the Parliamentary records Robert the Bruce came to Leith from Dundee at exactly the same time. Furthermore the ground plan of South Leith Church shown on the Pentworth Map of 1560 is identical to the plan shown below for Torphichen Church. The footings of the Transepts and Choir still exist under the Churchyard at South Leith Church. Furthermore the first Protestant minister of South Leith belonged to the Lindsay family it seems strange to find possibly the self same family connected to Torphichen as well

The Church of the knights of St John of Jerusalem has been a building of considerable importance. Along with the old fashioned village it is situated well up the ridge of hills that separate the valleys in which Linlithgow and Bathgate are respectively situated and from either of which it is some three to four miles.

Distant and quite outside the tourists beat indeed few people go there; but it is well worth visiting both for its natural beauty and its great historic associations. The Church and village are situated in a hollow among the hills and it is a with something of a surprise that one sees for the first time the great massive tower and lofty church in this lonely out of the way spot. Ones first impression is that of an old baronial keep with wide ample chimneys on the gables with its weather worn battlements and roofs intact. But the sight of the surrounding churchyard with its many quaint monuments, the traceried windows, and the Parish Church with its belfry, soon reveal the true character of the building-which shows the remains of a large Cross Church of which the North and South transepts, and crossing with the lofty central tower covered with a saddle backed roof still remain in a fair state of preservation but of absolute neglect. The parish Church and interesting structure of the Eighteenth century but retaining several features characteristic of the seventeenth occupies the ancient nave. It is possible there was a south aisle at the East end of the nave as outside on the West wall of the South transept there is a roof ruggle running up against the South wall of the parish Church and with slight indication of the aisle wall against the transept in which there is an arched recess beneath the ruglet.

Of the Choir part of the North wall remains along with the East gable. The whole length of the fabric has been about 155 feet from east to west, the transepts being about seventy feet from North to South. These latter are groin vaulted in three compartments, in the North transept the cross horizontal rib is omitted as are also the wall ribs and there appears to be an inscription on the central boss. In the central compartment are finely moulded piers and arches for supporting the tower rising to a height of about thirty feet (the tower itself being about seventy feet high) with the usual round aperture in the centre so invariably found in the vaults of all Scottish towers. The piers have moulded caps and bases the former having the usual continuous abacus moulding with the neck moulding only following the contour of the piers-so characteristic of later Scottish Gothic. The mouldings of the North pier bases run in parallel diagonal lines while those of the south piers follow the contour-differences which always create an interest. There is a fine traceried window on each transept, on in the south gable and the other in the east wall these windows are singularly unlike in design. The former is of four lights, the mullions are connected with the round cusped arches with tracery composed three circles with fully relieved cupping, the wall is almost a metre thick with the glass grove about .3m in from the outer face of the wall; the other window of about the same width is of three lights with pointed arches connected the mullions with two circles for tracery with impierced cusps the glass in a 1.3m thick wall, it is placed at about the centre of the wall. This greater depth of the outside recess gives the latter window a much more pronounced effect than the other window possesses.

From the North transepts there has evidently extended outwards a long row of conventual buildings of which the remain of one exists at about 30m away and from the apartment next the transept a window of the upper floor still remains looking into the Church. This window is provided with side stone seats so that the occupants of this chamber could participate in the Church service without going into the Church. In the North transept there is a triangular headed door leading out to the open air. Similar to doorways found at St Salvator, St Andrews, and to doorways at Borthwick Castle and some other places-as Crimond, Aberdeenshire.

The peculiar feature of Torphichen is the upper chambers, four in number, one over each transepts and two, one above the other in the tower. These are reached by a wheel stair now in a very broken condition. These rooms are of fair size about seven metres square and with there thick walls and quaint small arched windows one can readily realise how comfortable they were with their blazing fires in the long nights centuries ago.

These buildings probably date from the about the beginning of the fifteenth century but a small fragment now built into a wall beneath the great west arch of the tower is of the transitional period of the twelfth century. It consists of a round arch supported on shafts having carved capitals and it may have been the chancel arch of the first church of Torphichen. It measures about 3m wide over shafts and about three-four metres in clear height, evidently it is not in its original position. As the more recent arches are designed without any reference to it. Within this arch again are the fragmentary remains of a monument bearing an inscription which has been misread by Sibbald, Monteith, and others relying on them. The inscription is-

“Valterus Lyndesay Huius successor et ex nepos hoc Monumentum Ferit Fecit 1583

The Rev John Anderson says that this is the base of a monument to Sir George Dundas, Lord of St John, Preceptor of Torphichen neither his parentage nor that of Walter Lindsay is known.

Is this how South Leith Originally looked? balantrodoch (Temple) Dennis Garner

In part from the “Transactions of the Ecclesiological Society 1907/08

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