Katherine Williams, Education Officer at the Cathedral Church of St Machar, Old Aberdeen is our guest blogger today. Prize winners in our recent Keep Scotland Beautiful awards, the pollinator-friendly work in an Aberdeen churchyard could be inspiration for church grounds up and down Scotland.
There has been worship on this site since the 7th century with the Cathedral of St Machar the oldest building still in use in Aberdeen. There are many visitors to the cathedral and many pass by going to Seaton Park or walking back to student halls. It is managed by Aberdeen City Council and is a Scheduled Monument under the watch of Historic Environment Scotland.
A major repair and conservation project was started in 2020 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of its unique Heraldic Ceiling. £1.8 million was needed for the project which included re-slating the roof and cleaning all the stained-glass windows. The National Heritage Lottery Fund grant included funding two posts, Education Officer and Outreach Officer and a three year Activity Plan to raise awareness of traditional skills and attract more people to the site. A Kirkyard Natural Heritage Project was part of this vision.
The aims were to increase the kirkyard biodiversity with a sustainable management system, to enable people to have creative experiences with the benefits of being outside and interpret family stories and increasing awareness of the local built heritage.
In autumn 2020, a presentation was put to the cathedral and with their consent in early 2021 a steering group formed. The group includes the Education Officer, the Outreach Officer, reps from the cathedral, a rep from Friends of Seaton Park, a committee member of Old Aberdeen Community Association, a retired Countryside Officer and the supervisor of the City Council maintenance team.
Firstly, the group liaised with the maintenance team and the Head of Bereavement Services to come up with a more sustainable management scheme. Beforehand all the kirkyard was cut short between 6-8 times a year and herbicides used on paths and around gravestones. Over the last two years we have worked towards a more nature friendly scheme. In 2020 during the covid-19 lockdowns the grounds were not cut and the grass grew long. This did not please everyone in the locality and the word ‘rewilding’ had to be quickly dropped from any discussions as it was equated with neglect. Some people liked the informal look of the kirkyard at this time, but some families tending graves thought it disrespectful with fears that headstones would be covered over by vegetation.
A balance was needed and a mix of habitats. At the east end of the cathedral the terrain is rougher and the graves older. This area has been left to grow long and only cut at the end of the growing season. It has been planted it with over 100 wildflower plug plants such as red campion, ox-eye daisy, cowslips, herb robert and self-heal.
These were grown from seed by John Malster of Curam Fyvie who uses local seed to protect the biodiversity of this area. Another area was left long by the west entrance door however it drew some criticism. Here the insect-delighting plants of dandelions and ragwort were not always welcomed by brides and their families exiting the west door or passers-by walking to Seaton Park. A more formal approach will likely be adopted here next year where the grass will be cut at least 2 times and a strip all around the area kept short.
On a triangle beside the main footpath to the cathedral entrance we have planted some thyme varieties including red creeping Thyme for pollinators and crocus bulbs to provide early nectar. We have also put in some self-heal, thrift and sea-campion to see how they establish. Early attempts at planting here met with some disappointment as at one point, just before a visit from Prince Charles in 2021. The maintenance team thought that our planting of autumnal hawkbit and self-heal were weeds and pulled them all up!
Also, some Thyme was killed by herbicide use on the path. To help our communications with the maintenance team, we have put up a map of the grounds and a key to the different management areas on the council board to inform them as they work. We also have a yearly site visit with them to discuss the oncoming season and include them in our group meetings and minutes.
To help put our ideas into action we have formed a gardening group. This meets monthly during the growing season, attracting between 3 and 30 each session including young families, students, neighbours and cathedral goers. We have weeded a shady area, planted wildflower plugs, snowdrops in the green and crocus bulbs. We have also been given soil from the council and a local building contractor and have increased soil levels around eroded headstones and reseeded with grass in bare areas.
Community events include a BioBlitz day on a glorious sunny day in June 2021 organised with NESBReC. They came and helped us record the numbers of fauna and flora (well over a 100 species of wildflowers). We planted wildflowers, listened to stories with Grace Banks and members from the Countryside Ranger team provided activities. We had a summer family day in 2022 with guided wildflower tours, planting and children’s activities but unfortunately the weather wasn’t so kind.
The Education Officer has run biodiversity workshops with primary classes and secondary art classes have come to sketch the kirkyard. One school used the grounds to film some stories from the cathedral’s past.
Our highlight in 2022 was receiving a Level 3 award in Its Your Neighbour scheme and 2nd place from NatureScot’s Pollinator Friendly Award. This will really help to raise awareness of our work here and hopefully encourage other kirkyards in North East Scotland to become more nature friendly. The award will help us to buy seed to increase our Thyme and sow a woodland wildflower mix in our shady north section with some snowdrops in the green.
We aim to sow seeds that we gathered in the autumn and keep an eye on which wildflowers are establishing in the east end. We’ll also update our maintenance scheme and would like to plan an interpretation panel at the entrance and assess the condition of some of our paths. Finally, we hope in the summer to have a family history day and to offer biodiversity workshops for all ages during the year.
All images courtesy and copyright of Ian Talboys.