The beautiful little settlement of Smailholm can be found on the B6397 from Kelso to Earlston. These days the village's name is perhaps best know for its association with Smailholm Tower, a mile and a half to the south-west. A turn in the road means it's all too easy to overlook a building in the heart of the village whose origins are considerably older, Smailholm Church.
It has to be said that on first sight, while the church is an attractive building, it isn't obviously a very old one. It takes a closer look to reveal its Norman origins. Estates in the area were granted by King David I to David de Olifard and it is assumed he built the church here in about 1150. Some sources suggest de Olifard later granted the church to Coldingham Priory. It seems to have served part of Earlston parish by the 1170s, later going on to gain a parish in its own right. Two of the rectors who served the church in the 1200s were recorded as having subsequently achieved high ecclesiastical office. Robert of Smailholm served as abbot of Kelso Abbey from 1248 to 1258, and Adam of Smailholm became the abbot of "Dere Abbey" (presumably Deer Abbey) in 1268.
From 1408 the church was in the possession of Dryburgh Abbey, and during the 1500s it was seen as a place of refuge for those fleeing from cross-border raiding. (Continues below image...)
The Scottish Reformation of 1560 swept away many of the country's Norman churches. Smailholm Church survived, but underwent major change in 1632 when a loft was added at the west end, together with new doorways. More changes took place in 1820, when the distinctive north aisle, with its apse-like end, was added. In 1895 further renovation took place with the church being "re-medievalised" according to one authority. Against this background of later work, it's hardly surprising that the church doesn't immediately identify itself as Norman.
Smailholm Church is kept locked, but information about access is given on a noticeboard beside the gate. Internally you find an attractive and beautifully maintained space of dark wood and white paint. The arrangement of wide nave and long narrower chancel is the main clue as to its age as much else, including what would have been a round chancel arch and Norman windows, has been replaced during periods of refurbishment.
The Haddington Loft at the west end of the church is accessed by means of a partly external staircase. At the east end of the chancel the stained glass windows depicting St Cuthbert and St Giles were added in 1907, in memory of Sir Walter Scott whose grandfather farmed the Sandyknowes Farm, close to Smailholm Tower.
Externally, the main indication of the great age of the church comes from the chancel, which has a blocked-up round headed doorway in its south wall. The churchyard is home to some interesting memorials, including two table tombs that date back to the 1600s. Very easy to overlook are the two immortelles sheltering under one of the table tombs. Immortelles were complex china memorials marking a grave incorporating figures, flowers, foliage and birds, covered by a glass dome and protected by a wire outer cover. Extremely fragile, they date back to the Victorian era and very few now survive intact. Those at Smailholm are sadly in very poor condition. Equally easy to overlook is the small sundial attached to the south-west corner of the church.