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Thurso, Wilson Lane, Old St Peter's Church And Burial-ground

Burial Ground (Medieval), Church (Medieval), Grave Slab (16th Century), Grave Slab (17th Century)

Site Name Thurso, Wilson Lane, Old St Peter's Church And Burial-ground

Classification Burial Ground (Medieval), Church (Medieval), Grave Slab (16th Century), Grave Slab (17th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Shore Street; Backshore Street; Head Kirk

Canmore ID 8428

Site Number ND16NW 10

NGR ND 12043 68616

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2023.

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Highland
  • Parish Thurso
  • Former Region Highland
  • Former District Caithness
  • Former County Caithness

Archaeology Notes (1962 - 1981)

ND16NW 10 12043 68616

(ND 1204 6861) Ch (NR)

OS 6" map, (1971)

The ruins of St Peter's Church are situated in the old part of Thurso adjacent to the river. It is cruciform, without aisles, measuring externally across the transepts 79ft E-W by 82ft transversely, and has a low, vaulted apsidal cell at the E end of the choir. Adjoining the S side of this cell is a curiously planned staircase tower placed acutely to the main wall, and with a long vaulted passage leading from it into the church. The building is unlikely to belong all to one period, nor to have been planned originally as it now appears. The apsidal cell has more affinity to a 12th century structure such as St Margaret's Chapel, Edinburgh Castle (NT27SE 1.3) than to the 16th or 17th century, to which the nave and transepts belong. The dedication of St Peter suggests an early date and it is stated that Gilbert Murray, Bishop of Caithness (d. 1245) founded a church in Thurso.

The church and churchyard are neglected. The church, occupied as the parish church until 1832, appears to have had a part use as a court-house and prison in the early 18th century and is now roofless and rapidly falling into ruins, though the walls of the church are almost entire.

In the W wall of the burial ground is a tablet with initials TW and GC with the date 1357. Date and initials bear the characteristics of a later date, probably 16th century.

Sources: M E C Walcott 1874; D MacGibbon and T Ross 1887-92; RCAHMS 1911.

The remains of the church are as described and illustrated by the previous authorities. A wooden tablet outside the gate of the graveyard gives the information that the church was founded about 1220 by Gilbert, Bishop of Caithness, partly rebuilt in 1636, when the tower was erected, and closed in 1832.

Visited by OS (E G C) 18 April 1962.

(ND 1204 6861) St Peter's Church (NR) (remains of)

OS 50" map, (1965)

No change to the previous field report except that the wooden tablet has been replaced by a metal plaque at the gate in the S wall of the graveyard. The plaque, erected by Thurso Society and Town Council in 1974, reads: 'Old St Peter's Kirk. Founded circa 1220 by Gilbert Murray Bishop of Caithness. Closed to worship 1832'.

Visited by OS (J M), 1 October 1981.


Photographic Survey (November 1951)

Photographic survey likely by the Ministry of Works in November 1951.

Photographic Record (October 1961)

Photographic survey of buildings in Thurso, Caithness by the Scottish National Buildings Record in October 1961.

Reference (1990)

The ruined kirk of St Peter, although enlarged and extensively rebuilt in the first half of the 17th century, incorporates considerable remains of what may have been an early 12th century Bishop's minster or Head Kirk.

H Gordon Slade and G Watson 1990.

Reference (2007)

The Runic Inscribed Stone discovered inserted into the masonry of St. Peter's Kirk, Thurso, was surveyed, removed from the building construction, repaired and replaced with a replica. The runic stone was located in the tower wall of the church. An episode of conservation works were subsequently carried out from December 2006 until February 2007.

Nicolas Boyes Stone Conservation March 2007.

Fabric Recording (2015)

ND 12040 68610 (Canmore ID: 8428) This work was undertaken as a case study during PhD research. Each construction phase of St Peter’s Church was characterised on site in terms of masonry style and mortar-making technique, and these interpretations were supported by laboratory based analysis of loose mortar and environmental samples. The extent of each phase, and any direct and/or indirect stratigraphic relationships between mortared masonry phases were then recorded, and the results broadly support the interpretation of the building previously suggested by Slade and Watson on the basis of architectural analysis. However, a number of additional and significant details have also emerged including the identification of much more primary masonry within the nave and evidence for the primary W window, and N (side-altar) window. Moreover, mortar analysis indicates that the lower section of the tower is also primary, as is the access between tower and upper chancel. Remarkably, this primary church was constructed with a three-storey chancel, the highest floor of which could be accessed from the nave. This three-storey chancel is a unique survival in the wider region.

The upstanding masonry at St Peter’s displays a rich multiphase masonry archaeology, and many contrasting shell-lime or limestone-lime mortared phases are evident. The mortar and masonry techniques displayed in the primary fabric of St Peter’s are particularly distinctive and contrast with almost all other buildings from this period surviving in the wider region. This indicates particular material and technical resources, which give further clues as to the builders’ identity. Importantly the stratigraphy suggests the remains of the chancel wall paintings are not medieval, but are rare early modern post-Reformation images.

Archive: National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) intended

Funder: Edinburgh University

Mark Thacker – University of Edinburgh

(Source: DES, Volume 16)


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