A History of Saint Mary-on-the-Rock in Ellon
Adapted from an article by the Very Revd Gerald Stranraer-Mull
Ellon is an ancient place, which centuries ago was the seat of justice for the north-east province of Buchan. Here the Pictish Mormaers and the Norman Earls of Buchan held court, at which gifts to God and his Church were solemnly confirmed. When Saint Columba established successful missionary work in the neighbourhood by the foundation of the Abbey of Deer, he would not have overlooked one of the chief settlements in the area.
At the reformation of Queen Margaret, the tribal system gave place to the parochial; and when King David encouraged the growth of monasticism in Scotland he gave the church in Ellon to his favourite Order – the Cistercians at Kinloss: hence this place was called Kinloss Ellon. The monastery built a church in Ellon: like all others belonging to that Order, it was dedicated to Saint Mary the Virgin.
An early biography of Ferrerius, Abbot of Kinloss, mentions that the abbot built in Ellon a very large house and restored the church, adding stalls and a reredos. The chancel of the church was used as a chapel for the monks, and the nave was the people’s church. As the Protestant Reformation, early Presbyterianism had little attraction for the people of Ellon, and the old Episcopalian faith prevailed. At the Revolution of 1689, when Presbyterianism was established as Scotland’s State Church, the Episcopalian priest, Walter Stewart, continued to minister in the parish church until his death in 1711.
The failure of the Jacobite Rising, in 1715, led to the enactment of penal laws that made life difficult for Episcopalians. At Ellon they built a meeting house close to the parish church, and during the 1745 Rising they again took possession of the parish church. After the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden, the Episcopalian meeting house in Ellon was pulled down by the Hanoverian army. The congregation then moved to Bearnie, where they met in part of a steading. The meeting house at Udny Green shared the same fate as that at Ellon, after which the congregation worshipped in a carpenter’s shop at Chapelhall. John Skinner, afterwards Bishop of Aberdeen and Primus, served as priest of both Ellon and Udny chapels from 1764 to 1775.
The strength of the Episcopal Church, even after the defeat at Culloden, was notable. Correspondence from Bishop Gerard speaks of celebrating Confirmation in Ellon and Udny, in 1759, at which 300 to 400 people were confirmed. Unfortunately, the medieval parish church in Ellon, built by the monks of Kinloss, was pulled down in 1777 and replaced by the present Church of Scotland building. A century later the present Saint Mary’s would seek to recreate the style of the town’s original medieval church.
Whilst the Bishop of Aberdeen, John Skinner kept an interest in the Ellon and Udny congregations, and he was able to get their agreement to worship in one place. In 1816 a church was built at Craighall, overlooking the village of Ellon and separated from it by the River Ythan. Bishop Skinner died a few days before the opening of the church, but the sermon which he had prepared was found on his desk and read to the congregation by the Revd Nathaniel Grieve, who served as a priest at Ellon for 60 years.
Nathaniel Grieve was succeeded by the Revd Nicholas MacLeod. Early in his ministry, he found that the walls of the 1816 chapel were so far out of line that for safety they would need to be taken down. The trustees decided to build a new church instead of repairing the chapel, and they engaged the best ecclesiastical architect of the time – George Edmund Street.
The magnificent church that emerged, Saint Mary-on-the-Rock, is designed in a 13th century style. The east walls of the nave are oblique, and the gable of the chancel arch does not appear above the roof: an arrangement making the roof apsidal at the east end. Behind the altar’s reredos of alabaster and marble there is an ambulatory. The chancel’s Sacrament House is a fine example of a 13th century style interpreted by a Victorian architect. The windows are mostly filled with stained glass by Clayton & Bell and by Lavers & Barraud.
Originally, the internal walls were decorated after an ornate design by George Edmund Street, taken from missals of the 13th century. The prevailing colour was rose with scrolls in vermillion and medallions in green and gold. However, in the 1920s the walls were repainted, and the original decoration was covered.
A schoolroom and a parsonage, both designed by the famous Victorian architect William Butterfield, were built in 1856. These were sold in 1976 and the present Rectory and Hall were built closer to the church. The hall twice has been extended, and it is a centre of ministry throughout the week to the community of Ellon and the surrounding area. The present pipe organ, replacing an older ornate one that was in a poor state of repair, dates from 1982. Over the years the congregation has shown considerable growth and pioneered lay ministry in the Episcopal Church with the first eldership as well as producing people who have been ordained for ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church.
Since 1970 Saint Mary’s Church has been linked with the equally historic Church of Saint James-the-Less at Cruden Bay. In 2000 the nine-foot-high stone statue of Our Lady of Ellon, which once stood in the Virgin Wood behind Saint Mary’s, was returned to Ellon. For over 100 years it had graced the grounds of Fort Augustus Abbey, looking out over Loch Ness. With the closure of that abbey, a request for the statue to return to its original home was granted and Our Lady was placed at the end of the north dive in Saint Mary’s churchyard.