Cowie Chapel, St Mary of the Storms
Cowie Chapel, St Mary of the Storms

Atop the high sandstone cliffs just north of Stonehaven stand the roofless ruins of a 13th-century chapel, dedicated to St Mary, and known locally as St Mary of the Storms.

The circular churchyard traditionally marks the site where a chapel was established by the Scottish saint, Nathalan, or Nachlan, sometime in the 7th century. Nathalan also established churches at Coull and Tullich and taught his followers how to grow crops.

The Treasure of Cowie

According to legend, Nathalan owned a great treasure. When he died the treasure was wrapped in a bull's hide and buried between the churchyard and the nearby burn. An old rhyme retells the legend: 'Between the kirk and the kirk's ford, There lies Saint Nachlan's hoard'.

The area in question is probably the small churchyard extension. Another version of the story says that Nechtan himself is buried here, though the Aberdeen Breviary says that he was buried near the church he built at Tullich.

In 1276 the chapel (it never became a church) was re-dedicated to St Mary and served as a daughter church of Fetteresso. Several medieval Scottish monarchs worshipped at Cowie, and it is known that James IV came here on several occasions, and gave generous donations to the chapel.

Remains of the mort house
Remains of the mort house

The chapel fell into disuse after the Reformation. The historical record makes an intriguing mention that it 'was unroofed by the ecclesiastical authority on account of certain scandals'. It is left to our imagination to guess what those scandals might have been!

Local people used stone for their building projects - despite a persistent legend that any house built with stones from the chapel would have a rain of blood brought down upon it.

Though the chapel is now ruinous, there are several interesting features. Three lancet windows still pierce the east wall. The priest's door in the south wall is original to the 13th-century chapel, and there is a surviving aumbry (storage cupboard) in the northeast corner. Immediately below the west gable is a curious semi-circular mound covered by turf.

This is a partly underground mort-house, built to protect newly deceased corpses from the unwelcome attentions of body-snatchers. Beside the mort-house is a moving memorial to the men of the Stonehaven lifeboat St George, who died while attempting to rescue the crew of the Grace Darling in 1874. Throughout the churchyard are scattered tombs of local sailors, often marked with carvings of ships.

Visiting Cowie Chapel

Cowie chapel can be found immediately below the clubhouse of Cowie golf club (in fact, I found a stray golf ball inside the chapel). A more interesting way to reach the chapel is to park at the free parking area on the northern outskirts of Stonehaven (off the B979) and take the well-worn trail along the cliffs to the chapel; a walk of no more than 10 minutes. Details of this and other walks can be found in a leaflet from the Stonehaven tourist office.

NB. Cowie chapel is also known as The Chapel of Our Lady of The Storms.

Memorial to men of the Stonehaven lifeboat
Memorial to men of the
Stonehaven lifeboat
Looking out from the chapel towards the sea
Looking out from the
chapel towards the sea
Grave stone of a sailor
Gravestone of a sailor
Figure of a ship on a gravestone
Figure of a ship on a gravestone
Does Nathalan's treasure lie buried here?
Does Nathalan's treasure lie buried here?