The former Scottish Episcopal Church of St Margaret is a monument to Braemar’s Victorian heyday – a period of unprecedented development in the second half of the 19th century which saw the village transformed into a fashionable holiday destination that welcomed royalty, prime Ministers, and leading society figures.
Queen Victoria’s purchase of the Balmoral estate in 1852 set a trend for holidaying in Scotland. The expansion of the railway made travel quicker and easier, and in 1867 the railway reached Ballater, further increasing the numbers of visitors keen to experience Victoria’s “dear paradise”.
Throughout Deeside houses, hotels, and churches were built or enlarged to meet the influx of visitors during an extended summer season. That legacy of Victorian construction can be seen in Braemar’s townscape today, including the Free Presbyterian Church (now Braemar Parish Church) and St Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church, the Fife Arms and Invercauld Arms hotels, and many of the large villas.
In 1880 an Episcopal church, dedicated to Saint Margaret of Scotland, was built in the centre of Braemar on land given by the Laird of Invercauld. But this early wooden church was quickly outgrown and the Aberdeen-born architect John Ninian Comper was commissioned to design a new church paid for entirely from generous donations. Begun in 1899 the new building was ambitious, and its scale and grandeur befitted the patronage of senior Church of England clergymen who worshipped and preached in the church. St Margaret’s was dedicated in 1901 and consecrated in 1907. The impressive oak chancel screen was installed around 1910, and the carved rood figures added in 1921.
In the years following Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, Braemar’s fortunes as a fashionable destination declined steadily along with the number of seasonal worshippers that had once filled St Margaret’s. The small local congregation continued to worship in the church, utilising the smaller self-contained space of the Lightfoot Aisle during the winter months. In the decades that followed, despite their best efforts, maintaining the building proved difficult due to its size and problems with water ingress. By 1997 the challenge was too great and the congregation left St Margaret’s to worship in the chapel at Mar Lodge.
St Margaret’s is a Category A listed building of outstanding significance within the UK for its architecture, and as a major work of Sir John Ninian Comper (1864-1960). Comper is regarded as the most important British church architect of the 20th century. Although his buildings are not prominent in Scotland, Comper is considered one of Scotland’s greatest architects.
The church contains fine examples of Comper’s characteristic stained glass. His reputation as an exceptional glass designer was international and brought him commissions for windows in India, China, South Africa and North America. Some of Comper’s best glass can be seen in Westminster Abbey, where his ashes are buried.
Also of significance are the ecclesiastical fixtures and fittings of St Margaret’s, including the outstanding rood screen. A collection of hand-embroidered textiles, also designed by Comper, are of national significance in their own right.