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Dunning, Perthshire

(56°18′45″N, 3°35′14″W)
NO 019 145
pre-1975 traditional (Scotland) Perthshire
now Perth and Kinross
medieval Dunblane
medieval St Serf
  • James King
  • James King
15 Aug 2019

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In medieval records, Dunning appears most commonly as Donyng, Dunnyne, Dinnin, and Duning. The church there is dedicated to St Serf (Servanus), who legend states died at Dunning. Transformed in 1687 and substantially again about 1810, the nave appears as a large rectangle with an extension built off the north side. A 12th-century west tower and sections of the north wall, however, have been preserved. In the interior, a gallery runs around three sides of the nave, with a later pulpit (removed from another church) set up against the south wall. Nothing medieval, other than the tower, is visible on the interior walls of the present church. The east arch of the tower has a pointed arch, the top of which is hidden behing the nave gallery. According to Groome (1884), the tower arch had been 'bricked up and disfigured' and had, during 'recent repairs' been reopened and restored. Wilson (J. and W.) stated that this occurred in 1868 when other repairs on the church were undertaken. Medieval fragments, including a cushion capital, a section of carved chevron, and a slightly curved stone carved with four small arches, have been built into the south exterior of the nave. Excavations in 2013 showed that the original church was built at the same time as the tower, foundation stones on the north side coursing with those of the nave. The tower is divided on the exterior by three stringcourses, which divide the tower visually into three main levels plus a roof space. Each of the levels is a different height, the lowest much higher than the others. There are two simple lights on the west exterior, one at ground-floor level and the other at 1st-floor level, both of which splay inwards. The main upper level of the tower has twinned openings on each of the four sides. A number of additional openings appear on both the interior and exterior of the tower, some of which are likely to have been holes for scaffolding, while others are of a larger rectangular form. It has been suggested by some writers that the upper levels, on the exterior, are tapered. Whether this is correct, it is not obvious to the naked eye. Towards the west end of the north exterior of the nave is a 12th-century doorway, which has been blocked on the interior, and into the S exterior of the tower there is a later-inserted rectangular doorway. Scars on the E exterior of the tower provide evidence for an earlier, steeper nave roof. On the interior of the tower, in the SW corner, a spiral staircase leads to the upper levels.

In 2008, excavations uncovered part of a possible 8th-century vallum ditch. Later excavations, carried out between 2012 and 2014, found foundations of a building earlier than the tower, as well as evidence that when the tower was built, it's foundations disturbed previous graves.


Carved stones which have been dated to the 9th and 10th centuries have been found, one in the 19th century under the nave floorboards and another uncovered next to the churchyard wall, which suggest that this part of Dunning was already a religious site long before the tower was built. Excavations have also uncovered the foundations of an earlier building which ran under the present tower and at a different angle to it. When the tower was built the foundations of the earlier building were 'crudely' joined to the tower foundations. These excavations also showed that the north nave doorway was built slightly higher than ground level. In a charter of the Abbey of Inchaffray of about 1200, 'Matheum personam de Dunin' appears as a witness. One first hears of the dedication of the church of Dunning being St Serf (Servanus) in 1219, in the charters of the Abbey of Inchaffray. It appears that the Earls of Strathearn were the main patrons of the church at Dunning. It was Earl Gilbert who, with his wife, founded the Abbey of Inchaffray (as written down in the Great Foundation Charter of 1200) and gave the church of Dunning to this abbey (by 1203, as stated in a confirmation document of Pope Innocent III). The first recorded Thane of Dunning was Anecol (or Anechol), who appeared as a witness to charters of the Abbey of Inchaffray from about 1199 (Charters, Bulls and other Documents, no. IV) and thereafter as a witness to other charters. Gillemichael of Dunning witnessed a single Inchaffray charter of about 1208, and 'B de Dunyne' (thought to be the same as the later-named 'Bricius') appeared for the first time beween 1226 and 1234. The thanage was again specifically mentioned in 1247, when a charter of Earl Malise II was addressed to 'Bricio thano de dunin'. In the Bagimond Rolls of the 1270s, only the 'vicarius' of Dunning was mentioned, with the amount listed for both years as 12 shillings; the church itself was not listed.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses
Corbel tables, corbels


Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches

Interior Decoration

String courses

Direct comparisons with the west tower are generally with the towers of Dunblane (Perthshire), Muthill (Perthshire) and Markinch (Fife). Dunblane Cathedral seems also to have been built under the patronage of the Earls of Strathearn, which makes a strong connection with both Dunning and Muthill. It may well be that Dunblane’s tower was the inspiration for these. The foundation date for the diocese of Dunblane seems to have occurred about 1150, or slightly earlier, and this might suggest that St Serf's Church was built in the third decade of the 12th century. Nonetheless, dates in the second quarter or the 12th century, mid-12th century, late-12th and even early-13th century have all been suggested. There remain, unfortunately, no sources which can help clarify what was happening with architectural developments in the Strathearn area at this time.

MacGibbon and Ross (vol. 1, p. 206) argued that the chuch at Dunning must date to between 1200 and 1219, as 'it may be inferred that it did not exist in the year 1200, from its not being mentioned in the charters of that year', but that it was mentioned in a charter of confirmation dated 1219 as having been granted to the Abbey of Inchaffray. However, the gift of a church to another ecclesiastical establishment shows only that the church existed by that date, whilst the lack of reference does not show a lack of existance. It is certainly possible that the carved work at Dunning was created at two different times. Stylistically, most of the early stonework fits into either the 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century, and the pointed arch arguably in the later 12th or early 13th century. Because of the wall plaster around the arch, it is at present impossible to determine if the arch is a later addition. Comparisons of the cusp decoration at Dunning suggest that it likely evolved from the cusped decoration with lower ball motif that seems to have begun in the SW part of England (as at Reading Abbey and in the Herefordshire School). Curiously, Wilson (J. and W.) also wrote that the arch had been rebuilt later than the main structure of the tower. As J. Wilson was minister of the church in the period 1861 to 1878, he would have seen the exposed stonework when the arch was found and repaired, though he makes no written comment concerning this.

The excavations carried out in 2013, which showed the lower courses bonded in with the N side of the nave is certainly significant, but it should also be mentioned that the exterior base for both the nave and tower are unlike other known 12th-century related buildings, as there appears to be no chamfer along the upper edge. However, the foundations of an earlier building were also found running at an angle different from the tower. These foundations were cut by the 12th-century ones 'and a crude attempt' made to 'integrate them into the plinth of the tower'. Earlier burials were also found, the remains of which had been disrupted by the building of the tower. The coursing of stones on the exterior of the tower are very inconsistent, and only rarely course with the upper levels of the west end of the nave, where a few medieval corbels survive. How is one to interpret these anomalies? Authors of these excavation reports suggest a date around 1150 for both the tower and its earlier attached church.

The date of the corbels on the north side of the earlier 'chancel' is enigmatic. One would expect the 12th-century chancel to have been narrower than the nave, but the north wall at Dunning is on the same alignment as the north wall at the west end of the nave. In HES's reconstruction of the church, the 12th-century chancel is depicted narrower. MacGibbon and Ross (p. 211) refer to 'the bases of pillars' being found 'in situ' , and Wilson (J. and W.) state that these were to do with the chancel arch.

The section of cusping on the exterior of the south nave wall can be compared in Scotland with the double row of this motif found on the label on the west side of the west chancel arch of the ruined church at Tyninghame, and with the top of a capital on the E side of the S nave doorway of the former Dunfermline Abbey church. This motif is found not infrequently in England, but the main difference at Dunning between Tynninghame, Dunfermline and the English examples is that with the cusps at Dunning the the background depth at the lower edge between the cusps is deeper than at the top.

The large, early-Christian cross displayed centrally inside the tower was moved there from Dupplin in 2002 and was not found in Dunning.


The Bannatyne Club, Liber Insule Missarum (Edinburgh, 1847), 5 no. 1, 7-8 no. 3, 16 no. 13, 16-17 no. 14, 18-19 no. 15, 25 no. 23, 26 no. 24, 27 no. 25, 28 no. 26, and 109 no. 19.

E. Campbell, ‘St Serf’s Church’, Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, 14 (New Series, 2013) (Tisbury, 2014), 153-4.

M. Cook, 'An Early Christian vallum in Dunning?', Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal, 14 (Glenrothes, 2008), 9-15.

I. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Edinburgh, 1967), 54.

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