Scottish Architectural Debts to Flanders in the Later Middle Ages

Amy Eberlin
Friday 24 October 2014

This is a third in what will be a series of blog postings examining the role the Flemish played in shaping Scotland’s architectural and artistic heritage.  The first two, dated December 6th and 13th 2013, focussed on the pan tiles and crow steps that are a well know feature of Scotland’s coastal towns and villages.  In this posting Professor Richard Fawcett examines the role of the Flemish in what he terms “the formation of Scottish ecclesiastical architectural taste”.

Later medieval church architecture in Scotland is the result of a fascinating synthesis of ideas brought together from a wide range of sources. The long wars with England that had such a devastating impact on Scottish creativity for much of the fourteenth century resulted in a reluctance to re-establish the close architectural links that had existed between the two countries throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Instead, amongst much else, we find Scottish patrons and their masons looking to those parts of Continental Europe with which they had the closest ongoing contacts for at least some of their inspiration, as they worked out a fresh approach to meeting their architectural needs.

The best-documented Continental debts are to France. The work of the Paris-born mason John Morow in the early fifteenth century, for example, can be traced at Melrose and Paisley Abbeys, at Lincluden Collegiate Church and at Glasgow Cathedral, on the basis of the inscribed account of his works at Melrose. We also have records of contributions by several French masons to the magnificent palaces built or enlarged for James V.

The contributions of masons from the Low Countries, and from Flanders in particular, are less well documented. Nevertheless, the architectural evidence suggests that their buildings were a significant factor in the melting pot of ideas, and some masons were evidently brought to Scotland to work. Support for this can be found at the very end of our period in the work of a craftsman with the name of Peter Flemisman, who carved statues for the exterior of Falkland Palace in 1538-9. Further support comes after the Reformation, when Lawrence the Fleming was one of two masons recruited by the municipality of Edinburgh at Middelburg in 1599, after being heavily plied with drink.

The admiration in which Flemish works of art were held by Scottish patrons is, of course, well attested, as illustrated by the retable that Bishop George Brown bought for the high altar of his cathedral at Dunkeld in the early sixteenth century, and it is very likely that many of the imported artefacts for which Andrew Halyburton acted as an agent had their origins in Flanders. From other sources we learn that in some cases Flemish craftsmen had to be prepared to travel to Scotland to fit their works into their intended location, as in the troubled case of the stalls of Melrose Abbey that were ordered from the carpenter Cornelius van Aeltre of Bruges in about 1433.

So far as architecture is concerned, a taste for Netherlandish works is apparent in the presence of a number of features in Scotland’s major late medieval churches that can be most satisfactorily explained by an emulation of buildings that had been seen by potential patrons in the course of their travels through the Low Countries. But here it must be made clear that those admired buildings were located not only in Flanders, but in the neighbouring counties of Zeeland and Holland, and possibly further afield as well. This is hardly surprising when we remember the movements of the Scottish staple, the main channel for commercial contacts between the Scotland and the Low Countries: although it was located at Bruges for much of the later middle ages, it was also for periods at Middelburg and Veere.

One of the most impressive results of the architectural contacts between Scotland and the Low Countries is the west tower of the church of St Mary in Dundee, which was probably nearing completion when a bell was donated in 1495. Its most unusual two-stage design, in which the upper stage is set back within a traceried parapet punctuated by pinnacles, has its ultimate origins in the vast tower of Utrecht Cathedral. That tower was to be copied on a smaller scale in considerable numbers of churches in Holland. There was also to be a simpler variant at the church of St James in Bruges, though that has a different visual impact since it is at the centre of the building, and on balance it is more likely that it was the towers of Holland that were being copied at Dundee.

Another feature that was to be favoured in a number of later Scottish churches, and whose adoption was probably a result of contacts with the Low Countries, was arcade piers of cylindrical form. An early case of the revived use of such piers in the Netherlands may be seen in the choir of Mechelen Cathedral as rebuilt after a fire in 1342, and since Mechelen had been acquired by the counts of Flanders in 1333 it can be regarded as to some extent Flemish. However, the city was enveloped within the duchy of Brabant, and it was perhaps from churches in that duchy that the idea was imported into Scotland. The reason for suggesting that lies in the fact that, in one of the earliest cases of the use of such piers in Scotland, at Aberdeen Cathedral, there are also crossing piers of a type that is particularly associated with Brabant. Those piers have a large cylindrical core, to which four substantial semi-cylindrical shafts are attached, and they find one of their closest reflections in the tower piers of Brussels cathedral.

Nevertheless, if there is uncertainty about whether or not the masons responsible for Dundee’s tower and Aberdeen’s piers were looking to Flanders or to elsewhere in the Low Countries, at a number of other churches there are elements that appear more likely to be a result of taking ideas from Flanders. Two examples that will be briefly touched upon here are the ceiling of King’s College Chapel in Aberdeen and the west front of the collegiate church of Haddington St Mary.

Haddington St Mary exterior view
Haddington St Mary

King’s College has one of two almost identical timber barrel ceilings in Aberdeen, the other, which is now lost, having been at St Nicholas’ parish church in New Aberdeen. The former dates from around 1506, and the latter from about 1495. These ceilings are of arched profile, with a decorative cross-pattern of ribs that imitates structural ribs in stone vaulting.

What marks out the Aberdeen ceilings as different from other Scottish ceilings is the use of bosses at the rib junctions in the form of long sprigs of foliage, a type of boss that was particularly favoured in Flanders. Amongst the earliest examples are those on the timber vault of the town hall in Bruges, which was constructed in 1402. But they continued in vogue for an extended period, and they can also be seen on the timber ceilings of St Giles’ Church in Bruges, where Scottish artisans staying in the city had a chapel. Bearing in mind that Bishop William Elphinstone, whose patronage was behind both ceilings, is known to have been familiar with Bruges, and that he had imported equipment for use in building King’s Chapel from the Low Countries, the likelihood of borrowings from Bruges seems clear.

The west front of Haddington Church stands out amongst the entrance façades of the great burgh churches for its unusual sophistication. The central part of the front is framed by strong buttresses capped by pinnacles, and the processional entrance is through a pair of round-arched doorways within a round-headed embracing arch. Immediately above this is a large window that is subdivided into two parts by unusually massive sub-arches, and running over the window, at the base of the gable, is traceried parapet.

The closest Scottish parallels for the form of the door and the massive sub-arches of the great window are to be seen in the tower of St Mary’s church in Dundee, which it has already been said must very probably owe its design to prototypes in the Netherlands. Parallels for other elements in the design of Haddington’s entrance front can be found elsewhere in the Netherlands. But one of the buildings with a façade that must have demonstrated the closest similarities for the design as a whole was the church of the Dominicans in Bruges, which has been almost completely lost, but is known in some detail from a number of engravings.

More examples of likely Scottish architectural debts to the Low Countries could be offered, particularly in the use of certain types of window tracery. It should be stressed, however, that the process of building up these debts appears to have involved copying individual elements and grafting them onto the native stock, rather than attempting to adopt the architectural vocabulary of another nation in its entirety. But enough has been said to demonstrate the likelihood that inspiration drawn from the Low Countries, including Flanders, must have been a significant contributor to the pool of ideas involved in the formation of Scottish ecclesiastical architectural taste in the last century and a half before the Reformation.

Richard Fawcett

October 2014

Professor Richard Fawcett, OBE, PhD, FRSE, FSA, spent most of his career working in the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments of Historic Scotland, where he was involved in the conservation and presentation of many of Scotland’s most significant medieval buildings. He now teaches in the school of Art History of the University of St Andrews 

Suggestions for further reading

Cosmo Innes (ed.), The Ledger of Andrew Halyburton (Edinburgh, 1867)

Grant G. Simpson (ed.), Scotland and the Low Countries, 1124-1994 (East Linton, 1996)

Richard Fawcett, ‘Architectural Links Between Scotland and the Low Countries in the Later Middle Ages’, in E de Bièvre (ed.), Utrecht, Britain and the Continent (British Archaeological Association Transactions XVIII, Leeds, 1996), 172-82

Marjan Buyle, Thomas Coomans, Jan Esther and Luc Francis Genicot, Architecture Gothique en Belgique (Editions Racine, 1997)

John G. Dunbar, Scottish Royal Palaces (East Linton, 1999)

Richard Fawcett, The Architecture of the Scottish Medieval Church, 1100-1560 (Yale University Press, 2011)

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