Unearthing a medieval mystery: The search for Saline’s ‘lost’ church

Historical records attest that the present parish church at Saline in West Fife had a medieval predecessor, but the exact location of this building has been lost over time. Linda Moyes and John Gooder report on recent efforts to find it once more.


Today, the small West Fife village of Saline (pronounced to rhyme with ‘Tallinn’) is home to a fine 19th-century parish church, which was built to replace a crumbling, much older, structure. Unfortunately, over time the exact location of its predecessor has become lost from memory – but Saline & District Heritage Society have set themselves the challenge of finding it.

Overlooking the graveyard of Saline parish church, where a recent investigation searched for the remains of the present building’s predecessor. A marked dip in the ground surface can be seen; excavating this revealed the remains of a structure interpreted as a bell-tower.

The earliest evidence of a church in Saline can be found in Lives of the Bishops of Dunkeld, which was written by Alexander Myln in 1515. There, Myln states that Saline’s church was one of three establishments annexed to the common fund of the canons of Dunkeld by Bishop Geoffrey (1236-1249), indicating that a church must have existed somewhere in the village before Geoffrey’s tenure. We know that Saline’s revenues continued to be held by Dunkeld until the Scottish Reformation (c.1560), and the church would most likely have remained poor, being small and plain in appearance.

These monetary difficulties continued until at least the early 17th century, as was typical for small parish churches after the Reformation, and while we know there were some minor works carried out at Saline, including a new loft in 1704, by the late 18th century the minister saw cause to complain about the church’s ruinous condition. This eventually led to the new (current) church being built in 1810, with its predecessor being demolished and its stone sold off at public auction. At Devonside, a local farm, we can see a relic of these events: a stone lintel, reputedly from the main door of the ‘old’ church, bearing the inscription ‘Glory of God only 1640.’ The old church’s graveyard survived, thanks to a condition of the auction ensuring that demolition work had to avoid damaging nearby burials, but the site of the church itself became forgotten. That is where we come in.

Saline’s present parish church dates to the early 19th century. It was built to replace a much older building whose exact location was lost over time. Photo: National Churches Trust, CC-BY-2.0

As for who we are, Saline & District Heritage Society was founded in 2011 by the late John Crane and local church members, as part of celebrations of the bicentenary of the present parish church. We have come a long way since then, though, and seem to be getting busier than ever, with an active online presence, a summer museum, tours of our old graveyard, and winter speaker events (see ‘Odd Socs’, CA 377, and ‘Further information’ on p.49). We are always keen to pursue projects, and our latest work was inspired by John Crane’s long-held wish to relocate Saline’s lost medieval church. This initiative, known as the John Crane Dig of 2022, has proven to be our most exciting project to-date.

Exploring the evidence

Last year’s excavation built on work that Edinburgh Archaeological Field Society (EAFS) had undertaken on our behalf almost a decade earlier. In 2013, geophysical survey within the old graveyard attempted to locate the medieval church. While its results were ambiguous, it did detect an anomaly in the south-east corner of the graveyard that merited further investigation. This sparked an EAFS excavation in 2015, opening a small trench over the anomaly and revealing the footings of a wall of unknown date, along with a piece of later medieval pottery, specifically Scottish East Coast White Gritty Ware. The church itself remained elusive – but six years later we would have another chance to find it.

This came thanks to a kind donation, in 2021, from Marie Crane, John’s widow, to enable an excavation to happen in his memory. We decided to try again to locate the ‘lost church’, this time engaging archaeologist John Gooder to lead a community dig with the help of local volunteers. The problem was: where to dig? There were various theories – had the church actually stood within the graveyard, nearby on the brae, or on higher ground to the east? Fortunately, we did have some clues – in particular, a sunken area of ground in the east of the graveyard that coincided exactly with a rectangular structure shown on the Plan of the Glebe at Saline, a parish map dating to 1822. The shape and location of this feature gave rise to the idea that it could be the foundation of the demolished church’s bell-tower. Tellingly, a comprehensive study of the gravestones and their distribution (Sacred Ground: the Old Saline Cemetery by Jean Coker, 2017) showed a large area devoid of any pre-1811 graves to the immediate east of the anomaly. This was probably not a coincidence, we thought – and in late July 2022 our happy band of volunteers set to work with spades and shovels to cut the turf and start digging.

This plan shows the location of the three trenches opened during the 2022 initiative.

After carefully considering the location of nearby gravestones in order to avoid disturbing any burials, we decided to open three trenches. The first two, Trenches 1a and 1b, were designed to investigate the sunken anomaly/putative bell-tower, and they soon exposed sandstone rubble foundations outlining a rectangular structure measuring approximately 6.6m by 4.75m. The northern, southern, and western walls were 0.6-0.65m wide, while the eastern wall was slightly thinner, and at the eastern end of Trench 1a we found a short section of fine, dressed, quarter-round stonework hinting that the structure’s first above-ground course had possessed a decorative element.

Overlooking Trench 1b from the west, showing the southern wall of the possible bell-tower continuing eastwards.

There were further significant finds to come: continued excavation through the soil-and-rubble fill of Trench 1a also uncovered a number of crude sandstone voussoirs (wedge-shaped stones used to create an arch) within the internal face of the northern wall. These formed a wide, flattened arch sloping down to the west, and the downward profile of their bases ran towards the juncture with the western wall. Meanwhile, over in Trench 1b, the southern wall not only joined on to the end of the eastern wall, but (after examining a surface irregularity with a small trench extension) it was also found to continue to the east.

As for Trench 2, this was dug in the area devoid of pre-1811 graves, in the central part of the graveyard, which coincided with a pronounced break-of-slope that we thought could have possibly been created by the removal of the old church’s eastern gable. Near this break, excavation revealed a suite of cut features, rich in stones or lime-mortar fragments, at the eastern end of the trench. As in the other two trenches, we did not retrieve any secure dating evidence, but the presence of lime-mortar suggests an association with a building – which we suggest is the old church.

Interpreting the archaeology

The structure revealed in Trenches 1a and 1b was clearly not an isolated, free-standing building: its southern wall continues to the east, and its eastern wall forms the portion of masonry shared with another construction. Given the absence of pre-1811 graves in this location, it seems highly probable that the conjoined building would have been the pre-1811 (lost) parish church. What, then, is the structure that we have uncovered?

Functionally, it could be an entrance porch or a bell-tower. The structure is smaller than you would expect for the latter option, but it would fit with a small and – as the surviving records indicate – often impoverished parish church. The need for an arch in the northern wall indicates that this was a tall building: the curved masonry (perhaps one of a series of arches) was designed to distribute the load vertically, rather than risk internal tension splaying the wall outwards. This would have been particularly critical in averting expansion pressure on the shared western gable of the main church building.

A tentative ground plan showing how a bell-tower might relate to the old church.

If this was a bell-tower, the fact that its remains coincide with a rectangular structure shown on the 1822 Plan of the Glebe at Saline indicates that it had survived the 1811 demolition of the church. Perhaps it was preserved – albeit temporarily – because it could serve a new function. We suggest that, possibly reduced in height, it could have been used as a watchtower until the graveyard’s first purpose-built structure of this kind was built in its north-west corner in 1833. As for why a cemetery might need such precautions, the early 19th century had seen an explosion in the activities of ‘resurrectionists’ – to use a less romantic name, grave robbers.

Anatomy schools needed a reliable supply of cadavers to teach aspiring surgeons, but the law of the time stipulated that only the bodies of executed murderers could be legally dissected. With demand vastly outstripping supply, many anatomists resorted to paying body-snatchers to plunder freshly dug graves, meaning that a careful watch had to be kept after funerals. Indeed, Saline’s churchyard is home to another relic of this period: a kind of secure structure called a morthouse, where corpses were stored until they were of no use to medical study, after which they could be interred in the graveyard. The passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act, which allowed the use of donated or unclaimed bodies in medical research, effectively put body-snatchers out of business, but the construction of a bespoke watchtower at Saline the following year suggests that the villagers remained nervous about their activities.

As for the date of the remains we uncovered, that is more problematic. The surviving surface course is finely worked, but it does not appear to have suffered too greatly from weathering. We therefore think that it is unlikely (albeit on the basis of limited evidence) that this structure was part of the 13th-century church. Assuming a post-Reformation build, then, it is probably 17th century in date. With the old order gone, Scotland – including the new Church of Scotland – was in a chaotic state for decades. Catholic priests had been removed, but there were relatively few educated Protestant ministers to fill parishes until well into the 17th century. In counterpart, the Crown and powerful landowners undertook a money-grab, seizing land and rentals from the Catholic Church and leaving little for the new cash-strapped ecclesiastical establishment. Parishes had to continue using their old medieval Catholic churches, and Saline’s new Protestant ministers found themselves economically tied to their small, deteriorating medieval building. The church was small because, before the Reformation, it been deprived of any meaningful income by its superior, the Bishopric of Dunkeld. Renewal or rebuilding would have been economically unviable in the late medieval period – and so, if a bell-tower was added, it would probably have been a 17th-century construction, or a substantial rebuild of an original feature.

At the community engagement level, the dig was a huge success: our c.30 volunteer diggers enjoyed the first day so much that most of them returned for the remaining four, and many people visited for guided tours of the graveyard and excavation trenches. Archaeologically, too, the dig achieved its objective in locating once more the remains associated with Saline’s ‘lost’ church. While most of the architectural nuances of the church are still unknown, and obtaining the finer detail here would be difficult given that we would be working within centuries of burials, at least a footnote has been added to the history of medieval churches in Fife.

Thanks go to the Fife Council cemetery team for allowing access to the graveyard; Douglas Speirs, Fife Council Archaeologist, for his input and supporting us over the years; Jean Coker, our amazing researcher from America; Saline & Blairingone Church for allowing us access to the facilities within the church hall; all our wonderful volunteers; and, of course, the committee and members of Saline & District Heritage Society.

Further information
For more information about Saline & District Heritage Society see https://salinedistrictheritagesociety.wordpress.com. The Society is also on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/groups/251551531564116 and Twitter as @salineheritage.

Photo: courtesy of Jacob Timney / All other images: Saline & District Heritage Society, unless otherwise stated