St Mary’s Church

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Set in a graveyard on the edge of the town along the River Tyne, this is a lovely setting. Signing in Haddington isn’t very good and we eventually found the church more by good luck than my navigating skills. It is worth finding. The sweet smell from the maltings adds to the atmosphere.

It is a long low building with side aisles, transepts and a low square tower. It is the largest parish church in Scotland and longer than St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. There are pinnacles on the buttresses and ends of the nave and a small cross at the west end of the nave. Looking at the church, the colour of the stone to the west of the tower is paler than that to the east. The architecture is less ornate to the east. This is explained by the history of the church.

Building began in 1380 when it replaced an earlier church destroyed by the English under Edward I. Haddington was occupied by the English Army in 1548 during the Siege of Haddington, during the Rough Wooing when Henry VIII tried to persuade the Scots to agree a marriage between his son Edward and the infant Mary Queen of Scots. The chancel, transepts and tower were left roofless. The townsfolk could not afford to restore the church and built a wall across the end of the nave and used this. The rest was left open to the elements. The church was finally restored in the 1970s and has been described as one of the most significant church restorations of the 20thC. The only clues to the restoration are in the slightly different colour stone, architecture and some of the pillars in the chancel are eroded.

There is a splendid west end with two double doorways with round arches above each with to larger carved arches above them. There is a carved frieze of foliage round the tops of the pillars and a large stained glass window above. Inside, steps lead down into the church. (Disabled access is through a small door on the north wall.)

There was a warm welcome as soon as we entered the church and I was given a lot of free information about the church. The church is large inside with side aisles extending the length of the church. There is a small balcony above the west end. Pillars with a carved frieze and pointed arches separate nave and side aisles. Clerestory windows above the side aisles are plain glass, side aisles have 19th or 20thC stained glass. These include a Burne Jones Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John in the south transept, which was given to the church when it was restored. it had come from Torquay. The pulpit and font in the nave date from 1892 and are carved stone standing on legs.

The ribs of the vaulted ceiling are deep beige and have carved bosses where they meet. There is a large organ in the north transept. The south transept has a huge carved stone memorial on the wall with full size figures on either side with a very worn inscription between them. Above are two figures holding a shield. Next to it and partially hidden by screens in another badly eroded monument with a skull and cross bones on the base.

At the end of the north and south aisles are altars with a tapestry wall covering above them and on the altar front. That in the south aisle is supposed to represent ‘hills’. That in the north aisle ‘coast’. The chancel has carved stone altar beneath a large plain glass window. On the floor are old tombstones. In the transept is a modern wood altar, chairs, reading desk and floor standing pulpit.

The highlight of the church must be the Lauderdale aisle off the north wall of the chancel. This was originally the sacristy but after the reformation, John, 1st Lord Maitland was allowed to use it as a burial vault. He is buried her with his son the 1st Earl of Lauderdale and their wives in a splendid black marble and alabaster joint tomb. The monument was erected in 1675 by the 2nd Earl of Lauderdale, a very powerful man who virtually ran Scotland for Charles II. Beneath is the Lauderdale family vault.

Dark marble pillars support arches with painted heraldic shields on them. Above in the centre two eagles hold a gold shield with the red lion of Scotland on it. Above are helmets and a red lion holding a small sword and a blue fleur de lys. On either side a wyvern and a dog or a wyvern and a horse support a heraldic shield with a small coronet above. There is latin inscription above each.

On the wall opposite is a small stone altar. On the wall above is a clothed and crowned figure of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child with figures of the three Magi bringing gifts. This were carved by an Oberammergau woodcarver when the aisle was restored in 1978.

This is a fascinating church and we wished we could have spent longer here. Opening times are fairly restricted. It is open Sunday – Friday from 1.30-4 with a short service at 2pm. On Saturday it is open 11-4 with a short service at noon.

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