The Kirk stands on an elevated outcrop above the confluence of two fast-flowing burns which, a short distance downstream, provide the waterpower for the historic Mill of Benholm. The site of the Kirk has a long history of religious use, possibly even stretching back into pre-Christian times. The first recorded church dates back to 1242, though it was probably predated by an early Christian church dedicated to the Celtic saint Marnoch.
In the Statistical Account of 1795, the Kirk was described as “an old irregular gothic building. The former choir at the east end has long been used as a burial place. The remains of a font are at one of the church doors, and other relics of superstition, which evidently show that the whole has been built before the Reformation.” In 1820, this building was demolished using dynamite and the site cleared for the construction of a new Kirk. Such treatment suggests a lack of respect for the past, but the fact that care was taken to salvage and incorporate elements of the older building shows otherwise. Amongst the items reused in the new Kirk was a sacrament house dating from the 15th century, now built into the east wall, which would originally have been used to protect and display the consecrated bread or “Host”.
Another important and rather larger item, salvaged and displayed prominently in the new building, was the Keith Monument, a memorial to Lady Mary Keith. The daughter of George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal and his Countess, Lady Margaret Ogilvie, Mary died in 1620, aged 4. The arcaded lower section of the monument shows Death as a skeleton, skewering the male and female figures beside him with the Darts of Death. These are Mary’s parents, and their high status is shown through their rich costumes and headgear, and in what they hold. In particular, the importance of the Earl Marischal is clearly indicated by his gun which would have been a rare and valuable item in the early 17th century. George Keith was one of the most powerful men in the country, and held a number of prestigious positions close to the Crown. He was appointed Ambassador to Denmark in the 1580s and, in 1589 negotiated the King’s marriage to Queen Ann. In 1593 he established Marishal College in Aberdeen, later to become the University of Aberdeen. He became Lord High Commissioner or Viceroy to the Scottish Parliament in 1609 and died at Dunnotter in 1623. George Keith would have commissioned the monument with the intention of emphasising his power and position, and although it now seems almost childlike to us in its style, it was highly accomplished and tremendously influential in its day. One example of this strong influence can be seen in the Straton Monument at Lower St Cyrus, dating from 1642.
Another monument, to Robert Scott of Benholme, to the right of the pulpit, dates from 1690. It is interesting to compare this with the Keith Monument to see how sculpture developed through the 17th century. Carved in white marble with classical cherubs, drapery, and foliage, this is a highly sophisticated memorial of its period in Scotland making it rare and unusual
Overall, the interior of the Kirk is treated with great simplicity and decoration is kept to a minimum. Priority was given to accommodating the maximum number of worshippers and originally it would have held up to 768 people, allowing 16 inches of seating per person. In later years, some pews at the front were removed to create more space and the raised platform, or dais, surrounding the pulpit was constructed. At the same time, the pulpit was altered to remove the precentor’s box – a lower level of platform from which the singing of the congregation would have been led. A harmonium, and later still, an organ, replaced the traditional precentor.
For generations, Benholm Kirk was a place of worship for local people and the scene of countless weddings, baptisms and funerals. But in June 2004 a final service was held and the church closed its doors before being put up for sale by the Church of Scotland. In February 2006, with the help of the community, the Kirk was purchased and taken into care by the SRCT. The Kirk will be preserved and protected, enabling it to be used for occasional services and continuing the centuries-old tradition of worship on the site. Other uses will also be encouraged, such as concerts, exhibitions, and performances of music and drama. Visitors are most welcome.