History of St John's Kirk of Perth
The first historical reference to a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist in Perth was in 1126, in a grant from King David I. However there is archaeological evidence of a church on this site at least 100 years earlier. As befitted the importance of the Burgh Kirk of the capital of Scotland, the heart of King Alexander III was buried here in 1286, following his untimely death on the cliffs at Kinghorn in Fife, which precipitated Scotland into the Wars of Independence.
In the mid 15th century, Perth’s growing importance and wealth stimulated the staged re-construction of the church. The choir was probably complete by 1448, when the High Altar was consecrated, and the transepts and crossing followed soon after. In the 1490s King James IV funded the construction of the nave, and it is known for certain that the tower and spire were completed before 1511, because in that year the contract for the tower of Aberdeen’s St. Machar’s Cathedral cited St. John’s as a model to copy - an indication of its civic and architectural importance.
In many early documents, especially in those of the 16th century, the city is referred to by its alternative name, “St. Johnstoun” (St. John’s town), and the symbol of St. John the Baptist – the lamb carrying a staff and banner – featured on the heraldic shield of the City of Perth from mediaeval times until 1975.
On the 11th of May 1559, St. John’s was the scene of a pivotal event in Scotland’s history. War clouds were looming between the Catholic Queen Regent, Mary of Guise (mother of Mary, Queen of Scots), and an increasingly protestant people, backed in Perth, by their Burgh Council. At this tense juncture Knox preached his sermon against idolatry in St. John’s Kirk. The congregation was so inflamed that they stripped the Kirk of its ornaments and then stormed out of the church and sacked Perth’s wealthy religious houses, and set alight the Scottish Reformation.
Following the Reformation, St. John’s, like many other Scottish churches fell into disrepair. The crown had expropriated much of the wealth that had previously maintained religious establishments, and the fledgling Reformed Church struggled to pay its ministers, repair the ravages of the Reformation and attend to ordinary maintenance. Furthermore, in the new Presbyterian order large congregations were divided into smaller units that could be managed by a single parish minister. This led to large church buildings being divided by walls into two, or even three separate churches. And so, at the end of the 16th century the three western bays of St John’s were walled off to form a separate “West Kirk”, with its own minister, and later two further churches were created from the transepts and choir.
Restoration by Sir Robert Lorimer
During the 19th century, opinion about the church buildings gradually changed, and the people of Perth came to appreciate that their High Kirk, although severely mutilated, was, in its basic structure, still largely intact. Towards the end of the First World War a committee was established to restore the building to a single church, and to incorporate within it a memorial to the men and women of Perth and Perthshire who had lost their lives in that conflict. Sir Robert Lorimer was engaged as the architect, and it is his sensitive restoration, that revealed the 15th century building which we see today.
The church is cruciform, built of smooth ashlar, and is similar in size and proportions as the other important late mediaeval burgh churches in Scotland (St. Giles in Edinburgh, St. Michaels in Linlithgow, and St. Mary’s in Haddington). Richard Fawcett in his book, “A History of St. John’s Kirk of Perth”, says, “Few churches can now give such a complete impression of the mediaeval appearance of a great Scottish burgh church as St. John’s, and it is therefore a particularly precious survival.”