Old Cambus (also called: Aldcambus and St Helen's-on-Lea)

Download as PDF

Feature Sets (3)


The ruined church of St Helen has a two-celled ground plan, with a rectangular chancel narrower than the nave. At one time both the chancel and nave were barrel vaulted.  The south nave wall has been thickened on the interior side at some later date, which raises the question as to whether a vault in the nave, at least, was part of the building as first built. Drawings made when more of the structure survived show that the chancel arch had cushion capitals, a decorated stringcourse and a simply chevroned east window. The moulding of the jambs of the chancel arch consisted of a larger central half roll, flanked on either side by two smaller rolls. The west wall of the nave has been rebuilt and incorporates several stones carved with chevron. After the Reformation, control of Aldcambus came into the hands of Alexander, Lord Home. By 1556, the church appears to have been in a perilous condition. Sometime after the Reformation the parish of Aldcambus was annexed to that of Cockburnspath and the parish moved to the church there. The uniting of the two parishes was undertaken by the Lords Commissioners of Teinds before 20th May 1610. By 1750, and probably before, the church was in ruin. In 1848, much of the decorated areas of the church remained and were drawn by Thomas Muir, but large areas were soon afterwards destroyed by someone searching for stone to use for mending other structures. At that time, the land in and around the church had risen considerably and it was not until the early 20thc that the excavations were made to discover various ground-floor level features. Since then, the overgrowth has once again covered most of the surviving carved stones. Amongst the various stones recorded are a number of early coped graves, which are now no longer visible.


Possibly as early as 1095 and certainly by 1198 Edgar (later king) gave the mansionem of  Aldcambus (and other places) to the church and monks of St Cuthbert at Durham. This was confirmed in 1100, but in none of the early documents is a church mentioned. Edward of Aldcambus quitclaimed the vill of Aldcambus to Durham in 1198 or shortly after. The first known reference to a church appears c.1200 when Roger, bishop of St Andrews, conferred to the priory of Durham several churches in the diocese of St Andrews, including Aldcambus. Almost immediately following this, the corn tithes were assigned to the monks of Farne Island by Bertram, prior of Durham. Later, R. prior of Durham, granted the altar dues of the church of  Aldcambus, except for a teind of corn, to William of Mitford. Other revenues from Aldcambus were passed to Coldingham Priory in the late 14th or early 15thc, by which time the church appears to have been placed in their possession. In a petition by John, prior of Coldingham, mention is made that no vicar was residing at Aldcambus and that divine worship there had been almost entirely abandoned. Coldingham Priory separated from Durham’s superiority in 1462 and Aldcambus remained attached to it until the Reformation. A hospital at Aldcambus is also referred to c.1213. In the time of William the Lion (1165-1214), David de Quniwood, baron of Quinwood, endowed the hospital by giving to it and the lepers there a half poughgate of land at Alcambus, formerly held by Ralph the Tanner.


Interior Features

Carved stones on W wall

Several re-used stones carved with chevron have been re-used on the E face of the W wall. The stones are weather worn, but it is clear that those with chevron were similarly carved with a series of parallel rows of relatively shallow face chevron, carved on the same plane as the front surface of the stone. The profile of each row of chevron appears to be a simple roll flanked by hollows.

Loose Sculpture

Stone carved with rolls

The red sandstone block is carved with two half rolls. This can be matched with details of the drawings made in 1848. It is likely the stone once formed part of a chancel arch jamb.


Depth 0.21 m
Length of rolls 0.325 m
Width (across rolls) 0.26 m


The church of Old Cambus appears to be early 12thc, probably no earlier than c.1120 because of the use of chevron. There is no record of an earlier church, nor have the foundations of one been found. The series of chevron blocks can only have been part of a larger arch, judging from the slight curve of the sides.  This may mean they come from the chancel arch. But as there is no noticeable curve of the chevron, itself, it must be left open to debate as to where these stones were originally used. Amongst several grave covers, two have been found that resemble late 'hogback' monuments. Lang (1975) suggested an 11thc date for both of these, but it is possible they are a bit later and contemporary with the early parts of the present ruined church.


  • I. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland, Scottish Record Society, 93 (1967), 5.

  • H. Scott, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, the Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, Vol. 8, Edinburgh 1950, 105-106.

  • R. Fawcett, et al.Corpus of Scottish Parish Churches (http://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/corpusofscottishchurches/)

  • J. Lang, ‘Hogback Monuments in Scotland’, Proceedings of the  Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 105 (1975), 206-35.

  •  A. Lawrie, Early Scottish Charters Prior to A.D. 1153, Glasgow 1905.

  • D. MacGibbon and T. Ross, Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, Vol. 1, Edinburgh 1896, 323-5.

  • T. Muir, ‘Notice of the Ancient Church of St Helen, at Aldcambus; and of Fragments apparently of a Monastic Building at Luffness, with Plans’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 3 (1862), 296-99.

  • Royal Comission of Ancient and Historical Monuments Scotland, Inventory of Monuments - County of Berwick, Edinburgh 1915, 24-25.

  • A. Reid, ‘The Churches and Churchyard Memorials of St Helens on the Lea and Cockburnspath’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 48 (1914), 210-222.

  • J. Robson, The Churches and Churchyards of Berwickshire, Kelso 1896, 40-48, 53, 62.

church plan
Exterior from NE
View towards west
Interior towards east
General view from SE.
Interior of S nave wall and S side of chancel arch (on left)
Chancel, N interior wall towards east
Chancel, N interior wall.
N side of chancel arch
Drawing of church towards east, by James Drummond, 1847


Site Location
Old Cambus (also called: Aldcambus and St Helen's-on-Lea)
National Grid Reference
NT 803 706 
pre-1975 traditional (Scotland): Berwickshire
now: Scottish Borders
medieval: St. Andrews
now: n/a
medieval: St Helen
Type of building/monument
Ruined church  
Report authors
James King 
Visit Date
09 Nov 2013, 03 July 2016