St Mary's Kirkyard
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The first documentary evidence of a religious settlement at St Mary’s Loch is when Bagimund came to Scotland in 1275 to collect money for the Crusades. Then on 6th July 1292, Edward I of England in the guise of Overlord of Scotland, ordered his chancellor to appoint Master Edmund de Letham to ‘the Church of the Blessed Mary of Farmainishope in the diocese of Glasgow’.
It is unlikely that this was the first religious building on site as the Christian Church is known to have been established in the valleys by the early 6th century. The best known examples are the Orans figure from Over Kirkhope at the top of Ettrick and the Yarrow Stone at Whitefield.
In the seven centuries between the inscribed stones and Edward’s order, there were thriving Christian populations in the Borders but their locations have to be looked for in the local dialect and place-names. When I was out and about, I would see if there were any fields, knowes, braes, burns or sykes with a ‘kil’ or ‘kirk’ preface even if, or especially if, there were no indications of a building. I did notice that the ‘kil’ prefix in the Borders is mainly attached to ground features rather than with a saint’s name but if I find a flattened pile of stones with a small chamber in the middle, I am quite prepared to accept it as an unknown hermit’s cell.
Ground awareness and divining rods can identify unmarked sites or burial grounds and, although there is a lot of investigation to do, my rough guide is that ‘kils’ tend to be based on a hermit’s cell about 4m by 2.5m internally, built with thick stone walls and a small surrounding graveyard. These were often the forerunners of the ‘kirks’ which are usually an apse-ended building about 11m by 5m, with narrow walls of stone or wood, and within a graveyard. ‘Chapels’ are about the same size with a turf dyke around the graveyard; most chapel sites can be seen and have been recorded.
There is no reason why the Cumbric/Irish holy site of a ‘kil’ could not develop as an Anglian Christian ‘kirk’ and eventually the more organised Roman Catholic ‘chapel’ – a place inferior to a regular church. It seems likely that this is what happened at the complex at St Mary’s Loch.
The Inventory of Selkirkshire No 9, designates the site as ‘Graveyard and Chapel Site, St Mary’s Chapel’, noting the burial ground and ‘somewhere in this vicinity and probably in the NW corner of the enclosure where a small heap of debris can be seen, must have stood the church of St Mary of the Lowes on record in 1292 which served the parish of that name.’
Over the years I have visited the site many times and I am sure there is more to the story than that. So, with the help of divining rods to plot the underground disturbance caused by ditches, walls and graves, plus seventy-five recent air photographs from Richard Strathie’s drone, I will give my reading of the site.
There is a small heap of debris in the NW corner of the comparatively modern dyke-enclosed site. Sir Walter Scott avers that the vestiges of the chaplain’s house were still visible and James Hogg brought it into his ballad of ‘Mess John’. Both men were brilliant storytellers but neither ever spoiled a story by considering it were true.
Air photographs reveal a squarish raised mound within a small enclosure. Divining rods do not show walls of a building but rather a spread mound with a chamber 3.5m by 2.5m inside. As there are rows of graves around this, I am reasonably sure that this had been the monastic ‘kil’ of an early Christian hermit.
Over the centuries this graveyard expanded to take in the area within a turf dyke enclosure, shown below as pencilled line. This could have been taken as a later hill field except that divining rods indicate rows of grave shapes. I could find no trace of a building with this extended enclosure.
But to the east, on the other side of a ditch there was another cemetery with an apse-ended building about 11m long and 5.5m wide with an entrance on the south side. This could hardly be anything else but the church of St Mary of the Lowes, (Lowes –from Cumbric ‘lwch’ a lake). This was abandoned in 1640 and a new church and manse were erected a few miles further down the valley.
Although the church had moved, the burial ground remained in use for a considerable time. It is likely that the stone dyke was erected in the late 1700s/early 1800s to replace the previous turf one.
25 September 2016. Walter Elliot.
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