Does Corstorphine have a hidden past as an ancient religious centre?A collegiate church, two holy wells, the Knights Templar and a name that seems to be of religious origin… There seems to be a case for stating that Corstorphine had some significance as a spiritual centre in the distant past.
The early history of Corstorphine is extremely murky, and little research has been done into it. Historians have been more interested in what happened a hundred years ago than a thousand. Personally I find some the older history more interesting. It is unfortunately a bit speculative, so I hope readers will forgive me, but as always I aim to try to create new lines of enquiry.
First off, the name Corstorphine. The etymology is uncertain but several of the suggestions point back to a religious origin. “Cors” may well be related to a large standing cross that once stood here – these used to be far more common – or it may be alternatively a crossing of the marsh, or the marsh itself.
Secondly, the wells namely the Physic Well and the Ladywell. It is unusual for two holy wells to be in such proximity and they are within a quarter mile of the old church. The”phine” aspect of the name is also intriguing. In my book, I suggest it is related to the holy wells in the area. The Welsh for a well. Holywell in north east Wales is Treffynon. It is notable that William Dunbar in his Lament for the Makaris rhymes “Corstorphine” with “Aberdeen”. This may suggest a different pronunciation in past centuries, or merely an attempt to link two poets called Roull.
The etymology of Ladywell is again controversial. First sight suggests a pre-Reformation dedication to the Virgin Mary like Motherwell; however there is also Ladiebridge (Ladiebrig?) down the way, and some suggest this is related to “lade” which is a slow running stream. These holy wells were invariably pre-Christian in origin. People would have come to them for healing and as a minor pilgrimage.
How old is Corstorphine Kirk?
How old is Corstorphine Parish Church? Well, we can ascertain the site is a former island surrounded by marshes and lochs. This tells us nothing definite in itself, but such locations were often holy sites for the Celtic church, which had a penchant for islands, hillocks etc, which were often pagan sites beforehand. The church may have served visitors to the two holy wells or been an additional site in its own right. This is indeed speculation, but it would put the church’s foundation back into the first millennium, possibly during the period Iona was sending missionaries to the Northumbrian ruled Lothians.
Then we have the Torfinn question. There is no record of such a person being linked with Corstorphine, but “Torfinn’s cross” is a tempting derivation too. (Note the Celtic word order though). Did a Torfinn set up a religious site here? It is not an uncommon Norse name. The usual speculation is that it belongs to an Earl of Orkney, Thorfinn the Mighty who lived 1009?–c. 1065, put the name back around a thousand years. The Lothians were taken by Scotland around 1018, and Thorfinn was related by marriage to the Scottish royal family. He appears to have been very religious, going on pilgrimage to Rome and Christianising the Northern Isles.
Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller
Another clue may be found in the dedication of the church to St John, which is where we get the name “St John’s Road” from. St John was the patron saint of the Knights Hospitaller (KHs). The Hospitallers took over much of the land that the Knights Templar (KTs) had controlled, before they fell out of favour with authority. The church in Torphichen in West Lothian is an example of a nearby church which was transferred from the KTs to the KHs. Sure enough, in the Corstorphine area, we find Templeland Road, which is named for the KTs.
The KHs were notable for providing hospitality (note the etymology of that word) and also providing medical care (which may tie in with the Holy Wells). St John’s Ambulance was famously set up by them.
Corstorphine Parish Church is also an example of a collegiate church. A collegiate church is not exactly a cathedral, but it is a few levels up from an ordinary parish church – and would have been served by a series of canons. It is clear a lot of money was spent on the project. This was probably a prestige project for the Forrester Family who had nearby castle, but also possibly symbolic of the area’s Pre-Reformation religious importance. After the Reformation, it would have become the ordinary but unusual looking church we see today.