• 154960734

Pearls from the Pend No.18

Pearls from the Pend No. 18

Written by: Duncan McAra

Published: 12 August 2021

Created: 12 August 2021

The Riddle of the Stones

Duncan McAra

Situated on a sheltered plain, away from all post-roads or
thoroughfares, and once a place of great importance
as it is of high antiquity, it now consists of only a few
cottages, and has a straggling and deserted appearance.
[Description of Torphichen in 1843]

Cover of the new colour edition of Jack Smith’s book,
 originally published in 1997


At the height of the renewed Anglo-Scottish war, stamped by fear and distrust, social restrictions and deaths in the thousands from pneumonic plague, Brother Thomas de Lyndesey in his appointed role as Master of Torphichen Preceptory was despatched, under safe conduct, by the Prior of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in England, Philip de Thame, in October 1351 to ‘set out to Scotland to take charge of the possessions and goods of the Hospital and the Temple there, and forward other affairs’. A heavy calendar stretched before him of Liturgia Horarumhospitium and caritas, the wearisome pursuit of rental income from scattered crofts and ‘templelands’ and the holding of a ‘full court of the Hospital’ at Torphichen or Balantrodoch or Maryculter to determine land transactions. Ascending on horseback the two leagues from Linlithgow to the remote commandery, Clerkenwell, let alone Rhodes, must have felt as distant as Tartary.

As a consequence of pandemic restrictions, this August – like last year – Priory members will not be able to attend the Annual Service held in the Preceptory to commemorate the Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist. But members can enjoy an updated new colour edition of the late Jack Smith’s booklet on Torphichen – a generous parting gift from our retiring Prior, Major General Mark Strudwick CBE, KStJ, who has contributed an Introduction, and his wife Sue Strudwick OStJ, who undertook the role of editor. With a new Foreword by the current Locum Minister of Torphichen, the Rev. Ralph Dunn, additional text has been contributed by Keith Stirling KStJ, Ian Wallace KStJ, James Bingham KStJ, Ian Robertson CStJ and the Very Rev. John Cairns KCVO, KStJ, complemented by the booklet’s original drawings by Billy Millan SBStJ and new colour photographs by Donald Fullarton KStJ, Liam Hackett OStJ, David McLean OStJ and David Gibb MStJ.

Readers are reminded, once again, that long before King David I supported and encouraged the introduction of the Order of St John into Scotland in the mid-12th century, the land close to Torphichen, centred on Cairnpapple Hill, is – together with Kilmartin Glen in Argyll – arguably the most important mainland archaeological site in mainland Scotland. It was a sacred site of worship and burial for over 3000 years, from the early Neolithic (c. 3800 BC) through to the early Christian era, and the arrival of Saint Ninian.

As a result of significant findings during the excavation of Cairnpapple Hill in the late 1940s by Professor Stuart Piggott, the theory was advanced of Cairnpapple as a pre-Christian sanctuary. Four ‘refuge stones’ mark the boundary or ‘girth’ of the ‘Right of Sanctuary’ associated with Torphichen, whose kirkyard is notable for the central cup-marked sanctuary stone. In the section on Sanctuary (p.15) there is an error: the Victorian stained-glass window at the Gillons’ Wallhouse mansion does not depict David I granting a charter to erect the Preceptory; rather, it shows Brother Arkenbald, Master of Torphichen, in 1253 granting permission to Cistercian monks from Newbattle Abbey to drive their livestock through the territory of the commandery to their pasturage in the Monklands in Lanarkshire.

Torphichen is sited in a landscape of natural beauty with wonderful views over West Lothian and across the Firth of Forth to Fife. With its prehistoric burial grounds, refuge stones and ruined tower-houses and chateaux, such as Kipps Castle, owned by Sir Robert Sibbald, Scottish physician to Charles II, and landscaped mining bings it guards its secrets. The Preceptory, architecturally, as alluded to in an earlier Library contribution, ‘Raven’s-eye View’ (No.2, 8 June 2015), is a mysterium tremendum, baffling, fascinating, intriguing, inspiring. In 2013 Historic Scotland (now Historic Environment Scotland) commissioned Mike Ritchie to undertake a historical reconstruction drawing of the Preceptory which prompts questions about certain features, such as the lochan.

Historical reconstruction drawing of Torphichen Preceptory by

Mike Ritchie (2013)

The slabs in the hillside compound are pillow mounds,
artificial rabbit warrens, constructed for the
breeding and management of rabbits
(Crown Copyright: HES)


In two emails (26 Feb. & 3 Mar. 2018), in reply to the Librarian, Jim Knowles, former Trust Archaeologist and Secretary of West Lothian Archaeological Trust, and a one-time resident in Bowyett, wrote: ‘The tenant farmer [adjacent to the Preceptory] said the lochan was still being used in living memory with people bathing in it during the hot summer months. There is a sink hole on his old horse paddock that has probably drained the lochan away into one of the many underground streams. This hole is still there and he keeps his cattle away from it. You can hear water rushing through it. I presume that this could have formed part of the so-called “20-foot” wide moat that possibly surrounded part of the Preceptory grounds to the west and south. It was noted the building of the modern houses sank into a deep moat on this side.’

Did the lochan originally serve as a medieval fishpond to supply the Hospitaller community and special guests with fresh fish on stipulated days, or did they rely on the fishery at Lochcote, the loch close to Bowden Hill, just over a mile NNE of Torphichen?

In April 2011 members of the West Lothian Archaeological Group, together with the architectural historian Geoffrey Stell, undertook a geophysical survey of the 13th-century remains of the Preceptory gatehouse, adjacent to the exterior wall of the 18th-century Glebe gardens, and it was conjectured that the Glebe gardens may contain further remains of the tower itself.

Another mystery, of course, concerns the ‘missing’ choir. In the Penguin Buildings of Scotland volume on Lothian (1978), Colin McWilliam raised the question: ‘Why were the transepts rebuilt and not the liturgically more important choir? Is it possible that the transepts were conceived as monumental versions of the private transeptal chapels in parish churches like Borthwick or Corstorphine?’ Such questions demand an answer.

Bare ruin’d quiers, where late the sweet birds sang'
Truncation at Torphichen: the scars of history hinting at the demolished choir.


Around 2011 the WLAT carried out another survey on the side of the ‘missing choir’. Jim Knowles recalls: ‘The earth resistance survey had trouble working properly due to the make-up of the ground. This may have been caused by exterior render having been removed or flaking off the walls and creating a very dry layer in the ground. We detected graves, but the potential to locate any signs of the foundations to the choir were fruitless. The results were unpublished, as it was suspected that the machinery had been working incorrectly owing to the ground conditions causing poor contact resistance issues; in short, the results were not entirely clear across the survey area.

'But to come back to the broader picture,’ he added, ‘the Preceptory is always seen within its confines of the walled boundary. The Order would have needed to stable horses, require a blacksmith for repairs/creation, brewing, milling, etc. These ancillary buildings would have been scattered further than the confines of the Preceptory’s walls.’

However, in an email (5 Apr. 2018), Emeritus Professor Richard Fawcett, author of, among other publications, The Architecture of the Scottish Medieval Church, 1100-15600 (Yale U.P., 2011), wrote to the Librarian: ‘While I feel there can be no certainty as to whether or not the east limb [the choir] was built, my own feeling is that the balance of probabilities is that it was.’

Henry VIII suppressed the Order of St John in England in 1540 and in Ireland a year later. As a result, for nearly a quarter of a century, from 1540 to 1564, Torphichen Preceptory was the sole outpost of the Knights of St John in the British Isles. As the historian H.J.A.Sire has pointed out, the family and estate of James Andrew Douglas Sandilands, 15th Lord Torphichen, OStJ, ‘constitute the most direct historical link with the Order in the British Isles’.

Our retiring Prior stood down on St John’s Day 2021, handing over to the new Prior, Eleanor Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, DStJ. As their parting gift to the Order, Mark and Sue Strudwick have underwritten the cost of this new edition of Jack Smith’s booklet. Those who recently were fortunate to enjoy an afternoon fund-raising garden party hosted by Mark and Sue will appreciate their initiative in seeking permission from Historic Environment Scotland to replant the flower beds at the Preceptory, reintroducing some plants that would have existed in the original herb garden, together with other mixed shrubs and roses.

Brother Thomas de Lyndesey would surely approve. Rhodes is known throughout Greece as the ‘Island of Roses’.

Torphichen Preceptory and Church by James Millar.
A James Millar (1741-1829) was servant to Lord Torphichen,
but the provenance of this picture is yet to be established.

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