Standing proudly above the picturesque village of Leuchars in the historic Kingdom of Fife is the truly remarkable St Athernase Church. Possibly the finest Romanesque ecclesiastical building in Scotland, the church is unique in that the finest decoration is on the outside of the building, giving it a grandure becoming of its hilltop situation.
Its stones have stood firm through some turbulent times in Scottish history, and some of the names you will read are closely linked to events of national significance.
In more recent times, industrialisation has brought about many changes to the parish. The arrival of the railway, the building of the paper mill in Guardbridge and the establishment of RAF Leuchars all brought new occupations to supplement or replace traditional agriculture and sailcloth weaving.
Nowadays, over a thousand years after Christians began to worship on this site, the parish of St Athernase covers not only the village of Leuchars but also the neighbouring communities of Cuardbridge, Balmullo, St Michaels and Drumoig.
Through the changing times, beneath the roar of modern fighter planes, the Kirk of St Athernase faces the future - still an active symbol of the community it serves. If stones could talk, what a story they would have to tell!
A tour around the church, outside:
Walk slowly around the church, both within and outwith the boundary walls. Particularly fine views may be had from the end of Earlshall Road (directly opposite the apse) which leads to Earlshall Castle. Another good vantage point is from a little to the left of the entrance to Earlshall Road, at the junction with the main road.
As you stroll though the churchyard, you will observe clearly the distinction between the original Norman chancel and the apse, and the Victorian Romanesque nave extension. The latter, constructed in 1857 from locally quarried stone, is roofed in Ballachulish slate. The solid oak doors of the main entrance porch have the black Early English style ironmongery.
Carefully examine the exterior of the chancel and apse. Notice the difference in the levels between the original and newer parts of the building, caused by the level of the graveyard having been raised.
Look at the corbels and locate the line of the Norman timber roof. Study the craftsmanship of the decorative arcading and intersecting arches. The remains of similar work can be found at St Andrews Cathedral.
The bell turret was constructed over the apse in 1745. Most people tend to agree that the contrasting style adds to the charm of the church as we see it today.
A tour around the church, inside:
Main features are the carved stone arches decorated with chevron and damier patterns. The windows, three each in apse and chancel, are narrow with semi-circular tops. Grotesque stone heads, some of which have been restored, featuring the bizarre and the barbaric, depicting horses, creatures and monsters, were put there to instil fear and trembling in worshippers. They are not Christian, but belong to the Viking tradition and mythology. Similar work is found in other places dating from around 1120-1150 and a little later.
Originally the walls would have been painted, white or in a bright colour, while the floor would have been decorated in red tiles.
There are three memorial stone slabs, one on the floor near the pulpit and two others, either side of the door midway along the south wall. The first commemorates Robert Carnegie of Kinnaird, who died at Leuchars Castle in 1565.
On the south wall, the leftmost stone is to Sir William Bruce of Earlshall Castle. Unlike Leuchars Castle which has now completely disappeared, Earlshall still stands not far away and is a family home. Built by Sir William in 1546, the castle was completed in 1617 by his great grandson who bore the same name. Historians believe the name is linked to the Earls of Fife.
Sir William, born in 1486, fought in the Battle of Flodden (1513). He started building his castle just at the beginning of the Reformation in Scotland, a long period of religious upheaval. A trusted counsellor to Mary, Queen of Scots and to her son, King James VI, who became also King James I of England, Sir William would invite them to ride from Falkland Palace to enjoy hunting and feasting.