Hidden Fife: the veiled church

Cults Kirk

Cults Kirk

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.

Interior of Cults Kirk (By kind permission of www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk)

Interior of Cults Kirk (By kind permission of http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk)

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’.

Cult Kirks Cemetery

Cult Kirks Cemetery

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

Further information on the history of the Kirk can be found on Undiscovered Scotland webpage.

Common spaces: downland churches by Paul Dobraszczyk

Rolling Fife countryside through the window of Cult Kirks

Rolling Fife countryside through the window of Cult Kirks

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10 thoughts on “Hidden Fife: the veiled church

  1. I think you’ve hit upon the defining quality of British churches (as hard as it can be to pin down). Your experience in Fife made me think of the tiny village church I came across on a walk in the Cotswolds last spring (the village so tiny I don’t even recall the name). It was ancient and grey and deserted, but open, and I felt instantly at home… despite being a Jewish atheist.

    I think it was because, as you note, there’s such a strong sense of generations of people caring for the place and making visitors welcome – which is something that transcends religion (or the lack thereof).

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    • You are quite right that this sense can be felt in places of worship across all the religions, and can make anyone feel at home. It’s the smaller hidden places that are less touristy and more part of the local community that have this special atmosphere. Usually I have found places of worship across all the religions to be friendly and interesting which makes it all the more puzzling and a shame when we collectively allow religion to divide us.

      And neither is it contradictory to be critical of aspects of organised religion one minute and then sitting in one of its places enjoying the peace and beauty the next.

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  2. I realise I am lucky with this church. I tried to visit two other rural churches on recent walks, one in England and one in Scotland, and both were closed although there were notices to ring people to access them. It’s probably a sign of the times for security and declining use.

    Thanks for the kind comments!

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  3. Has it not got a small round glass windows on the door, so the local lepers could see in during service on Sundays? They came from the old leper home, I believe it was on the old Pitlessie muchty road, the window may be gone now,

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    • Hi Janet,
      I don’t think there are windows on the main door as that would only look into the corridor. However, there is still a leper window just inside the corridor that does look into the main part of the church. Alex

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