St Ninians United Free Church Stirling

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A short History of

St Ninians United Free Church


The evening was hot and oppressive and thunder was in the air. It was as if the skies were attempting to reflect the storm that was about to break in the village of St. Ninians that night, Tuesday, 29th June, 1773. Since late afternoon a crowd had been gathering in Kirk Wynd and although at first it had been mainly the very old and the very young that had appeared-the old to mutter and grumble that things had come to this, the young to play and run and become more and more excited about something they knew nothing about-but as the evening wore on, the men came in from the fields and made their way to the place, the women served the main meal of the day and followed their men folk, till from all over the vast parish of St. Ninians, an immense crowd, upwards of a thousand people from the highest and the poorest homes in the parish, were gathered in Kirk Wynd to attempt to stop the induction of their new Minister an induction they had opposed for the last seven years.

It was at the General Assembly in 1767 that Sir John Stewart of Allanbank had exercised his right of patronage and presented Mr. David Thomson, Minister of Gargunnock, to be Minister of St. Ninians. The matter of patronage had for a long time been a controversial issue in Scotland. The system whereby the wealthy landowners had the right to choose the parish Minister without consultation with either the Kirk Session or parishioners, and were legally entitled to appoint a Minister against the wishes of the Session and. Church members, was one which caused disputes again and again in the Church of Scotland in the 18th Century. Few, however, were to become as notorious as the events of 1773 in St. Ninians, events which were well recorded in the Scots Magazine of the time, and subsequently in Struthers' History of the Relief Church.

From 1767 till 1773 the Ministers of the Presbytery of Stirling had used every means available to them to delay or stop the induction of Mr. Thomson to St. Ninians. There was no call by the parish to Mr. Thomson, and indeed it seemed the majority of the Church were violently opposed to his coming. Mr. Thomson is noted as being "an old man, very infirm," although by the record on his tombstone, now in St. Ninians graveyard, he was just 56 in 1767. Whatever doubt there may be, however, as to why he was opposed, there can be no doubt whatsoever as to the strength of the opposition, but after having achieved numerous legal trials and delays, the final order of the General Assembly of 1773 that the Presbytery of Stirling were "to induct Mr. Thomson into the living of St. Ninians without fail," came as a rallying call to the parish to make a final effort to stop him.

The induction had been set for this evening, 29th June, and after much haggling amongst themselves as to who should perform the induction duties, for "in the negotiations that had been carried on during so many years, (Mr. Thomson) had, by his selfish conduct, very much disgusted all the brethren of the Presbytery, and not one of them was willing to preach and preside on the occasion," the duties fell to Mr. Robert Finlay of Dollar, Moderator of the Presbytery of Stirling. This unwilling group it was who now accompanied Mr. Thomson on the road. from Stirling to the village of St. Ninians.

Kirk Wynd was now alive with people, completely filling the roadway, totally surrounding the manse, spilling into surrounding fields, and many clambering on all that remained of the old Kirk. The scene was dominated by the steeple, standing stark and alone, having been robbed of its adjoining Church building, when in 1746, as part of Bonnie Prince Charlie's fruitless attempts to take over the British throne, St. Ninians Church had been blown up, leaving only the naked steeple, as it is to this day. However, a new Church had been built and opened within a few years just a few yards beyond the old site, and it was this new building that would be the scene of tonight's events.

Mr. Finally led the group of Presbytery Ministers into Kirk Wynd and was met by the immense crowd. Amid much shouting and jeering he attempted to reach the manse, presumably to gain sanctuary and time to discuss what the Ministers would do next. However, the way to the manse was blocked and they were carried along by the crowd. who, whether by accident or design, now entered the Church, and seated themselves ready for the next move in their protest.

Mr. Finally ascended the pulpit steps and surveyed this strange gathering. At first the usual procedure was followed -he led the Congregation in a psalm and a prayer, but it is noted "his prayer took no notice whatever of the purpose for which they were assembled." Then in the usual service of this type he should have preached the sermon, but here Mr. Finally departed from the laid down order of things and from the pulpit, with great boldness addressed Mr. Thomson personally. Mr. Thomson stood up in his place in the Church and turned to face Mr. Finally who spoke thus to him:

"Sir, we are met here this day, by a former appointment of Presbytery, in obedience to the same sentence of the General Assembly, to admit you minister of St. Ninians- a sentence pronounced by the highest horn of ecclesiastical authority or power. That Assembly have assumed to themselves higher power than the Parliament-by some profanely styled omnipotent-that wise, that august body, never enacting any laws without consent of the people. There has been a formidable opposition made against you by six hundred heads of families, sixty heritors, and all the elders of the parish, I believe, except one. This opposition has continued for seven years by your own obstinacy, and if you should this day be admitted, you can have no pastoral relation to the souls of the parish; you will never be regarded as the shepherd to go before the sheep-they know you not, and they will never follow you; and, let me assure you, dear sir, if you persist in your obstinacy, you will do more harm in this parish than you could have done good in Gargunnock though you had been to live there for a hundred years; and you will draw misery and contempt upon yourself-you will be despised-you will be hated-you will be insulted and maltreated. One of the most eloquent and learned ministers of this Church told me lately that he would go twenty miles to see you deposed; and I do assure you, sir, that I, and twenty thousand more friends to our Church, would do the same. You maintained a good character and reputation till your unhappy And obstinate adherence to this presentation. Now, bending under the weight of years and infirmities of old age, what happiness can you propose to yourself in this mad, this desperate attempt of yours, without the concurrence of the people, and without the least prospect of usefulness in the parish. Your admission into it, therefore, can only be regarded as a sinecure, and you yourself as Stipend-Lifter of St. Ninians. Now, sir, I conjure you, by the mercies of God, give up this presentation. I conjure you, for the sake of the great number of souls in St. Ninians, and by that peace of mind which you would wish in a dying hour, and that awful and impartial account which in a little you must give to God of your own soul, and of the souls of this parish, at the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ, give it up."

To hear the leader of the Presbytery speak these words which summed up the thoughts of their own hearts, must have stirred hope in the majority of the congregation that this sad story would be satisfactorily ended there and then. But not so, for Mr. Thomson was not moved in the least, and chose to completely ignore the remarks.

He replied, "Sir, I forgive you for what you have now said; may God forgive you," and then very tersely instructed Mr. Finally, -Proceed to obey the orders of your superiors."

Without putting any of the usual questions, Mr. Finally solemnly declared, "I, as Moderator of the Presbytery of Stirling, admit you, Mr. David Thomson, to be Minister of the parish of St. Ninians, in the true sense and spirit of the same sentence of the General Assembly."

For his words and conduct on this night Mr. Finally was to be severely reprimanded by a later General Assembly, but having spoken, then he drew the sorry proceedings to a close with a prayer (which did not mention patron, presentee nor Presbytery, as it should) and after a few lines from a psalm he dismissed the congregation.

The people left the Church, most never to return. Writing 100 years later, Dr. Frew describes the situation

"The whole of this parish, from Stirling to the extremist muirlands, and from Torwood to Touch, was in a flame."

Of the twenty-one elders of the parish, one remained loyal to the old Church, the others left its walls.

In every home in the parish that night and for many nights to come, the matter was debated, for having withdrawn there was some confusion as to what to do now. A meeting of the elders and heads of families was, however, soon convened, and although the hope was expressed that perhaps the people might eventually calm down and return, the overwhelming decision of that meeting was to forever remain apart and to seek as a group to join up with a relatively new body, the Relief Church in Scotland. The names of the leaders of this movement have been recorded for us-Hendrie, Gillies, Spaldon, Rae and Stein.

On 14th July, 1773, a representative of the Relief Church, Mr. Michael Boston, travelled from Falkirk, and the Church was formally formed or congregated, in a field where they were to worship in the open air for the next few months.

Part of the minute of the formation reads: "Taking under our serious consideration the many backsliding and unscriptural. measures of the Judicatories of the Church of Scotland, and particularly the long and expensive process in defending our Christian liberty before the Church Courts, . . . and the Act of Assembly in May last (complied with by the Presbytery of Stirling) to admit a presentee to be minister without substance or shadow of a call, which is not agreeable to the Word of God nor to the rules of the Church, but is a robbing of the Christian people of the liberty wherewith Christ hath made them free a scattering of the flock, and marring the success of the gospel-we, in this congregation, taking these things into our serious consideration, for the exoneration of our consciences and preservation of the gospel, and transmission of it to posterity, propose to build a Church, and (meantime) to apply to the Relief Presbytery for supply of sermon.

With this unity of purpose, the people were quick to act, and soon a piece of ground was purchased from William Clerk. Part of the original purchase order is reprinted elsewhere. in this booklet, showing the price to have been forty-five pounds, with ten shillings a year feu-duty. The site was well chosen, near to the road at what was to become the very heart of the expanding St. Ninians community. The Glasgow and Edinburgh roads would later meet here at St. Ninians "Toll," but for us today, the actual spot has been swallowed. up in the redevelopment of St. Ninians Roundabout.

They gave as they could, some money, others stone or lime or wood, others of their time, and very soon the simple but commodious building arose, very similar in. design to the one which they had just left. But their quarrel was not with !he design of their Church, but with its management, and so it is not surprising that they should erect a familiar structure, . There was certainly no going back now!


THEIR first Minister was to be Rev. Patrick Hutchison, who was inducted on 19th November, 1774, Stipend £50. Mr. Hutchison remained in St. Ninians for nearly nine years, and as well as his new ministry here, he found time to write many pamphlets and booklets, setting out or defending the position of those who throughout Scotland were leaving the sanctuary of the Established Church. Mr. Hutchison is noted as being "a man rather of an atrabilious or melancholy temper." Sometimes on a Sunday morning he would consider himself so ill as to be unable to preach. However, on such an occasion a friend of his would begin to speak to him on some Theological question, deliberately goading the Minister in his firm beliefs. Mr. Hutchison, unable to resist such debate, would gradually rise from his bed, and as the argument(??) continued, would be so aroused that he could not be kept from the pulpit to preach on the matter. However, a squabble in 1783 with his precentor, resulted in his accepting a call to Paisley.

A very different man was to be the second Minister here Rev. Archibald Cross, inducted, 22nd April, 1784. Mr. Cross's pursuits, many of which were regarded as unministerial" at the time, included, curling on nearby water, fishing for trout in the pools of the Bannock, and shooting the wild duck over Milton Bog.

Mr. Cross died in 1803, and Rev. James Logan, M.A., was inducted on November 29th of that year. In 1822 it was noticed that Mr. Logan was in increasing danger each Sunday morning as he entered the pulpit, as the great mass of plaster and wood which made up the pulpit canopy was in grave danger of collapsing. An investigation revealed that all was not well with the joists supporting the roof of the Church, and the Church, less than fifty years old, required its roof to be raised some five feet, work which was immediately carried out under Mr. James MacLuckie, and the building made secure. Mr. Logan died in 1841, and there long remained, both in the old Church and for a time in the present building, an imposing marble slab erected by his widow and family after his death. Rev. Robert Frew was ordained as colleague and successor to Mr. Logan on 25th November, 1835. The Congregation, numbering 1,250 in 1838, still had a debt of £400 outstanding on the property, and on undertaking to liquidate this, more than £200 was subscribed in one week, the entire debt being wiped out during Mr. Frew's ministry. Robert Frew led the Congregation through the union in 1847 between the Secession Church and the Relief Church, and it was then to be known as St. Ninians United Presbyterian Church. In 1856 he received the degree D.D. from the University of St. Andrews, and on 20th July, 1873, he led the Congregation in celebrating the centenary of their founding. The events and addresses of that weekend are all contained in a book published shortly afterwards Centenary Memorial, St. Ninians United Presbyterian Church, July 1873 (Reference Section, Stirling Public Library).

A similar book was published in 1885 recounting the events organised to mark the Jubilee of Rev. Robert Frew, D.D., in St. Ninians three Services, a public Dinner and a Soiree. The Dinner was held in the Golden Lion Hotel in King Street, Stirling, and among the list of those present, we have the first mention of the names, Buchanan, Jenkins, Meiklejohn and Muirhead. Dr. Frew, speaking at the Dinner, makes mention of Provost Anderson of Stirling, a member of the Church, who was receiving criticism for his work to complete the pavement all the way from Stirling to St. Ninians. Those who had to pay for it were saying, "It is all the fault of Provost Anderson and Dr. Frew, who want to make a good road between Stirling and St. Ninians for the Stirling portion of his Congregation." This story was received with laughter.

A measure of the standing in which Dr. Frew was held can be gained from the account of the evening's Soiree, at which he was presented with a silver salver, and £1,200, by the Congregation. His sister, Miss Frew, was given a gold bracelet and an organ. that same evening.

A colleague and successor was appointed on 3rd December, 1885, and Rev. David Smith remained with the Church till 1921. In 1900 the U.P. Church and the Free Church combined to form the United Free Church, and the Free Church Congregation in the village, took the title "North," while the 1773 Church was now known as St. Ninians South United Free Church, membership 460.

In 1923 a fire broke out within the Church, and the interior was damaged. However, it was renovated and restored shortly afterwards. Rev. James Nairn came in 1921, staying only a short time to allow in 1928 a local union of the two UF Congregations. Rev. George McKenzie Grieve was the first Minister of the united Church. And it was Mr. Grieve who, in 1929, led the united Congregation through the union with the Church of Scotland. The united Congregation took the title, St. George's, and there might have ended the years of controversy in the Church history of St. Ninians. But this was not to be.


THE united Congregation of St. George's Church of Scotland owned two buildings-the old 1773 building at the Toll, and the original Free Church at the other end of the village, and there was no agreement on which should be used for regular worship. A temporary compromise solution was adopted in 1929 whereby for three months the Morning Service was held in the North building, while the Evening Service was held in the South. After three months this was reversed for the next period. This went on for over a year, until a vote was taken on which building would be the permanent home of the Congregation-the North Church being chosen, and hereafter called St. George's.

On Easter Sunday, 5th April, 1931, some 114 people gathered in the South Church at 11.30 a.m. and proclaimed themselves St. Ninians United Free Church (Continuing). This step took the Minister, Mr. McKenzie Grieve, and many of the Congregation of St. George's, by surprise, but by the 6.30 p.m. Service in the South Church, a further 22 people had come forward for membership. The Stirling Journal of 16th April, 1931, in the second of many articles on the "St. Ninians Seceders," carried this announcement made from the South Church pulpit on Sunday, April 12th.

'The Kirk Session, Committee of Management of this Congregation, the St. Ninians South United Free Church (Continuing) and former Office-bearers and Trustees of the South United Free Church hereby declare and intimate to all concerned that this Church is now held and occupied by them, and that they will continue to hold and occupy it for the purpose of public worship.' Signed on behalf of the Office-bearers by John McAree, Preses, and Edward Meiklejohn, Clerk.`

And it appears that this question of the Church property was the main issue in the whole series of events. The St. George's Congregation appear to have done little to win back their members, now leaving them, but purely concerned themselves with ousting them from the South Church building. The St. George's Congregation took the property matter to Stirling Sheriff Court, then to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1931, who referred it to a Special Committee, who subsequently tried to get a judgement on the case by Lord Fleming in the Court of Session, Edinburgh. The courts showed some reluctance in committing themselves and things dragged on, but finally in May 1934 those who had been accused of "taking the law into their own hands" were legally forced to vacate the South Church building, which St. George's eventually sold. It became a garage and store.

The U.F. Church Congregation (now, numbering 200) were left with nothing, but they obtained the use of a wooden hut for worship and under Rev. Hugh Morris, started to lay plans for a new Church.

On 20th October, 1934, the new building was ready. The Stirling Journal reports-

"The door was opened with a golden key, the gift of the contractors, by the oldest member of the Congregation, Miss Stewart of Trobrex. Built at the cost of £1,800, the Church has a commanding site at the foot of Borestone Brae, and faces the main Stirling-Glasgow Road. Accommodation is provided for 350 people and, at the rear there is a commodious hall, vestry and kitchen." This Congregation clearly saw themselves as the continuing remnant of the Free Church tradition in St. Ninians, and at the evening meeting on that day, Rev. James Barr referred to them as "heirs of the noble traditions created by the great Stirling clergymen of Secession, Relief and Free Churches."

A new start in a new building was a magnificent achievement in these years leading to the Second World War, but the Congregation were not without their problems even then. The new Church must be paid for. The U.F. Church magazine Stedfast of April 1938, takes up the story-

"Since October 1934 the Congregation have contributed no less than £2,279 10s. 3d. towards the building and furnishing of the Church, and at the beginning of this year only £1,000 remained to be cleared off. Plans were being made to accomplish this by the end of year, when word was received that the £1,000 had been called. up, and was payable earlier than was expected. And so, this Congregation of 273 members were faced with the problem of raising £1,000 at very short notice.


"At the end of last year, a prayer group was formed and the members made a pact to pray every night at 9 o'clock asking that God should help them, during 1938, to raise the necessary £1,000. Their prayers had a speedy answer, for instead of £1,000 in twelve months, they raised £1,025 8s. Id. in a matter of four weeks.

"When the bond was unexpectedly called up, the Minister, the Rev. Murdoch Luke, went to consult one of the members. This member offered him a donation of £50 and asked him to try and raise the remainder by soliciting gifts from the other members of the Congregation. Mr. Luke took up the challenge, and made his appeal to the Congregation. To their credit, they rose to the occasion and once again the spirit of voluntaryism was vindicated.


"Such a memorable occasion in the history of the Congregation demanded fitting recognition, and was duly celebrated by a Thanksgiving Social, held in the Church on Monday, 7th March, when the Preses, Mr. W. D. Muirhead, occupied the Chair. In his address, Mr. Muirhead reviewed the events leading up to the Social, and paid tribute to the great work done by Mr. Luke in visiting all the members of the Congregation. For a fortnight, Mr. Luke, he said, toiled unceasingly, and deserved the wholehearted thanks of the Congregation. Mr. Muirhead also referred to the Building Fund Treasurer, Mr. A. Walker, who had carried through his honorous duties during the last 31 years with great business acumen, and to the entire satisfaction of the whole congregation. In concluding, Mr. Muirhead expressed the wish that the Congregation would go on from strength, both spiritually and materially, under the guidance of Mr. Luke. There seemed, he said, no more fitting words with which to finish, than those of the Psalmist-

'Come and behold what wondrous works Have by the Lord been wrought.'

© St Ninians United Free Church of Scotland 2001