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Torphichen Preceptory, Scotland, Photograph © 2000, Susan Wallace

Torphichen Preceptory
West Lothian, Scotland

The Hospital, or Preceptory, of Torphichen was the Scottish headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, or Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem. Founded during the reign of David I (1124-1153), construction of the church - nave, aisle, transepts and central tower - was started around 1200 and completed by the mid 13th century. Located within the village of Torphichen, the preceptory stands in a sheltered valley on the western side of the Torphichen Hills. Torphichen is derived from Gaelic: torr-fithichean, "the raven's hill."

The Hospitallers had come to Scotland to recruit and collect funds for the Crusades. There were administration, monastic and domestic buildings. There was also a small hospital or hospice, as there was at all settlements of the Order. Within the Preceptory lived a number of brothers, headed by a Preceptor, who oversaw the estates and collected the rents in cash or goods. The rents for all of the Hospitaller properties in Scotland were collected at Torphichen. Much of the daily work of the brethren would have involved growing food and herbs for medicine.

A stone in the churchyard, resembling a milestone with a cross carved on top, marked the center of privileged sanctuary ground. A circle of similar stones stood around the edge of the estate, each a mile distant from the center and some still standing. All of the space within the circle formed by these "refuge stones" was as much a legal sanctuary as the church itself and offered protection against the law to every criminal or debtor who entered and remained within its precincts.

During the war between Scotland and England the Hospitallers took the side of the English. For several months between the Battle of Stirling (September 1297) and the Battle of Falkirk (July 1298), William Wallace and his army were said to have camped at Torphichen. It is reasonable to assume that the Hospitallers would have removed themselves to the priory at nearby Kirkliston during this time. In 1298 Edward I sent for Brian deJay, Master of the Knights Templar in England, to fight for England in Scotland. DeJay did go; but once he was in Scotland, he made straight for Torphichen - and did not fight.

The tower and transcepts, substantially heightened in the 15th century, were used after the Reformation as the courthouse of the Regality of Torphichen, granted around 1560 to the last Preceptor, Sir James Sandilands, who was later raised to the peerage as Lord Torphichen.

View more images of Torphichen Preceptory at Travels in the UK: Torphichen Preceptory Photo Gallery.