It doesn’t even look like a church from the outside: there’s no tower or spire, no belfry and no outward adornment whatsoever. Sitting low to the ground, plain and rectangular, it resembles a whitewashed longhouse, of the kind that used to incorporate a dwelling and a cow byre under the same roof.
This is one place that I’m glad I looked up beforehand, because we might have been searching for ages if I hadn’t known what it looked like.
You approach through a kissing gate, beneath a big old willow tree in a farmhouse garden. At the time of our visit, which was late March, it was decorated with thousands of fluffy catkins – an absolute delight.
A couple of steps down, and you’re in the body of the church; it’s almost pitch black, but motion sensors automatically detect your presence and turn on the lights. Then, you forget about the cold and musty air as you gaze in speechless awe at the roof above your head.
There may have been a church here at Grandtully as long ago as 1250, but the present one dates from about 1533, which is when Alexander Stewart of nearby Grandtully Castle gave part of his estate to the canons of St Andrews Cathedral. In 1636 his descendant, Sir William Stewart, who served as Sheriff-Principal of Perthshire under King Charles I, refurbished the chapel “to make it suitable for reformed worship”. He added an extension to the west, and installed a magnificent painted ceiling.
“The painted ceiling is one of only two church ceilings of the 1600s now remaining in its original setting (the other is in the Skelmorlie Aisle, Largs).
The surviving ceiling covers the eastern half of the chapel; it is not known if it originally stretched over the entire building. One source suggests that the western half may have provided accommodation for a resident priest, but Historic Scotland says that the eastern end, with the decorated ceiling, was used by the Stewarts as a family burial vault. In either case, the decoration is thought to reflect Sir William’s support of Charles I in his attempt to bring the Scottish reformed church in line with that of England.
Some of the images are quite graphic, when you study them: the central panel depicts the Last Judgment, with a figure of death hovering over a sick person as anxious relatives and trumpet-blowing angels look on; the black-and-white chequering beneath the sickbed is a component of the Stewart coat of arms. Surrounding this, and flowing down over the roof in elegant curves, are a series of roundels bearing heraldic arms and portraits of saints, richly adorned with scrolls, angels, leaves and fruit. Four are dedicated to the Evangelists: Saint John, St Mark, St Luke and St Matthew.
“All these images are typical in Renaissance decoration and the scene appears to be derived from the Italian coffered ceiling of this period.”
Beneath some of the coats of arms are the names of the Stewarts and their family: I could make out ‘Earle of Atholl, ‘Dame Agneis Moncrief’, ‘Duik of Lennox’, and ‘The Laird of Graintuilie’. (If you click on the photos, they should enlarge).
In the west wall of the church, a stone lintel is inscribed with the initials ‘SWS’ and ‘DAM’ for Sir William Stewart and his wife, Dame Agnes Moncrieff, and the date of 1636. “Sir William was the eleventh laird of Grandtully, was born in 1566 or 1567, and died about 1646… Dame Agnes was the daughter of Sir John Moncrieff of that Ilk.” Archaeology Data Service
Tempera paints, made from mixing natural pigments with a glue-based size, were used to create this masterpiece, but the identity of the artist or artists is unknown. I wonder if they worked down from the top: it’s likely that the central panel was created first. I would like to know how they painted the top parts – lying flat, I would imagine, on some kind of scaffolding.
Ever since I went on a dowsing course earlier this year, I’ve been fascinated by energy lines and alignments. I was therefore interested to read that Barry Dunford, author of ‘The Holy Land of Scotland’, discovered “a straight line connecting Montrose (mount rose) on the eastern coast, through the St Mary Churches at Grandtully and Fortingall, to the western Isle of Iona.” (On Iona, the ruins of a 13th century chapel of St Mary lie just to the south-east of the abbey church, whereas at Montrose, where the line begins, a convent dedicated to St Mary was founded in 1230). Dunford also claims that some of the images on the ceiling depict Templar knights. I am not qualified to comment on this, but I find the whole idea absolutely fascinating.
This information board reveals that all of the original openings were in the south wall of the church. There were two doors: one for the clergy and another for the congregation. The doors and windows were blocked up when the church passed out of use in 1883, and a new doorway was cut through the north wall. It was then used for a while as a byre and farm store. St Mary’s Church is now in the care of Historic Scotland.
On the south side of the church is an old burial ground with plenty of moss-covered gravestones. The early spring sunshine had brought out some crocuses and daffodils, which made welcome splashes of colour. And all around, nothing but the reassuring peace of farmland and woods. This is how it has been for centuries; and long may it stay that way.
Visiting St Mary’s Church
St Mary’s church is situated three miles north-east of Aberfeldy; you’ll need to turn off the A827 which runs alongside the River Tay, and follow the rather dubious-looking ‘road’ for half a mile or so (it feels longer). Watch out for the signs to the Church, as you can easily over-shoot and end up following a farm track up into the fields! There’s a parking space beneath some trees, and a short footpath leading to the church. A map and grid reference can be found on the Historic Scotland website.
Sources and further reading:
- Historic Scotland
- Undiscovered Scotland
- RCAHMS Canmore
- Archaeology Data Service
- Perthshire Highlands Travel Guide
- ‘The Templar Papers: Ancient Mysteries, Secret Societies, and the Holy Grail’ by Oddvar Olsen
- ‘The Holy Land of Scotland’ by Barry Dunford
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf