Torphichen Preceptory & Sanctuary Stones

Torphichen Preceptory

Lying in the gently undulating countryside of West Lothian, Torphichen Preceptory was one of medieval Scotland’s great centres of power.

Torphichen village (parish) church is said to have been founded by St. Ninian in about 400AD, a small wooden structure on the site of the present church (itself rebuilt in 1756). By the medieval period, the church and area had continued to develop and in 1165, the Knights Hospitaller of St. John made their Scottish headquarters at Torphichen and the Preceptory stands as testament to their presence

By LordHarris - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

First built in the 1140s, the Preceptory was constructed around an early Medieval church.

Until the 1560s it was the home of the Scottish branch of the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. 

Sir William Wallace, Guardian of Scotland, briefly took up residence at the Preceptory, following victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The Hospitallers had fled, having supported the English.

The Order returned during Robert the Bruce’s reign and the continued to work, pray and administer their Scottish estates from there until 1564, when the Hospitallers disbanded in Scotland following the Scottish Reformation. The last Preceptor. Sir James Sandilands, gave up the property to Mary Queen of Scots, who sold it back to him and made him Lord Torphichen. 

The site then became a parish kirk, with the church rebuilt on the demolished nave.

By LordHarris - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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Thanks to Jim Knowles for sharing these photos from his Armadale website.

Torphichen Preceptory Suggested Book List

Torphichen by by Jack Smith, 1997

Torphichen Kirk: a church with a sure foundation by Jack Smith, 2006

 The Knights of St John of Jerusalem in Scotland, ed. Cowan, Ian Borthwick, Mackay, P. H. R., Macquarrie, Alan,  printed for the Scottish History Society by C. Constable, Edinburgh, 1983.

The Order of St John in Scotland by Charles J Burnett KStJ and Henry Tilling KStJ, Edinburgh 1997

The Knights Hospitaller by Helen Nicholson, Boydell Press, 2001

Hospitallers, The History of the Order of St John by Jonathan Riley-Smith, Hambledon Press, London, 1999

Knights of Jerusalem, The Crusading Order of Hospitallers 1100 – 1565 by David Nicolle, Osprey publishing, Oxford, 2008

The Sanctuary Stones

Torphichen is a small historical village that sits North of Bathgate. The village is most famous for its links with the Knights of St John (not to be confused the with Knights Templar). From Torphichen to the North East is the Bathgate Hills.

But the main historical links to the Bathgate Hills and surrounding area are the Sanctuary Stones that are placed one scots mile North, South, West and East of the Torphichen Preceptory, with a Central Stone being placed in the Torphichen Kirkyard. It Is believed the stone in the Torphichen Kirkyard came from Cairnpapple.

The Sanctuary Stones, or Boundary Markers, marked an area of Sanctuary for anyone who needed it. If someone was accused of a crime and they made it to the area of Sanctuary, the Knights of St John would protect you until you had a fair court trial. 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.

This is the central 'Sanctuary stone' in the Torphichen Kirkyard. The east and west 'sanctuary stones' still stand in their original positions. It is my thoughts that the prehistoric type stones are of much earlier origin than the medieval Preceptory, possibly being related to the boundary of the hillforts in the local area.
This is the top of the central 'Sanctuary stone' in the Torphichen Kirkyard. Note it has a central hole or well and has been incised with a cross. This could have been to ritualise the pagan alter stone. It is suggested that the stone was brought down from Cairnpapple but could have come from any of the prehistoric areas within the local region.
The rear of the Witch Craigs 'refuge stone' showing the Cross of Lorraine. This stone was removed from its original location which was probably from the fields just up from Haddies Walls in the valley below.
The Gormyre 'refuge stone'. Just visible is the outline of part of a cross. Originally described as a Maltese Cross, now in its poor state of preservation, it could be interpreted as various other forms of cross (Potent, or Lorraine). (Until Jim took this photo it was thought that 'there is now no trace of the cross' )

Sanctuary Stone Notes
by Jim Knowles
© Jim Knowles

An ancient standing stone known as the ‘Torphichen Sanctuary Stone’ can be found at the west-side of the kirkyard and preceptory of Torphichen parish church, 2¼ miles to the north of Bathgate in west Lothian, Scotland. 

The stone has five small prehistoric cup-marks, but also a Celtic-style carving from the Dark Ages when St Ninian lived here, while on the top of the stone there is a medieval incised cross and a small hollow.  

It is the central-most stone of three – the other two being within a 1 mile radius of the preceptory. The thinking is that the santuary stone came from the ancient site of Cairnpapple Hill. You will find the little standing stone set amongst the gravestones at the west-side of the grassy kirkyard.

The little standing stone was set up here in the 12th century by the Knights Hospitallers (Knights of St John) to mark out a place of sanctuary or refuge for local people and pilgrims from further afield who wished to seek ‘a place of safety here’, or more likely the stone was already here when the Knights founded their preceptory/hospital and church in 1168.

An incised cross was carved on the top of the stone and the little hollow carved to either hold a cross or maybe holy water? 

Perhaps the stone was used at an earlier date by St Ninian, who had settled here in the 4th century and, in the 7th century St Fechin, an Irish monk and missionary from the monastery of Fore, County Westmeath, apparently also made use of this standing stone – the Celtic-style carving on the stone would date from this time. 

The five small cup-marks on the side of the stone date from the early Bronze Age when it stood on Cairnpapple Hill where there is a Neolithic henge monument and Bronze Age cairn. 

This is a shot from the east of the Westfield 'refuge stone'. This image is taken from the blue channel with the contrast enhanced to bring out any features. The stone was lost for a good number of years, due to it being removed from its original location and dumped. Luckily the stone was recovered and the fragmentary remains were cemented back together. The stone was finally re-instated back near its original standing place. The stone has pretty much flat sides with no obvious signs of carving on its faces.
This is an image of the southern 'refuge stone' of Torphichen. The original stone once stood in the field behind Couston castle. The stone was removed to the side of the field, where it remained for a number of years. It eventually found its way onto the pathway leading to the quarry works with a number of other stones. After examining the other stones, some are of obvious origin, with no obvious markings. This was the only stone that also had a broken base and possible working on its visible face. It is possible that this stone once had a cross carved into its face. I could not examine the rear due to its weight.
Local knowledge suggests that this large stone boulder at the edge of a wood was one of the northern boundary 'refuge stones' in the area. This would have stood in the centre of the field to the rear of Craigend House near Lochote. There are no obvious markings on the stone and it appears to have been badly damaged when relocated.
The northern 'refuge stone'. This is located in the Parish boundary wall just to to the north from the fallen standing stone. The front face and rear of the stone is incised with a simple cross.

It is often cited that there were four refuge/sanctuary stones located one Scots mile, north, south, east and west of the Preceptory.  Some questions worth considering are:

When are the stones first cited in documents?

When would these stones have been put in place?

Are they located on the access routes to the Preceptory for any known time period?

Were there only four stones located at one mile?

In-situ, would any inscription have only faced away from the Preceptory to greet travellers?

Why are the identified stones non-uniform?

Is there any stone locally with a true Maltese cross on it?