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Loch Leven, St Serf's Island, St Serf's Priory Church

Priory (Medieval)

Site Name Loch Leven, St Serf's Island, St Serf's Priory Church

Classification Priory (Medieval)

Alternative Name(s) Culdee Monastery

Canmore ID 27872

Site Number NO10SE 3

NGR NO 16156 00260

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Perth And Kinross
  • Parish Portmoak (Perth And Kinross)
  • Former Region Tayside
  • Former District Perth And Kinross
  • Former County Kinross-shire

Archaeology Notes

NO10SE 3 16156 00260

(NO 1615 0025) Priory (NR) (Ruins)

OS 6" map (1920)

St Serf's Priory was originally a Culdee establishment, supposedly founded before AD 843. About AD 1150 King David granted the island to the Augustinian Canons and the Culdees were absorbed or expelled. In 1580 the priory was given to St Leonard's College, St Andrews.

The remains represent the oblong chamber of a 12th century church, measuring 27 by 19 1/4 feet over walls 2 1/2 feet thick. There are traces of an archway in each end wall, the one to the east giving access to a chancel, proved by excavation to have been rectangular, and the one to the west to a tower or nave. The building has been converted into a fishing hut or bothy.

About 25 yards westward of the church are the foundations of a large rectangular structure, measuring 83 feet 2 inches by 22 feet 8 inches within walls over 5 feet thick. Excavation revealed burials to the south and west of the chapel and within the chancel.

Upon the northern side of the island there is an excavation about 100 yards long and 10 feet deep containing ruins and the stones of a small house. This may have been the site of the separate cells of the Culdee community.

A Kerr 1882; RCAHMS 1933; W D Simpson 1935; D E Easson 1957.

Under guardianship in 1961.

(Undated) information in NMRS.

There are traces of other features visible on aerial photographs (RCAHMSAP 1991) lying approx. 80m to the S of the priory. These appear to be later than the cultivation marks.

Information from RCAHMS (RHM) 29 March 1994.


Field Visit (3 June 1925)

St. Serf's Priory.

On the largest island on Loch Leven, a low sandy flat of some 80 acres not far from the southern shore, are remains, which the masonry and details prove to represent the oblong chamber of a 12th century church, measuring 27 by 19 ¼ feet over walls 2 ½ feet thick. The older masonry is of thinly jointed ashlar, fairly cubical, laid in 14-inch courses with occasional stones set against the bed; a double footing returns on three sides, the northern side having a single footing only. There are traces of an archway in each end wall. Of these the one on the east gave access to a chancel, which excavation (1) has proved to have been rectangular, with an internal width of 9 feet and a length of 13 feet 6 inches. The one on the west opened to either a tower or a nave, a feature which was possibly an afterthought. This latter arch, 6 ½ feet wide, has a hollow-chamfered impost not unlike a common Saxon form. In the south wall are a small lintelled window, a niche with simple arch-head, a benatura, and a lintelled doorway, all of which are secondary. The building has been converted into a fishing hut or bothy; where old masonry has been re-used, it is indicated on the plan by a cross-hatch.

About 25 yards westward of the church are the foundations of a large rectangular structure, measuring 83 feet 2 inches by 22 feet 8 inches within walls over 5 feet in thickness. Its character is indeterminate.

Excavation revealed burials south and west of the chapel, while within the chancel, which had been divided into four compartments by thin stone walls, there were found nine complete skeletons (1).

HISTORICAL NOTE.- Brude, the last king of the Picts (d. 843) is said to have given the island of Lochleven to God and Saint Serf and the hermit Culdees dwelling and serving God there. Thereafter the Culdees granted their ground to Fothath, Bishop of St. Andrews, in return for the provision of food and clothing, Ronan being then "monk and abbot." This transaction is to be dated about 950 A.D. At a later date Macbeth and Gruoch, "King and Queen of Scots" granted Kirkness to the Culdees of the island; Maldunus, Bishop of St. Andrews, gave them the church of Markinch; Tuadal, the church of "Sconyn " (Scoonie) on the westside of Largo Bay; Queen Margaret the "vill" of Balcristie, in the parish of Newburn, which is to be interpreted as an annual rent; Modach (?Fothath), bishop of St. Andrews, the church of "Hurkenedorath"; Ethelred, son of Malcolm and Margaret, Ardmore (now Auchmoor) at the east end of Loch Leven; and King Edgar (1097-1107) "Petnemokane" near Kirkness. About 1150 King David granted the island to the canons of St. Andrews that they might establish the canonical order there and expel those Culdees who should refuse to conform (2). Two or three years later, Bishop Robert conferred the "Abbey"* on the Priory of St. Andrews (3). The grant included sixteen books, four of them service-books, which formed the library of the island Priory. The existing building is probably later than these transactions. In and after 1395 the prior of St. Serf's was Andrew of Wyntoun, author of The Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, which was probably written within the Priory.

RCAHMS 1933, visited 3 June 1925.

(1) Proc. Soc. Ant. Scot., xvi (1881-2), pp.159-68. (2) Liber Cartarum Prior. S. Andree (Bannatyne Club), passim. The grants specified are recorded in Notitia. (3) Ibid. Cf. Lawrie's Early Scottish. Charter's, p. 446.

* 'Abbatiam' in the general sense of 'monastery.' St. Serf's was strictly a priory.

Excavation (1 August 2011 - 13 April 2011)

NO 16156 00260 A walkover survey, geophysical surveys and an excavation of two trial trenches were undertaken, 1–13 August 2011, at the site of St Serf’s Priory. The work formed part of a programme of community-based fieldwork by the Culdee Archaeology Project.

The gradiometer survey revealed a series of large concentric oval enclosures centred on the surviving priory chapel at the SE side of the island. The largest enclosure was 200 x 110m and has been interpreted as the remains of the possible vallum or sanctuary enclosure for the Pictish monastery of St Serf’s, thought to have been established during the late 7th century AD. These findings were corroborated by data from the resistance survey, which showed a curvilinear anomaly defined by a band of high and low resistance. Linear anomalies and areas of magnetic disturbance within the enclosures may be remains of historic roads, light industry or occupation areas within the monastery. The general outline of the high medieval priory buildings were also traced, as were suggestions of the N and S range, which are no longer apparent on the surface and were probably extensively robbed out.

Trench A was opened to investigate a visible earthwork 63m NW of the priory. This ditch/cutting, which measures 70m long by 10m wide and 1.5m deep, was initially identified during a site visit in April 2011. A 2 x 15m trench was excavated at the E end of the feature and a half section taken of the S side. The excavation recorded a small mound of dumped fine white sand, containing sherds of medieval pottery, overlying thin compacted layers of highly organic material, which were considered indicative of periods of standing water. The feature was man-made, with several re-cuts on the S side, and had a roughly flat base. A fish pond is recorded on the island during the 16th century and this feature could have been adapted for this purpose, before the loch water level was lowered in 1830.

Trench B (2 x 10m) was positioned to evaluate a section of the large enclosure and possible vallum identified by the geophysical surveys at the E end of the island. The remains of a low and c3m wide earth bank were recorded in the trench. The bank was buried to the S by a medieval field soil, which contained pottery, corroded iron nails and a possible knife blade.

The S edge of a cut feature, identified as an outer ditch, was revealed (in plan) in the middle of the trench, below 0.6m of sand and gravel subsoils. The ditch appeared as bands of dark silty sand, charcoal and sandy gravel, which ran perpendicular to the trench. The S edge of the feature was partially investigated, to confirm the cut profile and obtain charcoal samples for radiocarbon dating. A fragment of a possible ceramic crucible was found in the upper fill of this feature. The possible ditch was preserved in situ for future investigation and the trench backfilled.

A walkover survey across the island located several small earthwork features to the S and E of the priory remains. These may be turf-built cellular buildings, of possible Early Historic date, and the remains of corn-drying kilns. Several shooting hides were also found across the island, with a concentration at the W end.

Local volunteers assisted with the excavation and surveys. An open day was held with information and finds on display. The Scottish Glider Centre also recorded new aerial photographs of the site during excavation. Thanks to members of Kinross-shire Historical Society and Kinross Marshall Museum for voluntary help with the fieldwork. More information can be found on the project’s Facebook community forum page.

Archive: RCAHMS (intended). Report: Historic Scotland and PKHT

Funder: Historic Scotland and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

OJT Surveys, 2011

Excavation (1 August 2012 - 15 August 2012)

NO 16156 00260 The final season of the Culdee Archaeology Project involved further geophysical survey and trial excavation, 1–15 August 2012, at St Serf’s Priory. The work formed part of a pilot research and community project, which aimed to reveal more about the layout and function of early medieval monasteries in Perth and Kinross.

Trench B which had been opened in 2011 (DES 2011, 156) to investigate the line of a large enclosure identified by geophysical survey was reopened in 2012. The remains of a ditch and bank, a possible posthole and pit were excavated to natural. These appear to represent partial settlement remains within what may be a monastic vallum. Medieval pottery sherds and fragmentary copper-alloy artefacts were recovered from the ditch fills. A Neolithic tanged flint arrowhead was recovered during sieving of the spoil heap. Further post-excavation analysis will help to establish the sequence of the ditch and settlement remains.

The resistance survey was expanded SE of the priory remains and recorded the continuation of the possible vallum enclosure. Low altitude aerial photography was taken of the excavation and priory remains. An online digital tour of the site has been developed based on this imagery. On request, the Scottish Glider Centre recorded new oblique aerial photographs of the island.

Archive: PKHT and RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: Historic Scotland and Living Lomonds Landscape Partnership

Oliver J T O’Grady, OJT Heritage


Radiocarbon Dating (November 2017)

NO 16156 00260 (NO10SE 3) Further post-excavation analysis was undertaken, November 2017, on an archive from excavations at St Serf’s Island in 2011–12, including paleoenvironmental assessment of soil samples and new radiocarbon dates. New information was generated about a boundary ditch feature that was shown by previous geophysical survey to surround the nearby Augustinian Priory, on at least its N and E sides. Radiocarbon dates indicate that the ditch and associated bank were created during the 12th century. The boundary feature may be the precinct sanctuary for the medieval priory or a field enclosure.

Archive: Kinross Museum, NRHE and PKHT (intended)

Funder: Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Environment Scotland

Oliver O’Grady – OJT Heritage

(Source: DES, Volume 18)


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