The Origins of St Mary’s Church

Posted by on Nov 5, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments

We are very grateful for the following text, which was sent to the project by Ian McCraw, on the origins of St Mary’s Church:

Recently the Church Office received an email querying some of the statements relating to the history of St Mary’s. Short histories appear in several booklets published in the late twentieth century and on our website. I was asked to reply to the enquirer and he or she seemed satisfied with my response.

Since the Octocentenary brochure was issued there have been several developments that throw a little more light on the origins of St Mary’s and its early history, and it was suggested that I offer an article on the subject to the Chronicle.

David, earl of Huntingdon, the brother of two Scottish kings, certainly founded the Tironensian Abbey of Lindores, bringing monks from Kelso. The foundation charter, executed circa 1196, granted to the Abbey ‘the church of Dunde’ [sic] and several other churches, including some in the Garioch.

St Mary’s Church was subject to the See of Brechin, and the Abbot of Lindores was parson or rector of the parish of Dundee. A Licence or Decree issued by Gregory, Bishop of Brechin, about 1220, confirming the rights of the monks of Lindores to St Mary’s Church, gave consent to the appointment by the monks of a vicar to perform the duties of the church. Under the authority of that document vicars seem to have been appointed down to the Reformation. In 1252 an early vicar, Master William de Mydford, clearly did not think the stipend was adequate reward for his duties but he was unsuccessful in his claim for an increase, his bishop’s valuation receiving papal confirmation. Poor William was assessed for the expenses of the case!

Dundee was already an important trading centre and port when Earl David gave it burgh status by 1195. He may also have built a castle (probably wooden) where St Paul’s Cathedral now stands. David was on good terms with the future King John of England, which was fortunate for Dundee as in October 1199 the recently crowned King John issued a charter from his fortress of Château-Gaillard granting the Dundee burgesses freedom from toll and all other customs of the crown in his realm, except in the City of London.

What is uncertain is whether or not David took part in the Third Crusade. This was claimed by the historian Boece and Scott popularised the idea through his novel, The Talisman. A recent study has cast doubt on his participation. Instead, David’s pious act could have been the foundation of Lindores Abbey, which would have required a good deal of planning. This undermines the story of David’s shipwreck on his return from the Crusade and his naming of the town from ‘Dei Donum’ (God’s gift). David Dorward who had a long interest in place names called it ‘a piece of late medieval punning’ and suggested that the name came from Dun Deagh, a hill fort + personal name. Of course, Earl David could still have been shipwrecked but on another voyage!

It was very common for fairs to be named for the local parish church dedication. Two medieval fairs in Dundee were the Lady Mary Fair and the Latter Mary Fair. The fairs began on the feast days of the Virgin Mary in August and September when there would be large church attendances and lasted for eight days. Originally they would be located on the south side of St Mary’s. The Lady Mary Fair probably dates from the 1190s. They were important occasions, opened with great ceremony. In 1264 cloth and furs for the King’s use were purchased at a Dundee fair so they were not ‘down market’ affairs.
St Mary’s Tower, completed in the fifteenth century, suggests that the whole medieval building was a splendid structure. Presumably, the east end as choir would have been the first part of the building constructed. In size St Mary’s was an outstanding parish church, its length of 286 feet rivalling Glasgow Cathedral and Arbroath Abbey. Its width of 174 feet at the transepts is the greatest for a Scottish church.

Such a very large building was clearly of importance and had wealthy patrons. The historian A C Lamb lists more than 40 altars and chaplainries. The Altar of the Holy Blood was under the charge of the Guildry, evidence of Dundee’s trading links with Bruges in Flanders. The Town Council evinced great interest in St Mary’s. For some years in the fifteenth century they had cause to complain about the dilapidated condition of the choir of the Church. In 1442/3, after negotiations with the Abbot of Lindores, the Council took over responsibility for the future maintenance of the Church, appointing an official Kirk Master. The indenture between the Abbot and the Town refers to ‘the Parish Church of St Mary’s of the Burgh of Dundee’. In the mid sixteenth century there was an attempt to raise the status of St Mary’s to that of a Collegiate Church, presumably similar to St Giles’ in Edinburgh.

Post Reformation the building was divided into several churches – four at one period. What is now Dundee Parish Church (St Mary’s) occupies the site of the original choir. It is believed that the eastern portion of St Mary’s was sufficiently complete by 1206-1208 for the marriage ceremony of Margaret, daughter of Earl David, to Alan, earl of Galloway, but this is unconfirmed.
Our enquirer asked for information on the St Clement association with Dundee. The medieval seal of the Burgh of Dundee has the figure of the Virgin Mary with the Holy Child on the obverse and that of St Clement holding an anchor on the reverse, symbolising his martyrdom. St Clement is not a common dedication in Scotland, but very common in Denmark with which Scotland had trading links. Dedications in Scotland to Clement are normally in sea ports or fishing communities. There is an old St Clement church in Fittie, at the entrance to Aberdeen Harbour. There was a St Clement Fair in Dundee held in November of which little is known.

The present City Square occupies the site of St Clement’s Church. It was near the castle of Dundee and may have served its inhabitants. St Clement’s seems to have ceased to function by the mid sixteenth century. It used to be claimed that it was the original parish church of the Burgh as it had a graveyard, whereas it was said St Mary’s did not. When public works uncovered skeletons in the vicinity of St Mary’s it was assumed they were victims of the 1651 Siege of Dundee. However, some years ago archaeologists carried out excavations in certain areas around the City Churches and uncovered many Christian burials from different periods. Their Report states,

‘Excavations carried out by the Scottish Urban Archaeological Trust Ltd in 1992-1993 and again in 1998 revealed the existence of a substantial cemetery around the City Churches precinct in Dundee…The cemetery was probably first used in the late 12th or early 13th centuries, in the period immediately following the foundation of St Mary’s Church’.

Over the centuries the buildings on the St Mary’s site have been destroyed on a number of occasions during war or by fire. Many of the early records of the Town have been lost or pillaged, making it harder for us to unravel the past. A definition of history as ‘the attempt to recreate the significant features of the past on the basis of imperfect and fragmentary evidence’ is certainly partly true in the case of St Mary’s.

However, the buildings have always been restored and surely the very stones cry out that Christian worship has been offered on this site for over 800 years and still is. St Mary’s we may term the Mither Kirk of Dundee, of which Dundee and its citizens can be justly proud.