St Peter's Kirk stands south of the road leading to Gordonstoun School about a quarter of a mile east of the village of Duffus. It is sometimes referred to as St Peter's Church; as Duffus Old Parish Church; as Duffus Old Kirk; or just as Peter Kirk.
You approach St Peter's Kirk along a grassy lane that runs south from the minor road from Duffus. There is space to park on the north side of the road without causing an obstruction, or you can walk from Duffus. A sign on the inner gate tells visitors where the key to the church is is kept, though access around and views into the church are so good that many visitors probably choose to do without.
Much of the church you see today dates back to the 1700s, but its origins are ancient and a church has stood on this spot since at least 1226. This depth of history explains why the church is today cared for by Historic Environment Scotland.
The origins of St Peter's Kirk date back to the establishment of Duffus Castle, on a site 1¼ miles to the south-east, in the mid 1100s. Castles were often accompanied by churches, and by 1226 a church dedicated to St Peter stood on the location of the church you see today. Around the church grew a village which today is known as Old Duffus. Some time later a tower was built at the west end of the church, which probably reached a height of three storeys.
In 1524 the rector, Alexander Sutherland, oversaw the building of a rather fine porch on the south side of the church: his initials and coat of arms are engraved on the keystone at the centre of the vaulting in its ceiling. The outer door of the porch is surrounded by a strikingly pointed and highly decorated arch. The church seems to have continued to function as a place of worship through the disruption cased by the Reformation of 1560.
In the 1650s it is said that Cromwellian troops based in the area built a paved road around the church, in what at the time would have been the village of Old Duffus. No trace of this has been found in modern times. Some time in the 1700s it was decided to rebuild what by this time was a 500 year old church. This was something that happened to many medieval Scottish churches when funds became available: sometimes to give the congregation something more weathertight, but more usually to provide a space more suitable to the needs of Presbyterian worship.
At St Peter's Kirk much of the earlier church was removed, with the stone presumably being recycled for use in the replacement church you see today. The main elements retained from the earlier church were the porch on the south wall (which perhaps implies that parts of the south wall were also retained), and the lower part of the tower, which became a burial vault.
The new church retained the basic rectangular shape of its predecessor, but was arranged very differently. Whereas the original church would have had its focus at the eastern end, in the new church, everything revolved around the pulpit. This was placed, as is often the case in Presbyterian churches, mid way along the south wall. The pews on the ground floor would have faced in towards the pulpit from the east and west ends, and across the church from the north side. Meanwhile, galleries were inserted at both ends and on the north side of the church. Today the external stairs that gave access to the north and east galleries still remain, and climbing them gives an excellent impression of the space available within the church. The church fell out of use after a new parish church was built in the "new village" of Duffus. in 1869.
The surrounding churchyard is fascinating and is heavily covered by grave markers. Just to the south of the church stands a stone shaft which, together with its massive stone plinth, measures some 14ft in height. This is the mercat cross (or market cross) of Old Duffus and is believed to date back to the 1300s. Its presence here is a reminder of an age in which it was common to hold markets in the churchyard if that happened to be the largest available space in the village or town.
Many of the grave markers carry the traditional emblems of mortality often found on Scottish gravestones from the 1600s and 1700s. The Christian cross was considered too "papist" by the post-Reformation Scottish Kirk, so until the 1800s, skulls, crossbones, angels, egg timers and other emblems stood in instead. Equally interesting are the emblems often used to represent the trades of those interred below.
In the churchyard here, some of the most poignant memorials are those carrying text. An especially interesting touch is the presence on some stones of engraved "guidelines", faint straight lines above and below each line of text to ensure the mason kept his letters of even height and his lines straight. This has not prevented all error, however. A stone commemorating 7 year old Thomas Watson who died in September 1796, is carved in capital letters, and every "N" is carved backwards: while the "DID" on his stone has a small "e" superimposed to turn it into "DIeD".
In one corner of the churchyard stands a watch house, with a date of 1830 inscribed above the door. In the early 1800s body-snatchers or "resurrectionists", who stole freshly-buried corpses for sale to medical schools, were a serious problem in Scotland. A number of countermeasures were used, including buildings in which to store bodies until they were no longer fresh enough to be of interest to body-snatchers; mortsafes placed over graves to prevent them being dug up; and watch houses in which a watchman would guard the churchyard when there were fresh burials. The watch house here is unlikely to have see much use: the Anatomy Act of 1832 opened up a legitimate supply of corpses for medical study and research and body-snatching simply ceased.