Prof Adam Cumming

Chairperson, Scotland’s Churches Trust

In his latest blog, our Chairperson Prof Adam Cumming explores some of the historic connections between Scotland and mainland Europe that are manifested in surviving church architecture.

This summer, my wife and I visited Cologne, in Germany. With our shared love of churches, we immediately made a beeline for several of the city’s ecclesiastical buildings. In one of these, the 13th century Franciscan “Minoritenkirche” or “Church of the Immaculate Conception” we found a tomb which also serves as a shrine to the Blessed John Duns Scotus. 


Church of the Friars Minor where Scotus is buried

Born around 1265 in Duns, in the Scottish Borders, Scotus became one of the most feted theologians and philosophers of the Middle Ages.  He worked and taught across Europe and was so well-known that after his death another school of thought emerged to rubbish him and his works!  Despite this, he is still well-remembered and his life remains an excellent exemplar of the close, historic connections Scotland had with mainland Europe and the great importance of these connections on both sides of the North Sea.

The Hanseatic cities traded all across Europe and while I thought they were mainly in the Baltic and the North Sea, I discovered that Cologne, on the Rhine, was a Hanseatic port. A letter from Wallace as Guardian invites trade with them, so this meant goods, people and ideas travelling across Europe.

What has this to do with Scotland’s church heritage? If you look at our buildings, you can see the effect. In the later Middle Ages, the trade and approach influenced the building style. It was more than just Jean Moreau of Paris, building the crossing of Melrose. The European styles influenced the Scottish stone masons – this is apparent in the use of the plans and the tracery designs. The use of a three-sided apse was very uncommon in England but so very common across northern Europe.

The European influence affected music too for the Carver Choir book contains music from Burgundy and psalm tunes came from France and Geneva.

Trinity College Church in Edinburgh was graced by a glorious altar piece by Hugo van der Goes from Flanders and wooden furnishings were also imported.  The Tron Kirk in Edinburgh was influenced by Netherlands design as were others, with ideas going both ways!

European connections continued into more modern times with influential Scots making their careers overseas.   Have you heard of Samuel Greig?  He was born in Inverkeithing, but who took service in the Russian navy under Catherine the Great and ended up as a senior admiral.  He is buried in St Mary’s Cathedral, Tallinn, Estonia, and his tomb is decorated with Saltires.  Greig reformed the Russian Imperial Navy and its flag is a reversed St Andrews Cross!

Scotland has always been part of a larger European community and those connections are a fascination and something to celebrate!

Image credits: All images on this page courtesy of Prof Adam Cumming