Crail Parish Church

National Grid Reference (NGR): NO 61340 07970, map


KY10 3TL

Also known as:

  • St. Mary's Church (1517c)
  • Saint Maelrubha of Applecross (1243)


The building is situated on Marketgate in the centre of Crail. It is surrounded by an interesting graveyard and a coped wall. Approach to the church is through gates to the site which are in fact the borough memorials to the dead of both World Wars. 

Description (exterior)

There has been a church on this site since at least the twelfth century.   The earliest known parish church on this site was a two celled Norman building, which is represented by small fragments in the chancel. It was consecrated in 1243 to Saint Maelrubha and after a successful petition by the Prioress of Haddington, became Collegiate in 1517, by which time it was known as St. Mary's.  Between its foundation and 1815 there were many modifications and additions (see Events below).   In 1815 Robert Balfour undertook the first major renovation and a second was carried out by Judith Campbell in 1963.
The present building principally consists of a nave with north and south aisles (first added in the thirteenth century), a chancel with a vestry, and a thirteenth century west tower with projecting stair tower and a sixteenth century spire.

The church is built from roughly coursed red sandstone. It is roofed in Scottish slate.  

In the north side of the graveyard there is a battlemented morthouse. 


The exterior of the building appears to be rectangular.   This is a legacy of renovations in the late-eighteenth century, at which time a new roof was added, which sloped over the aisles and hid the clerestory windows. There were eight medieval guild lofts.   At the same time, the burial aisles, lofts and loft staircase and south porch were removed. The line of the old, steeply-pitched roof is visible on the tower and the exterior, east wall of the nave.

The east elevation is largely obscured by the chancel. Above this, the old roofline of the nave is clearly discernable. 



The church has had a chancel throughout its history. (It is no longer in use and is filled by the organ – see Interior below).   The north wall of the chancel dates to the twelfth century and  is obscured by the vestry.  The chancel was lengthened in the early sixteenth century, at the same time as the spire was added to the tower. It was shortened again in 1828 when a gallery was installed.   The fabric of the chancel is coated in lichens. The gabled east-end has a pair of square-headed windows with clear glass.

The south elevation is pierced by a small square window near ground level. To the east of this is a square-headed door, possibly inserted in place of an earlier opening. A fragment of a string course, level with the middle of the window, is representative of the Norman chancel.

The north wall of the chancel dates to the twelfth century. 


The vestry is situated on the north face of the chancel. It was built in the twentieth century. It has a half-hipped, slate roof and is built from squared sandstone with horizontal dressing and ashlar. To the east, the vestry has a pair of square-headed windows with clear, gridded glass. Three bands of ashlar run into the windows on either side. Above the windows are two further courses of ashlar, which run around the building. The north elevation has a square-headed door and two further windows of an identical style to those in the east elevation.

North Aisle

The north aisle was originally added in the thirteenth century, at which time it had a lower roof than at the present. There are five square-headed windows along the lower half of the wall, all with clear glass. The margins of the most easterly window are cut by a harled lean-to, perhaps providing domestic facilities or storage. Two windows nearest the tower appear to have been inserted in place of a door, the margins of which run to ground level. At triforium level are two further windows of an identical style to those in lower half of the wall. The old roofline of the aisle is visible on the west wall. There is a small, rectangular window here, which looks into the most westerly bay of the church, now a self-contained roof, which is used for administration.

On the east wall is a deeply splayed, arched doorway. Above the door itself is a small, arched window.

 South Aisle

The south aisle was added in the thirteenth century with a lower roof. It has five arched windows with intersecting panes of clear glass, which bring a great deal of light into the church. Between the windows, the walls are covered in ivy, which has been neatly trimmed back. To the west of the windows is a square-headed door, which is the principal entrance into the church. This replaced the south porch, which was demolished in 1815. There are two dormer windows in the roof.

The east wall of the nave has a single lancet with stained glass designed with a decorative motif by Judith Campbell (dedicated in 1975). The west wall has a larger, arched window with intersecting panes. To the south of the window is a consecration cross.


The west tower was built in the early thirteenth century, and the spire was added in the early sixteenth century. The tower is divided into six stages by five string courses. The tower is entered though a square-headed door in the south face of the first stage. Above this, in the second stage, is a lancet, stained glass window. In the fourth stage is a louvered, lancet window. In the final stage below the parapet is a pair of louvered arches. These are repeated on the south elevation. Below these are two forked bars in the fifth stage, and another in the third stage. Between the bars is a louvered lancet. In the second stage there are two lancets glazed with stained glass. To the north, there is only one opening, a louvered lancet in the sixth stage. The majority of the face is covered by the stairtower. The string courses run around the sides of the stairtower, dividing it into five. It narrows after the third stage and has a slate roof, which leans against the tower wall. There are narrow rectangular slits in the second, fourth and fifth stages. To the east there are two louvered lancets in the final stage. Below this, the steeply pitched line of the old nave roof is visible.

The tower has a corbelled parapet and a short stone spire. This is divided into three by strings and decorated with triangular openings. The spire is capped by a weathervane.


The graveyard is entered though a memorial gateway, dated to 1921, and surrounds the church on all sides. Among the most interesting of the many mural monuments is a memorial to William Bruce of Symbister, which features the effigy of a knight standing between emblems of war and death.


The morthouse is situated to the north of the church, next to an entrance into the churchyard. It is a rectangular, battlemented building with a rectangular door in its southeast face. Above the door is the inscription "ERECTED for securing the DEAD ANN: DOM: MDCCCXXVI" Above this is a narrow slit. There are further slits on the other faces of the building. There is a vaulted ceiling to the interior (not seen).

Description (interior)

On the interior, the nave is joined to the chancel by a chamfered, chancel arch, which springs from slender foliate caps. In the chancel is a large organ, which was rebuilt there in 1936 after being removed from a house in Kirkcaldy.   The walls are limewashed white and the floors of the nave and aisles are carpeted.   The nave has two rows of east-facing pews, in front of a raised area under the chancel arch,  with a carved communion table, pulpit and lectern. Behind these are wooden chairs and the organ.  The octagonal wooden pulpit is situated to the south of the communion table and chairs.   To the north and south are six-bay arcades with pointed arches springing from rounded pillars with simple capitals.  At clerestory level there is a series of lancet windows recessed in trefoil-headed openings.  These windows are blocked by the roof.   To the west is the tower arch, which was unblocked in 1963 revealing a window opening

To the south of the arch is a Pictish stone, probably dating from the tenth century.  To the north of the arch is a tomb slab incised with a cross and a sword.   On the west wall is a depiction of a sailor using an astrolabe;   this survives from the early decoration of the church.   In a screened enclosure on the north-west corner of the church can be seen masons marks, and in the main entrance porch to the right of the window there is a second consecration cross (the first being on the west exterior wall of the tower).

On the interior of the tower, the walls have been left bare and are lit by a single candelabrum on the west wall.    There are two modern stained glass windows on the west and south walls of the ground floor of the tower.    Access to the bell chamber and to an open parapet is by a staircase in the north-west corner of the tower.   

People / Organisations:

Bishop David de BernhamClergyman1243Consecrated Crail Parish Church to the Celtic Saint Maelrubha of Applecross.
John KnoxClergyman1559In June 1559 John Knox preached in Crail.
Cistercian Nunnery at HaddingtonOwner1517The prioress of the nunnery made a successful petition for Crail to become a collegiate church.
Mr Robert BalfourArchitect1796-1815Balfour was responsible for a series of improvement schemes beginning in the late eighteenth century. The majority of alterations were carried out around 1815 and included the removal of burial aisles, the south porch and loft staircase.
Mr William LeesBuilder1828A wright of Pittenweem, shortened the chancel and installed a gallery with the help of James Taylor, a mason of Anstruther.
Ms Judith CampbellConservators1963Campbell took on a major restoration project for the church. She unblocked and reparied the tower arch, replaced the glazing on bay windows, and added stained glass to the tower.
Harrison&HarrisonCarpenter1936An organ by Harrison and Harrison was rebuilt in 1936 when it was brought from a house in Kirkcaldy.
Mr James TaylorBuilder1828A mason who worked with William Lees to shorten the chancel and install a gallery.
William Bruce of SymbisterBurial1630Bruce is buried under an elaborate memorial in the churchyard.
Church of ScotlandDenomination1560-NOWFrom the date of the Reformation in Scotland until the present.


  • Church: Build/construction (1160C)
    The earliest known church on this site was built in the twelfth century. Fragments survive in the chancel.
  • Nave: Build/construction (1200)
    A new nave was added in the early thirteenth century.
  • Tower: Build/construction (1200c)
    The tower was built and may have been freestanding.
  • Church: Consecration (1243)
    The church was dedicated to St. Maelrubha of Applecross by the Bishop of St. Andrews.
  • Tower: Addition (1500c)
    The spire was added.
  • Church: Founded (1517)
    Prioress of Haddington successfully petitioned for the church to become collegiate.
  • Nave: Addition (1765)
    Addition of the 'Seamen's Loft', swept away in 1815.
  • Church: Alteration/conversion (1796)
    A proposal was put forward in the late eighteenth century by Robert Balfour, which suggested alterations to the church. The upper part of the north aisle was rebuilt.
  • Nave: Addition (1796)
    The nave was re-roofed. The new roof sloped down over the aisles and blocked the light from the clerestory.
  • Aisle: Alteration/conversion (1796)
    A new roof was added, and the walls of the north aisle were raised to meet it.
  • Church: Alteration/conversion (1807)
    Further changes were proposed by Balfour. He suggested two tall windows on the south side, either side of the pulpit
  • Church: Alteration/conversion (1815)
    Robert Balfour, John Bowman, James Brown and David Wylie removed burial aisles, the loft staircase and the south porch. Pointed windows were inserted. A new roof was added.
  • Church: Alteration/conversion (1815)
    The lofts of the Town Council and Trades, described in detail by Gifford in his Buildings of Scotland Volume, were removed. Box pews were added and a west gallery.
  • Nave: Alteration/conversion (1815)
    The South Aisle was rebuilt by Robert Balfour.
  • Aisle: Addition (1815)
    A new roof was added and the walls of the aisles were raised to meet it.
  • Morthouse: Build/construction (1826)
  • Nave: Addition (1828)
    A gallery was installed.
  • Chancel: Alteration/conversion (1828)
    William Lees, a wright of Pittenweem shortened the chancel.
  • Vestry: Build/construction (1900)
    The vestry was added in the late twentieth century.
  • Chancel: Addition (1936)
    An organ by Harrison and Harrison was rebuilt within the chancel by Scovell and Co. of Edinburgh.
  • Church: Restoration (1963)
    A major programme of restoration was carried out by Judith Campbell.
  • Nave: Restoration (1963)
    Judith Campbell unblocked the tower arch and repaired the rest of the nave.
  • Tower: Restoration (1963)
    The tower arch was unblocked.
  • Graveyard: Restoration (1973 to 1976)
    Major restoration of repair and restoration of Kirkyard walls and Mural monuments by the Crail Preservation Society.

Archive References:

Records of the Crail Kirk SessionReference: GB 227 CH2/1543
Historic Scotland Listed Building Reports - Online databaseView HS Listing Online: 23244
Historic Scotland Listed Building Reports - Online databaseView HS Listing Online: 23246
Historic Scotland Listed Building Reports - Online databaseView HS Listing Online: 23245
Canmore - Online database View Canmore Report Online: 107926Morthouse
Canmore - Online database View Canmore Report Online: 99054graveyard
Canmore - Online database View Canmore Report Online: 35328
Canmore - Online database View Canmore Report Online: 99054
Canmore - Online database View Canmore Report Online: 107926
Scran - Online databaseReference: 000-000-025-555-CImage Copyright: Edwina Proudfoot
Scottish Church Heritage Research Archive - Offline databaseReference: 1027D. Gerrard (6/9/05)

Bibliographic References:

The churchyard memorials of Crail: containing a full description of the epitaphs anterior to 1800: together with some account of the other antiquities of the burghBeveridge, E.1893pp. 14-61
Medieval Religious Houses of ScotlandCowan & Easson, I.B;D.E1976p. 217
Scottish Medieval ChurchesFawcett, Richard2002pp. 37, 72, 84, 154, 168, 170, 194, 207, 330, 360.
Ecclesiastical Architecture of ScotlandMacgibbon & Ross, D;T1896STAHS, and available most libraries Vol. 3, pp. 263-269
Fife, Pictorial and HistoricalMillar, A.H.1895Vol. 1, pp. 375-80.
The Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions of Scotland - Fife etcRCAHMS1933Eleventh report with inventory of monuments and constructions in the counties of Fife, Kinross and Clackmannan. pp. 57-61
The Sculptured Stones of ScotlandJ Stuart1856
The Medieval Kirk of CrailCant, R.G.1983
A Medieval pot under Crail Church TowerStevenson, R.B.K1966P. 252-3
Crail Parish ChurchStevenson, R.B.K1963P. 30
Buildings of Scotland: FifeGifford, J1988pp. 134-136
The Kirk of Crail: History, architectural features and guide200319 page booklet, 8th impression (1st impression 1961).