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Arbuthnott Church: The Kirk of Saint Ternan

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Arbuthnott Church is one of the few parish churches in rural Scotland that dates from pre-Reformation times and is still in use for public worship. The church is dedicated to the memory of St. Ternan who, it is believed, was born to a Pictish family in the Mearns in the first half of the fifth century A.D. After training in his native country, he went to Ireland, took part in missionary work and became Abbot of a monastic settlement in Leinster. Thereafter he returned to Kincardineshire and probably settled in Banchory where his religious community was an important missionary centre.

It is not possible to trace a connection between Arbuthnott Church and Ternan during his life, but it is known that the church was dedicated to his memory from very early times. There is every indication that a church existed on the site of the present kirk before the chancel was dedicated on 3rd August A.D. 1242 by the redoubtable David de Bernham, Bishop of St. Andrews. Following instruction from the authorities in Rome he carried out Services of Consecration throughout his wide spread diocese in the years 1241 through to 1244 and on to 1249. Effectively 140 out of the 234 churches in this diocese received his scrutiny and blessing at that time.

The Parish of Arbuthnott was brought into being as a result of the Norman influence that pervaded all Scottish affairs during the reigns of Margaret and her sons. The fact that there was a kirk at Arbuthnott is established through surviving documents that relate the long dispute that arose between the Thanes of Arbuthnott and successive Bishops of St. Andrews. This was only settled by a decree of the Synod of Perth in the year 1206. The fact that this dispute was concerned with the relationship between the Thanes of Arbuthnott and the Bishops as owners of the Kirkton lands and that it was also related to the management of the Kirkton lands as agricultural subjects, is evidence of the long standing close association between the church, the land and its people and their daily lives. Arbuthnott was developing as an agricultural community in the latter part of the 12th century and the close tie between the eldership of the church and the agricultural community can still be seen in all kirk affairs today.

The chancel is the earliest part of the church. It is built in the early English style and is lit by five small lancet windows and contains a piscina under the eastmost south lancet. The lancet windows and the top part of the east gable have been considerably altered. From earliest times the chancel served as a burial place for the Norman family of Allardyce to whom the lands of Allardyce were granted in 1165, or thereabouts. The first nave was built soon after the chancel and then rebuilt on the eve of the Reformation. The existing bell tower at the west end of the nave and the Lady Chapel, otherwise the Arbuthnott Aisle, were constructed by Sir Robert Arbuthnott of that Ilk around the year 1500.


The bell tower was dedicated to the church by Sir Robert who also gave two bells to ring for the services and offices. The Arbuthnott Aisle is a beautiful example of late Scottish Gothic with upper and lower floors. The lower one, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, has a stoup and an aumbry. It contains a tomb, the top of which is believed to be the stone effigy of Hugo le Blond of Arbuthnott. The tomb beneath the effigy is of a later period, probably mid 16th century and contains the remains of James Arbuthnott of that Ilk, son of Sir Robert, the builder of the Aisle. The four shields on the coffin are those of the Stewart, Arbuthnott, Arbuthnott and Douglas families.
​​The room above the Lady Chapel was destined for the use of the Parish priest and it would have been in this room that James Sibbald, Vicar of Arbuthnott, who died in 1507, would have completed the famous Missal of Arbuthnott in the year 1492. Sibbald was believed to have written the Arbuthnott Missal, Psalter and Horae in 1491, 1482 and 1482-3 respectively for Sir Robert Arbuthnott. The documents remained within the family until 1897, when they were sold. They are now housed in Paisley Library. At the Reformation, Alexander, the first Protestant minister of the church was a member of the Arbuthnott family, whose memorial stone is seen in the north wall of the church close to the pulpit. He later became the first protestant Principal of King’s College, Aberdeen, and was Moderator of the General Assembly. He gave a library to the church which was for many years housed in the upper part of the Arbuthnott Aisle. Towards the middle of the 18th and into the 19th century the structure of the church became decayed.
The nave was restored in the middle of the 19th century when galleries were added to three sides and the pulpit was set against the south wall. In 1890 fire destroyed the greater part of the nave and another restoration, which included the re-roofing of the chancel, was carried out by the architect Marshall Mackenzie of Aberdeen. It may have been at this time that the lancet windows were altered. In the mid-20th century further attention was given to the church and heating was installed. The outside of the church and Aisle were pointed and the care of the graveyard became the responsibility of the Local Authority. Recently the church organ was completely overhauled, electrified and given a new pedal‑board, it is known to be among the best church organs in Grampian. Outside the church to the west a slight depression in the churchyard marks the original boundary of the burial ground. Beyond this depression and to the west stood the original school of Arbuthnott, which building was demolished about the year 1920.

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