Just to the south of Dunfermline's High Street lies one of Scotland's most unusual churches. The Abbey Church of Dunfermline is two very distinct churches, joined in the middle. The effect is unexpected but attractive: strangely reminiscent of a Griffin, the mythical creature with the rear half of a lion and the front half of an eagle.
The Abbey Church, as the name suggests, was the church serving Dunfermline Abbey. The story of the Abbey and the Palace it briefly later became is told on our Dunfermline Abbey & Palace page. Here we focus on the Abbey Church itself.
Intending visitors should note that the two halves of the Abbey Church have different opening hours and access arrangements, especially in winter when only the Old Church is open (though not every day). This is because the Old Church forms part of the Historic Environment Scotland operated Dunfermline Abbey & Palace, and visitors to the Old Church should first go to the HES visitor centre in the gatehouse of the abbey to obtain a ticket. Access to the New Abbey Church is free: with opening hours set out on their website, linked from this page.
A church probably already existed on this site in 1070, when King Malcolm III married Queen Margaret. Margaret liked Dunfermline so much she set up a Benedictine foundation here. This was later transformed by her son King David I into what was intended to become the most important abbey in Scotland. Work was started in 1128 on the Abbey Church and the nave still survives as the western half of the building on view today.
The nave was the part of the church accessible to the ordinary folk of Dunfermline. One of the most striking features is the way the two piers at the east end have been decorated with a chevron pattern. Still as crisp as the day it was done this was probably designed to draw attention to the nave altar which would have been located between them. The ceiling high above is home to some magnificent painted plasterwork. (Continues below image...)
Enough of the Abbey Church was finished for it to be consecrated in 1150. The complete Abbey Church at the end of the 1100s comprised the nave you see today with, to its east, a tower with a spire accompanied by north and south transepts. East again was a choir, which in 1249 was extended to create a shrine for the newly canonised St Margaret.
At the start of the Reformation in 1560 the Abbey Church was sacked. By 1563 much of the east end of the church was roofless and in disrepair. In 1570 work started to make the nave suitable for use as a Parish Church, including re-roofing and the construction of the very large flying buttresses you see today in an attempt to stop the whole building collapsing.
Further work, including the rebuilding of the north-west tower, was done in the 1590s as part of the conversion of the Abbey to a Royal Palace for Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of James VI. After the collapse of the south-west tower in 1807 it was rebuilt to a design by William Stark. What emerged in 1811 was universally disliked at the time as a feeble effort that diminished the west end of the nave: and looking at it today it is difficult not to agree with the contemporary critics.
The nave continued in use as the Parish Church until 1821. The rest of the old Abbey Church fared less well. In 1672 the remains of the choir were destroyed in a storm; the east gable fell down in 1726; and the central tower collapsed in 1753, fortunately falling away from the nave.
In 1817 plans were prepared for a new Abbey Church to be built on the ruins to the east of the nave, which were cleared away as part of construction. The new church held its first service on 30 September 1821. The head of the eagle was added to the surviving tail of the lion and the Griffin was complete.
Internally, the 1821 Abbey Church is in the form of a light and airy cross. Its nave is shorter than in many churches, the space being taken by the nave of the old church to the west.
Dunfermline was renowned as the burial place of many Scottish Kings and Queens. The first was Queen Margaret (later St Margaret) in 1093, and the last Royal internment was Robert, the infant son of James VI and Anne of Denmark, in 1602. The most famous burial, and certainly most celebrated, was Robert the Bruce. He was buried in Dunfermline Abbey in 1329, minus his heart, which was taken in a lead casket on a posthumous visit to the Holy Land before being buried at Melrose Abbey.
During the building of the new Abbey Church in 1819 bones believed to be those of Robert the Bruce, because of their position and because of a cut breastbone (to allow the removal of his heart), were discovered. Robert was reinterred in the centre of the new Abbey Church, 560 years after his death.
His grave now lies under the magnificent pulpit covered by a large brass grave marker. And to celebrate his presence the words "KING ROBERT THE BRUCE" were formed with large stone lettering around the four sides of the crown of the tower. Subtle it isn't, but striking it most certainly is.