Getting into Churches

John Gifford
The Buildings of Scotland

A sizeable amount of my time spent working for the Buildings of Scotland Trust is taken up by visiting churches of all denominations. Often I just turn up. Occasionally, very occasionally, the church is unlocked. When it is shut, I always look for a key under the mat, so far without success.

At a few churches the key resides on a convenient headheight ledge in the porch. At others its home is behind a loose stone in the graveyard wall, difficult to identify even if one has been given seemingly precise instructions. But usually the key is not on site. Sometimes the notice board announces that it can be borrowed from a local shop, conveniently easy to find although raising a question of church crawling etiquette as to whether some small unnecessary purchase should be made when requesting the key. Generally, however, one has to find the church officer, session clerk, or minister or priest. This can take time, especially if calling on one of those ministers who see any visitor as an object for pastoral care or as requiring a detailed history of his congregation with special reference to the qualities and failings of previous incumbents, illuminated by comparisons with his own previous charges and their past and present incumbents.

Time spent on getting into a church is almost always worthwhile. Often the nature, although not necessarily the quality, of the interior has been suggested by the exterior – a 12th century church containing an elaborately decorated chancel arch, a Georgian preaching box complete with canopied pulpit, galleries and laird’s pew, a Victorian Gothic edifice with elaborate wooden roof, brass and pitch-pine furnishings, and stencilled walls dimly illuminated through the windows’ ‘cathedral’ glass, the chaste simplicity, both inside and out, of the ‘Early Christian’ manner favoured by Scottish architects of the 20th century. But the exterior is not always a reliable indication of what may be found inside – a medieval effigied tomb or sacrament house in a parish church otherwise of entirely 18th or 19th century appearance, a swaggering marble monument in a humble kirk, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s delicately detailed furnishings in the cheerfully lumpy Victorian Gothic Holy Trinity Church at Bridge of Allan. Even less expected to discover in the vestry of one Free Church is a bow fronted Edwardian corner cupboard containing the minister’s urinal. More obvious is the stained glass introduced to so many Scottish churches from the mid-19th century, the work of the major English studios as well as those in Glasgow and Edinburgh and with Gabriel Loire having contributed an unrivalled display of 1950s French work at the Church of the Holy Name in Oakley. But aesthetic quality is not the only thing to be enjoyed in churches. They bear witness to the lives of their past members, sometimes with such touchingly appropriate memorials as one church’s commemoration of a cavalry officer by a brass depicting a mourning horse. Nor should the experienced church crawler ignore evidence of present congregations. A quick glance at any parish magazine or notice board will provide at least something on which to speculate, if only it is whether one name’s frequent appearance on the flower arranging rota is evidence of its owner’s generally accepted artistic skill or the inability of rival floriculturists to assert themselves.

Printed in ‘The Cathedrals Abbeys and Churches of Scotland’, 1995.