The site of the city churches, St Mary’s and The Steeple, which sit surrounded by the Overgate shopping centre, has been the home to a church since the very beginnings of Dundee as a town. When the Earl of Huntingdon landed here in 1190 he founded the ‘kirk in the field’ dedicated to St Mary, after his time in the crusades. More on this exiting backstory later… for now we have been looking at the incidents throughout the history of the Church when it was ravaged by fire which happened several times over the years. It is a testament of the dedication of the town to the Church that it was rebuilt, restored and extended every time.
The first destruction of the church came at the hands of Edward I when Dundee was attacked and the church was torched in 1303 during the Wars of Independence, the Scottish side led by William Wallace. All the town records had been taken there for safety before the invading army arrived, but all were either taken off by Edward’s men or destroyed in the fire.
It took until the early 15th century before work had begun to rebuild the church, but on such a large stone building work was slow. With a bit of new investment the work was completed and a final square tower completed the new building in 1480, which is the only part of the building which still stands today known to us as ‘The Old Steeple’.
This new church had a short life, as in 1547 the English army had captured Dundee and used the church for stables. Whether caused by an accident or on purpose, the church was set on fire and the nave was destroyed along with the transepts. Only the tower and the choir were saved from the raging inferno while the nave remained a charred, roofless wreck until 1789.
The roofless, fire damaged parts of the church were removed and the choir was built upon and then established as the first reformed church in Dundee, and called St Mary’s Kirk. Later in the 16th century the Town rebuilt the south transept which accommodated a second church known as the South Kirk. For a while in the late 16th century the choir area was used as a jail, and part of it was also used as a library.
In 1651, General Monck laid siege to Dundee, but although he set a fire to smoke out General Lumsden from the Steeple Tower, the church mercifully remained unharmed. The chaos surrounding the church during this siege left its mark, with remains uncovered periodically around the site, likely victims of Moncks massacre. On the south wall there is a dent in the base wall which is said to have been caused by a cannon shot fired by Moncks army when they laid siege to the tower.
The north transept was rebuilt and this third church was known as the North or Cross church, with finally a fourth church rebuilt in the nave which was St Clement’s or Steeple Kirk. From 1789 to 1841 the site was the home of four separate churches under one roof, each with their own ministers but sharing one tower and bells.
In early 1841 a fire broke out in the heating system of the East Kirk, again destroying the fine buildings, although this time by accident. The tower survived, along with the nave. The destruction of this fire was immense, with the fine gothic arches and pillars destroyed, the exterior walls shattered by the heat. The Chapter house adjoining the church was also destroyed, along with a library containing over 1800 volumes including ancient works in Greek and Latin, many dating from pre-reformation clergy.
The North or Cross Church moved to another place of worship and the fire-damaged buildings of the East and south Churches were rebuilt and opened again in 1844. Two of the three remaining churches, the Steeple Church and St Paul’s and St David’s (The south church) amalgamated and the premises of the South Church now form a community centre, dedicated to the Dundee-born missionary Mary Slessor. Thankfully the churches have remained fire free for many years now.