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Traditional Buildings - Gables and Plans

This section illustrates forms of building in outline, and then uses specific churches to show how these simple forms are expressed in real buildings. Buildings of modern form and construction are discussed at the end.


The Gabled Rectangle

The simplest type of traditional church building is rectangular on plan, with a pitched roof and end gables. In most examples the edges of the gables extend above the roofing material to form exposed skews. In a few the roofing material is carried up to the outer edge of the gable, and in some late examples is carried over the gable end to form eaves.

Most churches of this type have a belfry (bellcote) at the top of one of the gables, and that gable may be thickened to provide support for it. There may well be a decorative feature, a finial, on the other gable (sometimes on both). The commonest form of finial is a ball.

Innerwick Parish Church East Lothian

Innerwick Parish Church, East Lothian



Sometimes a tower is wholly or partly inset into the gable. This may have a steeple.  

Old High Parish Church, Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire

Old High Parish Church,
Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire 

The Piended Rectangle


In the later 18th century the greater availability of good-quality building timber, and improvement in joinery skills, led to the adoption of piended (hipped) roofs, with sloping ends as well as sides. These were particularly favoured by the Secession churches, which did not have bellcotes. Where a bellcote was placed on the wallhead of a piended building it was common to have a small sub-roof to avoid having a valley gutter between the bellcote and the roof.

Craignish Parish Church

Craignish Parish Church, 
Argyll and Bute




In a few instances churches were built with eight sides (octagonal), with eight sloping roof faces.

Former Glasite Meeting Place - Dundee

Former Glasite Meeting House, 

T-plan Churches 

Early rectangular churches were quite narrow, largely because of the scarcity of long pieces of timber. To increase capacity the first option was to build internal galleries above the ends, leaving the centre of the building open to its full height. Further increase in accommodation was then provided by building a full-height wing on to the side opposite the pulpit, forming a T-plan building.  

Former Nigg Old Parish Church

Former Nigg Old Parish Church,

  This became a standard layout for churches until the later 18th century. The wing often contained a gallery for the local landowner (laird), whose responsibility it was to provide the church. Many churches which seem at first sight to be simple rectangular buildings have a wing to the rear. Some piend-roofed churches are also on a T-plan. There is considerable variety in the placing of bellcotes on T-plan buildings. Sometimes the bellcote is at one end of the 'cross-stroke' of the T, and sometimes at the end of the down-stroke.

Carmunnock Parish Church,

 Cruciform churches

Churches on a cross plan were common before the Reformation. The typical cross plan at that time was the Latin cross, in which one arm of the cross is significantly longer than the other three. The side arms - transepts - were probably introduced to allow east end altars to be added to complement the high altar, at the east end of the main body of the church. After the Reformation the Latin-cross plan became irrelevant, and the larger churches were divided up, or partly abandoned.

It was not until the 19th century that most of the surviving mediaeval cross-plan churches were restored to their original configuration. In the 17th century, however, a number of new cross-plan churches were built, or converted from earlier buildings. These were on the Greek, or equal-armed cross plan. The fourth arm (as compared to the T-plan church) was, apparently, used as a communion aisle. Greek-cross-plan churches continued to be built into the early 18th century, but thereafter this layout was abandoned. 

St Andrew's Parish  Church Golspie

St Andrew's Parish Church, 
Golspie, Highlands

Side projections

Projections from the sides of rectangular or T-plan churches are very common. Often these are in essence porches, sheltering doorways. Such projections sometimes also contain one or more small rooms, used as session houses, vestries, or more recently as Sunday School rooms. Others were built as burial aisles, to conform to the post-Reformation prohibition of burials within churches. In several instances the burial vault was in the lower part of the projection, with a 'laird's loft' above. Such projections have sometimes been converted into additions to the worship space

Spott Parish Church

Spott Parish Church, East Lothian,
burial aisle on side of church


Abercorn Parish Church

Abercorn Parish Church, West Lothian, two burials aisles, and a grave enclosure on side of church

 End projections

End projections are very common. Some are porches or burial aisles, as mentioned above, but at the 'east end' the projections are usually extensions of the worship space. In Scottish Episcopal or Catholic churches, and in surviving mediaeval churches, these are usually chancels or choirs, designed to house altars, choirs (singers) and clergy. Sometimes the end projection is very slight, and perhaps round-ended, in which case it is called an apse. In churches of the late Victorian period and later, end extensions are commonly organ chambers. Vestigial projecting chancels were still being built in the 1990s.

Strathnaver Church - Syre - Highlands

Strathnaver Church, Syre, Highlands, 
with a porch on the front end


Scottish Episcopal Church - Largs - North Ayrshire

Scottish Episcopal Church, Largs, North Ayrshire, 
with a large side porch, and a chancel to the right




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Scottish Episcopal Church


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The Scottish

Historic Scotland

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