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The Vikings of St John's Church, Aberdeenshire

The remains of St John's Church can be seen perched on a hilltop above the sea opposite the village of Gardenstown. Visitors to the area today are curious about why the church was built there, yet there is a tale behind its origins.

A Viking Encroachment

In the year 1004, during the Viking invasions of the North of Scotland, a great sea storm forced a fleet of Viking ships to seek shelter from storms just off the Banff coast in the Moray Firth. With the storms continuing, making it too dangerous to leave the protection of the bay, supplies on the ships began to dwindle, and became insufficient to eventually make the journey home once the storms had passed.

A party of around 600 Vikings were sent ashore to pillage the local area close to where the village of Gardenstown now sits. With no signs of any habitation, it had been hoped that this would be a swift mission to seize any supplies that they could before setting sail again. However, unknown to them one of the local rulers, the Thane of Buchan, had been watching since their ships first anchored. Knowing that an attack was likely, he had gathered a large army as a precaution. When the Vikings landed, the Thane’s army attacked from their hiding places, and a bloody battle was fought, with even the local women making makeshift maces by removing their stockings and filling them with stones from the beach.

A Battle Ensues

The Vikings were caught off guard by the surprise attack, and were soon overwhelmed.

With the route back to their boats on the beach cut off, a small group of survivors fled across a river and up a steep hill where they found a position surrounded by cliffs making it easier to defend. With unobstructed views, they could see any advancing local forces, and holding the higher ground they were able to beat back any attempted attacks. Knowing they would be visible to those on the Viking boats still in the bay, and that it would be a just a matter of time before a rescue party was sent, the Thane of Buchan sought divine intervention and prayed to St John. In return for help to defeat the Viking invaders, he promised to build a church in his name.

The Defeat of the Invaders

Shortly after, a change in weather conditions created cover for the Scots to advance on the Viking camp unseen. In the surprise attack that followed, the last of the Norsemen were slaughtered in a battle so violent that two natural hollows in the ground above the church became known as the Pits of Blood, due to the number of Viking bodies thrown there.

True to his word, the Thane had a church built, dedicated to St. John, on the very site of the Viking camp. Locally, the church was known as ‘the Church of Skulls’, due to the heads of the 3 Viking leaders being placed on view in purpose-built alcoves in the church walls.

Paranormal Activity

The original church was rebuilt around 1513, and it was abandoned around 1830 when a new parish church was built. Two of the Viking skulls were stolen, with the third being reported to be held at Banff Museum, although it is not clear whether it remains there.

It is said that, on occasion, the cries of the fallen Viking soldiers can still be heard across the valley, and visitors to the church report glimpsing figures that disappear when they turn for a better look. Perhaps these are the spirits of the Viking leaders, still looking for their missing heads.

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