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Torphichen, Bowyett, Torphichen Preceptory And Torphichen Parish Church

Church (18th Century), Preceptory (Medieval), War Memorial(S) (20th Century)

Site Name Torphichen, Bowyett, Torphichen Preceptory And Torphichen Parish Church

Classification Church (18th Century), Preceptory (Medieval), War Memorial(S) (20th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Hospital Of Torphichen; Preceptory Of St John; War Memorials

Canmore ID 47978

Site Number NS97SE 7

NGR NS 96894 72516

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


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

  • Council West Lothian
  • Parish Torphichen
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District West Lothian
  • Former County West Lothian

Recording Your Heritage Online

Torphichen Preceptory, 13th-15th century

Curious and atmospheric relic; the crossing and two transepts of the only house of the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem in Scotland. The vanished choir may never have been built: the parish kirk occupies the site of the nave. Traces of domestic offices, refectory and cloister remain on the north. In 1843, fragments of old massive buildings in the village and the stones in the fences over the face of the adjacent country (indicated) how great and magnificent a seat of population once surrounded the church. Atmospheric interior, currently gaunt and plain, its plaster having being stripped off. Exquisite traceried windows, one in each transept, and ribbed vaulting to transept and crossing, fine carved archway in the latter, with tomb recess and piscina in the south transept. Reached by turnpike are three upper domestic rooms (complete with fireplaces) devoted to an exhibition of the Knights Hospitallers.

Torphichen Parish Kirk, 1756

Neatly scaled T-plan kirk with scrolled skewputts and birdcage belfry: three lofts within, each reached independently, one from a picturesque forestair in the angle. Light interior with elegantly coved and corniced ceiling. Original bar pews - with reserved stalls for the knights, headed by the Prior of Scotland. The heraldic achievements on the two balcony fronts are those of Walter Lord Torphichen and Walter Gillon of Wallhouse. A plaque to Henry Bell (1767-1820), designer of the Comet (Europe's first steam-powered ship), born at nearby Torphichen Mill, is under the balcony. 1772 gatehouse in the peaceful kirkyard, several fine table tombs, and a sanctuary stone. Such stones once sat at a mile radius on each point of the compass, of which the Gormyre Stone to the east-north-east and the Westfield Stone survive.

Taken from "West Lothian: An Illustrated Architectural Guide", by Stuart Eydmann, Richard Jaques and Charles McKean, 2008. Published by the Rutland Press

Archaeology Notes

NS97SE 7 96894 72516

NS97SE 50.00 96872 72495 Churchyard

NS97SE 50.01 96826 72491 Gatehouse (Offertory)

For associated refuge or sanctuary stones, see NS97SW 2, and NS97SE 12, NS97SE 22, NS97SE 25, NS97SE 30.

(NS 9688 7251) Preceptory (NR) (remains of)

OS 6"map, (1968).

The preceptory and 'about a Scotch acre (6150.4sq yds) of land' were enclosed by a moat, 20ft wide, whose course can still distinctly traced (ie in 1843).

NSA (W M Hetherington 1843), 1845.

There is now no trace of a moat unless a small stream which encloses the area on three sides is taken as evidence of such. The Rev J Duns, Free Church Minister does not believe there ever was a moat.

Name Book 1856.

All that has survived of Torphichen Preceptory is the crossing and transepts of the church, surmounted respectively by a bell-tower and upper chambers (restored in the late 1920s). The first church was founded in the 12th century, and there were apparently two major reconstructions in 14th and 15th century. The site of the nave (see RCAHMS plan, fig.295) is now occupied by the parish church built in 1756 (G Hay 1957). The domestic range of the preceptory lay to the N, but the only indication now left is the roof-raggle on the transept gable. The precinct has evidently been walled and of considerable size, extending from Bowgate on the N (marked on OS 6" 1922 as "Tower & Gate" (site of), southwards to the remains of a circular tower in the manse garden, popularly spoken of as a dovecot, but more probably a gate or terminal tower. Foundations have been ploughed up 50 yds E of the churchyard. The Preceptor's apartments lay immediately W of the church, approximately on the site of the present vestry, and probably extended N along the W side of the cloister.

This was the only house of the Knights Hopitallers, or Knights of St. John, in Scotland; they received the lands of "Torphigan" from David I (1124-53). It was secularised in 1563/4

RCAHMS 1929, visited 1924; P Mackay 1968; D MacGibbon and T Ross 1887; D MacGibbon and T Ross 1897; D E Easson 1957; I B Cowan 1964; DoE 1967.

The Preceptory is as described. Part of the domestic

range has been uncovered.

Visited by OS (JP) 20 August 1974.

Angle tower at NS 9679 7243 has been demolished

Visited by RCAHMS(JBS) 12 August 1985.

NS 9689 7251 A short period of archaeological monitoring was undertaken in May 2003 during preparations for a new flag pole. Nothing of archaeological significance was found.

Archive to be deposited in the NMRS.

Sponsor: HS

G Ewart 2003.

Architecture Notes

NS97SE 7 96894 72516

Collection item SMO T/5/1 has tentatively been linked to this location (AC 13 August 2002).


Scottish Record Office:-

Lord Torphichen's loft in the new church.

Letter from Alexander Innes to [Lady Torphichen].

He reports on the meeting of the Heritors and their consideration of the seating in Lord Torphichen's loft. They are of the opinion that a stair should be built to the loft.

1771 SRO/GD1/820/2

Claims for seats in the new Church.

Letter from Lady Elizabeth Torphichen. She indicates the seating she requires and expresses the opinion that the church should be complted before their proportion of the cost was wholly paid. The letter to Robert Menzies accompanied plans of the old and new churches.

1771 SRO/GD1/820/6

The National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, contains among the 'uncatalogued MSS of General Hutton and numbered 70, vol.1, a plan, dated 1813, of the remains of the Preceptory of Torphichen lying about five miles South of Linlithgow.


Field Visit (7 March 1924)

Hospital or Preceptory of Torphichen.

The remains of this establishment (RCAHMS 1929, Fig. 292), which was the principal seat of the Hospitallers or Knights of St John, stand in a sheltered valley lying 2 ¼ miles north of Bathgate, in the hilly uplands between that burgh and Linlithgow; all that has survived is the crossing and transepts of the church, surmounted respectively by a bell-tower and upper chambers. There were apparently two major reconstructions, and it is probable that in the last scheme of expansion the choir was not completed. The site of the nave is occupied by the parish church, a late 17th-century structure, featureless save for a Renaissance west belfry. The domestic range of the Preceptory lay to the north, but the only indication now left is the roof-raggle on the transept gable. The precinct has evidently been walled and of considerable dimensions, extending from Bowgate on the north (marked on O.S. Map" Tower and gate, site of ") southwards to the remains of a circular tower in the manse garden, popularly spoken of as a dovecot but more probably a gate or terminal tower. Foundations have been turned up by the plough 50 yards east of the churchyard.

The first church was founded in the 12th century, and work of this period survives in the fine transitional archway in the west screen-wall of the crossing. The archway, which is in situ, appears to be the choir arch of a small church of two chambers, but this point cannot be settled without excavation. By the 13th century the church had been expanded as a cross-church with north and south transepts, bell-tower, and presumably a lengthened choir, but the transepts were not necessarily built at one time, for the southern appears to be later and afterwards to have been extended. Lat er still, but before the last reconstruction, an aisle was added on the south of the nave, communicating with the south transept by a low archway, which was afterwards filled in.

Towards the end of the 14th century the divisions east of the nave were radically reconstructed, but whether the domestic range was then entirely rebuilt is not clear; certainly some repairs were executed at that time. This reconstruction virtually entailed the gutting and rebuilding of the transepts and crossing, the provision of a new stair-turret to the tower and the insertion of windows, crossing piers, and vaulting. In connection with the vaulting there are two details of interest. The first is that three of the vault webs are constructed in the French manner with joints rectangular to the wall surface, while the remaining webs follow normal British practice; the second detail is the existence of a working-drawing (ibid, Fig. 299) for one of the vaults, which is incised on the plaster at the south end of the west wall of the south transept; on the opposite wall were apparently other drawings, but these are now very incomplete. Similar drawings of construction are noted at Roslin Chapel, Midlothian (ibid, p. 105). In the 13th century all parts save the tower were roofed at the same pitch, rather less than 45°, while the roofs, apparently of open timber, rose from wall-heads at the same level. When vaulting was inserted the transept roofs were raised, and the alterations can still be traced on the north transept. In the early 15th century an upper storey was formed above the north transept, and shortly afterwards the south transept was similarly heightened. The stair-tower also was increased in height.

Externally the masonry is ashlar work wrought from a local freestone; the interior of crossing, tower, and transepts and the vaulting are also of ashlar, but the upper chambers are merely ashlar-faced with rubble work behind. The present roofs, which are of timber covered with slate, are modern.

See RCAHMS 1929, pp.234-7 for a full architectural description


The tombstone of Robert Boyd of Kipps, advocate, who died on 10th July 1645, lies on the floor of the south transept. It is much destroyed and the details are illegible. A shield can just be traced, charged apparently with a fess cheeky, for Boyd. Until recent years a lengthy Latin inscription was legible, and has been recorded in ‘The Monros of Auchinbowie’, by J. A. Inglis, p. 204.


In the belfry at the west end of the parish church hangs a small plain bell, 21 inches in diameter. It bears the inscription IOHN . MEIKL . FECIT. FOR. TORPHICHIN . KIRK. 1700.

RCAHMS 1929, visited 7 March 1924

OS 6-inch map: v.SW

Measured Survey (1924)

Ground and upper plans of the church at Torphichen preceptory were surveyed by RCAHMS in 1924. The survey drawings were drawn up in ink and published in 1929 (RCAHMS 1929, fig. 295).

Publication Account (1985)

The Hospital or Preceptory of Torphichen was the only Scottish seat of the Knights Hospitallers or Knights of St John of Jerusalem. Mentioned in 1168, it stands in a sheltered little valley on the western side of the Torphichen Hills. By the late 12th-early 13th century, the aisleless nave, transepts, choir and central tower had all been built-though not necessarily all at once. In the 15th century the transepts and crossing were reconstructed and heightened; and the nave continued in use as the parish church until replaced in 1756 by the present T-plan church alongside.

Nave and choir, which had remained low and woodenroofed, have almost completely disappeared, as have the domestic buildings to the north; the transept and tower were used as the courthouse of the Regality of Torphichen after the Reformation-the reason no doubt for their survival!

Transepts and crossings are almost equal in size. A late 14th century turnpike stair leads from the north transept to the mainly 13th century vaulted tower with bell-chamber above, and when the transepts were heightened, doors were put through from the bellchamber. Also in the north transept, the central roofvault boss is inscribed 'IHS' encircled by 'Maria', whilst one of the ridge ribs refers to Sir Andrew Meldrum, Preceptor in the 1430s. By contrast, on the wall-plaster of the south transept a fragmentary working drawing survives for the wedge-shaped stones of one of the arches (similar constructional drawings survive at Roslin Chapel: no. 58).

The wide semi-circular Transitional wall at the west side of the crossing once led to the nave. Here two sculptured panels survive from a 16th century monument commissioned by Sir Walter Lindsay for his maternal uncle, Sir George Dundas, whom he succeeded as preceptor in 1532. An illegible tombstone to Robert Boyd of Kip ps, advocate (1645) lies in the south transept floor.

Within the Preceptory churchyard stands a crossinscribed stone believed to mark the centre of the privileged sanctuary ground. It also bears prehistoric cup-marks. Other stones about 1.5 km from the centre indicated the limit of the legal sanctuary granted to criminals, debtors and thers who entered and remained within its precincts. Such Refuge Stones lurk near North Couston eNS 956707) and east of Gormyre Farm (NS 980731).

Not to be confused with the Knights of St John are the Knights Templar whose main Scottish house was at Temple in Midlothian (NT 315587) from the mid 12th century until their suppression in 1312. The surviving building at Temple cannot be earlier than late 13th mid 14th century, though it re-uses some 12th century masonry. There is a very fine gravestone alongside, dated 1742 and depicting fanner John Craig of Outerston in a long coat, bonnet and knotted scarf; accompanied by his two sons.

Information from 'Exploring Scotland's Heritage: Lothian and Borders', (1985).

Watching Brief (22 May 2003)

NS 9689 7251 A short period of archaeological monitoring was undertaken in May 2003 during preparations for a new flag pole. Nothing of archaeological significance was found.

G Ewart 2003

Sponsor: HS

Kirkdale Archaeology

Geophysical Survey (April 2011)

NS 96894 72516 In April 2011 members of the West Lothian Archaeology Group, including architectural historian Geoffrey Stell, viewed the architecture of Torphichen Perceptory, originally the Scottish headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, to examine its potential for further investigation. After viewing the Knights’ Garden, the group considered the area to the SW. At the lower end of the Bow Yett are the possible remains of the S gatehouse of the Preceptory, located adjacent to the exterior wall of the 18th-century Glebe gardens.

After a brief examination of the 13th-century remains of the gatehouse it was decided that the Glebe gardens may contain further remains of the tower itself. An examination of the gardens revealed a low raised bank in the area that could have housed the original tower, a position that would have overlooked the road N towards the fortified monastic settlement. The visibility of this feature increased when it was photographed in the near infra-red.

After consultation with the owner it was decided that an earth resistance geophysical survey could be performed across the area. A single 20 x 20m grid accommodated the survey area and a high sampling resolution was used to record the feature in detail. The results suggest that there is a low circular bank, with an outer diameter of 15m, surrounding the possible remains of a smaller, 4m diameter circular structure, off-centre towards the N, with a possible entrance on the SE side. This could reflect the foundation remains of the outer wall, with the tower base within the hollow. Although the presence of a modern gas main in the middle of the area would make any intrusive investigation difficult further work remains a possibility.

West Lothian Archaeology, 2011


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