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St Brendan, Birnie, Morayshire

(57°36′40″N, 3°19′44″W)
NJ 207 587
pre-1975 traditional (Scotland) Morayshire
now Moray
medieval Moray
now n/a
  • James King
  • James King
4 Oct 2011

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Birnie is situated just south of Elgin in Scotland. The church at Birnie, built with ashlared stone, consists of a rectangular nave with narrower, rectangular chancel. There is a Romanesque doorway on the south side of the nave and a blocked one on the north side. As well, there are N and S chancel windows of Romanesque form. A new west gable was built in 1734, when the nave may have been shortened. In 1817, repairs were made on the interior of the church, but in 1891 a major restoration took place. Alterations to the south windows were undertaken in 1975. The chancel arch is of two orders, with a single capital on each side. Besides the chancel arch, the other sculpted Romanesque feature surviving is the baptismal font with modern support and base.


It is clear from carved stones and a bell found at Birnie that it had been a Pictish site. However, the exact date when the bishopric of Moray came into existence is uncertain, the earliest known bishop being Gregorius, who first appears about 1115. Birnie, originally called Brenoth, Brenath, Brennath and Bruneth, was one of four locations associated with the early bishops and and one of the seats of the bishopric, along with Kinnedar and Spynie. The fourth bishop, Bishop Simon de Tonei, was buried at Birnie in 1184. It is uncertain where the fifth bishop, Andrew (d.1185), was buried, but the following bishop, Richard (d. 1203), who moved the centre of the episcopal see, was buried in the church at Spynie, followed by Bishop Bricius (d. 1222). It was this Bricius who appears to have first applied to the Pope to have a cathedral fixed to one place for the bishops of Moray and it is through Bricius that one learns of the earlier bishops and their use of Birnie. Bricius granted Birnie to Kelso in the early 13th century, but this seems not to have been affected. In 1224, his successor, Andrew, relocated the cathedral seat to Elgin, about 3 miles north of Birnie, where it remained until the Reformation. In 1239, Birnie was granted to the canons of Elgin Cathedral and was later used as an endowment to fund chaplainries there. James Johnston is recorded as having been one of twelve chaplains of Elgin Cathedral who were endowed with the revenues of Birnie before the Reformation. In 1560 he conformed to the Protestant doctrines, and in 1567 he was presented to the vicarage of Birnie by King James VI of Scotland.


Exterior Features


Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches




MacGibbon and Ross suggested a date in the late 12th century for the church, but the majority of recent scholars prefer a date around the middle of that century or slightly earlier. The font is likely to be of a similar date. This font has no drainage hole, which has suggested to some scholars that it may have had a different use originally from that of a baptismal font.


J. Anderson, 'Parish of Birnie', The Statistical Account of Scotland, 9 (Edinburgh, 1793), 155-64.

The Bannatyne Club, Liber S. Marie de Calchou, 2 (Edinburgh, 1846), 296 no. 371 and 352 no. 460.

The Bannatyne Club, Registrum Episcopatus Moraviensis (Edinburgh, 1837), xxiii, 4 no. 2, 33-4 no. 39, 35-6 no. 41, 40-3 no. 46, 189-91 no. 162, 290-5 no. 227, 363 no. 280 and 365 no. 382.

I. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Edinburgh, 1967), 18.

P. Dransart, ‘Bishops’ Palaces in the Medieval Dioceses of Aberdeen and Moray’, Transactions of the British Archaeological Association: Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology in the Dioceses of Aberdeen and Moray, ed. J. Geddes (London and New York, 2016), 58-81.

R. Fawcett, Scottish Medieval Churches: architecture and furnishings (Stroud and Charleston, 2002), 184, 206 and 334.

G. Gordon, 'Parish of Birnie', The New Statistical Account of Scotland, 13 (Edinburgh and London,1845), 82-91.

D. MacGibbon and T. Ross, T., The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland from the earliest Christian times to the Seventeenth Century, 1 (Edinburgh, 1896), 218-20.

Moray and Nairn Express (Elgin, 10 March 1885), 4.

R. Oram, David, the King who made Scotland (Stroud, 2004 and 2008).

C. Rampini, A History of Moray and Nairn (Edinburgh and London, 1897), 54-6.

H. Scott, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, 6 (Edinburgh, 1926), 378-81.

L. Shaw, revised by J. Gordon, The History of the Province of Moray, 2 (London and Glasgow, 1882), 39-46.

L. Shaw, revised by J. Gordon, The History of the Province of Moray, 3 (London and Glasgow, 1882), 245-52, 277-9.

D. Walker and M. Woodworth, The Buildings of Scotland, Aberdeenshire: North and Moray (New Haven and London, 2015), 477-9.

R. Walker, 'Scottish Baptismal Fonts', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 21 (Edinburgh, 1887), 354.