St John's Kirk

(St John's Church)

St. John's Kirk
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

St. John's Kirk

Representing Perth's oldest and most historically-significant building, the A-listed St. John's Kirk is located between the High Street and South Street, at the heart of the Mediaeval city centre. It was this church, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, that gave Perth its former name of St. Johnstoun. There was a church here in 1126, when King David I (c.1080 - 1153) extracted funds to support Dunfermline Abbey, but it was probably not completed until 1242, when it was dedicated by David de Bernham, the Bishop of St Andrews (d.1253). It had become a foundation of considerable importance, because King Alexander III's heart was buried here in 1286.

The church was rebuilt in the 15th century; a new choir was constructed 1440-48, now the oldest part of the building, with the nave rebuilt later in the same century. The central tower was said to have been the model for the two towers of St. Machar's Cathedral in Aberdeen. St. John's distinctive leaded spire was certainly in place by 1511 and reaches a height of 47m (154 feet). The result is a cruciform building, with a choir and aisled nave of approximately the same length.

The north porch is unusual; known as Halkerston's Tower, probably after the architect John Halkerston, who worked here in the 1460s. The upper room of the tower was used as a prison for prostitutes, but was removed in 1823.

John Knox preached against idolatry in the Kirk on 11th May 1559, an event said to mark the start of the Reformation in Scotland. His sermon whipped the congregation into a frenzy, such that they stoned the priest, divested the church of its ornamentation, and then proceeded to the nearby Greyfriars, Blackfriars and Charterhouse monasteries, stripping them back to their bare walls. Following the Reformation the building was divided into three separate churches; East, Middle and West, each with its own Minister. The north transept was cut back by James Gillespie Graham (1776 - 1855) in 1825 to improve the flow of traffic and Graham went on to carry out various repairs to the church.

A further restoration was undertaken in 1923 by Sir Robert Lorimer (1864 - 1929) as a memorial to the Perthshire men gave their lives during the First World War. The partitions were taken down and the congregation worshipped as one once again. Lorimer also re-instated the upper storey of Halkerston's Tower. In the years after the Second World War, the Knox Chapel was dedicated to those who fell in that conflict.

Fine stained glass includes work by James Ballantine (1808-77), Stephen Adam (1848 - 1910) and Douglas Strachan (1875 - 1950). A planned programme for its repair and cleaning was begun in 1983. A further £2¾ million restoration was completed in 2011. As part of this renovation, the Virgin Mary Chandelier, which it is believed to have first hung here in the 15th century, was restored to the kirk. This was originally the property of the Skinners Incorporation of Perth, but was damaged during the Reformation and then sold to Perth Museum in the 19th century. The interior includes a number of Pre-Reformation features, including holy water stoups, piscina, a stone niche and mason's marks. The baptismal basin is one of the earliest in Scotland, dating from the 1590s. It features the mark of David Gilbert, an Edinburgh goldsmith. Other features of the interior include a Mediaeval collecting box which belonged to the Hammerman's Incorporation and a modern tapestry by Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh.

Until 1580, the area around the church was Perth's principal cemetery. There are still many burials in the vicinity, although prominent citizens were buried within the Kirk itself where many graves were uncovered during the most recent restoration work.

St. John's remains Perth's principal place of worship.

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