Whitekirk Village

Whitekirk has a long history as an important medieval pilgrimage centre associated with the ancient church of St Mary’s and the healing powers of a nearby well.

Whitekirk may be a tiny hamlet, but it has a long history as a renowned religious focal point. The earliest church building of lime-washed stone named ‘Hamer’ may have been associated with St Baldred in the 8th century. References to this ‘White Chapell’ or to ‘Fair Knowe’ (white hill) have led to the present day name of Whitekirk. It is not known when the holy well became famed for its healing powers, but by 1130, the church and surrounding lands were a dependency of Holyrood Abbey and records show that buildings had been erected to house and shelter pilgrims.

Over the years many famous pilgrims have travelled to Whitekirk: Black Agnes, the defender of Dunbar castle was miraculously healed from her wounds after drinking from the well in 1294; Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (later Pope Pius ll) gave thanks for surviving a shipwreck in 1435; King James l took the lands of the ‘Chappell of Fairknowe’ into his protection and added to the pilgrims’ hostels on the hill behind the church; and James IV visited regularly.

In 1538 James V granted the pilgrims’ hostels to his favourite, Oliver Sinclair of Pitcairns, who demolished the hostels and built a new towerhouse that has partly survived in what is known today as the Tithe Barn. With the reformation, the popularity of Whitekirk as a pilgrimage site declined and the church is mentioned as being used by Cromwell to stable horses while his men attacked Tantallon Castle, near North Berwick.

The village in 1909

A farming community

Whilst the church was at the heart of the development of the village, the lands at Whitekirk were owned for over 250 years by the Baird family as part of the Newbyth Estate. Until the estate was sold in 1946, the majority of the population was involved in one way or another with farming or estate work. As many as 16 full time employees worked on Whitekirk Mains farm when horses were still the main source of power. The village was home to the farmer, his workers, the minister, a schoolteacher and the village post mistress. From the 1880’s the village also had a small police station.

Social events including whist, amateur dramatics and dances were arranged in the Church Hall below the village on Binning Wood Road. The WRI was very strong in Whitekirk - established in 1923, a second hall at the top of the village was built in 1927 for the WRI to meet. During the war they had organised the collection, drying and packing of many herbs to be sent by rail to a firm in London and the proceeds were given to the Red Cross. They ran many entertainments in the hall, particularly whist drives, and entered the SWRI drama festivals, as well as producing a yearly panto in the hall.

The WRI ladies in the hall, c1945

The church in flames

Whitekirk reached national prominence in 1914, when St Mary’s was burnt down, allegedly in an arson attack by suffragettes. The dramatic effects of that night did little to promote the cause of the suffrage movement, and many supporters regarded the desecration of a historic church as a step too far. However, the suffragettes never claimed to have carried out an arson attack, and no-one was ever charged, so there remains uncertainty over who was responsible. A widespread appeal for funds permitted the church to be restored to designs by Sir Robert Lorimer.

Whitekirk History Group

A small, but enthusiastic group is keen to research the history of Whitekirk and the surrounding area. We welcome any information about the village, and can be contacted at history@whitekirkvillage.com