WE have now reached the eighth instalment in my 12-part series about Scotland’s built heritage and I am grateful to the readers who have emailed to thank me for adding to their knowledge.

I was particularly happy to hear from one reader in Glasgow who said my column on statues had persuaded him to find out more about those in his native city and Scotland generally – as I always say, my weekly columns (which are unique in Scottish newspapers) are as much about inspiring people to do their own research as they are about simply giving information.

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Today I will be writing about churches and religious institutions, mostly ancient, across Scotland with a view to showing how this important part of our built heritage has contributed to our history. I am aware that Scotland is becoming increasingly secular but no-one can deny that religion and the institutions created in the name of religion have had a profound influence on our past history.

As I wrote in part one, we are truly fortunate to live in a beautiful country and for the most part we humans have added well to the beauties of our landscape.

The churches and other religious buildings of Scotland have had great influence in the past and have added much to the nation’s attractions, but in writing about them I will make my own choice of the best and most important. All of which I have visited. Again, I don’t expect every reader to agree with my choices but they all have a story to tell, and all make their contribution to our history.

Apologies in advance if I have left out your favourite, but email me at nationalhamish@gmail.com and I’ll choose the best examples.

The National:

The first religious buildings in Scotland were most likely pagan worship places built in the Stone Age, but the first definite pagan temples were built by the Roman invaders of the second century. Remains of temples and altars have been identified at the Antonine Wall.

By tradition, the first stone-built Christian church in Scotland was the Candida Casa – the white house – built by St Ninian (shown above) at Whithorn in what is now Dumfries and Galloway after the saint began converting local people from the year 397 onwards. Remains of early wooden church buildings have also been found at Whithorn, which would remain an important centre of Christianity and a place of pilgrimage for well over a millennium.

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The importance of Iona to Scottish Christianity cannot be overstated. For whatever reason – and there are several theories – St Columba came from Ireland to found a monastery on Iona. From there he and his followers attended to the local Scots, who were mostly already Christian, and preached to the Picts, with Columba famously encountering the Loch Ness Monster on one of his many successful expeditions to convert the Picts.

The first monastery on Iona was made of wood and wattles but from the eighth century onwards an abbey built of stone was located on the island. It was razed to the ground by Vikings during a raid on the island in the early ninth century.

By that time stone churches had begun to appear across Scotland. So, too, did the “houses” of the Culdees – monks and hermits who followed a Celtic form of Christianity. It is known that the Culdees had up to 19 monastic institutions across Scotland and these thrived until the early 12th century when King David I came to the throne.

He immediately set about completing the work of his mother, St Margaret, who persuaded her husband, King Malcolm Canmore, to align the church in Scotland with Rome and start the building of Dunfermline Abbey. David also erected a chapel inside Edinburgh Castle in memory of his mother and it remains the oldest – and I think the most beautiful – building in the capital. Just as he revolutionised the governance of Scotland, so David changed the landscape of Scotland by bringing in orders of monks to build abbeys.

Generously endowed with land and feus – fee income from lands and commerce – such abbeys came to dominate the areas around them, with Kelso, Jedburgh and St Andrews all becoming important towns due to their abbeys.

I have a particular affection for Melrose Abbey (below), now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland, which states on the Abbey website: “David I founded Melrose Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery in Scotland, in 1136."

The National: Melrose Abbey is one the main attractions in the Borders town (David Cheskin/PA)

It was one of a number of abbeys that he set up in the Borders to show both his piety and his power over this contested territory. The Cistercians were drawn to this fertile spot beside the River Tweed by its close associations with St Aidan and St Cuthbert.

“The monks came from Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, the Cistercians’s great northern English missionary base. Monastic life continued at Melrose for the next 450 years. The last monk, John Watson, died around 1590. The crumbling abbey church was used as a parish church until a new kirk was built nearby in 1810.

“The great abbey church of St Mary the Virgin at Melrose loomed large in the lives of many people on both sides of the Border. Powerful people endowed the abbey richly and it was a highly desirable final resting place.

“Alexander II (died 1249) was among the privileged people to be buried here. The heart of Robert the Bruce (died 1329) was also buried at Melrose, although his body was interred at Dunfermline Abbey.

“Melrose’s location put it on the front line of conflict with England during the later Middle Ages: attacks by Edward I (1300 and 1307) and Edward II (1322) required major repairs and Richard II’s attack in 1385 led to a complete rebuilding of the abbey church. The War of the Rough Wooing in the 1540s caused further damage.”

The impact of abbeys was economic as well as religious. They were important centres for agriculture and abbots were often the leading citizens of their districts. They would remain important for centuries if, that is, they survived the depredations of the invading English armies from the time of King Edward Longshanks (below) to the decade of Scottish impotence under Oliver Cromwell’s republic.

The National: king Edward I Longshanks.

As late as 1746, Hanoverian troops ransacked Holyrood Abbey, which had been founded by David I, though to be fair, many Scots had helped themselves to stone from the Abbey before then.

Although abbeys and monasteries dominated the early part of the second millennium, cathedrals began to gain in importance. It was a descendant of David I, King William the Lion, who showed great favour to the small town of Glasgow and its Bishop Jocelyn or Jocelin. The king encouraged Bishop Jocelin to greatly enlarge the church dedicated to St Kentigern, the founder of Glasgow, whose remains were interred in the church.

In 1181, Bishop Jocelin demolished the old church and began the building that would become Glasgow Cathedral, but a disastrous fire in 1195 required St Kentigern’s Church to be rebuilt again.

The Chronicle of Melrose records that in “AD 1197, Joceline, bishop of Glasgow, dedicated his cathedral church, which he had built anew, upon Sunday, the day before the nones of July, in the 24th year of his episcopate.” Jocelin was only able to enjoy his cathedral for two years as he died in 1199.

Glasgow Cathedral was developed over time as the finest example of a Gothic cathedral in Scotland and it remains my favourite church building. Other buildings such as Dundrennan Abbey, which pre-dates Glasgow Cathedral, and the magnificent Elgin Cathedral, the ruins of which still stand, were also Gothic masterpieces.

As the years went on, the Gothic style transformed into what is known as Decorated Gothic, which was used in Sweetheart Abbey in Galloway and Dunblane Cathedral.

The National:

Sometimes small is beautiful and that is very true of one of the greatest religious buildings in Scotland, Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian (above). According to its website: “Rosslyn Chapel has enjoyed a rich, and sometimes turbulent, history. Founded in 1446 as a family chapel, the building was incomplete when the founder Sir William St Clair, died in 1484.

“His son, Sir Oliver St Clair, roofed the choir with its stone vault but did not complete his father’s original design. Following the Reformation, the chapel fell into disrepair and, in 1650, Cromwell’s troops attacked Rosslyn Castle and stabled their horses inside the chapel.”

The chapel is now world famous due to featuring in the novel and film The Da Vinci Code. I have it on very good authority – that of a modern Templar, no less – that neither the Holy Grail nor the riches of the Knights Templar are concealed inside the Chapel, but its design proved very influential in the building of churches across the land.

In 1560, Scotland almost overnight transformed from a bastion of Roman Catholicism – the “special daughter” of Rome – to a Protestant country with Presbyterianism soon dominant. The year before, John Knox had preached a fiery sermon against Catholicism in St John the Baptist Church in Perth. The congregation rioted, ransacked the church and then proceeded to other religious institutions such as Greyfriars monastery and all but destroyed them.

All across Scotland the Reformation saw widespread looting and vandalism of churches with many razed to the ground – it’s the single biggest reason why we do not have many intact churches from before the 16th century. We know many pre-Reformation churches were endowed with treasures such as statues and were highly decorated but very few examples of what Knox deemed to be idolatrous escaped the Presbyterian wrath.

One building that survived was St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, but then it was Knox’s own parish.

It is probably the single most important church building in Scottish history, witness to many historic events from its foundation in the 12th century to the current day when it featured heavily in the ceremonies around the change of monarch from the late Queen to King Charles.

It was in St Giles, for instance, that Charles I tried to impose the English Book of Common Prayer, which led the congregation to riot and begin the process that led to the Covenanters and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

The National: The Greyfriars Bobby’s statue (PA)

Close to St Giles another site of Scottish history can be found – Greyfriars Kirkyard. It was here in 1638 that the National Covenant was first signed, and here too that captured Covenanters were imprisoned.

Most people who visit the Kirkyard do so because of its association with Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye Terrier which famously protected the grave of his master, Auld Jock Gray, for 14 years. Bobby himself is also buried there.

Presbyterianism ushered in centuries of churches being built in plain, almost austere style, and one famous individual was responsible for the “look” that the Church of Scotland adopted in the 19th century – Thomas Telford.

I have argued before that Telford, with his civil engineering marvels, did more to change the face of Scotland than any other person, but arguably his greatest contribution to our built heritage came in the shape of 32 “Parliamentary” churches, all built to Telford’s simple template from 1823 when an Act of Parliament provided £50,000 for their construction in Highland and Island communities with no kirk. There are still many such Telford churches in use today.

There have been revivals of various styles of church architecture and some new styles in the last century or so, and a particular favourite is Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Queen’s Cross Church in Glasgow dating from 1899.

There are so many other churches and religious buildings I could have mentioned. Please do email me with your suggestions.