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Medieval-eyes: Scotland

Site of St Kentigern's shrine, Glasgow

Site of St Kentigern’s shrine, Glasgow

Spaces stretch out as you head north: medieval polities of enormous size and power: York; Durham and its more edgy neighbour Newcastle. A blackened twelfth-century tower and a battered town church swing by. The first Norman bishop, murdered in a 1070s back street.

Was Durham the single largest building between here and the north pole? One does wonder. Melrose, St Andrews, Kirkwall: serious buildings, but not on this scale. Holy Island, its older sibling, swings by on its WideOpen bay after a bewilderingly long time: things are bigger up here; bleaker, too, if the housing estates are anything to go by. You can see Holy Island from Arthur’s Seat; Northumbria has barely stopped being a buffer state.

Edinburgh, Stirling, two crag-burghs. Their subsequent history — Stirling the Renaissance focus, Edinburgh the modern one, remaking itself into a capital with spiky flair — make them very different places, but their medieval selves may not have been so different. Both dramatically set, with real crags on the doorstep; both a castle-fastness, a long road lined by burghage plots, a grand town church. 

These Scots town churches are bewildering to southern eyes. Firstly, I can’t date anything. The south aisle at Stirling has plainly been made from mason’s templates cut in England in the 1310s-30s at latest, yet all the guides — Buildings of Scotland included — are happy that it is C15. The great apse looks to the Continent: there’s no Perp at all up here. The vaulted aisles speak of real ambition, yet the overall size is nothing special compared to the mightiest urban churches in England, and little of this work is well cut, beyond a certain mighty grandeur that might have been positively oppressive when filled with the undying devotions of the Holy Rude. Much the same could be said of St Gile’s, Edinburgh, whose complex story reveals a much lesser early medieval self, but also a C15 collegiate church-ification, with a tierceron vaulted chancel such as would be exceptional anywhere; and both have plain as plain can be clerestories, weirdly originally open to only one side. Style-wise St Giles is Continental Flamboyant throughout: I’m reminded of St Nicholas, Galway. Even the famous crown-like tower top redoes in English motif  with Scots/Continental detailing. All in all, these two churches speak a voice of their own: massively impressive, plainly detailed, vaulted aisles, stub-transepts, side chapels added by individual patrons off the nave; little trace of anything substantive predating the C15.  But I’m still adjusting to this aesthetic, trying not to see it through Sassanach-tinted spectacles. The stacked mouldings of the St Giles chancel looked like misunderstood Renaissance detailing — until I saw just the same thing in the C13 at Glasgow cathedral: indeed I wonder to what extent, with its powerful design, short transepts and lack of high stone vaults, Glasgow set the standard (and the limits) to which Scottish churches aspired throughout the ensuing centuries.

Holywell abbey is something else: well-carved, lots of good work of the late C12 and a little later, looking strongly to Lincoln but speaking a voice of its own, too. Yet it’s also nothing grander than a host of lost mid-ranking Augustinian houses might have been.

I climb Arthur’s Seat, and find the detritus of this near-shocking wilderness within the city: how many midnight shags/forgotten rave-ups/wild walks/break-ups have happened up here? And more traces of a lost landscape: here’s a neatly vaulted polygonal wellhead from some sacred spring; there, crag-like and covered in graffiti, a two-storey hermitage.  

Then, on the way back, Glasgow, and arguably the only medieval building in Scotland (though I’d love to come face-to-face with Rosslyn, Kirkwall, St Andrews) that adds something significant to the Grand Narrative. Here is a serious cathedral, again full of the voice of Lincoln — translated, as it was in Scandinavia, into something of-its-own; and as at Trondheim almost unnervingly cultic — next to a little crag — today the Necropolis, but before that, what? — small, tight and intense, its windows a history of the possibilities of c.1230 (just as tracery is on the brink of invention), and its extraordinary crypt. Little was done here after the C13, and what was seems to go out of its way to fit in with past designs. And even here the transepts are but stumps, and there are no high vaults. Perhaps Scotland north of the Borders could never afford them?

Here, in the crypt, lay Kentigern: a proto-Merlin, a magical hermit saint, in the middle of this grand and Empire-blackened metropolis. The spaces around him are choreographed with shocking intensity, the visitor led down vaulted passages, moved from one subtle space to another until he reaches the shrine on its raised platform. Medieval Scotland certainly had something to offer, something powerful and of its own; something even more comprehensively lost in their more sweeping Reformation even than ours.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. July 16, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Hmm is anyone else having problems with the pictures on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the
    blog. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

    • July 16, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      All working normally my end — mind you, it’s my blog! Sorry you can’t see them.

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