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Choirs in Crail – A Long History of Sacred Music in the East Neuk of Fife

Crail has been a focal point for Christian activity since Pictish times, and possibly also of musical worship. Indeed, the parish kirk currently houses a Pictish cross slab showing what appears to be a harp player (perhaps King David).

The exact date of the parish church’s foundation is not known. However, in the twelfth century Countess Ada de Warenne (the mother of King Malcolm IV) granted rights concerning the parish church at Crail to the Cistercian nunnery at Haddington. The nuns of Haddington invested in the architecture and furnishings of the medieval church at Crail, including giving the parish ‘a cross of silver, double gilt’ and ‘a little chalice, single gilt’. Today, part of the twelfth-century chancel survives, as does the impressive thirteenth-century tower and its late medieval spire. In the 1510s the kirk at Crail became a collegiate church – meaning it gained greater independence from Haddington Priory and became governed by a community of priests. This change in status and administration almost certainly resulted in more elaborate worship and music.

Documents preserved in the early sixteenth-century register of Crail Collegiate Church show that high quality music was a priority both for churchmen and the wider community. For example, the charters establishing Crail Collegiate Church insisted that the priest holding the prebend of St Michael’s Altar must be ‘skilled and trained in organs’. In 1517 the prebendary of St Michael was held by a priest named Sir David Bowman, one of the earliest named organists from the East Neuk of Fife.

Yet Bowman was not the only organist attached to the church at Crail. When Sir William Turnour was appointed chaplain of the Holy Rood in 1522 his skill in languages, Gregorian chant, pre-cant, descant, and playing on the organ were examined before he was presented. Turnour’s duties included praying for the souls of his chaplainry’s founders; ensuring a requiem mass ‘cum nota’ was sung at the altar every other day; and playing on the organ during daily matins, the Lord’s mass, the Ave gloriosa (which honoured the Virgin Mary), high mass and vespers.

Every day saw a constant round of sung services in the college, performed by the priests and by boys who were trained at Crail’s song school. The prebendary of the Aisle of St Mary the Virgin was responsible for the song school and had to teach the boys to sing ‘precantus et discantus’. This phrase implies that the children were required to learn polyphony as well as plainsong.

It is likely that the men and boys at Crail knew much of the music they sang off by heart. However, there clearly was a written musical tradition at the collegiate church. An early sixteenth-century inventory of the church’s valuables lists ‘the books in the choir’. These included: ten psalters (all made from parchment and written in a ‘fine text hand’), four ‘new half books’ (described as ‘two for summer and two for winter’), three ‘old whole antiphonals’, two ‘whole books of the temporale called Aspitiens’, and two ‘whole books of the saints called Sanctorum’.

Despite such aids, the services at Crail may not always have been performed perfectly. In 1530 ten new rules were added to the collegiate church’s statutes, most of which related to choral music. Among other conditions, the men and boys of the college were instructed to sing ‘with understanding’, to pronounce carefully ‘syllables, letters, consonants, and vowels’, and to ensure that the different parts worked together ‘harmoniously’. The choir was also told to ‘observe great reverence in carriage’ and to refrain from ‘wandering and careless looks’ and talking during services.

The desire for high musical standards was not simply a question of institutional pride: it had a theological dimension. The document from 1530 revising Crail’s statutes noted that singing should inspire in listeners a ‘love of the celestial country’. The revised statutes were also conscious of the way in which the choir was performing on behalf of the wider community, and representing to God ‘the host of fellow-citizens of the church triumphant’.

Today the parish church at Crail remains a focal point for musical activity. It both serves the parish and has become a valued concert venue, used by the local community, and by professional musicians associated with the East Neuk Festival [].

Dr Bess Rhodes is an associate lecturer in Scottish history at the University of St Andrews and a researcher for the Sacred Landscapes project. A version of this blogpost originally appeared on the Soundyngs blog: