Above the west gable is the ornate birdcage belfry, dated 1635 and the stones for this are widely thought to have been imported from Holland. According to Legend Lord Pitsligo was bedridden when the stones arrived. He is said to have commanded that the stones be built up in the courtyard of Pitsligo Castle where he could see them before they were positioned on the Kirk.
On the South wall of the Kirk is a panel, edged in red sandstone, beneath the initials A.L.P and date 1634. Mortality symbols may be seen on on several of the 17th and 18th century graves in the Kirkyard. Most notable of these is the ‘angels in kilts’ stone (Anna Sim sometime spouse to William Ranney in Rosehearty who departed March 1724). This shows a resurrection scene in which the crowned Christ is seen above a skull and long bones and is flanked by angels. Unusually these are wearing kilts.
The roof was removed from the building when the local authority turned it into a ‘seemly ruin’ in about 1960. A stone effigy and the initials C.A., popularly those of Andrew Cant, the first Minister (Canting Andrew) used to be on the east gable. More probably they were the builder, Charles Allan’s initials (Now no longer visible.)
By the east door of the Kirk are gravestones of members of the Swane family. Alexander Swane was Minister here from 1665 until his death in 1686. He was succeeded by his son William who was ejected on 3rd July 1716 for his complicity in the Jacobite Rising. Close to the north wall of the Kirk lies William Mercer, minister here from 1720-1786. His son, Hugh, born in Peathill Manse in 1726, was a surgeon who fought at Culloden. After Culloden, Hugh emigrated to Virginia, became a friend of George Washington and General in the American Army. He met his death at the Battle of Princetown in 1773.
The Kirk was built in 1890 to replace the original building which by 1877 was in dangerous condition and considered too small for the congregation. For thirteen years there was great debate about whether a new Church should be built or the old one repaired. It was also suggested that the new Kirk should be built at Barnyards which would have been nearer Rosehearty. By now, Rosehearty had increased in size and more people lived there than in the country part of Parish.
The Church was eventually built on this site, an extension of the original graveyard to a design by the Aberdeen architects, Matthew’s and Mackenzie, at a cost of £2,171-1s-7d. All feuars in the Parish were required to pay about 6 shillings in the pound based on the feu duty towards the cost of the Parish Church. The ‘Free Kirkers’ who in 1882 had financed the building of the United Presbyterian Church in Pitsligo Street (now Rosehearty Church) at a cost of £1,400 were understandably resentful of having to contribute towards the cost of a new Parish Church. Almost fifty feuars felt so strongly about the injustice of paying towards a church in which they had no intention of worshipping, that they flatly refused to pay their contribution. Continued refusal led to the threat of having their goods impounded and when the Sheriff Officer arrived in Rosehearty to attempt to serve summonses on the refusing feuars, a virtual riot ensued. Much of the feuars anger was directed towards the Minister, Walter Gregor, and the resentful feuars went so far as to burn an effigy of him on the links.
The finest quality materials were used to build the Kirk, New Pitsligo granite, cathedral glass and pitch pine. The belfry, which rises 20 feet above the roof, was designed to house the bell from the Old Kirk. When it was first proposed that a new Kirk be built, the recommendation was that that it should accommodate 1100 worshippers but seating was reduced to 501.
The Church heating system was fuelled at first by coal. The furnace in the cellar, next to the vestry, had to be lit at 4 a.m. to be effective for morning service. Eventually this was replaced by calor gas. The new Church had no lighting until the splendid brass paraffin lamps were gifted by the ladies of the church in 1903. The total cost of the lamps was £32-2 shillings. Electric lights were installed in 1978.
Carved panels from the old church were incorporated in the ends of the choir seats in the chancel and were used to line the walls of the apse. (removed when the organ was installed) Many of the panels which had been removed from the old church during the many renovations were scattered about the parish. Some were even in use as part of a box-bed at Hillhead, and had been rescued some time previously by Rev. Edward Hume. The panel bearing the initials I.R. and the date 1635 was reputedly part of the Laird of Ardlaw’s seat.
A marble tablet on the left of the organ commemorates Rev. James Robertson DD. Born at Ardlaw in 1803, he received his early education at Pitsligo School where, after graduating from Aberdeen University in 1825 he became School Master for a time. He preached his first sermon at Peathill. He subsequently became headmaster at Gordon’s Hospital in Aberdeen, which is now Robert Gordon’s University. From 1832-43 he was Minister in Ellon and later moved to Edinburgh. In 1857 he was Moderator of the General Assembly and became Professor of divinity and Church History at Edinburgh University but always retained his links with Ardlaw. He died in 1860.
The organ was installed in 1899 following much debate about the propriety of instrumental music being used in Church. Prior to this date praise was led by a Precentor. The Organ cost £235 and was supplied by Peter Conacher, Organ Builder of Huddersfield and was designed especially for Peathill.
The octagonal pulpit contains panels from the pulpit in the old church. These panels include Andrew Cant’s coats of arms.
The Pitsligo Pew is considered to be one of the finest examples of Jacobean woodcarving in Europe. The pew raised the Laird’s family above the level of the rest of the worshippers. It surrounded the Laird’s family with symbols of o their place in society, their history and own importance. It was entered by a staircase from the door by the vestry. The stunning oak front of the pew faced into the Church and is divided into six panels, separated by ornately carved pillars. Two end panels are decorated with a coronet and the monogrammed initials of Alexander, Lord Pitsligo and his wife, Dame Isabelle (Jane) Keith. The initials are repeated separately on two further panels. The remaining panels have shields, one bearing the pallets of the Keith Family, the other the boars’ heads of the Forbes family and the fraises(strawberry flowers) of their allies, the Frasers. The front spandrils of the pew have the date 1634, a woodcarver’s axe and the letters B.M.V., presumably the initials of the artist. It has been thought that the pew, like the belfry is of Dutch origin, but it is more often regarded as being the work of native craftsmen.
The front canopy is supported behind by six pillars. At the front there are only the two end pillars so that the view from the Lairds seat is not obstructed. Behind the seat is another richly carved screen, a little over 1 metre high. This is split by an elaborately carved canopied doorway.
Behind seats for the Laird’s immediate family, the aisle is filled with tiers of more modest pews for retainers and other members of the Laird’s household. The ceiling of the aisle is decorated with heraldic and floral devices and carved pendants. It is divided into panels containing the arms of the Forbes and other local families. The timber roof panelling is not original.
Peathill Kirk closed for worship on September 21st 1997
By Janet M. McLeman
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