The construction of classical churches began in Scotland in the 1730s, and was initially a response to the churches of London, designed by such architects as Sir Christopher Wren, Sir John Vanbrugh, and especially by the Aberdeen-born architect James Gibbs, whose church of St Martin-in-the-Fields (now in Trafalgar Square) was extraordinarily influential both in Scotland and in the American colonies.
Classical churches have features modelled on Greek and Roman architecture, and especially on temple design. The adoption of classical forms symbolised rationality and clarity of thought, and was in large measure intended to be a reaction against what was seen by many as the irrational mysticism of the pre-Reformation church. The more elaborate Baroque and Rococo styles which developed from classicism in central and southern Catholic Europe were seen in Scotland as being ‘Romish’, and were not absorbed into church building in Scotland until the later 19th century.
Generally speaking, classical churches were expected to have columns on their frontages, but a modification of this treatment was developed in Italy and Holland, from the late 17th century, in which free-standing columns were replaced by half-pillars (pilasters) were applied to an otherwise plain wall surface. ‘Flat classical’ churches were much cheaper to build than full-blown classical structures, and remained current as a style until the middle of the 19th century. The ‘flat classical’ style became particularly associated with the Secession churches.
The term ‘vernacular‘ is used here to describe buildings with little or no ornament, or architectural pretension. Such buildings were usually constructed by local masons and wrights (carpenters). They were usually on rectangular or T-plans, with gabled or piended roofs, and usually had belfries, if built for the Church of Scotland. Secession churches did not have belfries. 17th and early 18th century churches of this type usually had low walls, steeply-pitched roofs, and small rectangular windows. Later 18th century buildings often had round-headed windows, and in the early 19th century plain pointed windows made an appearance. Early vernacular churches were often, it appears, thatched, but the greater availability of slate during the 18th century resulted in this roofing material coming into general use. [Most gabled churches in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries had gables standing above the roof-line to form exposed skews. The junction between the roof-covering and the gable could be protected by a fillet of mortar, or by making a lead channel (water gate) along the junction]. In the middle of the 18th century piended roofs, and for larger spans platform roofs, were introduced, but they were never as common as gabled roofs.
So far, in this approach to church buildings, I have been concerned primarily with the basic forms which underlie the generality of ‘traditionally-built’ churches. The first part of this section looks at simple ‘vernacular’ buildings, of traditional construction, in which architectural expression is minimal. This is followed by a discussion of the ways in which basic forms can be ‘dressed up’, and elaborated, to suit changing fashions, and to convey the different messages which denominations wish to convey – wealth; frugality; rationality; romanticism; being up-to-date; being traditional; employing ‘good’ architects; indifference to ‘good’ architecture; competing in grandeur with other denominations; indifference to other denominations, and so on. This section is by no means irrelevant to church maintenance: the detailing associated with different architectural styles can have profound implications for ease of maintenance.