Signs from the A904 a couple of miles west of Queensferry and the south end of the Forth Road Bridge point visitors to Abercorn Church. The signs lead you to the tiny hamlet of Abercorn and to the walled drive leading to the gates of Abercorn Parish Church.
The church is instantly appealing. Your first view is of its south side, across a large churchyard surrounded by trees. The nave is largely obscured by a series of aisles projecting to the south, the most easterly of which gives a clear indication that at least some of the church is very old.
This is the Duddingston Aisle, which comes with a date of 1603 carved into its external wall. But it is all too easy to overlook a nearby indication that part of the church goes back much, much further. This is the blocked up doorway in the south wall of the church, immediately to the east of the Philipstoun burial enclosure. Complete with its understandably faded chevron decoration, the doorway has been dated to the 1100s, when it probably gave access to a small two celled church.
While still in the churchyard, make sure you take time to look at the fine collection of old gravestones on view. Many date back to the 1600s, before widespread literacy, so carry pictures rather than words. Common symbols include emblems of mortality such as skulls and bones or hourglasses; or emblems of immortality like angels, cherubs or doves. Also on show are symbols of the trade of the buried person, like an anvil and horseshoe for a blacksmith; or a rolling pin and baps for a baker.
Turning back to the church, much of the detail of the exterior and the interior date back to a major rebuild and extension in 1893. This includes the truly magnificent decoration of the west end of the church. The west door carries an arch of crisply carved chevrons within which are a full sweep of individually characterised gargoyle heads. The chevron theme is carried up the west gable to the surround of the circular window and in the surrounds of the bellcote.
Inside you find an unexpectedly large space. As you approach from the south you form a mental picture of a nave, perhaps with side projections. What you find is a nave flanked by a north aisle that matches it in width, giving the impression of a building that is almost square. The nave and the aisle are separated by a line of broad pillars and the aisle is blind, ending with a wall against which is a large oak cabinet dating back to 1631. The aisle itself only dates back to the 1800s, when the the church needed extending to accommodate a growing congregation.
The nave itself carries through to what would normally be a chancel. But here you seem at first to be looking at an optical illusion. For behind the communion table and raised above the rest of the church is what looks for all the world like a very large box in an opera house, complete with absolutely stunning decoration on the ceiling above.
This is the Hopetoun Loft, built for the use of the residents of nearby Hopetoun House. Access is via a private retiring room, built to the north of the loft, above the family vault. Outside a purpose built drive from Hopetoun House concludes in front of the family's private entrance to the church.
Abercorn Parish Church is a remarkable place. But even though a small part of it can be dated back to the 1100s, what you can see today is only part of the story. There are clues to an even longer history in the collection of stones on view in the excellent Abercorn Museum, just inside the churchyard gates. These include Viking hog-back burial stones; a cross stone; and a carved cross-shaft dating back to the 600s.
The site of Abercorn Parish Church has been sacred ground since St Ninian visited during a mission to the Picts in the late 400s. Before long his followers had established a church here, perhaps the earliest in this part of Scotland. And by the late 600s the Northumbrians established Abercorn as the seat of one of their four Bishops: the others residing at York, Hexham and Lindisfarne. The Bishop of the day, Bishop Trumwin, fled with his monks to Whitby after the Picts defeated the Northumbrians at the battle of Nechtansmere in AD685 (see our Historical Timeline).
It seems likely that the small church whose blocked-up door remains on view in the south wall of Abercorn Parish Church was built on the site of the church or chapel serving the Northumbrian monastery. And this in turn could have been a development of the original church built here by the followers of St Ninian. As a result today's church has a remarkable sense of continuity that goes back 1,500 years or more.