The religious communities of Fetternear

Dr Penny Dransart

How did medieval bishops’ palaces convey expressions of spiritual value as well as authority in public life? The purpose of the Scottish Episcopal Palaces Project (SEPP) is to investigate the development of bishop's residences in Scotland up to the disestablishment of the episcopacy at the end of the 17th century. The word ‘palace’ is used here as a conventional term to refer to the residence of a bishop. From early Christian times, bishops were consecrated as spiritual overseers of the church. In Scotland they had acquired territorial jurisdiction over groups of churches by the twelfth century.

During medieval times, bishops were amongst the nobles who constructed cathedrals, churches, halls, castles, hospitals, universities and bridges. A central aspect of SEPP’s work is to investigate their residences as a basis for enquiring into the relationship between ecclesiastical and castle architecture. SEPP examines the physical and allegorical aspects of bishop's palaces in their landscape setting as well as aspects of the material culture associated with these senior church leaders and their households. In exploring the multi-functional roles of medieval bishops' palaces, the project investigates how the bishops conducted their pastoral and temporal work in a manner suited to their lordly status, taking into account their need for defence on spiritual as well as on physical levels.

To date, research by SEPP on buildings associated with the bishops from the 12th century up to the disestablishment in 1691 has identified over one hundred residences, mostly pre-Reformation (that is, pre 1560). Many of the sites are in a ruinous condition with very little surviving physical evidence. Moreover, few references survive in the documentary record. At the other end of the spectrum, Spynie Castle (Diocese of Moray), a bishop’s palace from the twelfth to seventeenth centuries, became a residence incorporating what seems to have been Scotland’s largest tower. Relatively few of these sites in Scotland have been subject to detailed archaeological investigation. Palaces, however, constituted a special aspect of the built environment since they provided a means for bishops to oversee the conduct of the church in the different parts of their diocese.

Of fifteen possible episcopal sites in the medieval dioceses of Aberdeen and Moray, SEPP has conducted detailed work on two: Kinneddar (diocese of Moray) and Fetternear (diocese of Aberdeen). It is anticipated to extend the study of these sites in comparison to other bishops’ residences in Scotland and elsewhere.

SEPP was established in 1995 by the late Nicholas Bogdan and Penelope Dransart as co-directors. The deputy director is Jonathan R. Trigg.

The Scottish Episcopal Palaces has worked with the Heritage Lottery Fund, communities and local history associations at Fetternear to provide heritage skills training with members of the local community. It has active research collaborations with  Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool and with Blairs Museum, The Museum of Scotland’s Catholic Heritage .

Professional beneficiaries of the research activities include Aberdeenshire Council, Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland through providing data to enable these bodies to comply with planning regulations and their statutory obligations regarding the archaeological heritage.

Funders of research include:

Heritage Lottery Fund

Aberdeenshire Council

Hunter Archaeological Trust

Society of Antiquaries of London

Through the work in this research area the School has active research links and collaborations with researchers and practitioners in:

Colloques Château Gaillard

Dransart, P. 2012 ‘The origins of some bishops’ residences as castles in Scotland’, Château Gaillard 25. L’origine du château médiéval: 119-124. Caen: Publications du CRAHM.

Dransart, P. 2012 ‘Representing gender and homosociality: hierarchy and clerical investments in Medieval Scotland’. In Dress and Identity, M. Harlow, ed., 95-107. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Dransart, P. and Bogdan, N.Q. 2004 ‘The material culture of recusancy at Fetternear: kin and religion in post-Reformation Scotland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 134, 457-470.

Scottish Episcopal Palaces Project | Publications