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History of St. Mary's and the City Churches
St. Mary's Tower (The Old Steeple)


The History of St. Mary's and the City Churches.

For the origin of the Church, we turn to the twelfth century.  David, Earl of Huntingdon, brother of the Scottish King William (The Lion), had joined the Third Crusade to the Holy Land.  On his return journey, his ship was overtaken by a raging storm, and David prayed to Heaven for deliverance.  As the tempest abated, he vowed to build a Church in gratitude for his safe home-coming and in honour of the Virgin Mary.  He landed on the north bank of the Tay and called the place Donum Dei (God's Gift), that name later became Dundee. 

Earl David tasked the Abbot of Lindores with building the Church and appointing its Vicars.  The town of Dundee already had a church dedicated to St. Clement, sited in what is now the City Square.  Because of this, Earl David chose a site for his new Church outwith the burgh boundaries at the time.  This chosen site is where the present-day buildings stand.  In the year 1190 a magnificent Church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary who thereafter became the patron saint of the town.  David's brother, King William, granted Dundee its first Royal Charter as a burgh the following year. 

In 1303, Dundee was attacked by the English, and the army led by Edward I (The Hammer) torched the Church, and all the town records which had been taken there for safety were carried off or destroyed. 

By the early 15th century, work had begun to rebuild the Church, however progress on this new stone building was slow, and so the Town Council of Dundee entered into negotiations with the Abbot of Lindores with a view to speeding up progress and completion.  In 1462 the Town and Abbey reached agreement, which was drawn up and witnessed and confirmed by the Archbishop of St. Andrews.  This placed the task of building and maintaining the Church of St. Mary with the Town Council, and the Abbot and Abbey of Lindores for their part paid an annual sum of 300 Scots marks to the Town Council as a contribution to the Church. 

Thus it was that St. Mary's was built by the Town Council.  This Church was very large and had a unique feature in the length of its north and south transepts.  These were, in proportion to the nave and choir, the longest of any ecclesiastical building in Europe.  Finally, a square tower was completed in the 1480s as the final part of the great Church.  St. Mary's Tower is the only part of this fifteenth-century building which stands today, and is known to present-day Dundonians as "The Old Steeple". 

The new completed Church had a short life, however.  In 1547 an English force captured Dundee, fortified the Tower and used the Church for stables.  Whether by accident or design the Church was set on fire and the nave was destroyed along with the north and south transepts.  Only the tower and choir were saved.  The roofless and fire-cracked walls of the nave and transepts were demolished and subsequently the Town Council built up the open west end of the choir and established the first Reformed Church in Dundee, designated St. Mary's Kirk, also known as the East Kirk, being at the east end of the building.  Later in the 16th century the Town rebuilt the south transept to accommodate a second Church, known as the South Kirk. 

In the middle of the 17th century, Dundee was besieged again, this time by the English General Monk.  Being a well-fortified and thriving Royalist stronghold, Dundee withstood the siege for six weeks until the garrison and many innocent citizens were betrayed and massacred, and the Governor was ignominiously beheaded after three days heroic defence of the Great Tower of St. Mary.  Periodic excavations in Nethergate unearth human skeletons and bones, probably victims of Monk's massacre. 

In 1759 the north transept was rebuilt and a third Church, the North or Cross Church was established therein.  Finally in 1789 the nave was rebuilt to accommodate a fourth congregation, St. Clement's (or Steeple) Kirk.  From 1782 to 1841 the Town of Dundee had under one roof four separate churches, each with their own ministers and Kirk Session, sharing one tower and bells which had been installed therein. 

On the first Sunday of January in 1841 a fire broke out in the heating system of the East Kirk, and this conflagration engulfed the East and North and South transept Churches, only the nave and tower were saved.  The fine Gothic arches with their pillars were also destroyed, and the exterior walls shattered by the heat.  Damage at the time was estimated at £15,000.  The Chapter House, adjoining the north wall of the East Church was also destroyed, together with the library of over 1800 volumes, including ancient works in Greek and Latin, many dating from pre-Reformation clergy. 

The congregation of the North or Cross Church were given another place of worship by the Town Council, the former Gaelic Church near the junction of Overgate and Tay Street; however this congregation built a new Church in the suburbs to the west, in Blackness Avenue.  This 1913 Church is known as St. John's (Cross). 

The fire-damaged buildings of the East and South Churches were rebuilt and opened for worship in 1844, resulting in three congregations until the 1980s when the Steeple Church and the congregation of Old St. Paul's and St.  David's (South Church) amalgamated, and the premises of the South Church now form a community centre, dedicated to Dundee-born missionary Mary Slessor.

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St. Mary's Tower (The Old Steeple)

St. Mary's Tower is thus closely woven into the history of Dundee and has also national importance as a splendid example of the late 15th century Gothic style in Scotland. It is also the oldest surviving building in Dundee, being a belfry, a clock tower from the 16th century, and has been used as a watch-tower and prison.

In 1870 the Town commissioned the famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott to plan and manage a restoration and conservation programme. Sir John Leng donated six new bells to augment the ring to eight bells, the other two original bells having been recast and tuned.

The tower is now in the care of the Arts & Heritage department of Dundee City Council.

Features of the Tower

The Tower is 48.8 metres (160 ft) high, and there are 232 steps to the top.

External Walls.

The external walls are 2.4m (8ft) thick at the base.

On the South wall (facing Nethergate) there is a dent (now mortared over) in the base wall which is said to have been caused by a cannon shot fired by Cromwell's army under the command of General Monk when they laid siege to the Tower in 1651.

Also on the South wall just below the level of the bell room (lower wooden louvered windows) is a recess which once held the carved figure of Saint David (King David I of Scotland).

On the West side, on the parapet wall of the intermediate external gallery there was a carving of the Virgin and Child. This has become badly weathered.

The stone tracery of the great west window over the entrance doorway was restored in 1873 in the late 15th century Gothic style.

On the East side (facing the roof line of the Churches) is a doorway with four projecting stones. This doorway leads from a stairway from the Bellringers' Room and is likely to have once formed an access to a gallery or stair on the church roof, or to a clock dial. Since at that time, and even to the early 18th Century, most of Dundee lay to the east of the Churches, a clock face on that side only would have been required. Beneath this doorway there was once a carving of Our Lord. Tradition also has it that it also incorporated the Coat of Arms and name of David, Earl of Huntingdon, founder of the Church.

Ground Floor Entrance Hall

This hall is 14m (46ft) high from the floor to the centre of the vaulted roof. The hole in the centre of the roof is repeated in the upper floors up to the Bell Chamber and was designed to allow the bells to be installed and removed for maintenance.

The stone brackets sited high up on the north and south walls of the hall once supported an intermediate chamber or gallery which continued around the hall. This may have provided for leper victims, who would have gained access to it via the stairway and the door high up on the north wall just under the vaulting.

At one time this hall or chamber was divided into cells. The centre one was the death chamber where the prisoner was executed by musket shot or by darts fired from bows. Above the stone bench on the north wall are indications of nine iron stocks having been batted into it with lead and used to chain prisoners, e.g. "drunken chiels" and "raging wives". Near the centre of the north wall and right under the stone bench there are indications that a knee-grinding screw may have been provided there.

The lock on the door leading from the hall to the stair is the same one that held it shut against Cromwell's soldiers in 1651, when they set fire to a heap of wet straw piled on the floor in an attempt to smoke out the defenders of the town entrenched on the upper floors.

Antiquities Room (First Floor)

This room was once used as a prison. The trapdoors in the floor and ceiling are to remove the bells for maintenance.

Bell-Ringers' Room (Second Floor)

This room is used regularly by the Town bellringers. The bell ropes allow the bells to be rung full-circle, and the set of eight ropes near the door can be used to chime the bells. The bells are rung twice on Sundays for Church Services and also rung regularly for weddings and special occasions.

Bell-Chamber or Belfry (Third Floor)

There are eight bells tuned to a complete octave, ranging from the treble (highest note) weighing 287 kg (5cwt 2qtr 17lbs) to the tenor (lowest note) at 995 kg (19cwt 2qtr 10lbs).

The Tenor bell was cast in 1819 by Thomas Mears at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, the other seven bells were cast in 1872 by the same foundry, now called Mears & Stainbank.

The bells are a fine example of a ring of bells hung for full-circle ringing, which allows the whole bell to rotate for a full 380 degrees. There are only fifteen such rings in the whole of Scotland.

The bells are arranged in the wooden frame to minimise external forces during ringing. The bells were overhauled in 1969 by the Whitechapel bell foundry, rehung on roller bearings, with new fittings for clappers and steel headstocks.

Clock Room (Fourth Floor)

This houses the clock mechanism. An electric motor drives all four clock faces.

Cape House (Top Floor)

This room is accessed from the top balcony and is thought to be a later addition to the tower as it is believed that the tower originally had a stone pinnacle, similar to that at St. Leonard's Church in Perth.

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