The village of Fordyce is one of the most attractive in north-east Scotland. In the centre of the village, just a short distance north of Fordyce Castle, are the remains of Old Fordyce Church: one of the most fascinating ruined churches you are likely to find anywhere.
Old Fordyce Church was dedicated to the man who probably came from the area and was made Bishop of Sodor (or Bishop of the Isles) in about 720. His name is variously spelled as St Talarican, St Talorgan, or St Tarquin, but whatever the spelling of his name, he was a native Pictish saint who apparently established an early church here. His memory is preserved both in the dedication of the church and in the name of St Tarqin's Well, a healing well whose traces can still be seen beside a nearby burn. It is said that after his death, St Talarican's Day was celebrated here on 30 October each year.
Although it seems probably that St Talarican founded a church here some 1300 years ago, nothing has been identified on the ground that dates back anything like this far. The same is true of the written record, where Fordyce Church first appears in 1272, when King Alexander III confirmed the appointment of Andrew de Garentuly as minister. It next occurs in 1351, when King David II signed a charter making Fordyce Church a common church of the Chapter of the Cathedral of Aberdeen. This meant that the Chapter of Aberdeen Cathedral would have a say in who was appointed as minister at Fordyce Church, and that part of the income of the church would go into the funds of Aberdeen Cathedral.
The medieval Fordyce Church seems to have been similar to many churches of the time. It was of a simple rectangular shape without aisles or additions, and internally was divided by a screen into a nave and a chancel. There would probably have been a porch on the south side of the west end of the nave, and it is thought that parts of this continue to stand as the lower parts of the later bell-tower.
On 15 July 1516, a chapel founded by Thomas Menzies, the builder of Fordyce Castle was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. This was attached to the south side of the nave not far from the entrance porch at its west end, and opened out into the nave. The chapel was later used as the place where the scholars of Fordyce School worshipped during services. Today the chapel is known as St Mary's Aisle and stands, roofless, near the tower.
Fordyce Church seems to have come through the trauma of the Reformation relatively unscathed, possibly because the minister of the day, Gilbert Gardyne, was a strong supporter of the Protestant cause who in later years became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Kirk in Edinburgh. It is, nonetheless, recorded that during the Reformation the minister "seldom went to the pulpit without his sword, for fear of Papists".
After the Reformation the nave remained in use as the parish church and the now redundant chancel was turned into a burial aisle by the Ogilvy family: though in 1766 this had a loft fitted above it to increase the capacity of the church. In 1661 the bell tower was built above the earlier entrance porch, and from 1682 the room above the porch, today accessed by a set of external stairs and used as an exhibition space, was fitted out as a prison. In 1679, the Abercromby family added an aisle to the north side of the nave.
By the end of the 1700s, the Old Fordyce Church was no longer large enough to accommodate the parishioners who wanted to worship there, and a new church was built at the northern end of the village. When this was complete in 1804, much of the old church was demolished. What survived largely remains on view today. The most striking feature is the bell tower. The remainder of the standing structures at first seem a little confusing, until you remember that they were originally appendages to a nave that has since disappeared.
The south aisle, St Mary's Aisle, remains as a roofless burial enclosure, while the bell tower comes complete with a roof and internal floors. The 1679 Abercromby aisle now stands as a detached, roofed building, if a decidedly spooky one. Railings within it surround the extremely grand memorial to James Abercromby of Glassheugh, who died in 1781, which now dominates the aisle. The other main structures are the two burial aisles formed after the Reformation from the chancel, though both are roofless.
The more westerly of these has built into a recess in its north wall. This is the Birkenbog Tomb, which dates back to 1505. The more easterly contains a real treasure, the Findlater and Boyne Tomb, dating from 1510. A highly decorated recess set into what at the time would have been the north wall of the chancel contains the recumbent effigy of a knight, one of the best carved and least eroded you are likely to find, plus a canine companion as a footrest. The Latin script on the front edge of the tomb translates as: "Here rest two honourable men, James Ogilvy of Deskford, and James Ogilvy, his son and heir presumptive. The former died 13 February 1509 and the latter 1 February 1505. Pray for their souls."