Burntisland's Churches - Part 1

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by Iain Sommerville
(2001, with minor updates 2015)

Part 1 - The Early Years and the Church at the Kirkton

For the very early years, there is not a lot to refer to by way of written history. And what there is has to be taken with a large pinch of salt. There are myths and legends, interspersed with a lot of wishful thinking, but hardly anything by way of verifiable facts.

But if we credit our ancestors with a modicum of common sense, we can be fairly sure that the advantages of a natural harbour, together with the shelter and protection afforded by the Binn, would have made the Burntisland area a natural choice for settlement. There is some archaeological evidence that people have in fact lived here for thousands of years.

We do know that, at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, Fife was probably inhabited by the Venicone people - on the southern fringe of what would in due course become the Kingdom of the Picts. It would be some time before the Venicones heard of the momentous events in the Roman province of Judea, and they would continue to worship the natural world, as well as their own pagan gods and totems.

We have no idea when our Burntisland forebears became Christians, although we often assume that they were influenced by the great Celtic missionaries from Ireland. But it is quite likely that there were Christians in the area well before that. There is evidence that Roman soldiers and officials who were Christians were in Scotland in the 2nd century. And St Ninian (reputedly educated in Rome) and his followers, based in Whithorn, were active in missionary work from the late 4th century.

Compelling evidence assembled by the Whithorn Trust indicates that St Ninian had links with Charlestown, Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy, St Monance and Pittenweem. Given his apparent enthusiasm for coastal routes and settlements, he is unlikely to have ignored Burntisland on his travels.

The spread of Christianity in Scotland was, however, a piecemeal process, stemming from both Roman and Celtic sources. Even if St Ninian did have some success along the southern coast of Fife, there would be still be much to be done by his follower St Serf (c500-583AD), who was based in Culross from about 520 and known as the Apostle of West Fife.

These pioneers were followed by the great Celtic missionaries, St Columba (521-597) and St Adamnan (624-704), both from Ireland. Columba is reputed to have spent some time on Inchcolme, while Adamnan favoured Inchkeith for study and contemplation. Adamnan was Abbot of Iona in a period following Columba, and his main claim to fame was his writing of Columba's biography.

Burntisland's first known church at the Kirkton is alluded to or mentioned in early records dated 1130, 1184 and 1243, although there may well have been a church there before these dates. There is some confusion about which saint the Kirkton church was dedicated to, with some authorities saying St Serf and some St Adamnan. Matters are further complicated because it is not always clear from old records if they refer to Kinghorn Wester (later Burntisland) or Kinghorn itself.

The ruins of the Kirkton Church were officially described in 1959 as "dilapidated and overgrown". The best preserved part of the church is the eastern section, the chancel. It appears to have been taken over, perhaps in the 1800s, by the Aytoun family to serve as their private burial chamber. The western section is the nave, and a southern aisle has been added to it. Little of the aisle remains. The small structure to the south east of the aisle is described as a vaulted cell.

The latest thinking on the ruins at the Kirkton is that they are of a building which was erected in the first quarter of the 13th century. Some historians have speculated that they might be from a rebuilding in the 15th century, but certain architectural details make this later date unlikely. The simplicity of the chancel arch and the absence of a window in the east wall are architectural features which point to an early 13th century building.

The ruins at the Kirkton are of unmistakable architectural and historic importance. They may not be as grand as those elsewhere, but that is part of their charm. They give us an excellent idea of what a simple parish church looked like around the early 13th century. Their neglect and continuing deterioration over the years can only be described as shameful. [Update December 2015 - considerable progress has been made with a major project to clear the ivy and stabilise the fabric; reinstate and repair fallen and broken gravestones; create a sitting area with interpretation; and publish information about the church and the people buried in the churchyard.]

The Chancel of the Kirkton Church
The ivy covered ruin of the chancel of the Kirkton Church, set against the Binn (1997)

John Blyth gives us this description of how the Kirkton might have looked as folk gathered for the Sunday service in the 1500s:

"Before the Reformation and the subsequent erection of the town into a Royal Burgh, the Kirkton and its Church filled an important part in the life of the community. Here, each Sabbath, the inhabitants gathered for public worship - seamen, fishermen, merchants, craftsmen and others, lairds and farm workers, all with their wives and families. Doubtless there was a sprinkling of strangers on many occasions, as, for example, during  the period when the French troops of Mary of Lorraine occupied the town, or when some ship from England, France, the Low Countries or the Baltic chanced to lie in the local haven. In the churchyard, after service, would be gathered the usual pedlars and merchants, who were wont to use such occasions to supply the needs of landward folk who had little opportunity to purchase odds and ends of finery, etc. The Roman Church did not frown on this practice, which fitted with the necessities or convenience of olden days, but the Reformation brought an end to such scenes. Inevitably, too, there would be many beggars, deserving and otherwise. The present day Back Causeway or Kirkton Road was then a mere track intercepted at high tide by shallow water, which might have to be crossed by means of stepping stones. Many landward people presumably entered  the Churchyard from the Dollar or Dolour Road, which still lies behind the Church."

The Kirkton church would have witnessed the Reformation, from 1560, apparently escaping unscathed. But within a generation, it would be demoted. The increase in population in the area round the harbour meant that the church at the Kirkton was becoming both too small and inconvenient. The demand for a new church came from the ordinary townspeople, who took on the responsibility of constructing it themselves between 1592 and 1595. Such an undertaking would normally have been financed by the heritors (landed proprietors), but the new church of St Columba was very much a community effort.

The move to the new church was not, however, universally popular, and services continued in tandem at the Kirkton for many years.

Iain Sommerville 2001 and 2015

Postscript - please also see the Kirkton Church Conservation Project website (link opens in a new tab or window).

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