Dairsie Old Parish Church

National Grid Reference (NGR): NO 41400 16090, map


KY15 4RL

Also known as:

  • St. Mary's Parish Church (1621)


Dairsie Old Parish Church, also known as St Mary's, was built in the early 17th century and is one of Scotland's earliest post-Reformation churches. It is situated on the brow of a hill, a short distance south of the village of Dairsie, overlooking the River Eden to the south-east and the late-medieval Dairsie Bridge. The church is aligned roughly east-west and the oldest gravestones surround the building. A later retaining wall encloses the original graveyard and a larger, later cemetery was added alongside in the 1920s. The church was built in 1621 by Archbishop Spottiswood, Archbishop of St Andrews and resident of Dairsie Castle. Dairsie Old Parish Church was united with the former Free Church in Dairsie village in 1929, when the Free Church re-united with the Established Church (Church of Scotland). The congregation continued to use Dairsie Old Parish Church in the summer months and the village church in the winter, which was easier to heat and closer to most of the congregation. St Mary's eventually ceased to be used as a church in the 1960s and was for many years used as a store by the University of St Andrews and later the St Andrews Preservation Trust, who maintained the building. It has been privately owned since 2006 and has suffered from neglect and metal theft in recent years, resulting in water ingress through the walls and roof.

J Dowling 2017

Description (exterior)

Dairsie Old Parish Church is a rectangular building with a striking octagonal tower in the south-west corner. It is built from good quality sandstone ashlar masonry and has a hipped slate roof, which is actually a later addition to replace an original flat, lead roof (water spouts in the wallhead remain but became redundant when the new roof was added).

The west end of the church is the principal elevation and features a fine heraldic panel of the Spottiswood family above the large, round-arch entrance doorway. The carved stone panel contains the date '1621' and is set within a deep, moulded frame. The doorway below is set-back into the wall, with carved margins. A pair of shallow, decorative buttresses with finials frame the doorway and join the bottom of the heraldic panel. A fine, angular stringcourse runs above the doorway and steps down at either side and continues around the building at window sill level.

The impressive tall corner tower is perhaps the most well-known and recognisable feature of the church. It is built into the south-west corner and supported on three substantial, angled buttresses. Moulded corbelling at wall-head level creates the base of the hexagonal tower and it then rises in two stages to a stone parapet, wherein a slender stone spire rises centrally and is topped by a ball finial and weathercock (with a lightning conductor that extends to the ground). There are very small rectangular windows lower down in the tower, which light the spiral staircase within. Above, at the belfry level, are larger openings on each face, which would allowed the sound of the bell inside to travel over a large distance (the bell was removed and restored and is now on display in the current parish church in Dairsie). A small doorway opening in the spire provides limited access to the narrow parapet and the spire also features small, finialled openings (lucarnes) towards the top.

The north and south side elevations of the church are divided into four bays by tall, slender buttresses. Each bay features an impressive pointed-arch window with substantial stone hoodmoulds. The windows are unusual in the fact they have stone plate-traceried openings with cinqfoil and trefoil openings. One of the windows towards the centre of the southern elevation is shorter, to provide space for a rectangular doorway below (perhaps originally for the minister or a private entrance for the laird's family), which was later blocked with stone when the interior was re-organised. A stringcourse near the top of the walls show the original height of the walls, which were heightened by around 50cm when the new slate roof was built. Below can be seen the original stone water spouts, decorated as grotesques or gargoyles. The east end of the church overlooks the later cemetery, which extends down the hillside. It has strong buttresses either side of a pair of pointed-arch windows of the same style and size as the side windows. A burial enclosure is built against the east elevation (the metal railings shown in the photographs were recently stolen, causing much damage to the stonework). A small basement doorway in the north-east corner of the church is reached via a stairway dug into the ground. This provides access to a barrel-vaulted basement at the east end, which was later converted into a boiler house. The basement's original purpose is not clear but it may have been used to house coffins before a burial.

J Dowling 2017

Description (interior)

The interior of Dairsie Old Parish Church has changed during its history, but its latest arrangement featured a raised sanctuary at the east end and a small gallery at the west end, reached by a stairwell in the entrance vesibule. A separate stone stair provides access to the tower. All of the church furnishings, including pews, communion table, pulpit and font were removed when the church fell out of use, with most of the furnishings re-installed in Dairsie's village church. The wooden pews appear to have survived in the gallery, although the interior has not been seen since it was sold in 2006. Fine stained glass windows, inserted in 1905, survive in the east end, protected with metal mesh on the outside.

J Dowling 2017

People / Organisations:

Church of ScotlandDenomination1621-1966The church went out of use in 1966, whereupon the ex-Free Church on the Main Street became the sole place of worship in the parish.
Archbishop John SpottiswoodBenefactor1621The church was built in 1621 for Archbishop Spottiswood, who resided in Dairsie Castle.
Mr Robert BalfourBuilder1794Replaced the flat lead roof with a piend roof.
J.Kennedy and J.MacCullochBuilder1835-1837Restored the stained glass windows, replacing some stonework. Windows on the north wall were reopened, the south door was blocked and the interior restored.


  • Church: Build/construction (1621)
    The church was built for Archbishop Spottiswood.
  • Graveyard: Build/construction (1621)
    The graveyard has been in use since at least 1621. Excavations in 2006 in advance of a new electricity supply found undisturbed cemetery deposits to a depth of 0.7 metres. There was no evidence of an associated building, suggesting that the graveyard is associated solely with this church.
  • Tower: Build/construction (1621)
    The tower was a feature of the original building.
  • Church: Alteration/conversion (1650c)
    Spottiswood\'s Laudian interior was removed, which had included a solid wood screen with the Royal Arms of Charles I.
  • Church: Build/construction (1794)
    The roof was rebuilt by Robert Balfour.
  • Session house: Build/construction (1830c)
  • Church: Repair (1835 to 1837)
    J Mcculloch & J Kennedy restored the plate tracery windows.
  • Church: Addition (2006)
    Installation of a new electricity supply.
  • Metal theft (2010 to Present)
    Much of the easily-accessible metal and lead has gradually been stolen from the church, including guttering, down pipes and metal railings from the graveyard.

Archive References:

Canmore - Online database View Canmore Report Online: 32904
Historic Scotland Listed Building Reports - Online databaseView HS Listing Online: 2610
Scottish Church Heritage Research Archive - Offline databaseReference: 1053

Bibliographic References:

Buildings of Scotland: FifeGifford, J1988p. 169
Discovery & Excavation, Scotland 2007R.C.Campbell-Brown & D.A. Spiers2007excavation trench for electric supply. Human bones found at ca. 0.7m. No earlier structures found.