The Old Steeple

National Grid Reference (NGR): NO 40130 30120, map


Address

Nethergate
Dundee
DD1 4DG

Also known as:

  • St Mary’s Tower

Introduction

The Old Steeple is one of four churches/former churches within the building known as the City Churches (10888). The earliest church on this site was known as St. Mary’s Church (1082) and dates from the late 12th Century. The tower was added to the western elevation in the 15th Century. The Church was largely destroyed in 1548 by English troops but the tower survived as it was used as a look-out by the English. It is now the earliest standing structure to survive from the old Church.

The completion date is unknown but generally held to be before 1495 when the great bell was gifted by George Spalding. There are five stages to the tower and it has been used as a jail and fortress. The 1548 fire started by English troops destroyed the adjoining nave, the timber floors and the clock. The link to the nave was then blocked until the erection of the Steeple Church (1085) in 1789. A major restoration took place in 1870-72 under Sir George Gilbert Scott. Public access to certain parts of the tower has been available for most of the twentieth century. The tower is generally known as the Old Steeple. K.Nichols


Description (exterior)

The gabled tower is constructed from sandstone with a parapet and stair-turret on the north-east corner. A porch is located on the south-east corner.  There are tall buttresses on all corners except the north-east; the buttresses flanking the main double-door on the eastern elevation have empty statue niches.  A string course is interrupted by the main door, which jumps up and forms a hood mould or frame around the door. The door frontage is highly decorated with columns and carvings. A tall, pointed window with Y tracery is located above the door and cuts into an upper string course. Above the pointed window is a rose window with a decorated hood mould. Underneath the parapet, but above the rose window, is a very small double-pane window with a similar window on the southern wall of the tower. Along the parapet are statue niches, one of which holds a statue of St. Mary. The others are now empty. The parapet itself is decorated with quatrefoils. On all sides of this upper part of the tower there are arched belfry openings: three below a string course and two above. This pattern is not seen on the northern wall as the stair turret occupies over a third of the wall. The upper belfry openings carry a clock face.


Description (interior)

Inside the double doors on the west side of the Tower is the entrance area. It is roughly square in shape; the corners on the east wall have been angled off, and there is a large pillar set into each corner. The north and south walls have fixed stone benches. A door on the east wall leads through to The Steeple Church (1085) and above it there are three large metal lilies hung on the wall. The stonework on the east wall is very different to the other walls showing it to be a later addition. The east wall contains irregularly shaped stone whereas the other walls are made from large slabs of stone. Above the main doors on the west wall is the large gothic window. The door to the stair turret is located in the north east corner. The ceiling is vaulted with an opening in the centre (originally the ropes for the bells would have hung down here). Two-thirds of the way up the north and south wall are stone lintels that would have supported a floor or gallery. The entrance area currently houses a number of medieval carved stones.

Proceeding through the door of the stair turret, the steps have been constructed from large slabs of stone. There are small windows on the north side of the turret, all the way up the tower.

Antiquities Room

 

This room is directly above the entrance area. The large rose window can be seen on the west wall, accessed by three steps. The window is set into a deep stone arch. There are two other small windows, like those seen in the stair turret, on the north-east and south-east corners. In the centre of the room is a trap door that corresponds to the opening seen in the roof of the entrance area (for original bell ropes). The walls are made of irregularly shaped stone. Similar to the entrance area there are stone lintels that support the ceiling. This room currently holds a number of items including six old bells from the Old Town House, weights from the old clock mechanism, a stone coffin and fragments of carved stone. On the east wall is an additional white stone wall in front that measures just under half the height of the east wall. This is known as the antiquities wall and contains various pieces of masonry found around the town centre during redevelopment. It includes a carving of the Dundee Coat of Arms and a line of carved faces at the wall head.

Bell ringing room

This room is lit by two sets of strip windows and contains a curious set of stairs leading to a door that leads to the outside above the church roof. The bellringers use this room when practicing or ringing the bells.

Belfry

The belfry has held varying numbers of bells but was intended for five. The present peal of eight were created at the Whitehall Foundry, London and was initiated by the 1870-72 restoration. Each bell has an inscription giving the name of the donor who paid for the bell. The peal is rare in that they are rung by swinging the bell to its peak then return to swing the opposite way. Most bells hang still whilst the clapper is moved. Above the bells hangs the pendulum case for the clock mechanism in the room above. K. Nichols

 

Clockroom

Any original clock on the tower would have been on the east or south walls facing the town. The first mention of a clock is in 1540-3 when town records note that William Purves of Edinburgh was charged with making 'ane sufficient and substantious knok'. This unfortunately fell victim to the 1548 fire started by Admiral Wyndham's troops. A replacement was made by David Kay of Edinburgh, approx 1553, the remnants of which are stored in a cupboard in the corner of the room. The cables of this mechanism dropped down to the antiquities room where two men wound the system. When mechanised four faces were operated from a central mechanism. The present system was installed by Rattray Bros of Dundee in 1862. K. Nichols

 

Cap-house

Built as a lookout point this small house has an uncertain date of completion. It has a saddleback roof covering one room that has a cupboard and fireplace. The timber beams are exposed and inscribed with initials. In the twentieth century the room has been used as exhibition space. K. Nichols


People / Organisations:

NameRoleDatesNotes
Tower construction15th CenturyAssumed by 1495 and similar to style seen in Low Countries during 1420-80. Tower added to Church.
Renovation1870'sRemoval of earlier clock
Bell tower: Renovation1871Restoration of stonework, statues, entrance door by G. Gilbert Scott
Renovation1882Addition of clock faces

Archive References:

NameReferenceNotes
SCHRReference: 1084
Canmore - Online database View Canmore Report Online: 33499
Historic Scotland Listed Building Reports - Online databaseView HS Listing Online: 25370

Bibliographic References:

NameAuthorDateNotes
Historic Dundee: The Archaeological Implications of DevelopmentStevenson, S. and Torrie, E.1988Pgs. 23-36
The Buildings of Scotland: Dundee and AngusGifford, John2014Pgs. 89-89