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Fochabers: Gordon Chapel

Hill & Son, 1874 — organ surveyed June 2023

Historical overview

The Church
The Gordon Chapel, opened in August 1834, was built under the patronage of the 5th Duke and Duchess of Gordon. As the Duke belonged to the established church (Church of Scotland), it was left under the control of the Duchess.[i] The Duchess, Elizabeth Gordon (1794 – 1864), was cautious that anything but the ‘proper’ liturgy of the Church of England was practiced in the chapel and as such only appointed English priests. It is at this time that the story of the organ may well have begun – there is mention in the local press [ii] & [iii] of the “solemnity…heightened by the rich and deep tones of the organ”,[iv] while later press articles document its removal from the chapel.

That instrument may have been by David Hamilton; a letter from Hamilton to (Catholic) Bishop James Kyle outlines a visit to the chapel in 1834, though makes no specific mention of his business there.[v] In fact, there are no references anywhere to Hamilton installing an organ there at this time (other than what is suggested in the letter). Edinburgh-based organ historian Andrew Coutts (1873-1936) suggests that the organ was installed in 1852 by Bevington, despite no mention of this instrument on any official list of their work.[vi] It is possible that the (small) Bevington instrument was installed in the Gordon Castle itself (which had a small chapel pre-dating the Gordon Chapel), though it seems odd that the date coincides with the re-opening of the church building. It is also possible that Coutt’s has made an error with his dates on this occasion. In any case, by 1848 the Gordon Chapel (church) was closed, ceasing as an active place of worship after the Duchess converted to the Free Church of Scotland.

After the death of the 5th Duke of Gordon in 1836, and due to his heirless marriage, the castle and chapel passed to his nephew, the 5th Duke of Richmond – note that the title was returned to the crown; later given to the 6th Duke of Richmond (and Gordon) by Queen Victoria in 1876.[vii] By 1852, only four years after the chapel’s closure, the 5th Duke of Richmond consulted the Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness (Robert Eden) about the possibility of re-opening the chapel. The foundations for the chapel as it survives today (including the Hill & Son organ) were laid at this time. The Dean of the diocese, Rev William Christie, was appointed minister in 1855 and, together with the 6th Duke of Richmond and Gordon, who succeeded his father in 1860, initiated the chapel’s complete restoration.[viii]

The full extent of the alterations cost some £2000 and were entrusted to the Inverness architect Alexander Ross. Details include: the replacing of the flat ceiling with the present pitched one (creating space for a rose window); removal of the central pulpit and high enclosed pews in favour of a pulpit with matching reading desk; the sanctuary was adorned with a wrought-iron and brass communion rail and hung with painted canvases.[ix]  At this time the organ was situated below the central west window allowing sound projection directly down the church. It should be noted that during restoration work to the windows in 2010, the organ was re-sited to the north wall (immediately adjacent to its former position) to avoid the exclusion of light.

The Organ and its reception
During the period of alterations overseen by Dean Christie and the 6th Duke, the first of the Burne-Jones windows (the rose and three lancets) were installed along with the new organ from Messrs Hill and Son. At this time, Hill and Son had secured many contracts for both cathedrals and parish churches, including Chichester Cathedral (1861, later adding a case in 1888). Chichester had strong links to the Duchy of Richmond; the 6th Duke played a vital role in fundraising projects and where an ancestral chapel still exists[x].

The original entry in the Hill estimate book was made with a contact listed as the Duchess of Richmond. This was later corrected to the Duke of Richmond (the address also amended to his London home of 49 Belgrave Square). A letter from the Rev James Duncan (formerly of the Gordon Chapel) states during cleaning of the organ, in 1994, an address label was found inside the instrument. According to the letter, the address read “The Duchess of Richmond and Gordon, Gordon Castle, North Britain”. Although this matches the original estimate book entry, it doesn’t uncover any significance as to why the contact and address were changed – was it a gift to the Duchess from the Duke? Further investigation in the Hill & Son archives may shed further light on this. It should also be noted that this label was not seen during this most recent survey of the instrument.

Contemporary press articles highlight that the installation of this instrument proved both popular and successful within the congregation and wider locality. An article in the Elgin Courant describes the successes of the “very fine [organ]”, stating “Its music is full and soft and in power it is admirably suited to the size of the church”.[xii] Service playing seems to have fallen to the incumbent minister’s wife, Mrs Christie, or to the Countess of March (wife of the 7th Duke) who played at the re-dedication of the chapel in 1874.[xiii] Originally, the wind for organ was provided by handpump – still extant at present – but was converted to a hydraulic system in 1881 (remnants of which are still evident in a kitchen passageway wall below the chapel).[xiv]

Arguably, the wider impact and success of this organ can also be seen at the local Church of Scotland congregation (Bellie Parish Church). An article from the Banffshire Advertiser suggests that, when presented with the ‘old’ (Hamilton?) organ by the Duke, the local minister of the Church of Scotland parish retracted the passage: “Awa’ wi’ your organs an’ your orchestras, an’ a’ that” from his usual -“well known” – sermon and replacing it with one in favour of organs.[xv] Furthermore, by 1888, the same congregation had bought a larger two manual and pedal instrument by James Conacher of Huddersfield, holding regular concerts.

The Hill and Son organ of the Gordon Chapel, albeit small in size and scale, has done much to improve the worship within the chapel and arguably influenced local cultural and ecclesiastical change.

[i] Meldrum, P. Evangelical Episcopalians in Nineteenth-Century Scotland (Thesis), University of Stirling (2004)

[ii] Elgin Courant, and Morayshire Advertiser – Friday 29 October 1852

[iii] Elgin Courant, and Morayshire Advertiser – Tuesday 15 September 1874

[iv] Aberdeen Journal – Wednesday 20 August 1834

[v] Letter from Hamilton to Bishop Kyle, Scottish Catholic Archives (SCA PL3/243/18)

[vi] Organ Notebooks of A.M. Coutts, National Library for Scotland (NLS MS Dept, desposit 361, item 38)
      Coutts’ note book entry references:
a) (under Bevington) “Fochabers, Gordon Castle 24 October 1852”
b) (under Hill) “Fochabers, Gordon Castle Chapel 31 August 1874”

[vii] [accessed 30/05/23]

[viii] [accessed 29/05/23]

[ix] Idem


[xi] Letter from Rev James Duncan to Alan Buchan, 21 February 1997

[xii] Elgin Courant, and Morayshire Advertiser – Tuesday 15 September 1874

[xiii] [accessed 29/05/23]

[xi] Letter from Rev James Duncan to Alan Buchan, 21 February 1997

[xv] Banffshire Advertiser – Thursday 04 August 1887