I’ve been dimly aware of an old church at Torphichen for a year or two now, and every so often I would look at it online and think, “That would be a good idea for a Sunday afternoon out.” And then I’d forget about it again. It’s shameful. It is only 15 minutes down the road.
But I’ve finally put this to rights, and on the second Sunday in April I was gazing up at the gaunt stone edifice that is Torphichen Preceptory.
My first reaction was surprise, at how big it is. This is no village church, nor was it ever designed as one. In the 12th century, this was a very important place: the Scottish home – in fact, the only home in Scotland – of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem.
When people mention the Knights of St John, the temptation is always to think of the Knights Templar. After all, they lived around the same time, had a similar ethic, and served a similar purpose. They also wore a similar outfit, and probably went to the same parties. Well, no, probably not the parties.
But the welcoming and very knowledgeable custodian in the little kiosk at Torphichen swept any misconceptions from my mind before they’d had a chance to germinate. The Knights Hospitaller, he told me, were wholly distinct from the Templars, and in fact in the 14th century, when the Templars were stripped of their lands, the Hospitallers were granted many of their estates.
So who were the Knights of St John?
Around 1080 AD, a group of Italian merchants established a church and hospital in Jerusalem to offer shelter for pilgrims, regardless of their religion or race. It was run like a monastic community, although its members were laymen rather than monks, and all might have gone along quite happily if it hadn’t been for the broiling atmosphere of warfare and violence in the Middle East. This was the start of the Crusades: not the best time to visit the Holy Land if you wanted to come back in one piece.
The Hospitallers had taken a lifetime vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, but there was obviously a get-out clause when it came to sword-wielding and butt-kicking. They took up arms to defend themselves and their patients, and they became so powerful that they were soon a force to be reckoned with throughout the Holy Land and beyond. The Order of St John, which took its name from St John the Baptist, was recognised by Papal Bull in 1113 and over the next few centuries the Hospitallers established bases in Cyprus, Rhodes and then Malta. The emblem of the Order, an eight-pointed white cross on a black background, is still preserved in the Maltese flag.
From Tripoli to… Torphichen?
Throughout history there is the curious but recurring truth that an order of men who take a vow of poverty often start to acquire great wealth. From their humble beginnings, the Knights Hospitaller accumulated riches and power and suddenly every monarch in Europe wanted to be their best friend.
It might be a bit unfair to accuse David I of Scotland of this motive, because when he invited the Hospitallers to Scotland in 1132 the order was still comparatively young. At Torphichen he granted them a charter to build a church; they already had a priory at Clerkenwell in London, and new Preceptory would be their headquarters in Scotland. David was also a supporter of the Knights Templar, to whom he gave lands for a church at Balantrodoch in Midlothian.
A church of St Ninian
Historians believe that an older church, possibly dedicated to St Ninian, may have stood on the site at Torphichen from around 400 AD; if so, this could well have influenced the Hospitallers’ decision to build here. There is a tradition that King Arthur visited St Ninian’s church during the 6th century. Incidentally, the name of Torphichen, with the ‘ch’ pronounced as in ‘loch’, seems to have two alternative meanings: either it stems from the Gaelic ‘Torr Phigheainn’ meaning ‘hill of the magpies’, or it may refer to St Feichin, an early Irish saint.
EXPLORING THE PRECEPTORY
If you wander around to the east end of the Preceptory, the sight that meets your eyes is slightly puzzling. It doesn’t look like a church, but that’s because an important part of it is missing. On the wall you can see traces of a roof line and a high arch: this is all that remains of the choir, which would have extended eastwards. The choir may have incorporated the much older church.
There’s no ‘grand entrance’ remaining, and you step inside through a small doorway in the north transept. I found this slightly disorientating, because when I turned to the right and saw the large window I felt as if I was facing an altar – but in fact the altar would have been to my left, in the part that is now gone. What I was looking at was the transept on the other side of the crossing, while above my head the superbly vaulted ceiling hinted at the bell tower high above.
The interior is empty and hollow… but what an atmosphere. On the cold slabs of the floor the sunlight was being dissected into a thousand pieces, while in the shadows lurked the remnants of forgotten things: traces of painting on the once-plastered walls emerge ghost-like after you have stared at them for a few minutes, and dusty window recesses still await the devotion of pious hands. The place feels frozen like a tomb, and despite the soaring impression of space I didn’t feel much at home.
In each transept there would have been a small chapel with an altar; a carved screen separated these from the crossing. Beneath the south window there is an opening which once held an effigy, and to the left of it is a small piscina for wine or water.
“Towards the end of the 14th century the transepts were almost entirely rebuilt with new windows and vaulting and a new stair-turret was provided to the tower. In the 15th century, upper storeys were built above the two transepts.” Historic Scotland
I was slightly dismayed by the sight of a door leading to a tight spiral staircase, because my experience with these features is rather mixed. Halfway up I wanted to chicken out, but I gritted my teeth and gripped my handbag in readiness to assault any spectral monks that might be waiting at the top. After what seemed like an age, I emerged into one of three small rooms with interconnecting doorways; mercifully, a stair leading further up, to the top of the bell tower, had been roped off.
In the biggest room a number of old grave slabs had been arranged, some with characteristic swords carved on them; information panels were set out in each chamber, giving a detailed history of the Knights Hospitaller. The panels were lit by yellow spotlights, because the daylight levels up there are practically nil. But I was distinctly uneasy, so after a show of bravado that convinced no one – because no one was there – I sped back down again and took myself smartly outside.
To the north of the church, there would have been domestic buildings and cloisters arranged in a square about a central courtyard. It must have been a big and impressive place, although the community of brethren here was never large. To the west, down the longest ‘arm’, would have been the nave of the church, but again the entrance to this has been walled up, leaving behind a blind archway from the crossing. Inside, in the stonework, the masons have incorporated part of a monument erected in 1538 by Sir Walter Lindsay, successor to Sir George Dundas, a Preceptor who died in 1532. This reflects the obsession of that era with frolicking skeletons, although that is purely my slant on it.
Edward I and William Wallace
In the late 13th century Torphichen sheltered two of history’s greatest warlords. William Wallace stayed here before the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, and shortly afterwards the English king, Edward I, came to the Preceptory to receive treatment for a wound.
Inscribed on one of the stone vault ribs in the north transept are the words:
ANDREAS MELDRUM ORDINIS
S(AN)C(T)I JOHANNIS PRECEPTOR
This is a memorial to Sir Andrew Meldrum, Preceptor of Torphichen from around 1430. It is known that he travelled to Rhodes in 1432, and also went regularly to the Hospitallers’ centre at Clerkenwell. The vaulting is so high that you would need miraculous eyesight to see these letters, and I missed them altogether.
In the mid-1500s the Reformation began to wreak havoc with the beautiful medieval churches and monasteries of Scotland, but apparently Torphichen was saved because its Preceptor at that time, Sir James Sandilands, was a friend of the Reformer John Knox. In 1563 Sir James yielded ownership of the Preceptory to Mary Queen of Scots, but he later bought it back and assumed the title of Lord Torphichen. By that time, the Hospitallers had been forced to leave and seek homes elsewhere.
Looking at the former plan and comparing it to what is now on the ground, I wasn’t left with the impression that much of Torphichen had actually been ‘saved’ – but the damage was done 200 years later. In 1756 the nave was demolished to make way for a new parish kirk, and the domestic buildings around the cloister were pulled down and plundered for building stone. I would imagine that they were already in ruins by this time.
I was fascinated to read that in the land around the Preceptory were placed four sanctuary stones, one at every point of the compass, each a mile distant from a fifth stone which stood at the centre of them all, within the churchyard. Also known as ‘refuge stones’, on a map they would have formed the shape of a cross.
Three of the outlying stones still remain, as does the one in the churchyard; it is about two feet high, with a cross and a shallow depression carved in the top. The little hollow may once have held holy water, but historians believe that this stone could be Neolithic, in which case the depressions on its surface are cup-marks. Its original setting could have been the prehistoric site on nearby Cairnpapple Hill, and it may have had some deep significance which caused it to be moved here when the first Christian church was built in the 5th century.
Dating from 1772, this little house has a chimney which suggests that it was put up as a watch house to guard against body snatchers. If it was purely a store room, I wouldn’t have thought it needed to be kept warm! Some poor soul, in the late 18th and early 19th century, would have had to spend every night in here, keeping an anxious watch on the churchyard to make sure that no one came to poke about in the newly occupied graves.
Just across the path from the gatehouse I noticed a small and very worn-looking stone which struck me as being just as old as the sanctuary stone – but as yet I can find no information about it.
THE 18TH CENTURY PARISH KIRK
The interior of the church reflects the strict rules of post-Reformation Scotland, when the focus of the congregation had to be on the preacher rather than the altar. It is built in a T-shape, with three galleries above; the furnishings consist of plain panelling and very little ornamentation. It’s all carpeted, and the stall-like pews still bear the titles, lettered in gold, of the people who occupied them; I believe this tradition is still upheld at modern-day services within the Order of St John.
“The Order and its legacy today embraces a Jerusalem eye hospital, a maternity clinic in Bethlehem, grand iconic ruins such as Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, leafy St John’s Wood and the St John’s Ambulance service. All these derive in some direct way from a hospital for western European Christian pilgrims founded in Jerusalem…” St John’s College, Oxford
Visiting Torphichen Preceptory
Torphichen is in West Lothian, about 20 miles west of Edinburgh. From the A89 through Bathgate, follow the signs to Torphichen and then watch for the brown Historic Scotland signs to the Preceptory, which is in the centre of the village. There’s a small car park by the churchyard.
The Preceptory is maintained by Historic Scotland, and in 2015 it is open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from 1st April to 30th September. A small admission fee applies. Custodians are volunteer members of the Torphichen branch of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.
More information on Historic Scotland’s website.
- Historic Scotland
- Undiscovered Scotland
- St John’s College, Oxford
- Knights Hospitaller
- Order of Malta
Regular services are held in the adjacent church – visit Torphichen Kirk for more details.
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf
If you’re interested in earth energies, read my feature on Dowsing at Torphichen and Cairnpapple – an eye-opening and very enjoyable experience