When Torphichen was the centre of Scotland

Article in Konect Bathgate, Sept 13

by Helen-Jane Shearer 

It's a long time since Torphichen was a bustling busy centre, a destination for royalty, a stop-off point for long-distance travellers and the Scottish headquarters of what was effectively an independent sovereign state. But for centuries it was all of these things. 

It's an ancient settlement which has been occupied for millenia, but the arrival in the 12th century of The Order of St John, or the Hospitaller Knights of St John, really put Torphichen on the map and they have left their mark even today – local street names, organisation names, the symbol of the Maltese cross that appears in various logos. But who were they and what does it all mean? 

It started off a long way away from Scotland, in Jerusalem. A group of individuals who ran a hospital in Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims to the holy land found themselves, at the end of the 11th century, dealing with the many casualties involved in the First Crusade. In recognition of their work, the pope created the Order of Hospitallers. Their hospital was built on the site of a monastery dedicated to St John the Baptist, hence their name. They used a white eight pointed cross as their symbol, symbolising the eight nations (“tongues”) they came from and the eight vows they took. As the Crusades dragged on, the Hospitallers took on the role of providing armed escort to protect pilgrims, and thus ended up fighting too – they became a military order waging war on Islam as well as tending the poor and sick. Along with the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller were one of the most famous and powerful religious military orders. 

Knight Hospitaller

The Order was granted estates throughout Europe by the crusading nations to provide income for their work. They came to Britain to recruit and collect funds, arriving in Scotland during the reign of David I, who was a keen supporter of the Crusades and who gave them land at Torphichen. This became the headquarters from whence their growing estates were administered. David's successor granted, in 1153, “to God and the Hospital of Jerusalem a toft (land) in every burgh of our land.” So they had land all over Scotland and were well respected for their charitable works.

In Torphichen their Preceptory (headquarters) consisted of a small hospital, as this was the prime calling of the Order, along with the church and attached administrative and domestic buildings including dormitories, kitchen, dining area and Preceptor's lodgings. Much of their day to day life was involved in administration of their Scottish estates as well as the necessary duties of growing food and herbs for medicines in the gardens around the Preceptory. Rents for all their Scottish properties were collected here, and there would have been considerable traffic relating to administration and financial affairs. It became a significant and very well-resourced community, in keeping with the knights' status in Scotland, receiving many guests and travellers. 

Torphichen Preceptory

Once such famous guest was William Wallace. As he prepared to face Edward I in 1298, we know he stayed at Torphichen - the only surviving document we have signed by him was written at Torphichen at this time (It was a letter sent in March 1298 to Alexander Scrymgeour, giving him land as reward for his loyalty).


image : Torphichen Preceptory today

The Torphichen Preceptory, though, came under the authority of the English Priory of the Order (a higher office) in London. In the early days many of the knights were English, and during the Wars of Independence in Scotland they supported the English side. After his victory over the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, King Edward I headed to Torphichen for rest and for treatment of a horse-inflicted chest wound. These ties with England made the Order less popular in Scotland during this time.

But as time went on naturally more knights were native Scots, and they made several petitions to gain independence from their English Priory. Much later, in the 16th century, King James IV - a regular visitor to Torphichen where he prayed in the church and played cards with the Preceptor – wrote to the Grand Master of the Order in Rhodes expressing his surprise that “members of this Order, even when Scottish by birth and residing in Scotland, had to live so that they looked on the Prior in England as their lord and protector.” Eventually Torphichen did arrange to by-pass the English office and report directly to the Grand Master, based latterly in Malta.

The Order of St John was suppressed during the Reformation and in Scotland all its lands were handed to Mary, Queen of Scots. Much monastic property was razed but Torphichen was spared, possibly as it had been used as a Reformation office or because the Preceptor, James Sandilands, became Protestant and befriended John Knox... However by 1750s, the administration and domestic buildings associated with the Preceptory were demolished and the stones used elsewhere in the village. Only the tower, transcepts and nave were spared. 

St John's exists in Britain today as the Most Venerable Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. It was re-established in the 19th century with the foundation of St John Ambulance Association, independent of the remnants of the original Roman Catholic Order of Malta, and in 1888 Queen Victoria made it a Royal Order of Chivalry. St John's ambulances and first aid training are well known in England and many other countries. A Scottish Priory was reconstituted in 1947. It doesn't run the ambulance service here, as St Andrews Ambulance Service was already established, but they do run hospitals, nursing homes, sheltered housing, hospices and rest homes in Scotland as well as mountain rescue services. They support the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem and have links with Malawi. Their motto is to “improve the safety, health and quality of life of people in need.” So the Order today is close to what the original monks set out to do 900 years ago before getting embroiled in war.

And St John's are custodians of Torphichen Preceptory on behalf of Historic Scotland. The remains of the Preceptory are well worth a visit and consist of the tall central tower with the transepts on each side, and the foundations of the associated buildings. St John's have installed an informative display so you can learn more about this fascinating site and its people.  

The Preceptory is open at weekends from 1pm to 5pm, April to September.

For more on the order of St John in Scotland, visit http://www.stjohnscotland.org.uk/ 

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