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St Cuthbert's Old Kirk of Weem


A church at Weem is mentioned in charters as far back as 1235 and Weem is described as a parish in Boiamund’s Taxatio, 1275. The date of the present buildings is uncertain; it is distinctly pre-Reformation and was probably built at the same time as the “Place of Weem”, the original castle, by Sir Robert Menzies in 1488. It was altered considerably by Sir Robert’s great grandson, Alexander (1566-1644) in 1609 to conform to the style of the Reformed Church and was heightened and further modifications made in the 18th century. The initials of Sir Alexander and of his wife Margaret Campbell are to be seen over the entrances and upon the Menzies Monument constructed by him.

The Original Building

When first constructed in the late 18th century, the Church was a simple rectangular building, possibly with a thatched roof, of internal measurements 411 x 171 ft with stone rubble walls 3 ft thick and with windows, smaller than they are now, on the south side. The east end formed the chancel with a simple wooden screen dividing it from the nave and with its floor level raised about 1 ft above that of the nave. An altar, probably consisting of a raised stone slab, was set against the east wall and, on either side of it, a wall recess, or aumbry, (now unblocked). A door in the south wall allowed entry from the exterior into the chancel behind the screen. On the south wall there were two other aumbries, each with carved lettering above; the D and M possibly refer to Duncan Menzies of Menzies (1600-1656), father of the first baronet, or to the earlier Sir David who became a monk. These aumbries were probably stoups for holy water originally. The internal walls were plaster rendered throughout.

Post-Reformation Alterations

After about 1600, considerable alterations were made in order to conform to the requirements of the Reformed Church. The altar and chancel screen were removed and the chancel door moved several feet towards the centre, opening near to a pulpit which then became the centre of attention. Opposite the pulpit, the centre of the north wall of the building was removed and a transept so constructed by opening up the nave into what was possibly a pre-existing attached building which may have been an itinerant priest’s lodging house originally. This transept was converted into the Laird’s Loft with a small retiring room at the rear containing a fireplace in the north wall.

At the same time the two main windows on the south side were enlarged. A further addition was the obligatory belfry over the west gable.

These alterations were carried out at the instigation of Sir Alexander Menzies of Menzies (1566-1644) whose initials with those of his first wife, Margaret Campbell, together with their impaled heraldic arms are carved on the stone inserts above the outer door lintels and elsewhere.

Later Modifications

At some time in the 18th century the building was heightened by about two feet and it is likely that, at this time, the pointed form windows were added in each gable. Later to accommodate a growing congregation, a gallery was constructed at the west end, reached by external steps and entering through a door replacing the west gable window.

The building continued to be the Parish Kirk until 1839 when it was handed over by the local people to Sir Neil Menzies (1790-1844), 6th Baronet, to be used by him and his successors “in all time coming” exclusively as a family mausoleum. A long association of the Church with the Menzieses of Weem, lasting from 1266, or possibly earlier, was thus extended

The Present State

After the death of the last of the mainline of the Menzieses of Weem in 1910, in subsequent years, the Kirk was neglected and suffered severe deterioration. In 1936 it was re-roofed and, probably at this time, the wooden structures within (Laird’s Loft and Gallery) and the remaining wall plaster were removed. After a long period of deterioration, restoration of the building and its contents was carried out around 1970, work which earned a Heritage Award in 1975. Nevertheless, the now bared stone walls exhibit to the discerning eye evidence of the changes made over the centuries and imagination can picture how the interior looked in it earlier days and after the Reformation

St Cuthbert and the Kirk of Weem

Long before Caledonia became Scotland, the fertile straths of the Lyon and the Tay were important regions of the Southern Picts and as such attracted the evangelical attentions of the intrepid missionaries of the Celtic Church, the names of which have anciently been associated with places in the district. One such was St Cuthbert, later Prior and then Bishop of Lindisfarne, to whom the church at Weem is dedicated. According to The Irish Life of St Cuthbert, a Latin manuscript of the 14th century, Cuthbert, while a monk at Mailros (Melrose), in approximately AD655, “came to a town called Dul and dwelt as a hermit in a steep and richly wooded hill at Doilweme, about a mile distant. Here he brought from the hard rock a fountain or well of water, erected a tall stone cross, built an oratory or rough wood and constructed for himself out of a single stone, a bath in which he used to immerse himself and spend the night in prayer to God.”

And today, midway up the hill behind the Old Kirk, on a rocky ledge which is part of the “Craig ant-seipeil” (The Chapel Craig), is a spring which flows into a basin or bath hewn from the rock. Beside it for centuries lay a stone slab on which is a “tall” roughly carved cross, broken into two pieces. The cross is now housed for safety within the Kirk. The “Well” can now be approached by the Forestry Commission Forest Walk.

St Cuthbert, who is said to have lived for the time in a cave which exists below the Chapel Rock, so brought Christianity to Weem a name which significantly, is derived from the Gaelic for a “cave” and the township grew up around the Church he founded. Here, probably on the site of the present building, a series of primitive church buildings were erected over the centuries, culminating in the present structure.

Items of Interest

The Menzies Monument

The most remarkable feature in the Kirk is the monument, dated 1616, and erected by Sir Alexander Menzies of Menzies as a tribute to his ancestors. It is a most unusual genealogical record in stone. It has been described as an important example of Scottish Renaissance work attributable in design and execution to native skill.

On the back of the arched recess is a panel with a dedication inscription, which translated reads:

My mother is of the royal stock of the Britons of Atholl
And Lawers is the house of my grandmother
My great-grandmother is a fair daughter of Huntley
And my great-great-grandmother is from Edzell sprung.
To the shade and memory of the famous and noble hero
Alexander Menzies of Weem and to the memory of Campbell his wife, both of whom for the sake of the good name of their ancestors and their posterity undertook the building of this monument.

Surrounding the panel are a number of expertly carved tablets bearing the memorial inscriptions of the noble ladies commemorated, with their family heraldic bearings. These are as follows:

Margaret Campbell, daughter of Lord Glenorchy, wife of the Lord of Weem. Died 28 Sept 1598.
Elizabeth Foster (Forrester) Daughter of Lord Carden, second wife of the Lord of Weem. Died 10 Nov 1613.
Barbara Stewart, Daughter of Earl of Atholl, wife of James Menzies, mother of the founder of this sepulchre. Died 29 April 1587.
Christina Campbell, Daughter of Lord Lawers, wife of Alexander Menzies of Weem, grandmother of the said founder.
Margaret Lindsay, Daughter of Lord Edzell, wife of Robert Menzies of Weem, soldier, Great-Great-Grandmother of said founder.
Christina Gordon, Countess Huntley, wife of Robert Menzies of Weem, Soldier, great-grandmother of said founder.

At each end of the cornice above the arch is a figure kneeling at a prie dieu. These undoubtedly represent, on the left, Sir Alexander and, on the right, his first wife, Margaret Campbell. Their impaled arms and monograms are carved on the central pediment.

Above, surmounting all, is a tablet displaying a figure with arms raised in the orans posture, presumably representing the Almighty or Christ Ascendant - a surprising addition at a time when the Reformed Church strictly forbade such effigies.

Supporting the cornice are two large figures representing, on the left, Faith (his open book reads “what is done without faith is sinful”) and, on the right, the conventional depiction of Charity. The whole monument is richly decorated with scrolls, wreaths, angels, cherubim and memento mori.

The Hatchments

The Kirk contains an unusual collection of hatchments (funeral escutcheons). These are paintings of the arms of a deceased person conventionally placed in black lozenge-shaped frame. The hatchment was usually hung on the entrance of the deceased’s house and later placed near the tomb. The hatchment often displayed the impaled arms of a man and wife, the man’s arms on the right (dexter) half of the shield and the wife’s on the left (sinister) side. The background of the arms is painted black on the side association with the deceased and white on the side of the living partner. In the case of an unmarried lady, the shield bearing her arms is lozenge-shaped and surrounded by a ribbon tied in a bow above. An example of this is the hatchment of Carolyn Elizabeth Menzies, a beloved daughter of the house who died in 1845 aged 15 years and who is commemorated in the marble bust to the left side of the Menzies monument.

The Dull Crosses

A monastery of the ancient Celtic type was created at Dull in the 8th century at the instigation, it is reputed, of St Adamnan (Eunan), Abbot of Iona and a much-travelled missionary throughout Northern Scotland. No trace of this establishment remains except three stone crosses, which once marked the limits of the girth or sanctuary of the monastery. One still stands at Dull near the entrance to the churchyard. In the early 19th century, two of the crosses were removed and misused as gateposts, but were rescued and placed in the Weem Old Kirk. The crosses are featured in Stuart’s monumental work Sculptured Stones of Scotland.

This article was originally written by Dr. A. D. Dewar and is reprinted with his permission.

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