Burntisland's Churches - Part 7

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by Iain Sommerville

Part 7 - The Episcopal Church and George Hay Forbes

We have to go back to 1689 to find the origins of the Scottish Episcopal Church, as a separate entity from the Church of Scotland. In that year the Protestant William of Orange accepted the offer of the throne of Scotland from the Scottish Parliament.

In the following year, King William and the Church of Scotland reached agreement on the future shape of the national church. That included an end to many years of bitter conflict on the question of bishops, during which the Church of Scotland had swung to and fro between episcopacy (government by bishops) and presbyterianism (government by lay persons as well as the clergy). The agreement between the King and the church settled this question once and for all - presbyterianism had won the day, and there would no longer be a place for bishops in the established church. The General Assembly was restored to its position as the church's governing body.

The dispossession of the bishops in 1690 did not however bring an end to episcopalian influence in Scotland, for several hundred parish ministers refused to abandon their episcopalian beliefs and would not subject themselves to the new presbyterian regime. Many eventually left the Church of Scotland and tried to gather support for their cause - but initially, except in the north-east, they had no great success.

In Burntisland, the situation in the Parish Church at that time was confusing to say the least! George Johnston was appointed minister in 1688, and suspended later that year because of his episcopalian views. He appears to have been reinstated and, after a period in limbo, finally dismissed in 1691. The records also show that James Pitcairn was appointed in 1688 to succeed George Johnston, but we know that Mr Johnston continued to preach in the Parish Church after Mr Pitcairn's arrival.

Difficulties of this kind continued for a number of years. Mr Pitcairn himself lasted only until 1691, having earlier been involved in a public brawl with a Kirkcaldy miller in a field between Burntisland and Kinghorn. Next came James Inglis, dismissed in 1699 for "erroneous doctrine". There followed a peaceful spell under John Cleghorn.

In 1712 William Duguid was called to Burntisland, but was opposed by the Church of Scotland establishment. It was said that he was a "tool of the Jacobites", and the Jacobites were identified with episcopalianism. The claim that Burntisland at that time was a "hotbed of Jacobitism" appears to have some truth, as angry mobs appeared whenever a minister was sent from outside the town to preach in place of the popular but unsound Mr Duguid.

Mr Duguid had his Church of Scotland licence to preach revoked by the General Assembly in 1713. In 1714 he was ordained an Episcopal clergyman by the Bishop of Carlisle, and returned to Burntisland as an Episcopal minister.

It was through such convoluted beginnings that a separate Episcopal church took root in Burntisland. But Scotland in the 18th century was not a happy place for Episcopalians, unless they forsook their oaths of allegiance to the departed Stuart monarchs and signed up with what one of their later Burntisland priests referred to as "the Germans" - George I and George II.

After the Stuarts were finally defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Government burned many of the Episcopalian churches and ordered the demolition of the others. With a degree of persecution reminiscent of that of the Covenanters in the previous century, dissenting Episcopalian clergymen were forbidden to preach to gatherings of more than four persons. Those who disobeyed faced imprisonment or banishment.

The stalemate was broken in 1792. The repressive measures were abolished, following an undertaking by the Episcopalian bishops and clergy to "pray for King George", rather than swear outright allegiance to him.

The Episcopalian church in Scotland was, however, at a low ebb, and it took time for it to build up numbers and erect church buildings.

Little is known of the church's standing in Burntisland at that time - but it is likely to have been weak or non-existent. The breakthrough came in 1848 with the arrival of the Rev George Hay Forbes, sent by the Bishop of St Andrews to revive the Episcopal Church here.

The story of this remarkable man is told below.

The Tin ChurchAfter the death of George Hay Forbes in 1875, the congregation acquired the site of their present St Serf's Church at the corner of Cromwell Road and Ferguson Place. But 20 years would pass before they could afford to erect a permanent building. Until 1905 they worshipped in a temporary building, affectionately known as 'The Tin Church' (pictured right).

The struggle to raise the funds for the new church suffered a major setback with the simultaneous disappearance of one of the priests and the contents of the building fund. It was left to his successor, the Rev Henry Hardy, to pick up the pieces and revive the demoralised congregation. He set to with a will, and in his time fresh funds were raised, the new church was built, and a rectory was purchased. The inaugural service in the new church was held on the 1st of June, 1905.

Over the years, there seems to have been a lack of strict demarcation lines between the churches in Burntisland. An early example of co-operation occurred in 1889 with the opening of the Free Church Mission Hall at Binnend village. The building, which was presumably transported lock, stock and barrel to Binnend, had previously served as the Episcopal Church hall.

In 1948, the church celebrated the centenary of the arrival in Burntisland of George Hay Forbes. The booklet which was produced to mark the occasion was the work of a recently departed priest, Henry Cooper. He gives us an idea of the concerns facing the congregation at that time - principally the twin challenges of attracting new adherents and raising more money for the Church's work at home and abroad. A special Centenary Fund had also been created, with the aims of paying off the debt on St Serf's and renewing the heating system, as well as paying for substantial building works for the linked churches at Aberdour and Kinghorn.

The story of the relatively recent restoration of the St Serf's 1931 German organ has already been told in the Burgh Buzz (July 1999 issue), and I mention it here only in passing.

Many local folk will remember their schooldays at the Episcopal (or Piscy) School, which was started by George Hay Forbes in 1849. Its last home was the former Burgh School at Mount Pleasant. It closed in 1962, and the old building was demolished around 1971. The story of the school will be covered in a future article.

The current priest of St Serf's, Canon Val Nellist, is something of a pioneer in her own right. She, together with two of her colleagues who have both served at St Serf's (Marion Keston and Jean Cook), were among the first batch of women priests to be ordained by the Scottish Episcopal Church in December 1994.

Val and her flock are looking forward to 2005, when they will celebrate the centenary of the opening of the St Serf's Church building in Ferguson Place.

George Hay Forbes (1821-75)

George Hay Forbes

George Hay Forbes' life can only be described as one of amazing achievement in the face of very considerable adversity. Born to a well-to-do and well-connected Edinburgh family, he had the misfortune to contract a crippling disease, perhaps polio, at an early age and lost the use of his legs. Although his family spent large sums in attempts to find a cure, he was to be dependent on crutches and other aids for the rest of his life.

He was ordained in May 1848, and a few months later was despatched to Burntisland by the Bishop of St Andrews. His mission was to revive the Episcopal Church in Burntisland.

He stayed initially at 12 Craigholm Crescent (now part of Kinghorn Road) and arranged his first services in the Town Hall. But the local folk did not immediately take to this intense, scholarly and seriously disabled young man. The story is told of how, one frosty day, he fell in the High Street and had to struggle up by himself with no assistance from the onlookers.

No doubt this made him even more determined to succeed. He devised a plan for an extremely ambitious church complex in East Leven Street, comprising a home and working premises for himself, a school, and a church so grand that it would have dwarfed many a cathedral. The artist's impression gives an idea of the scale of his plans, and shows the Parsonage and the school (now the Pipe Band Hall).

The home and working premises, the Parsonage, were built first. The building was designed by R.C. Carpenter, the London architect. It was described by the Victorian Society many years later as one of his finest, and "one of the most important buildings of the mid Victorian period".

It was a substantial home for one family, but into it had to be fitted the living quarters, the minister's study and library, and - in the basement - a substantial printing press and space for the seven workers whom he was to employ. He moved into the new building in 1854, despite the absence of curtains, wallpaper, carpets and - in some rooms - plaster on the walls and ceiling. It is said that he later fixed a rope to the rafters of the building, and used it to achieve a quick descent to the lower floors.

The school (now the Pipe Band Hall) was also built in 1854. It doubled as a temporary venue for church services on Sundays, with the harmonium being carried in from the Parsonage before each morning service.

Keen to press on with his grand design, Forbes made a start on the new church in 1855. Progress was slow but, if he ran out of money, he would resort to cutting stones himself. Sadly, despite his efforts, only the baptistry of the church was ever completed.

So why do we remember the man today? He was a pastor of note, but what else? First and foremost, he was a brilliant scholar; some would say a genius. Many of his successes seem rather obscure in this day and age, but we must remember that, in the 19th century, there was lively religious debate and a hunger all over the world for published material to fuel it.

Forbes contributed a great deal in these spheres - ideas, translations, and published works. He published under the name of The Pitsligo Press, and from the basement of the Parsonage emanated works in many of the several dozen languages which he had mastered. Despite his disability, he visited a number of European countries to carry out original research in libraries and archives.

He was also keen to see a distinctly Scottish approach to the structure of Episcopal Church services. He produced a Scottish Prayer Book, and in this he incurred the wrath of his superiors who were loathe to countenance any significant divergence from the position in England. Forbes went to court in an attempt to have his prayer book accepted, but lost. After his time, however, his ideas on these questions were accepted, and the Scottish church now comfortably adopts an independent stance.

Eleanor ForbesHis marriage in Burntisland in 1853 to Eleanor Wemyss (pictured left), daughter of an army officer, brought great happiness to both of them. Although Eleanor had been brought up to anticipate the life of a genteel lady, she soon adapted to the reality of the Parsonage, and before long was able to set type and read proofs as well as anyone.

The couple had no children of their own, but adopted a French girl, Marie. Marie did not have a life of idleness, either, and in due course took on secretarial duties and the training of the church choir. Her presence brought a new cheerfulness to what must at times have seemed a rather serious establishment. Eventually Marie was to marry a French aristocrat, the Count de l'Espinasse. Even after Forbes' death, the Countess did not forget her home town - for example, in 1893, she paid a visit to the Episcopal School at Mount Pleasant.

In 1869, Forbes decided to try his hand at local politics and stood in the Town Council elections. Although the attendance at his church services rarely exceeded 30, he had gained widespread respect in the town and he came top of the poll. He served as provost from 1869 to 1870, and immersed himself in negotiations with the railway company on the question of the creation of the West Dock. He was mistrustful of the railway company, but, getting little support from his fellow councillors, he resigned. His view eventually proved to have been correct.

He was also one of the early leaders of the Co-operative movement.

On a visit to France in 1872, he fell and injured himself, and from then on his health deteriorated. He died on the 7th of November, 1875, and was interred in Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh. It is said that, on the day of the funeral, most of the population of Burntisland followed the coffin to the harbour to say a last farewell.

Forbes' publishing work at the Parsonage was carried on by Canon Walter Bell for a number of years. The building was then sold to the railway company for accommodation for its employees; and was eventually bought by the Town Council. The school moved to the old Burgh School building at Mount Pleasant around 1876. Forbes' school building became a drill hall, and was bought by Burntisland & District Pipe Band in the early 1950s. Sadly, the small part of his great church which had been completed at the time of his death was dismantled - but the materials found a new role in the construction of St Margaret's, Leven.

  Iain Sommerville 2002

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