We drove past our destination. On seeing the amount of cars, I doubt we would’ve got parked anyway. The car park was overly full, vehicles were up on the verges and abandoned at the side of fields for around half a square mile. So we just kept going and ended up at a place I’d always meant to visit but never got round to, Torphichen Perceptory.
The big question for me was, what the hell is a perceptory? The answer is found in the buildings history and original intention. Today, it looks like the local church of a small Scottish village, which of course it is. However, it was built as the first house in Scotland of the Hospitallers, the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. They were the first military monastic order in Christendom, charged to both nurse pilgrims and fight Muslims in equal measure. The leaders were known as perceptors, answering my initial question, and one of their headquarters was in this quiet village in West Lothian; population 570.
It’s a fascinating place, although very little remains of what the Knights would’ve seen. The initial building work was began sometime around 1150 when King David I* granted land at Torphichen to the knightly order. Most of what we see now dates from the first half of the 15th century. Of the original building only fragments survive; the crossing tower and the two transepts from the cruciform church are complete and roofed. Traces in the churchyard and surrounding area of the village itself give some hint as to what a large seat of power and wealth this once was.
Post-Reformation, the perceptory became the parish kirk in 1563/64. Throughout all its reconstruction work over the centuries, the building retains a militaristic look to it; it looks harsh, ideal for black and white photos, but it does look fortress-like echoing its former status as a military headquarters.
Historically for me, the Hospitallers lose points for being on the wrong side at the Battle of Bannockburn, Longshanks himself apparently spent some time there after his horse stood on him. The reason for this pro-English stance during the Wars of Independence though was that the perceptory still answered to the Priory of Clerkenwell in London. However the building, if not the owners, gain some Scots points and credibility in the annals of Scottish history by that fact that William Wallace occupied it and used it as a parliament, forcing the knights out of Torphichen for at least a short period of time in 1298, as they were following Bannockburn in 1314.
However, Torphichen and the Hospitallers have suffered in recent years from the modern obsession with the Knights Templar and the two are often confused. The Hospitaller’s work such as sheltering the sick and poor, looking after pilgrims and military protection for its estates has little to do with Da Vinci code style mysteries and this fantastical look at history, as entertaining as it admittedly is, can obscure the facts and lessen the sheer magnitude of actual events.
Here is a supposed poor and forgotten about realm, on the very edge of Christendom, where even the might of the Roman Empire struggled to maintain any significant foot hold.** Insignificant in world affairs, what effect could this tiny land have on a global scale? A defeatist attitude that annoyingly persists to this day, even within its own people.
Well it turns out quite a lot. In evidence here is the home of an international order of knights, whose formation dates back to the end of the first crusade (1096-99) at St John the Baptist’s Hospital is next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. This is huge; a major world event, the crusades were the WW2 of the day, the topic everyone wanted to do. Can’t wait to get to Primary 7 to do the Crusades! The Hospitallers along with the Templars were the most powerful military order in the world. After the Templars were abolished in 1312, the Hospitallers were granted the forfeited land becoming even more powerful, whilst many of the knights were assimilated into the rival order.
This highlights the importance of Scotland’s place in the world from an early age. This is all pre-1320 and the Declaration of Arbroath, before Mary Queen of Scots nearly became a French monarch as well as an English one, before a Scotsman took over the entire British Isles and hundreds of years before a Catholic prince nearly became ruler of the United Kingdom. Here is something more than European that we were involved heavily in, global in fact for its day. As we are left today, dragged out of the E.U. against our collective will, it is significant to reflect on our achievements as a medieval nation nearly 900 years ago. Why did Scotland and teeny tiny Torphichan have a home for these renowned crusader knights? Because it could, it was important. It had a voice, it had a say. And all these things are still true, almost a millennia later.
How does the land about you make you feel? Proud, awed, excited…depressed, angry, annoyed. There’s so many places out there with a wonderful story, go explore some of them. Pass on the full car parks and seek out something else.
Bruce Bryce is a Fife based amateur historian and writer of horror fiction, amongst other things.
Currently listening to: Idiot Prayer by Nick Cave.
* That’s the grandson of King Duncan I, the real life inspiration for King Duncan in Macbeth Shakespeare fans.
** Incidentally, the Antonine Wall, the final Roman outpost in northern Europe, lies a mere six or seven miles north of Torphichan. Here at the end of all things…
This excellent map shows how close, Torphichan sitting just above Bathgate.