✔️Medieval Scottish church
✔️Beautiful grounds with ruins
✔️Nearby former palace
This week’s travel article ticks off some of the iconic aspects for travel around Scotland. We are heading just outside Edinburgh to the beautiful Scottish countryside to take a wee exploration of Seton Collegiate Church.
Seton Collegiate Church is part of the Historic Scotland family as they are the caretakers of this lovely medieval church. Let’s explore a bit of its history before we take our tour of the Church and its grounds.
There has been a church on the site possibly as far back as the 12th century. According to the historic record, we do know for certain that there was a church there since the 13th century as the Bishop of St Andrews consecrated a building at Seton in 1242. However, Seton Collegiate Church as we see it today, mostly dates from the 1400s and later.
According to Historic Scotland, by the 1400s, the Church was “increasingly being used by the Seton family, the local lairds, as their private place of worship and burial”. The Setons built additions to the church including a choir, presbytery, bell tower, and transepts on each side of the Church.
Some of you may be wondering what a ‘collegiate church’ is. Simply put, it is deemed so because it housed a college or community of priests. As Historic Scotland points out, they were “appointed, and funded, by the local landowner to pray for his and his family’s salvation”. In this case, that was the Seton family. Seton parish church had its status changed to a college in 1470. That is when the 1st Lord Seton secured a provisional mandate from Pope Paul II. The 2nd Lord Seton “secured full collegiate status in 1492”. Interestingly, the ruins of the priests’ domestic quarters can be found at Seton Collegiate Church today. Sit tight because we will discuss that a little later when we tour the grounds.
The Church held the status of ‘collegiate church’ from 1470-1550. However, the Protestant Reformation changed all of that in 1560. Catholicism and the ritual of Masses for the Seton family were no longer allowed, and the building continued as a parish church. What is particularly significant about Seton Collegiate Church is that it is one of the best surviving, intact collegiate churches in Scotland. Furthermore, there were few post-Reformation alterations allowing us to better understand medieval collegiate churches in the Lothians.
As the Seton family were so intertwined with the Seton Collegiate Church, lets learn a bit more about them and their fascinating connections to Scottish history.
The Seton Family & Palace
Next to Seton Collegiate Church is the site of the former Seton Palace (or the Palace of Seton); it is now a private residence known as Seton Castle or Seton House. The Seton family received a charter for the lands of Seton (that Seton Palace once stood on) and Winton in the 12th century. However, we do not know when they built the Palace. According to Historic Environment Scotland, we do know that they restored it after it was a casualty of the Burning of Edinburgh by the English army in 1544 (part of the war of the ‘Rough Wooing’- which we discuss in our Linlithgow Palace article).
The Setons were one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Scotland. For example, George Seton, the 7th Lord Seton held the prestigious roles of Provost of Edinburgh, Lord of the Parliament of Scotland, and the Master of the Household of Mary Queen of Scots. That’s right, the Seton family had connections to that most famous Scottish heroine who plays a ‘role’ in so many of our articles. In fact, they had close connections and played a significant part in Mary’s life and were some of her most loyal supporters. George Seton was part of the delegation sent to France to negotiate the marriage between Mary and the Dauphin. George’s sister, Mary Seton, was one of Queen Mary’s famous ladies-in-waiting- known as the Four Marys- who travelled with her throughout her life from her childhood in France to her captivity in England.
Seton Palace was said to be one of the most magnificent palaces in all of Scotland in the 16th century, and a favourite place for Queen Mary. In particular, she enjoyed the luxurious, formal gardens and terraced walks (perhaps it reminded her of her childhood in France). More importantly, it seems to be a place where she could ‘escape’ and get away from the turmoil that she was experiencing outside its gates. She found refuge at Seton Palace after the murder of her personal secretary, David Rizzio, at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and later after the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley. It also is one of the places she stayed at before her capture by the rebel Confederate Lords at nearby Carberry Hill.
The Seton family remained loyal to the exiled royal Stuarts, and, unfortunately, this ended up being their downfall. During the 1715 Jacobite Rising, George Seton, 5th Earl of Winton (they were given the Earldom of Winton in 1600), did his part to help the exiled Stuarts return to the throne. The Palace and Seton Collegiate Church were ransacked by local militia due to the Earl’s support of James Edward Stuart (the so-called ‘Old Pretender’). In the Church, they desecrated the Seton family tombs and other parts of the chapel. Eventually, George Seton was defeated and captured in battle. He was brought to the Tower of London and tried as a traitor. In a rather exciting twist, Seton was able to escape the Tower (with help from his servant) and fled to France, eventually settling in Rome. As a result of all of this, George Seton, Earl of Winton, and his family were stripped of all their assets, land, and titles.
Seton Palace was torn down in 1790 and the garden walls are the only surviving ‘structure’ from the 16th century. Seton House was designed by the famous Scottish architect, Robert Adam. Notably, Adam also designed (alongside his brother) the Royal Exchange (now the Edinburgh City Chambers) as well as the General Register House (which is now part of the National Archives of Scotland). According to Historic Environment Scotland, Seton House was done “in his 'castle style' and is one of the few large houses in Scotland that Robert Adam designed and also supervised the building of both exterior and interior. The main block of the house is joined by thick screen walls to the wings, and an entrance court is enclosed by a further fortified screen wall linking the two wings”.
In recent decades, Seton House has been refurbished with more modern ‘conveniences’ such as a gym, pub, cinema, guest cottages, and helipad. In fact, for a cool £8,000,000 you could call Seton Castle home as it is currently on the market. If you are interested in seeing pictures and more information, you can go to its listing here. I also recommend you check out the Seton House website for a brief video that really highlights the incredible luxury and splendour of the property. Talk about your ‘champagne wishes and caviar dreams’!
Now that we’ve learned about the Seton family, and their Palace, let’s head back next door to explore Seton Collegiate Church as it is today.
Seton Collegiate Church Today
Seton Collegiate Church is about thirty minutes outside of Edinburgh heading east. You can easily drive there or take public transportation via East Coast Services Bus 124 (part of Lothian Buses). If driving, please be advised that there is a car park when you turn off A198. From there, you must walk along a charming wooded path to get to the Church.
Once you enter through the entry gate, you can fully appreciate how exquisite Seton Collegiate Church and its grounds are. We’ll start our tour inside the Church.
Until the Protestant Reformation, Seton Collegiate Church was mostly a private place for the Seton family to worship. It is quite exciting that it is still standing intact all these centuries later as its architecture is magnificent. As was common with church architecture, the building was built in the shape of a cross. Therefore, starting at the ‘bottom’ of the cross was the nave. Above that is the crossing, and this is where the nave, transepts, and choir meet.
The crossing at Seton Collegiate Church has a bell tower which you can see in the picture below. The bell tower and transepts were added by Lady Janet who was the widow of George, 5th Lord Seton. The bell (cast in Holland in 1577) is no longer in the tower but is still on display in the church.
Walking up the choir, we’ll stop and look along the north wall because there is a fascinating tomb recess which houses two effigies. One is a knight clad in plate armour and the other is a lady wearing a long mantle. There is a bit of a mystery surrounding these figures as no one knows for sure who they are. They are wearing 15th century dress so it is thought they might represent Sir John Seton and Lady Katherine.
Continuing along, we enter the eastern most part of the Church (the ‘top’ of the cross) where the presbytery is located. It is three-sided with windows on each side and the altar would have once stood in front of the central east window. Seton Collegiate Church’s presbytery is quite stunning with decorative rib-vaulting and stones whose colours vary in gorgeous shades depending on the lighting.
Well, that is our last stop of the Church interior. Let’s venture outside and explore the grounds.
What would an adventure in Scotland be without some ruins? Fortunately, Seton Collegiate Church has some for us to explore. To the southwest of the Church are the ruins of the domestic quarters for the priests who once lived there. This is where the provost, canons, choristers, and clerk once resided. Historic Scotland states that after the Reformation, these domestic quarters “were converted into a mill and brewhouse serving the adjacent Seton Palace”.
By the way, while you are on the grounds, you can get a peek at Seton House from a gate that borders the estate (see picture earlier in the article). Please be aware that it is a private residence with no admittance for the public.
Seeing how beautiful the Church and grounds are, it probably won’t come as a surprise to find out that Seton Collegiate Church is now used for weddings and or wedding photography. As of the writing of this article, the Church is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, you can check out the Historic Environment Scotland webpage on weddings for the most up-to-date information.
Well, that is where we end our tour of Seton Collegiate Church. Of course, there is so much more to see inside the Church. Therefore, we encourage everyone to visit in-person once they reopen. Check their Historic Scotland webpage for the most up-to-date information for your trip planning.
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Until next time- Explore & Discover!