The Family of Birnie
Researcher's notes: This article gives us a remarkable record into the history of Birnie Kirk. Even with some difficult sentence structure it is a worthwhile read. Note that only the foundations of "the Castle" were evident in 1760, and as of yet, no excavations have been conducted to establish any details. Also see photos on the Kirk Photos page. (Transcription: K.W. Birnie)
THE PARISH CHURCH OF BIRNIE
IN THE COUNTY OF ELGIN
AN ACCOUNT OF ITS RECENT RESTORATION
PREACHED ON SUNDAY 22ND FEBRUARY, 1891,
BEING THE DAY OF ITS REOPENING FOR DEVINE SERVICE
THE REV. JAMES COOPER, M.A., ABERDEEN
PRESIDENT OF THE ABERDEEN ECCESIOLOGICAL SOCIETY
ELGIN: ORIGINALLY PRINTED AT THE "MORAY AND NAIRN EXPRESS: THE NORTHERN SCOT" OFFICE,
175 High Street: Elgin 1801
THE RIGHT HONORABLE
COUNTESS DOWAGER OF SEAFIELD, THE CHIEF HECTOR OF BIRNIE
AND THE LARGEST CONTRIBUTOR TO THE
RESTORATION OF ITS ANCIENT CHURCH
IN WHICH HER NOBLE HOUSE
HAS EVER TAKEN AN ENLIGHTENED INTEREST
THESE PAGES ARE RESPECTFULLY DEDICATED
THE PARISH CHURCH OF BIRNIE
The ancient Church of Birnie was reopened on Sunday, 20th of February, 1891, by the Rev. James Cooper, East Church, Aberdeen, after being internally renovated and thoroughly repaired in strict accordance with its antique style and traditions.
BIRNIE is historically and ecclesiastically one of the most interesting parishes in the North, and its ancient Church, which stands on top a conical knoll about two and a half miles from Elgin, is perhaps the oldest building in Scotland which has continually been worshipped in. It is older than any of our great abbey churches, except perhaps the nave of Dunfermline, and while nearly all our Scottish cathedrals and priories are in ruins, its walls still serve their original purpose, and look strong enough to stand as long again.
Externally the Church, as will be seen by the sketch which faces the title-
The building consists of a nave and a chancel, separated by a round or "Norman" arch. It is this complete and beautiful arch that really determins the antiquity of the building, while the fact that there is no window in the east gable of the chancel suggests the early basilian churches of Italy, and points to a time before the east window became a special effort in architecture. The stones, traditionally taken from the sea coast at Covesea, are very equal in size, well dressed, and have been built with great regularity. The walls are of great thichness, and still straight and plumb as a line. The west gable, however, which is of inferior workmanship, was built -
For many centuries prior to the date of the present building, Birnie appears to have been a place of some importance. The Rev. Dr. Gordon, in the "New Statistical Account of Scotland (1845)" tells us that in addition to the Church, the antiquities of the parish comprise "the cairn of Kilforman, rectangular trenches, or as some say, a Roman castra at the Foths, and a Danish a Danish encampment at the Shogle. The last haveing hitherto escaped the plough share, is still to be traced in a well-
The hillock on which the Church stands is a not likely place for a stone circle, and several large granitic stones (some of them with figures resembling parallelograms rudely drawn on them) remain to attest that their was some such primative work upon the site. One or two of those boulders are built into the churchyard wall, and a large one, certainly "sculptured", occupies a place at the northern entrance. Whether these point to the use of the site for the purposes of heathen worship, or of the rude justiceof those early days -
As is well known, the whole of the North of Scotland may be said to owe its conversion to Chistianity to Saint Columba, a great Irish missionary, who in 563 crossed over to Iona and founded on that sacred isle a monastary, which became, in the words of Dr Johnson, " the luminary of the Caledonian regions". In the Church thus founded, nearly the whole work of evangelizing this country was done by means of monastic estabishments, which followed at first the rule of Iona. By degrees the discipline relaxed: laymen got possession of the convent lands, and in the tenth century we meet with communities of monks or canons -
On the erection of the bishoprick and the choice of Birnie for one of the seats, a residence for the bishop no doubt was built there. Bishop Pocoke, writing after a visit to the place in 1760, tells that "on the hill to the south of the Church were some marks of foundation called the castle, which, by tradition, was the bishop's house". Dr Gordon, in the New Sastistical Account (1845), says the same -
The dedication of the Birnie Church is unknown. We may reject the derivations of the name given by Rev. Mr Joseph Anderson in the "Old Stastistical Account" from Brae-
The skipper above referred to was by no means the only one who desired to be prayed for in the Church of Birnie. At the end of the last century, in 1791, we read in the old Statistical Report -
"Tis the land o' the parish o' Birnie,
Where prayers in the Kirk, they declare,
Three times will end you or mend you;
The Ronnel Bell is also there
Which no power on earth can remove frae
The Kirk where so snugly it lies,
But back to its ain native parish,
Like an arrow o' lightning it flies"
The Ronnel Bell, which the poet speaks of, is still preserved in the Church, though it does not hang in the belfry, as people csme from far and near to see it sometimes suppose. Its day for ringing is long past. It is a sort of oblong gong, having four sides, welded together, and supposed to be an alloy of bronze. There has been a long tradition that it was made at Rome, cosecrated by the Pope, and presented by him to an early bishop. A gentleman who takes great interest in Birnie and its antiquites wrote in the Moray and Nairn Express Query Column last year: Ancient as the Church of Birnie is, the Ronnel Bell is probably older by some centuries. It is undoubtedly older than the first diocesan bishop of Moray (Gregory circa 1115). It may not unlikely have been the instument by which the very first Christian missionary in Morayland summond our heathen ancestors to the hearing of the gospel.
All our early missionaries had their bells, and several of them remain, including S. Ninian, the earliest the earliest preacher of our land whose name has come down to us; but I believe the Ronnel Bell is the only one which has not been removed from the church to which it properly belongs. Long may it remain at Birnie -
While we are on the "grave" subject, we may mention that, down to a comparatively recent period the interior of the Church was used as a place of sepulture. Its floor was formed in part of gravestones. The tradesmen engaged in laying the new floor, found on removing these a large nunber of skulls and other bones lying quite neer the surface. These were collected and buried at greater depth in a corner of the Church.
The Church contains three monuments, the largest commemorating the clergyman of the "second Episcopacy" in the reign of Charles II. It is inserted in the north doorway, now built up. Our sketch shows its general appearance; the inscription is as follows: -
"Well did she act the different scenes of life
A modest virgin and loving wife,
A darling daughter and mother kind,
Historical Notes: Elgin Public Library, (Book 74 L7285.241223 BIR) Transcribed K.W.Birnie
The Church of Birnie
“This Church,” says Rev. Dr. Cooper, University of Glasgow, “is now I imagine the most Beautiful and most Comfortable, as it is certainly the most ancient and interesting, in all the wide regions formerly included in the diocese of Moray”
The late Dr Gordon, minister of the parish, was of the opinion that it must have been built not later than 1140, and Dr Cooper is inclined to assign its erection to the reign of David I. (1124-
The fourth Bishop of Moray was Simon de Toeny, who before his election to Moray was Abbot of Coggeshall in Essex. He died in 1184, and it is frequently asserted that he was buried at Birnie. Bricius was the sixth Bishop. He ruled the diocese probably from 1203, was a great benefactor to the church, and, as his great charter shows, procured that the Cathedral, which was formally undefined and held at Birnie, Spynie, and Kineddar be fixed at Spynie. Bishop Bricius died in 1222 and in his successor’s time was definitely fixed at Elgin.
Brennath was originally one of the common churches of the Chapter, but the church of Birnie was afterwards given along with other churches towards the endowment of chaplainries in the Cathedral. In 1550 the Pope confirmed the churches of Lochalveth, Bruneth and Altre given for the support of seventeen chaplains. In a list of taxation of about that time of the Bishopric of Moray occurs the church of Brynnath taxed at 11 marks, Urquhart and Duffus being being 60, and Spynie 24 marks, while the procurations due to the Bishop of Moray from Elgyne, Spinie, and Bryneth amounted to 40p.
On 24th January 1547, The Bishop granted a charter to Patrick Kynnard and Elizabeth Gordon, his spouse, of the lands of Middil Tillebardin, Gedloch, Glenlatroquhy, and Blairahay in the barony of Birneth. Reddendo annually for Middil Tullebardin: 5pounds 6s 8d, one mart, four sheep stc., For Gedloch: 3 pounds 6s 8d one sheep, etc.
In 1734 the west gable of the church was rebuilt -
The wall of the chancel is now a foot higher that that of the nave, but the roof is not so high. The nave was probable once higher than it is now. The old door on the north side of the church was nearly exactly opposite the large south door and was 51 in. wide and about 8 ft 4 in high. The height of The door on the south side is 7 ft 8n. On the outside wall 32 inches cast of that door is an iron ring as if intended for the jougs.
An old sculptured stone lies at the entrance gate of the churchyard. There is a sundial on the south wall inscribed “ Gift of the Parish 1753”. It is difficult to assign a precise date to the stone baptismal font which now has an honoured place within the church. It date perhaps from Episcopal times in the seventeenth century.
The Church was restored by the Heritors in 1891. The Architect was Mr. A. Marshall MacKenzie of Aberdeen, who provided “The NORTHERN SCOT” (Newspaper) with a description of the Church. Mr Hippolyte Blane provided further details in “THE BUILDER”, 2th November, 1886. (Both available from Birnie.Org).
“You have need to be Prayed for thrice in the Church of Birnie that you may either end or Mend!”
Indeed, burials at Birnie became popular and soil from Birnie was distributed at funerals, placed beneath the coffin, throughout the Highlands.