We do not know what the original building looked like, but we can be sure it stood on the same site as the present Kirk. The town of Perth grew up at the place on the River Tay which was still tidal - allowing ships to reach it - but where the river was also shallow enough at low tide to be forded. The main streets, the Kirkgate and the Skinnergate went between the castle (swept away by a flood in 1210) and the Kirk.
The Kirk is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and was such a prominent landmark that it gave Perth the nickname of "St. John's Toun". The name is no longer used for the town, but it is the name of our local football team - St . Johnstone - and they share our motif of the Agnus Dei (The Lamb of God), the symbol associated with John the Baptist.
There is a history of St. John's Kirk by Richard Fawcett, available for sale within the Kirk and visitors who want to know details of the architecture will find them here. Over the centuries, the building had become dilapidated, been rebuilt, restored and altered. In 1328, King Robert 1 asked the Abbey at Scone to allow stone to be taken from its quarries to repair St. John's. In 1585 the Kirk was said to be in a "ruinous, pitiful and lamentable state".
The oldest part of the existing building is the choir which dates from the 15th century.This was the most important part of the building where the clergy carried out the daily services. The tower was completed by 1511. The nave, which was built to allow the people of Perth to come and listen to the services (not necessarily participate in the way we do nowadays) would probably have been enlarged when the choir was rebuilt, but its architectural history is confused.
In mediaeval times, the interior of the Kirk would have been much more colourful than we might imagine. The walls would have been plastered, and painted with Biblical scenes or geometric designs. There were about 50 separate chapels endowed by Trade Guilds or families, each with its own altar, at which a priest would say mass for the souls of the dead. There would be rich hangings and appropriate decorations. On Feast Days, the Church would come alive with processions, liturgy and colour.
Following John Knox's sermon in the Kirk in 1559, the friaries in Perth were ransacked and vandalised, but the Kirk itself was not damaged, although its furnishings were destroyed.
After the Reformation, the Kirk was divided into 3 separate churches, with substantial divisions between them - they were called the East, Middle and West Churches. At various times, changes were carried out with little appreciation of mediaeval stonework, which was allowed to deteriorate or was torn down in favour of "the new".
The divisions remained until the Kirk was restored as the War Memorial to the Dead of Perth and Perthshire after the Great War. The bulk of the work was done between 1923 and 1926 and the architect chosen was Sir Robert Lorimer, who had teams of craftsmen on whom he could rely on to carry out his plans. The nave, as we see it today, is due to Lorimer's restoration, and its success is due to his understanding of mediaeval church architecture.
Maintaining and cherishing the fabric of a building like St. John's must be ongoing. The Trust for St. John's Kirk was set up in 1951 to provide a means of augmenting congregational efforts. Major fund raising took place in 1983 in order to carry out a programme of repairs - and the work continues at the present time. Home