Burntisland's Churches - Part 5

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by Iain Sommerville

Part 5 - The Origins of the Erskine Church

Next year [2003] the Rev John Allan and his Erskine Church congregation will celebrate one hundred years in that impressive edifice facing the Links, their home since 1903 - and notch up yet another milestone in their long and distinguished history. Their Church has always played an important role in the community, but few realize that it has also played an important part in Scottish history.

For our purposes, the story begins in 1712, when Ebenezer Erskine, then minister of Portmoak in Kinross-shire, received a call to Burntisland Parish Church but decided not to accept it. However, seven years later, when there was again a vacancy in Burntisland Parish Church, the man appointed was James Thomson of Kinglassie, described as "an intimate friend of Erskine". It seems that the views of these men appealed to the local congregation. Erskine, although never a minister in the town, was well known and extremely popular. And Thomson would soon demonstrate his radical and anti-establishment credentials by refusing to read from the pulpit a Privy Council proclamation seeking to identify the ringleaders of the Porteous Riot in Edinburgh.

Within the Church of Scotland, Erskine led the opposition to the Patronage Act of 1712 (see box). In 1733 he, with three of his fellow ministers, formalised this opposition by establishing their "Associate Presbytery" - a sort of revolutionary cell within the established church, and a challenge to those of lesser principles.

The Splits in the Church of Scotland

The story of the Presbyterian churches in Scotland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is dominated by the issue of patronage - the claim of right by local landowners and the state to force their choice of ministers on local congregations. Abolished in 1690, patronage was reintroduced in 1712 as a sop to Scottish landowners who "as a class were increasingly looking to England for their cultural models and … wanted to see someone in the manse as polite and friendly to the laird as the average Anglican parson was to the squire." (T.C. Smout)

There was no general support for patronage within the Church of Scotland - but it was the law and the leadership and the General Assembly enforced it. However, not everyone toed the line. On three occasions over the following 150 years, groups of brave and principled ministers decided that enough was enough. These men turned their backs on the cosy certainties of the established church and opted instead for what must have seemed a very uncertain future.

The first secession was that of 1733 to 1740, led by Ebenezer Erskine, after whom the Erskine Church is named. Burntisland's minister, James Thomson, was one of the eight original seceders. The second secession (1752 to 1761) resulted in the formation of the Relief Church under the leadership of Thomas Gillespie of Carnock. The third, and best known, was the Disruption of 1843, which led to the creation of the Free Church. Its leader, Thomas Chalmers, lived in Burntisland, and the Burntisland minister, David Couper, led virtually his entire flock out of the Parish Church in that year.

Patronage was abolished in 1874. The Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church united in 1900 to form the United Free Church, which itself united with the Church of Scotland in 1929. But with each union, there was a significant minority who stayed outside and who continued to bear the name of their original church, demonstrating that their independence stemmed from more than simply the issue of patronage. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than here in Burntisland, where we have the Erskine congregation of the United Free Church.

The importance of Fife ministers and congregations throughout these events is quite remarkable, and Burntisland's part in the first secession is told in the accompanying article. A later article will cover Burntisland and the Disruption.

By 1738, the number of ministers who had thrown in their lot with Erskine had grown to eight, the last of these being James Thomson of Burntisland Parish Church.

The Church of Scotland could no longer ignore this declaration of war, and matters came to a head at the General Assembly of May 1740. The eight dissenting ministers were removed from office.

Steps were taken to prevent the ministers continuing to preach to their parish congregations, but in some cases the authorities were loath to take action. One such was Burntisland, where James Thomson was able to continue preaching for a further two to three years before he was finally locked out of the Parish Church.

It is not clear what proportion of the congregation followed Thomson into the unknown, but it must have been significant. It certainly contained some men of substance, because, by the end of 1743, they had erected a new church on the site now occupied by the town's public library. Thomson himself donated the land, which was attached to his own garden in what is now Somerville Square.

The new church saw itself as the inheritor of the principles of the Covenanters. It gradually expanded throughout Scotland, but found it difficult to maintain momentum in the face of further divisions. Most significantly, in 1747, it split into Burghers and Anti-burghers (on a point of principle relating to an oath to be taken by burgesses in certain towns); and, in 1799 and 1806 respectively, the two factions each split into New Lichts and Old Lichts. The secession church of 1740 had by 1806 become four churches. The Burntisland congregation became New Licht Anti-burghers, indicating no compromise on the burgess oath, but more flexibility on other matters.

This new flexibility manifested itself throughout Scotland in 1820, when the two New Licht churches combined to form the United Secession Church. The Burntisland congregation had a new name, but there was trouble in the offing as a result of the union. James Thomson's gifts of the land for the church and of the Somerville Square manse had been made on condition that they would revert to his natural heirs if the congregation were ever to join a different presbytery. Thomson's grand-nephew saw the union as being just that, and sued for the return of the land and property. The case dragged on for some time, but he was unable to prove his main contention, and matters lapsed. The church was, however, left with a hefty legal bill.

The next significant development took place in 1847. In May of that year, the United Secession Church joined Thomas Gillespie's Relief Church (see box above) to form the United Presbyterian Church. The Burntisland congregation backed the union. The combined church now boasted 518 congregations - a far cry, indeed, from the days of 1740 when eight ministers led their flocks into the wilderness.

The Disruption of 1843 and the formation of the Free Church of Scotland (see box above) had profound implications for Burntisland, and I will cover these in a future article. However, I must record here the next major coming together of churches - this happened in 1900 with the union of the United Presbyterian Church and the majority of the Free Church to form the United Free Church. This gave Burntisland two United Free Church congregations, at that time both in the High Street - the former United Presbyterian congregation in the building where the library now is, and the former Free Church congregation in what is now St Andrew's Court. It was at this stage that the former U.P. congregation opted to be called the Erskine Church, thus giving it a distinct identity in keeping with its origins.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the congregation had been contemplating the possibility of a new home. In 1869 it had purchased the present manse at the Lochies, but it had been rather longer since the old church's last refurbishment. Its shortcomings were becoming more evident with each passing year.

The old UP Church

The old United Presbyterian Church (with the porch), probably towards the end of the 19th century. It was demolished in 1906 to make way for the new public library, which opened in 1907. Sandwiched between the original Burgh Chambers (opened in 1845-46) and the U.P. Church is a squat three-storey building which belonged to the Brown family and which was bought by the Town Council to allow the Burgh Chambers to be extended. It was demolished and replaced by the Burgh Chambers extension, which opened in 1905-06. The ground floor of the extension initially housed the town's Post Office, later the Burgh Chamberlain's office, and now the Fife Council local office. Thomson's family grocer shop is to the right of the church. It was subsequently occupied by Pratt, the china merchant, and, more recently and at various times, by a playgroup, the Burntisland 2020 Development Trust, and a cycle shop. It is currently (January 2014) a sandwich bar. The shop is owned by Burntisland Common Good Fund. The spire of the Free Church can just be seen on the left of the picture.

In May 1900, the decision was made to go for a new building. Events moved quickly thereafter. James Shepherd of Rossend Castle donated the site, and James Parlane, the minister, committed £500 of his own money. The new building, one of Burntisland's finest and built at a cost of £6,445, opened on 14 October 1903. There was a happy postscript to this, for James Shepherd also bought the site of the old church and gifted it to the town for the new public library. [Please see below for a detailed description of the new building from the Fife Free Press three days after the opening; and click here for photos of the stained glass window installed in 1921.]

A pipe organ was fitted in the new church in 1922, and was dedicated as a Congregational War Memorial to those who had fallen in the First World War. Electric lighting was added at the same time. The familiar chiming clock was installed in the tower around 1925 - a gift from Miss Agnes McOmish, who was a well known schoolteacher in the town. Apparently the clock used to be known as "The Big Agnes".

In 1929, the United Free Church and the Church of Scotland agreed the terms of a union. That was acceptable to the former Free Church congregation in the High Street, and they became St Andrew's Church of Scotland. But it was a step too far for the former United Presbyterians of the new Erskine Church. By a large majority, they opted to remain outside the union and, together with other like-minded congregations, keep the United Free Church flag flying.

Colin Macdonald

Colin Macdonald

Only a handful of people were ever given the highest honour that Burntisland Town Council could bestow - that of the Freedom of the Burgh. One of those was the Rev Colin Macdonald, minister of the Erskine Church from 1938 until his retirement 37 years later. He is pictured here in the earlier years of his ministry. Much loved by his congregation, and with a keen interest in the welfare of young people, he had the distinction of twice being elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Free Church. He was granted the Freedom of Burntisland in 1975, and is still remembered with great affection by many local folk.

Additional information from Robert Shand (December 2010): "Your historic item is very good but misses one item of, to me, great importance. An organ was donated to the church in the early 1920's is mentioned but one very important item was missing. My father, Alex T Shand, performed in a competition - which he won - and was made Organist and Choirmaster, which he held until his death in November 1954. He gave many performances of Oratorios and Anthems in the church during this time. He also conducted the Burntisland Orchestral Society during the years as well as teaching piano and singing during the years."


Addendum 1: the 1903 church building

The following description of the new Erskine Church building of 1903 appeared in the Fife Free Press of 17 October 1903.

The new church occupies an elevated site, overlooking the golf links, and is designed in Scottish Gothic style of the late decorated period. The principal feature is a massive square tower, over 100 feet high, with an octagonal turret at the angle carried up from the ground level, and terminating with a steep conical roof above the tower parapet.

The tower bell-chamber has four double openings with traceried heads. Over these is a richly panelled parapet, and beneath them the tower shows a mass of solid masonry, broken only by the intake courses.

The main gable of the church is at the side of the tower, flanked by broad buttresses, and having in the upper part a large five-light window with richly moulded tracery.

The principal entrance is at the base of the tower, the doorway being under a deeply recessed moulded archway, which leads to the outer vestibule.

The side elevations are divided into two stages, the lower having simple windows with cusped heads, and the upper, four-light windows with traceried heads under elliptic arches. The hall gable faces the side street, and is treated in similar, but simpler, style to the church.

In entering the church by the main entrance, stone double arches lead to an inner vestibule, from which enter cloak and managers’ rooms, and in which the doors to the area are also placed. A wide stairway leads to the gallery.

The interior of the church is very lofty, and is divided into nave and side aisles by moulded stone piers and arches.

The organ chamber is divided from the church by cinctured columns and moulded arch, and an elaborate screen of pierced and moulded wood tracery is carried across the opening and behind the pulpit.

The galleries are kept behind the stone piers, and are also finished with traceried timber fronts.

The roof is of open timber construction, all wood lined, and is stained to a dark oak tint.

The windows have been glazed in leaded glass, in square quarries, with tinted margins and enriched with roundels, and the artificial lighting is by gas, fitted in quaint black iron coronal and brackets.

The interior colouring is in soft neutral tones; the woodwork of seating, &c., in a low tone of olive green stain; pulpit, gallery, front, &c., in grey oak; while the walls have varying shades of grey green tint in the upper portions, and warm cinnamon colour in the lower, relieved and divided by bands of simple design.

The church is seated for 520 persons, the pews fitted with umbrella stands, hat racks, and all cushioned throughout. There is also in connection a hall, seating over 200 persons, a large session room, vestry, ladies’ room, cloak-rooms, &c."

Addendum 2: selected Erskine Kirk Session records are now available for viewing

In 2013, Burntisland Heritage Trust was given permission to digitally copy the Erskine Church's older Kirk Session records and all of its newsletters to add to the Trust's local collections. Please click here for full details.


© Iain Sommerville 2002, 2008 and 2014

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