Royal Murder, Friars and Beer

Danny Dutton takes us through the (not so) bloody discoveries at Christies Bar in Perth

Submitted by SarahManavis on 16-10-2017 11:25:53


February 20, 1437, the evening; King James I of Scotland is pursued and murdered trying to escape into a sewer tunnel from his bedchamber at Blackfriars, the Dominican Friary in Perth.


July 18, 2017, the morning; a small team of enthusiasts and professional archaeologists enter the cellars below Christie’s Bar, Perth, to see if there are any clues as to whether any part of the former Friary buildings might yet survive unseen below street level.

The Dominican Friary – Blackfriars as it was known -  was one of three religious houses in Perth that were largely destroyed during the Reformation; any subsequent demolition is not recorded, although it would have provided a handy source of stone for Oliver Cromwell’s great citadel, built in 1652. Certainly by the 19th century it seems there was little if anything left of the Friary to see above ground.

Archaeological excavations carried out in the 1980s unearthed fragmentary remains of the Friary and part of the monastic cemetery but these are now lost to modern building development, so what would be the chances of our investigations bearing fruit?

The present day Christie’s bar is essentially a 19th century building that was renovated and converted to a public house in Art Deco style in the mid 1930s and much of the external detail fronting Kinnoull Street from that period still survives. In fact, the architect’s plans from this phase of work proved invaluable in understanding the remains in the cellar.

Our first day on the Wednesday was a flurry of activity initially as a reporter and photographer from the Perth Courier were on hand to see what we were up to and get some background to the planned activities, from which they produced a really nice article.

The cellar is not a large space and over a two day period the SUP led team were able to accommodate eight people in total to look for architectural clues, all equipped with appropriate PPE, measuring tapes, drawing boards, plans, cameras and a healthy dose of optimism!

The cellar is a working environment and so there were plenty of obstacles – literally – to overcome in the process but with the cheerful cooperation of Helen Ratcliffe, Owner Manager, we were pretty much able to ‘access all areas.

The cellar space is now divided up into two temperature controlled areas separated by a door. One area is rather warm while the other chilled so moving between the two was akin to different seasons of the year requiring appropriate clothing!  We were closeted together for ninety minute periods below street level so as to minimise any disruption to the activity in pub above but fortunately avoided any sense of claustrophobia. During this time we were able to examine and discuss (and experience) the physical space that made up our working environment. Collaborating together we were able to develop hypotheses to address the questions posed by the architectural puzzle that enclosed us.


Despite the cellar surfaces having what appeared to be several generations’ worth of white lime wash and paint applied to them our observations were quickly able to distinguish between the two principal masonry components that formed the solid walls, namely brick and stone. Making reference to the 1936 architect’s plans we were able to conclude that the majority of the brickwork related to alterations that post-dated the plans, which allowed us to concentrate on the more irregular stone walled construction and opportunities to examine the masonry where the surface coatings had peeled away due to penetrating ground water – a constant problem for any subterranean structure in this part of the city.

As time progressed we came to identify two phases of coursed rubble wall construction overlying a foundation course of grounded boulders and large cobbles, formalised at the margins by face dressed quoins, and perhaps more intriguingly, a blocked doorway opening .... leading to where?


Given the absence of construction in the area prior to the 18th century we were convinced that we were looking at medieval masonry pertaining to the former Friary preserved in the cellars of a later building - a fact not fully appreciated until our chance to investigate presented itself, and an opportunity to put a small piece of Perth’s Medieval Dominican Friary back on the map!


In the present day it is virtually impossible to pinpoint where the scene of James’ brutal regicide occurred. James, however, once alerted to his would-be killer’s presence seems to have tried to escape through the floor of his room (a ground floor?) to hide in a sewer tunnel. Alas, James was hoist by his own petard as with the sewers’ exit recently blocked off to prevent his tennis balls getting lost; he was trapped and murdered there.


The present owner’s of Christie’s Bar are presently planning renovations that would allow some part of the medieval cellars to be viewed from above via a glass floor panel. In addition there is the suggestion that the public house will be renamed as ....King James I.


You can read more detail of the results of the recording event here:


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