The remains of Restenneth Priory stand to the north of the B9113 a mile and a half east of Forfar. Signposts lead you past a building housing Angus Council's Archives Department to a small parking area on the edge of what appears to be a farmstead. A gate leads to a grassy path across a field to the priory itself.
The origins of Restenneth Abbey are ancient, dating back to the reign of King Nechtan of the Picts. Nechtan succeeded his brother Bridei to the throne in 706, and four years later was corresponding with Abbot Ceolfrid of the Abbeys of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow about the proper date of Easter, a matter of considerable controversy in the early Christian Church. The result may have been the first move of the Church in Scotland away from its Celtic roots on Iona and towards a more Roman outlook.
In 715 King Nechtan asked Abbot Ceolfrid for assistance in the form of craftsmen able to build churches in stone, and offered in return to dedicate the first church he built to St Peter. This first church stood on the site later occupied by Restenneth Priory. Documentary evidence that the first church here was stone has led some to suggest that parts of the base of the tower that still stands date all the way back to Nechtan's time. Others suggest that the earliest identifiable parts of the church date back to the 1100s.
Certainly it was in the 1100s that, for the first time since its founding, Restenneth starts to feature in written history. King David I, who reigned from the 1120s to the 1150s, granted a number of royal estates to Restenneth, ensuring it had the income it needed to prosper. By this time, the church probably comprised a chancel in which a small religious community could worship, and a tower.
In 1162 Restenneth was in turn granted by King Malcolm IV to Jedburgh Abbey, placing it under the control of the Augustinian monks there. At around this time a nave was added to the west of the tower and the Priory Church also became the parish church for nearby Forfar. As an Augustinian Priory governed from distant Jedburgh, Restenneth was a wealthy establishment, for Malcolm IV added significantly to the lands it owned across Angus and more widely.
In the early 1200s Restenneth Priory was significantly expanded. A new nave and choir replaced their predecessors to the east and west, respectively, of the existing tower, which was retained. A new range of stone buildings was added to the south of the tower to house the half dozen or so canons who would have lived and worshipped here. They would previously have lived in wooden accommodation. The rebuilt chancel was consecrated in 1243 by David de Bernham, the Bishop of St Andrews,
Angus was heavily caught up in the Wars of Independence in the late 1200s and early 1300s, and Restenneth Priory suffered badly, being seriously damaged by fire. After the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Robert the Bruce, who had destroyed Forfar Castle during the wars to prevent its use by the English, and who may have had a hand in the destruction of Restenneth, provided for the rebuilding of the Priory. What emerged appears to have been on a grander scale than what had gone before, and in particular included the spire you see today and a full cloister around a square to the south of the nave.
In 1327 Robert the Bruce buried the body of his infant son, John, at Restenneth. The priory continued to receive support during the reign of David II, John's brother, but spent much of the 1400s in a state of steady decline. The last Prior was appointed in 1490s, and it seems that by the start of the 1500s only two canons were in residence. After the Reformation, Restenneth and its landholdings were granted to the Home family, although the nave of the priory church continued to act as the parish church for Forfar until 1591. Thereafter, the ownership of Restenneth Priory passed through a number of hands over the centuries. It was damaged by troops who set up camp here during the 1745 uprising, and spent much of the 1800s as accommodation for livestock. It was transferred into state care in 1919, and is now looked after by Historic Environment Scotland.
Given its huge depth of history, you'd imagine a visit to Restenneth would be a highly evocative experience. What you actually find are a surprisingly neat set of ruins without a great deal of detail on view. The chancel of the priory church is the highlight. Having made your own mind up about the debate on the origins of the lower part of the tower, you move through an arch at its bottom into a choir that retains a number of interesting features, including a gravestone which suggests that "smiley faces" predate the computer era by many centuries.