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How Victorians saved St Machar’s Cathedral’s artistic ceiling – and left behind graffiti discovered 150 years on!

They may have left their names etched in graffiti on “the internationally important artwork”, but the Victorians should be thanked for saving the stunning ceiling at St Machar’s Cathedral.

The Old Aberdeen landmark recently underwent a £1.8 million refurbishment, with the restoration of the 1520 ceiling a key part of the work.

Karen Dundas, a wall paintings conservator based in Fife, led the project to repair peeling paint and remove a mystery “white haze” which had crept across the timber.

In an eye-opening talk at the cathedral this week, she revealed how there might not have been much left to salvage had it not been for our Victorian forbears.

Decorated with 48 hand-painted heraldic shields and hailed as “a work of art of international importance”, it is thought to be the earliest flat ceiling in a British public building.

The cathedral beneath some November sunshine this week. Picture by Wullie Marr
The ornate ceiling has been hailed as a significant work of art. Picture by Wullie Marr
A closer look at some of the 48 heraldic shields. Picture by Wullie Marr
Karen Dundas touching up the shields last October on a special platform created high up in the cathedral. Picture by Kenny Elrick

Karen’s job takes her all over Scotland, working on various historic buildings.

She was first called to St Machar’s at the start of 2019 when a curious white powder was spotted on the ancient oak-panelled ceiling.

Karen told a crowd this week that the “exciting project” was “full of surprises” once it finally got underway last August.

Work as it was nearing completion last October. Picture by Kenny Elrick

What did the Victorians do for us?

The colourful coats of arms were stripped back and painted over by Victorian restorers in 1867, after falling into decay.

It was part of an “extensive renovation” where banners were also painted onto the ceiling – identifying who each crest belonged to.

Karen reckons things “must have been in a pretty bad way” at that point.

She said: “It’s an amazing ceiling, and it’s a good thing the Victorians did what they did.

“They must have had no choice, it must have been in such a condition at the time.

“We might not have had anything surviving into the 21st century if they did not do that… For something more than 500 years old, it looks fantastic.”

Karen delivering her speech at St Machar’s Cathedral on Wednesday. Picture by Wullie Marr

Victorians left their mark in more ways than one…

Karen was gobsmacked to find some echoes from the past while working on the ornate ceiling.

People who restored it in the 19th century had left behind their signatures – which are still clear as day 150 years on.

The Victorian “grafitti” found in the frieze surrounding the ceiling.

“I really liked to see this,” Karen said.

“I don’t feel right about doing it myself, but finding these signatures and dates is a fun part of the job… And we found quite a few!”

How Karen reached new heights to get the job done

The history buff had to overcome some unusual obstacles for this particular job…

After arriving at the cathedral, she was asked whether she had a licence to drive a scissor lift.

Soon enough, she and a colleague were whisked away for training on how to operate the machinery.

They returned to St Machar’s a few days later brandishing hard-earned licences, and ready to start the job.

Karen added: “It was really stressful, it goes up very high, but I did get the licence!”

The scissor lift looks a bit unusual in the ancient surroundings…
The machinery was used for parts of the ceiling that proved tricky to reach.
A head for heights was necessary for this job…. Photo taken from Karen’s point of view

What was mystery white powder on St Machar’s Cathedral ceiling?

A huge platform was later created about 6ft beneath the famous flat roof above the nave.

The team eventually identified that the “white haze” spreading across the artwork was the result of varnish applied more than 30 years ago during another restoration.

Karen delivering her talk. Picture by Wullie Marr

They spent weeks lovingly returning it to its former glory, and Karen is proud to report it now “looks fantastic” once more.

The Duke of Rothesay visited in September to celebrate the successful revamp, which included re-slating the roof and replacing all of its leadwork.

Church elder, Professor David Hewitt, said: “The prince saw the cathedral at its most superb.”

An image from the scaffolding tour of the St Machar’s Cathedral ceiling last October. Picture by Kenny Elrick

What exactly is on the St Machar’s Cathedral ceiling?

There are 48 coats of arms, in three rows of 16.

What do they represent?

They mark the church, Scotland and Europe in 1520.

There are the arms of then Pope Leo X, Scottish archbishops and bishops, and the Kings and Queens of Europe among others.

The display illustrates the verse from Psalm 47 “the shields of the earth belong unto the Lord”.

How old is St Machar’s Cathedral?

The site at the foot of the Chanonry has hosted a Christian church since 580. It was rebuilt several times and the current cathedral was erected between 1380 and 1520.

Is it possible to visit?

The cathedral is open every day from 10am to 4pm, and information on services is available here.

Scaffolding tours give residents ‘once in a lifetime’ close-up glimpse of stunning artwork on ceiling of historic cathedral