A walk around the exterior of the Kirk
Before entering the Kirk, the visitor should take a little time to stand back and look at the architecture and construction of the building. and then walk round it. It is a church which would be instantly recognised by John Knox and the 16th century citizens of Perth. Half a millennium after it was completed the tower and spire of St. John’s still dominate the centre of Perth.
Start at the west end of the kirk and progress clockwise
THE HALKERSTON TOWER
On the north west corner of the church is the Halkerston Tower, which before the Reformation was the main entrance to the kirk for the laity. Internally it has a ribbed vault dating from the 15th century, but externally it has been much altered. It is now used as the bride’s entrance to the church at weddings.
THE BARTIZAN BELFRY
The Bartizan Belfry houses thirteen of Perth’s collection of bells.
The largest of these, the ‘Maria’, is the oldest of all the bells in Perth, and it has an unusual elongated shape. It was probably cast in England in the early 1300s. The inscription on the bell reads:
Ave Maria Gracia Plena Dominus Tecum.
(Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee).
THE WEST DOOR
The main entrance for St. John’s is by the West door, which leads into the nave. Note how the ground level around the church has become so raised due to centuries of burials that the proportions of the door are distorted and it is much shorter than it ought to be. It has been said that the congregation of the dead are impeding the access to the church by the congregation of the living! There are plans to lower the level of the street outside, and so to restore the proportions of the doorway, and ease access to the Kirk.
Outside the kirk are bollards, some decorated with stylised animal heads, derived from carved animal heads at the end of some of the pews.
On the north side of the church walk back a few yards into the Kirkgate, and look up at the massive bell tower of St. John’s which is topped by an eight-sided, splay-footed, broach spire, which is covered with ribbed lead sheeting. The spire rises to a golden cockerel weathervane, 155 feet above the pavement.
On the north face of the spire is the unique open bartizan belfry, or lucarne-bellcote, the only example of this architectural feature in Scotland.
THE SOUTH DOOR
The South Door
Continue your walk around the church and pass the south wall of the choir, with the South Door. This door is a step free access into the Kirk
From the east end of the church, step back into Baxters Lane, and view the choir, tower and steeple. They are the earliest parts of the existing church, and were completed between 1448 and 1511. The original copper roof of the choir survives.
UNIQUE INSCRIPTIONS ON THE SPIRE
Before entering the church, step back from the door and look again at the spire. The lead sheeting was blown down in a gale in 1767, and replaced by the Burgh Council (which owned the Kirk). On the west side of the spire are inscribed the names of the members of the Burgh Council who authorised the work, along with the names of the plumber and carpenter who carried it out. They are clearly legible, with binoculars, after more than 250 years.
The symbol of the cockerel is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition. In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the evening before his crucifixion, Jesus predicted that before the cock crowed twice, Peter would deny him three times. And so it turned out. Peter’s remorse was profound, and in due course he adopted the cockerel as his own emblem.
Ever since then the Cockerel has been a potent Christian icon. Its use spread gradually throughout the early church, and in 600 AD it was deemed to be an official Christian emblem by Pope Gregory I (AD 590-604), and some churches started to use cockerels as weather vanes or ‘cocks’. In the ninth century, Pope Nicholas I (AD 858-867) decreed that the emblem should be displayed in all churches, and its use on church spires and domes increased.
It is difficult to know for certain when a cockerel was first installed on the spire of St. John’s. However the fixings necessary to secure it in such an exposed position extend deep down into the oak woodwork of the spire, and that suggests that it was part of the original construction around 1510. By that time many other mediaeval churches had cockerels.