Nothing too big or too small for historical detectives at work in Fife churches

Fife Recorders, from left Elspeth Hamilton, Mary Reilly, Marjory Richardson and Kate Nightingale, pictured at St Athernase Church, Leuchars, where they are making a detailed record of the church.
Fife Recorders, from left Elspeth Hamilton, Mary Reilly, Marjory Richardson and Kate Nightingale, pictured at St Athernase Church, Leuchars, where they are making a detailed record of the church.

Churches across our country hold many secrets – some genuine, some and product of myth and fiction.

Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian is one of those - its legend has grown over the centuries, helped in no small part in recent years by Dan Brown.

St Athernase Church, Leuchars

St Athernase Church, Leuchars

The case for many other churches is that their history has simply not been recorded.

Now, however, an initiative is under way to put that right, thanks to the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts (NAFDAS).

Since the turn of the century teams comprising the association’s volunteers have been out and about in Scotland’s churches recording every detail of the buildings and their contents.

Only a handful have been completed so far – the work can take years – but the most recent is St James the Great Church in Cupar.

Work was finished there earlier this year, and now volunteers are working in Leuchars’ St Athernase Church.

The work is being undertaken by a group from Fife Decorative and Fine Arts Society.

Their completed work is held in national archives, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, in digital form, and a bound copy of the inventory is presented to the church.

Kate Nightingale of the Fife Church Recorders as they are known, explained: “It was realised about 40 years ago that there was so much stuff in our churches that was not recorded.

“The national association was asked to record those hidden treasures, and now there are thousands of records.

“Work started in Scotland about 20 years ago

“We record absolutely everything in a church – even the fire extinguishers,” Kate said, and she really wasn’t joking.

“St James is, of course, already know for its Lorimer woodwork and World War I memorials,” Kate recalled of the five years’ the team spent recording the church on St Catherine Street.

“The most interesting memorials were to the Gilroy family, who commissioned Lorimer to do the reredos and the rood screen, and they made the chancel very beautiful.

“And the church’s east window is a memorial to Colonel Wedderburn,” Kate continued, adding that the window had been put in during the 1970s when the window was discovered, having been hidden behind a wall for many years.”

The small group first started on St James in 2010, but said Kate: “We really got going in 2011, and finished last year – we hope that we will record St Athernase rather more quickly with the experience we have gained.”

Everything in a church is recorded under nine categories. The recorders described the item, measure it, record the date it was made, the material, the names of the artist or architect, the manufacturer or retailer, the history of the item, it relevance to the church, date it was given to the church, any inscription or dedication and references.

Individual specialists in the group write up the descriptions, then one member of the team collates the information.

It’s all done to a strict formual set down by NAFDAS, so the research for each church reveals the same information.

“There is a lot of research done.” Kate said, “for example, the hidden window in St James – we had to find out why it was removed and the space covered up, and what had happened to it.”

The original window was found in pieces in storage at Kirkcaldy Museum.

It’s a different experience at St Athernase, Kate said: “We didn’t really see people when we were at work in St James, although we were welcomed to do the work.

“But we go to St Athernase on a Tuesday when the cafe is open and we have got to know people there.”

Not only is the information part of a national record of our churches, but because each church receives a copy of the record, it is available to local communities too.

“Researchers have easy access,” Kate said, “but, particularly in Scotland, families who have emigrated and come back to research can easily look up their forebears in the church.”

More information on the Fife Recorders’ work can be found at www,fifedfas.org.uk.