Looking Back - Chapel of St Mary & St Nathalan

Looking Back – Chapel of St Mary & St Nathalan

All photographs by and copyright Dawn S. Black unless otherwise stated

Perched atop the cliffs to the north of Stonehaven, in close proximity to the golf course and on the point of the Highland Boundary Fault meeting the sea, is the ruin of the Chapel of St Mary and St Nathalan (also known as Chapel of Our Lady of the Storms or Cowie Chapel).

Chapel of St Mary and St Nathalan east gable Stonehaven
East Gable with three lancet windows
Flanked by the golf course St mary and St Nathalan chapel Stonehaven
Flanked by Stonehaven Golf Course

Originally founded as a place of worship in the 7th Century by St Nathalan who died around 678AD, the existing replacement Chapel is one of the oldest surviving structures in the historic county of Kincardineshire having been re-dedicated to St Mary on 22nd May 1276 by William Wishart, Bishop of St Andrews. It is built in Early English style with whinstone walls and one single chamber with three elegant lancet windows on the east gable end. The priest’s door in the south wall is also original, despite the south wall having been partially rebuilt in the 1860s. The arched Mort House against the West wall was an addition, built in 1830 to store bodies for some weeks after death to protect them from grave robbers who would sell them to anatomy students for dissection. There is also a surviving aumbry in the northwest corner – probably used for storing valuables. It was never a parish church but acted as a daughter chapel to the Parish of Fetteresso.

West gable with the arched Mort House of 1830 visable St Mary and St Nathalan Chapel Stonehaven
West gable with the arched Mort House of 1830 visible
Priest's door in the south wall, St Mary and St Nathalan chapel, Stonehaven
Priest’s door in the south wall

The Cowie Castle belonged to the Frasers until 1369 when it passed by marriage to the Keiths of Dunnottar, the powerful Earls Marischall of Scotland. It is thus highly likely that the kings of Scotland stayed at Cowie Castle when visiting the region. Several Scottish monarchs worshipped here with James IV (1473-1513) being known to have been a frequent visitor, giving generous donations to the chapel. However, the chapel fell into disuse soon after the Reformation in the 1560s and 1570s with records claiming it “was unroofed by the ecclesiastical authority on account of certain scandals” – the mind boggles as to what scandals those might have been! Local people took stone from the walls for building elsewhere despite a legend that claims that those stones would rain drops of blood upon any house that built with them! The Castle itself fell into decline after 1645 and the Jacobite Rebellion.

Unroofed and nature takes over - St Mary and St Nathalan chapel Stonehaven
Unroofed and nature takes over

The chapel was linked to Cowie Castle on cliff top the other side of the Kirk Burn to the south (of which only a small section of low stone wall hidden in the undergrowth remains). For over 400 years an important stronghold stood on the cliffs here, guarding the southern end of the Causey Mounth trackway that linked the southern coastal areas to Aberdeen at the Brig o’ Dee in medieval times via Muchalls Castle.

There are two conflicting legends regarding St Nathalan and the chapel. It was believed that St Nathalan owned a great treasure and that when he died this treasure was wrapped in a bull’s hide, tied with a rope and buried between the churchyard and the burn (where the graveyard extension is now). Indeed, an old Cowie rhyme retells this legend: “Between the kirk and the kirk’s ford, There lies St Nathalan’s hoard”. Another version says that St Nathalan himself is buried here (but the Aberdeen Breviary says he was actually buried near another of his churches at Tullich on Deeside).

The graveyard extension St Mary and St Nathalan Chapel, Stonehaven
The graveyard extension – is this where the legendary treasure is buried?

Many interesting head stones are to be found throughout the graveyard, including a plaque to the coastguard of Muchalls & Stonehaven from 1903, a memorial to the men of the Stonehaven lifeboat St George many of whose men died attempting to rescue the crew of Grace Darling in 1874, some War Commission graves from the First World War as well as many graves of local farmers and tradesmen and their families.

Top of the memorial to the St George lifeboat crew
Photo: © Shona Carnegy
For King and Empire - First World War headstone
For King and Empire – First World War headstone to Robert A. Barclay
Plaque to the Muchalls & Stonehaven Lifeboat
Plaque to the Muchalls & Stonehaven Coastguard 1903
Lichen covered headstone from 1799
Lichen covered headstone from 1799

There are two ways to get to the ruin. The more interesting is to walk from Cowie (or park at the free parking lay-by on the B979) and take the cliff path north for about 10 minutes, taking in the fantastic views as you go. You’ll also pass some concrete gun posts, a legacy of the Second World War as well as the hidden remains of the Cowie Castle. Alternatively, you can park at the Golf Course, back track from the carpark and take the path along the boundary wall down to the churchyard.

View of Stonehaven Bay from the  St Mary and St Nathalan Chapel churchyard
View of Stonehaven Bay from the churchyard

All photographs by and copyright Dawn S. Black unless otherwise stated

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