The motorist rushing along the A914 through central Fife would have to be especially sharp to notice the small sign for and the anonymous dirt track that leads up to the hamlet of Cults and its hidden church, the Cults Kirk.
(As an aside anyone looking for free adrenaline rushes should try walking along the A914’s tiny pavement and being buffeted by coaches and lorries roaring past inches from their nose.)
Cults Kirk is a few miles south west of Cupar at the foot of Cults Hill and hidden amongst the trees and tiny hamlet. Its name is appropriately derived from the Gaelic name for nook or corner. It is a charming spot where you hear the soft neighs of grazing horses and the caressing wind shivering the trees. A church has been here for at least 800 years, perhaps as a place of worship it has pre-Christian origins adapted by Celtic monks, but today’s church was built in 1783 during the tenure of Reverend David Wilkie who was a celebrated Scottish artist in his day.
The Kirk has no spire or tower that lords over hamlet and nature. Instead it seems to like its modest snug fit, veiled within the folds of the countryside. It has an unusual internal arrangement with pews and galleries grouped around a centrally located pulpit. Its stain glass windows are curious and a tiny window in the entrance hall allowed the residents from the local hospital’s leper colony to receive communion.
The church also has a secret place within its own grounds, which took me several visits to discover it. Open the door to a tiny stone outhouse with a small window and inside are rough benches, a table, some pictures and a modern heater. It is the Session House, used for midweek worship and for the Sunday School.
I have never come across another living soul at this church, a place where the dead always outnumber the living and repose beneath the trees in the peaceful cemetery. The dead includes my father, grandfather and other Cochranes. My father lived and died in Westminster but always knew this would be his final resting place, barely a mile from where he spent part of his childhood. The whole day travelling from the city to this small rural place is a pilgrimage into family memory and history so that by the time I reach the graves I barely need to do more than pause for a moment. Once when I was showing a Fifer friend around the church he asked if I wanted a moment alone by my father’s grave. He was surprised when I replied the “whole day’s a moment and besides, the pubs of St Andrews are calling”. I could almost hear the old man chuckle at that. His fast walking pace used to frequently flirt with indignity as he hurried to ancient Westminster pubs to drink with rogues, street poets, catholic priests and ambassadors accompanied by suspiciously glamorous ‘secretaries’.
The church is both lovely and unremarkable but its real achievement is like that of many small churches found in the British landscape. There is a trusting welcome hovering in the air from someone who is absent. The door is unlocked, the cemetery tidy, the church immaculate and unknown hands have left neat little notes explaining the church’s for visitors. Its peace and simplicity has been lovingly cared for by generations down the years who have come from somewhere over the surrounding fields and rolling farmland. Roosters on the noticeboard cheerfully list the present names carrying on the tradition; the cleaners, the lesson readers and who will bring in flowers.
The blogger Paul Dobraszczyk wrote a wonderful piece on visiting a medieval church deep within England’s South Downs. The staunch atheist and architectural critic Ian Nairn, depressed and dying, regularly visited the church. It moved him beyond religion for its atmosphere developed by ‘slow, loving, gentle accretion, century by century’.
Dobraszczyk writes: “There is no didactic object that can explain this atmosphere – no carving, no buttress, pinnacle or stained glass. Instead, every human action, over hundreds of years, has made this church what it is today. Not the grand gesture of the esteemed patron, or the flourish of the craftsmen’s hand, but small and gentle actions; humble, yet determined; unseen yet powerfully evident.”
Churches like Cults become a poignant achievement of humanity that moves dying atheists and wandering agnostics, and provides the final resting place for a distinguished Westminster-Fife gentleman.
So after a nod to the ancestors it was time for lunch with a cousin, and an exploration of enigmatic priory ruins.
Further information on the history of the Kirk can be found on Undiscovered Scotland webpage.