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Pearls from the Pend No.2 - St John Scotland

Raven’s-eye View

ON the last Sunday in August, members worship in the Preceptory or parish kirk of Torphichen to commemorate the Martyrdom of St John the Baptist, our patron.

On this solemn feast day we can make an imaginative leap and encounter once more the ghosts of our hospitaller forebears whose calendar and duties – monastic, medical, martial – were animated and ruled by Christian precepts. We are also re-acquainting ourselves with the genius loci of Torphichen (Gaelic: Tor Fithichean – Hill of the Ravens).

In 1540 Henry VIII  suppressed the Order of St John in England in 1540 and in Ireland a year later. As a result, for nearly a quarter of a century, from 1540 to  1564,  Torphichen Preceptory was the sole outpost representing the Knights Hospitaller in the British Isles.

Communications between this remote commandery and Malta must have been challenging and frustratingly slow. Brother James Sandilands of Calder succeeded Brother Walter Lindsay as Preceptor, his appointment being confirmed by the Grand Master, Juan de Homedes, on 29 March 1547 and ratified by papal bull later that year on 3 June.

Sir James Sandilands was often employed by King James V and Mary, Queen of Scots, in diplomatic roles – for example, as ambassador to England and France. But, of course, it was a crisis of conscience which prompted Brother James (like his father) to side with the Lords of the Congregation and renounce his Roman Catholicism in favour of the Protestant Reformation.

Two years after Queen Mary’s return to Scotland, Brother James resigned into the Queen’s hands all the lands and baronies belonging to Torphichen Preceptory, together with his honorary title Lord of St Johns (which had allowed the Preceptor to sit in the Scottish Parliament) – even although it was not in his gift to enter into such an arrangement!

The Queen accepted them – an act of disrespect from one sovereign head to another – and, as a mark of the esteem in which she held her distant cousin, by a Royal Charter dated 24 January 1563/4 she re-granted to him, on payment of 10,000 crowns of the sun (gold coins minted in France) and with the stipulation that he and his successors pay a feu duty of 500 merks per annum, the lands of Torphichen as a hereditary barony to which were added his barony of Calder (formerly Caldour).

The Queen not only also conferred upon him the title Lord Torphichen (and Lord of Parliament) – the only instance of a heritable dignity known in the peerage – she also gave him a unique heraldic augmentation, namely a crowned thistle which has been incorporated into the Arms of the Priory of Scotland, i.e. Lord Torphichen was the first non-royal to be allowed to use what is a Scottish royal badge.

Ignominiously, his Lordship was promptly compelled to sell off seven of the eight baronies – Liston, Balantrodoch, Thankerton, Denny, Maryculter, Stanhope, Galtway – to pay the debts he had accrued.

It has been asserted that it was in the great hall of that Renaissance palace, Calder House in Mid Calder, that Knox celebrated the first Protestant Holy Communion in Scotland in 1556 – the subject of an unfinished historical depiction by the renowned Scottish artist, Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841) in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland. But this is not the case.

Among the twenty Protestant martyrs in Scotland between 1528 and 1558 was George Wishart who, in 1545, at Dun (Montrose), the estate of John Erskine, ‘administered the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in both kinds of the elements and preached with success’. And later, early in 1547, Knox celebrated Holy Communion in the chapel of the castle at St Andrews (where Knox’s ally John Rough was chaplain at the castle).

The tower and transepts of Torphichen Preceptory, which had been substantially heightened in the fifteenth century, were used after the Reformation as the Court House of the Regality of Torphichen, with the Prison House in the space above.

In the Penguin Buildings of Scotland volume on Lothian (1978), Colin McWilliam raised the question: ‘Why were the transepts rebuilt and not the liturgically more important choir? Is it possible that the transepts were conceived as monumental versions of the private transeptal chapels in parish churches like Borthwick or Corstorphine? The central placing of the tomb niche in the S transept and the inscription to Sir Andrew [de] Meldrum in the N transept would tend to confirm this interpretation.’

Despite the demise of the Knights of St John in the British Isles after the Reformation, a career in the valorous Order could still attract Scotsmen. In his essay ‘Scottish Pilgrims to the Holy Land’ (Innes Review, Spring 1969), David McRoberts relates how William Lithgow, returning in 1612 from Jerusalem, disembarked at Malta where he noted the presence of a fellow countryman, William Douglas, ‘who for his long and good service at sea was solemnely Knighted and made one of their Order’.

After the Reformation, for about 200 years, the parish church was the nave of the pre-Reformation church, adapted to meet the requirements of Reformed Worship. Attached to it at the west end was the Preceptor’s, and subsequently Lord Torphichen’s, magnificent three-storey mansion house which contained on the first floor a Great Hall.

A door in the west end of this Great Hall provided entry to Lord Torphichen’s gallery in the kirk. Without a doubt, Torphichen, architecturally, is a mysterium tremendum, baffling, fascinating, intriguing, inspiring.

Two centuries after Torphichen experienced the Great Schism erupted the Great Dispute. How the tongues of the local gossips must have wagged between Linlithgow and Bathgate. ‘Maister Gillon and his Lordship are sair affronted.’

What prompted this stushie was the decision by majority vote by the Heritors – the local feudal landholders, who were responsible for appointing and paying the Minister and Schoolmaster and maintaining church, manse and schoolhouse – in the mid-1750s to build a new parish kirk.

As Jack Smith points out in his booklet on Torphichen Kirk (2006), ‘The choice of a seed merchant [David Dowie, from Edinburgh] as architect seems curious and his estimates were certainly unreliable as, according to the assessment, the eventual cost was £300.” [Equivalent to £80,870 today.]

The cost was generously underwritten by John Gillon of Wallhouse, but Lord Torphichen as principal Heritor and the nominated Patron of the Kirk was exasperated on two counts: the new building necessitated the demolition of his mansion house in Torphichen, and the prominent south gallery, complete with fireplace, was intended for Gillon’s occupation. His Lordship was having none of it.

A bitter legal wrangle ensued in the Court of Session for many years, before and after the completion of the kirk in 1756/7, until the judgment was awarded in Lord Torphichen’s favour. As a result, Gillon of Wallhouse adopted the west gallery, while the east gallery was allocated to the Earl of Hopetoun.

Some of the earliest drawings of the Preceptory and the newly built kirk (now in the collection of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford) were by the English antiquary Richard Gough (1735 – 1809) in about 1770. Two are reproduced here.


In 1977, Confrère Charles Burnett, when he was Priory Limner, painted on the fronts of the three galleries or Lairds’ Lofts the armorial achievements of Walter, 8th Lord of Torphichen (left); (right) John Gillon of Wallhouse (whose crest featuring a raven is appropriate); and John, Earl of Hopetoun.

He also painted on the front pews the ranks of Priory Officers of the Priory of Scotland of the Order of St John. Seats for the Prior, the Chancellor, the Hospitaller, the Receiver General, and so on. And then one’s eye alights on another inscribed seat – this one is reserved for the Preceptor of Torphichen.

Designed and built by Mucky Puddle