A ruined medieval church with early medieval carved stones in the grounds
AOC undertook excavations and survey at the site of a medieval church and burial ground
The ruinous remains of St Helen’s Church at Old Cambus sit high on a cliff above the North Sea, close to Cockburnspath in the Scottish Borders. The church is said to have been established by three Northumbrian princesses who sought refuge from a violent war in their home kingdom. Stormy weather prevented them from reaching the Firth of Forth as planned, but they were given shelter by the bishop or prior of nearby Coldingham. They showed their gratitude by building three new churches: St Abb’s at St Abb’s Head, St Bee’s at Dunbar and St Helen’s at Old Cambus. It is recorded that there has been a church at Old Cambus since the 7th century, though the ruinous remains of St Helen’s are certainly much later in date, perhaps 12th century at the earliest.
Amongst the headstones in the graveyard are two hogback stones, early medieval commemorative monuments that generally date to the 10th or 11th centuries. The stones at St Helen’s have been known about for many years, but dense vegetation has made them hard to track down and they have gone undetected in recent surveys.
In January 2021, AOC undertook excavations and survey at the site of St Helen’s Church on behalf of Historic Environment Scotland following a report of possible damage to one of the hogbacks. Both hogbacks were identified, excavated and recorded before being reinstated.
Larger of the hogback stones with carved beasts on one side
Tegulae (scale - like decoration), on the other side of the hogback stone
Hogback stone during excavations
The broken hogback stone with a beast carved on one side
Other side of smaller hogback stone with tegulae (scale-like decoration)
A warrior in the attitude of prayer
Recorded in 1914, this stone was seemingly not seen again until the day of AOC’s survey.
St Helen’s Church has been ruinous for many years, and it is recorded that some of the stone was taken away in the mid-19th century for reuse elsewhere. The chevron detail visible on a handful stones in the west gable most likely represents the recycling of stones from an earlier building. The holes through the wall represent the location of putlogs – timbers built into the wall to support scaffolding during construction. They were sawn off flush with the wall and left in place when construction was complete, but the remains have since decayed, leaving voids behind.