Monday, 19 August 2013

Seton Collegiate Church

The most striking thing about Seton Collegiate Church when you see it for the first time is its truncated spire, which was apparently precluded by the Reformation. It is one of the finest surviving collegiate churches in Scotland and owes much of its grandeur to the Seton family, whose palace was near the church. It is located in a peaceful woodland setting in East Lothian (Scotland) and is sometimes still used for weddings.

Seton Church from the south

In 1242 a parish church dedicated to St Mary and the Holy Cross was consecrated on the site by the Bishop of St Andrews, probably a simple rectangular structure which later became the - now demolished - nave of the building. Around 1434 Lady Katherine St Clair, the widow of Sir John Seton,  added a chantry chapel to house his tomb. Lady Katherine's grandson, the 1st Lord Seton, founded the church and college of priests  in 1470 without securing papal permission. Approval from Pope Alexander VI secured collegiate status in 1492. (Collegiate churches got their name from the college of priests - generally established by wealthy families - to say prayers for their souls in order to win forgiveness and salvation). 

west face of the church, showing remains of demolished nave

In 1544 however during the 'Rough Wooing' conflict English troops damaged the church, burning the timber work and stealing the bells and organ. The 1560 Scottish Reformation outlawed mass and thus effectively brought an end to the collegiate life. Seton Church briefly became a parish church before becoming a private chapel for the Seton family. In 1603 King James VI was on his way to his coronation in London when he stopped here to attend the funeral of his friend the 6th Lord Seton. The Jacobite Setons lost their lands in the 1715 Rising because they had supported the exiled 'Old Pretender' James Edward Stuart, and the church was ransacked and ceased being a place of worship; at one point in the 19th century is was even a carpenter's workshop. In 1878 the Earl of Wemyss became the new owner of the church and restored the building as a family burial place. In the 1940s it passed into state care.

the fine vaulted ceiling

A bell in the south transept was made in Holland in 1577 for the 5th Lord Seton, and is a rare survival from that period.

bell dating from 1577

In the choir/chancel area a mural tomb has unknown effigies of a knight and his lady dressed in 15th century clothes, possibly members of the Seton family.

Mural tomb with unknown effigies of a knight and his lady

A door in the north wall leads to the sacristy, where the priests would have prepared for mass.

looking out of the sacristy into the choir area

The transepts (north and south) were erected sometime between 1513 and 1588.

the north transept

carved bust located in the south transept

carved corbel


Like Rosslyn Chapel, 9 miles away, Seton also has a legend of a murdered apprentice. The story is that the Master Mason in charge of building the church had a major problem erecting the vaulted roof of the nave and went to another church to examine how the vaulted roof there had been erected. Given that there were a number of churches in the vicinity with vaulted roofs it seems likely that a long journey was not involved. In the absence of the Master Mason an apprentice had made the mathematical calculations and drawings showing how the vaulted roof could be built. The Master Mason, his pride being badly bruised (not to mention his ruined reputation of as ‘Master’), flew into a rage and hit the apprentice with a mallet killing him on the spot. The reporter was informed by a local worthy, from Port Seton, that it was believed that the Seton Master Mason was none other than the disgraced Master Mason from Rosslyn Collegiate Church who had not in fact committed suicide after killing the Apprentice there but had moved to Seton in order to design and later build that church the construction of which began in 1470. 

Murdered apprentice carving in Seton Church

In the south transept is a splendid monument to James, 1st Earl of Perth who died in 1611.

detail of the monument, showing a skull at the top

In the 1400s Seton Palace was built for the Seton family, and was described as one of the greatest houses in Scotland of that time.  The palace later fell into ruin and was eventually demolished in 1789 to make way for a new house, called Seton House or Seton Castle today, designed by renowned architect Robert Adam. Immediately to the west of the church, Seton House was recently sold for £5 million, making it one of Scotland's most expensive private homes.

Seton House

Outside, to the south-west of the church, are foundations that may be a rare example of priests' accommodation. At its height one provost, eight canons, two choristers and a clerk all lived here, praying for the salvation of Lord Seton and his family. They were probably later re-used as outbuildings for Seton Palace and include a mill and a brewhouse. They were uncovered during clearance work in the 1950s.

remains of priests' domestic quarters

Seton Collegiate Church is located to the immediate south-east of Port Seton in Longniddry, East Lothian, EH32 0PG.
There is a small car park situated approximately 1.5km west of Longniddry on the B1961 just as it turns into a dual carriageway.

Additional Information
  • Admission charges. 
  • Seasonal opening hours: April to September Monday to Sunday 9.30am - 5.30pm. Closed in winter.
  • Tel: 01875 813334

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