History of the Church in Edderton

Edderton Old Church – An Historical Assessment – by Dr Richard Oram

Prehistoric Background

Human communities have been present within the area of the parish of Edderton from a very early period. Chambered cairns at Ardvannie and Lower Lechanich are tombs of Stone Age farming people who settled here by the late 4th Millennium BC. Continuity of settlement through the Bronze Age is recorded by the simpler round cairns by the shore at Ardvannie and Leachonich, and the ritual sites marked by a stone circle and the nearby slender stone pillar at Carrieblair. At Polgaharrie on the eastern slopes of Struie extensive remains of field systems, hut circles and clearance cairns can still be seen, typical of agricultural settlements that continued through the first millennium BC. Those at Leachonich and more visibly still at Dun Alascaig, Easter Fearn, despite centuries of stone-robbing for dykes and buildings, exhibit remains of the distinctive tapering drystone towers known as brochs, status symbols of their builders and defensive shelter for their followers, built between about 200BC and 200AD.

The Early Historical Period

Descendants of the broch-builders enter the 3rd century AD as Picts, the ‘painted people’ encountered by the Roman invaders. The Bronze Age standing stone at Carrieblair was carved with classic Pictish symbols – salmon, double-disc and z-rod – probably in the late 6th or early 7th century AD.  The meaning of these symbols and the significance of the stones they appear upon is still not understood, but they do tend to be clustered around important Pictish settlements, which suggests that Edderton in the early historical period was already well-established.

Christian Expansion

Monks from Columba’s abbey at Iona are traditionally credited with evangelizing much of ‘Northern Pictland’. i.e. the mainland north of the central highlands, from the mid-560s. Recent studies have shown that lack of political unity in the region hampered these efforts, and the activity here of Columba himself may have been more political and diplomatic than evangelistic. The earliest significant missionary offensive into the country north of the Great Glen seems to date from the decade after Columba’s death in 597, and to have been led by St Donnan from his monastery on the Isle of Eigg. Churches dedicated to him throughout the northern mainland bear witness to the work of his followers. It is possible that pagan Picts destroyed Donnan’s community on Eigg in c.618, when he became one of the earliest Christian martyrs of Scotland.

In 673 Mealrubai of Bangor (Ireland), one of Columba’s rival monasteries, founded a monastic community at Applecross, and from this began the successful conversion of the region. Soon afterwards a second major foundation at Rosemarkie in the Black Isle became the base for the conversion of much of the population around the Moray Firth. Numerous fragments of fine Pictish sculpture have been excavated at the graveyard of the medieval church at Tarbat, confirming that what was an important secular site between the 2nd and 6th centuries became a rich monastic community by the 8th century.  One of these fragments which has an 8th century Latin inscription was previously attributed to Mid-Fearn, at the western end of Edderton Parish, lending support to a tradition that an early monastic site was located there.  However, there is no archaeological evidence to support that tradition, while there is one site in the parish where such evidence has been found testifying to the presence of an 8th century Christian sanctuary – Edderton itself.

Edderton’s Christian Beginnings

Edderton is one of several sites around the Dornoc Firth where sculpture of 8th to 10th century date has been found.  The recumbent cross-slab at Kincardine and an upright stone at Creich indicate that there were early churches at these sites. At Edderton, however, in addition to the fine slab in the churchyard, fragments from at least one other monument of Pictish date were recovered in 1993. This strongly suggests that the site occupied by the present church dates from the 7th or 8th century missions, and that it was at that time a sufficiently prestigious establishment to have local patrons able to commission such sculptures as acts of piety or commemoration. However Edderton was probably not an independent monastery, but rather the property of one of the major Easter Ross monasteries, Rosemarkie or, more likely, Tarbat. Crosses were often set up in association with outlying chapels and preaching stations overseen by early monasteries, some of which became sites of churches that in turn attained parish status during the 11th and 12th centuries. Edderton probably belongs to a group of medieval parishes, along with Nigg, Shandwick and Hilton of Cadboll, all of which have 8th century monuments, which were subsidiaries of Tarbat.

Picts, Norse and Scots

Contrary to what is commonly supposed, the east coast suffered just as severely as the western seaboard from the raids by Norse Vikings from the 8th century onwards. The early monasteries of Easter Ross are unlikely to have escaped. A major Viking raid into eastern Pictland in 839 eliminated the ruling dynasty and so weakened the Picts that Cináed mac Alpin (Kenneth MacAlpin) was able to impose his kingship upon them in the 840s. The northern mainland suffered regular raids from the Norse colonies of Orkney and Shetland, although Viking settlement on any scale probably only began in the 10th century. Some vigorous and powerful local dynasties held their own against the intruders, and over time intermarried with them. This began the process, aided and accelerated by the Church, of re-Gaelicising most Norse-settled areas of Sutherland.

In the late-10th century the Jarl of Orkney was compelled by the King of Norway to convert, but the first Norse settlers were aggressively pagan. Archaeological evidence suggests however that many inhabitants of the islands and much of mainland embraced Christianity much earlier. The Church was not entirely forced into retreat by Norse aggression during this period, as is often suggested – Columba’s foundations of Derry and Kells managed to retain a presence in the Western Isles, and Iona itself was revived as a spiritual centre in the 10th century under the patronage of the Norse-Gaelic kings of Man and the Isles. Dornoch, a contested frontier zone in the 10th century and the southern limit of Scandinavian power by the 11th century may have been the base for a mission to the pagan Norse. A strong tradition survives, although not supported by any surviving remains, of an earlier church, adjacent to the 13th century cathedral, which was associated with the name of St Finbar of Moville, a major figure in the Columban story. The 10th century cross-slab from Creich, which represents a quite different artistic tradition from the Edderton one, may however be an indication of Dornoch’s sphere of influence. South of the Firth, Rosemarkie appears to have survived as the dominant religious centre.

The High Middle Ages

The name of Edderton first occurs in a Papal Bull of 1256 from Pope Alexander IV to Bishop Robert II of Ross. His predecessor, Bishop Robert I, wanted to enlarge the chapter of secular canons at the cathedral at Rosemarkie/Fortrose, and take over the income of certain parishes to provide a living for each of the canons. The Bull approved the scheme, assigning the teinds (tenths of the income, called tithes in England) of the parsonages of Tain and ‘Eduthayne’ to the sub-deanery of Ross – in other words the sub-dean’s income would be provided by the revenues from those parishes. Edderton must therefore have become an established parish in the Diocese of Ross in the 1230s, and the bishops of Ross appear to have been the principle landholders in the parish from this time down to the Reformation, when Bishop Sinclair of Ross granted Edderton together with Ardgay and Kirton of Kincardine to Alexander Ross of Balnagown.

In the 1220s Earl Ferchar of Ross (Mac in t’saccairt ‘the Son of the Priest, heir of the hereditary abbots of Applecross) founded a community of Premonstratensian canons at Fearn, in the western end of Edderton Parish. There is no archaeological and little documentary evidence of this foundation, whose possessions subsequently also fell into the hands of the Balnagown Rosses. However, as the Earl was not the patron of the parish church, the abbey did not acquire the patronage either, unusually for a Scottish monastery. The medieval bishops of Ross, as successors of earlier abbots and bishops of Rosemarkie, probably became patrons of Edderton by acquiring the former resources of the defunct monasteries of Easter Ross, including most notably Tarbat.

Annexing the parsonage, or major, teinds (levied on cereal crops) to provide part of the sub-dean’s income meant that only the vicarage, or minor, teinds (levied on all other farm produce and often troublesome to collect) were available to support a clergyman in the parish, and that inevitably affected both the spiritual provision of the parish and the development of the church building. The parish in the late 13th century produced annual revenues of under £10, with the vicarage revenues valued at £3 6s 8d. That sum as his stipend would have made the vicar a man of some local substance, but it is more likely that an absentee priest held even that benefice and only a curate actually served the parish.

This system, called ‘Pluralism’, whereby individual priests held several benefices that provided their income but for which they performed little if any service was one of the most shameful abuses of the late medieval church. In 1435 for example, on Patrick Fraser, who was a Clerk of Moray Diocese, successfully applied to Pope Eugenius IV for appointment as sub-dean of Ross, and held this office along with other benefices in three dioceses, Moray, Ross and Caithness, none of which he actually served in person. Even vicarages could provide an income for younger sons of local families who had influence with the bishop. John Ross (who died in 1527), a younger son of William Ross of Little Allan, a cadet of Balnagown, was one such absentee vicar, and Alexander Ross of Balnagown, as sub-dean of Ross, held the vicarage at Edderton from 1563 until 1572, along with the parsonages of Kincardine and Logie, as well as being the Sacristan of Tain.

The curates who actually performed the duties of these absentee pluralist vicars were left to survive on a pittance and were often poorly educated, so that the parishes they actually served received very inadequate spiritual and pastoral support. At the same time, with the bulk of the ecclesiastical revenues being diverted away from the parish, it is most unlikely that much was spent on the embellishment or upkeep of the church building.

The Buildings

No written record of the buildings at Edderton exists before the 18th century. As it was a relatively unimportant parish in the medieval period, during which its major income was being diverted elsewhere, it is highly unlikely that anything more was spent than was absolutely necessary for the most basic upkeep. At that time the parish priest, or the institution which appointed his income, was only responsible for maintaining the sanctuary. The parishioners, which in effect meant the free tenants and lay lords, were responsible for the remainder. With no significant landholder resident in the parish, Edderton would have lacked embellishments such as chantry chapels or elaborate tombs often found elsewhere.

The original church at Edderton was most likely to have been a simple timber building with a thatched roof. More important churches in monastic settlements were of a more sophisticated worked timber construction, like the excavated example at Whithorn in Dumfries and Galloway.

The form of the later medieval church at Edderton can only be deduced from surviving examples within Ross-shire and more generally within Scotland. It is most likely that the church building of based on a simple rectangle, a heather-thatch roof with a simple bellcote on the west gable, a few very simple unglazed windows, and a floor of beaten earth. The chancel at the east end, possibly with a paved floor around the altar, may have been in the form of a second, though smaller, chamber or simply separated from the nave by a screen. It is possible that the 17th century burial aisle at the east end of the church is a remnant of the medieval chancel, but to date the evidence is inconclusive.

Edderton's Old Church (1) - 30 09 2015Despite the good intentions of the late 16th century Reformers, little new church building was undertaken in Scotland until the 18th century. Existing medieval buildings were gradually adapted to a new style of worship. The building that we see today was erected in 1743, and probably overlies much of the site of its medieval predecessor, even though it was not built using medieval foundations. There is evidence that the original thatched roof was replaced with slates in the late 1750s. Following a report in the 1791 Statistical Account that showed the building to be much in need of repair, work was undertaken in 1794 that resulted in the appearance that is seen today. Further repairs and alterations were carried out in 1816 and 1856.

A Brief History of the Church in Edderton – by Reay Clarke

Edderton's New Church - 30 09 2015By 1841 Edderton’s church was “deemed to be insufficient” for the village and in the following year a much larger church was built to replace it in another location that was closer to the centre of the village. The New West Church, as it came to be known, held its first service on October 5, 1842.

The 1843 Disruption spilt the Established Church and saw the formation of the Free Church of Scotland. The cause of the split was disagreement over the right of a congregation to choose their own minister. Support for the new Free Church was very strong and on August 1st, 1843, the Rev’d Donald Gibson broke away from the Established Church and became the first Free Church Minister of Edderton. Initially the Free Church in Edderton worshipped outdoors in the Old East Church’s graveyard, before being allowed grudgingly to enter and use the Old East Church – the building that had been abandoned a year earlier.

The Free Church continued to worship regularly in the Old East Church until the 1970s, when a decline in the number of worshippers led to the decision to join the congregation of Tain’s Free Church. Occasional services were still held at the Old East Church until 1988, when that church was abandoned once again. In 1995 the Edderton Old Church Preservation Trust was formed to care for the building and its surrounds. A programme of consolidation, repair and restoration commenced in 2003, and in 2005 the Old East Church was officially re-opened for occasional services during the summer months. The Old East Church is now listed as a Category A building by Historic Scotland because of its historical importance, and is open to the public every second Saturday afternoon in the summer.

In 1900 a large proportion of the Free Church joined with the United Presbyterian Church to form the United Free Church, and this was no exception at Edderton. The congregation of Edderton’s United Free Church set to and raised money from local sources in order to build their own United Free Church. This was a wooden-framed building in Station Road, opposite to where the village hall stands today. In 1929, the merger with the Church of Scotland largely reversed the Disruption of 1843 and reunited much of Scottish Presbyterianism, though once more a relatively small minority stayed out of the union and retained the name United Free Church. In Edderton the congregation of the United Free Church continued to worship in its Station Road church until just before the Second World War when its minister retired, at which time effect was given to the 1929 Union and the congregation rejoined the Established Church of Scotland.

For many years the Station Road Church remained in use along with the New (1842) West Church with services alternating every Sunday. By 1960 the Station Road Church was in such a serious state of repair that the decision was taken to make the New West Church the permanent place of worship and to demolish the Station Road Church. As a consequence of that decision funds were raised to completely refurbish the interior of the New West Church. The newly renovated church was opened on April 5 1962 with a service conducted by Edderton’s Minister, Rev’d A S Russell.

In 1974 Edderton joined with Kincardine and Ardgay (Croick Parish Church) to form the United Parish of Kincardine, Croick and Edderton.


Edderton Old Church – An Historical Assessment – by Dr Richard Oram

The Church in Edderton – Reay D G Clarke