Five minutes      with our new Chairperson

8th November 2022

Professor Adam Cumming recently took over as Chairperson of the Trustees of Scotland’s Churches Trust. Our office team sent him five quick questions so that you can find out a little bit more about his passion for Scotland’s church heritage and his aspirations for the Trust’s future:

What sparked your love of church buildings?

It is actually a very long story because I’ve been interested in church architecture, particularly mediaeval church architecture, for most of my life. I remember being taken as a small boy to Melrose Abbey and being struck by the vaulting over the transept and in the presbytery. That stayed with me and as a scientist, I got interested in the details.

It was also very different from the day job because it provided something which complemented other things. I had to get interested in other pieces, music heraldry, and the history. I always was interested in history and so it began to develop into an understanding of the culture.

I was lucky to travel throughout much of Europe and I could see the differences and the similarities in the buildings in France, Germany, Czechia, Slovakia and Scandinavia. I could see how what was built in Scotland was similar in some ways to them, but also different and how it differed from what was built in England.

Adam and other volunteers on a recent church recording visit to Innerwick Parish Church

Photograph by Scotland’s Churches Trust

What do you look for first in a church when you visit?

The first thing I look for outside is the shape, to see how it is arranged and also to get an idea of the age. Then inside to look at the furnishings but also the architecture which means the way that it is has been planned and the way that it has developed. It’s quite difficult to disentangle the story of some churches so it takes time to look and see how it changed with time.

One of the things I’ve learned is that while there are similarities in different countries there are also differences, sometimes quite significant ones, between say German and French and indeed between Scottish and English! The tradition is different, the approach is different. That makes it fascinating to try and disentangle how it all fitted together. This includes looking for evidence of what was there earlier and has been overlaid more recently.

I’ve been interested in church architecture, particularly mediaeval church architecture, for most of my life…

Which are your five favourite Scottish church buildings?

That is rather hard because there are so many of them from different times and different traditions. My list would include, for example, St Cuthbert’s, Dalmeny, one of the finest Romanesque churches in Scotland, Glasgow Cathedral and also sites such as Symington Kirk, which was built about the same time as Kilwinning Abbey.

It’s hard to distinguish between ruins and intact churches.  Elgin while a ruin is still glorious, particularly the chapter house and a sad loss. Even places that have been changed significantly such as Dornoch Cathedral are attractive. Then there are Kirkwall and Dunblane Cathedrals! 

There are so many, it’s too hard to choose favourites because they all bring something wonderful to the larger pattern of Scottish culture in Europe.

St Cuthbert’s Dalmeny (Image: Adam Cumming)

Symington Parish Church (Image: Adam Cumming)

Elgin Cathedral Chapter House (Image: Adam Cumming)

Corstorphine Parish Church (Image: Adam Cumming)

How long have you been involved with Scotland’s churches Trust?

I joined the Scottish Churches Architectural Heritage Trust a long time ago, when it was founded, but it was only when we moved back to Edinburgh in 2014 that I got involved with SCT.

I was initially a volunteer and then joined the Trust’s Communications Committee (now the PR Committee). I ended up organising the stall for the first Heart and Soul event in Princes St Gardens and went on to do several of those, as well as leading a small events team.  Once I became a Trustee I began to help coordinate our national Church Recording project in collaboration with Historic Environment Scotland. Now here I am, looking to help the Trust play a major part in preserving, developing and supporting Scotland’s church buildings and their cultural history. That is important.

What activities would you like to see the Trust, its volunteers and its church members prioritise in the coming years?

That’s not an easy question to answer. The world has changed significantly since 2019 and indeed since the Trust was founded.

Originally the aim was to support the maintenance of churches and increase public awareness of them, encouraging their opening to visitors. This included organising our Pilgrim Journeys initiative and various events that publicised and supported Scotland’s church.

All of those are still important, but we are now confronted by a heritage landscape where churches are being closed at pace. There’s a need for a fresh look at how churches are currently regarded and to establish innovative new ways that they may remain integral parts of their communities. It should be possible to see many of these buildings being used, as they often were in mediaeval times, as community centres.

Post-Covid, we need to redouble our efforts to help reconnect the wider public with these unique and precious buildings. This will be achieved by strengthening existing and creating new partnerships and collaborations with other national and local heritage bodies and community-focused organisations.

The Trust and all those involved with it, volunteers, members and trustees, will need to become more active. We need to lobby for different approaches and explore how we can work across denominations, communities and churches themselves to make each building a living part of their community!

Sometimes that will mean multiple uses, sometimes it may mean just preserving a site as it stands, but it should not mean only supporting museums! It should mean supporting new uses and life and that is going to be challenging…

A snap from the busy SCT stall at the 2016 “Heart and Soul” event in Princes Street Gardens showing Prof Adam Cumming, David Hope, Baron Hope of Craighead (Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland that year) and Dr Brian Fraser, former SCS/SCT Director and Trustee. 

Photograph by Scotland’s Churches Trust