The history of the parish Church of Kirkcudbright goes back many centuries. The first church was named after St. Cuthbert, who probably visited the town in the course of his missionary travels. The name Kirkcudbright may date from the early foundation of a church dedicated to Cuthbert - the "kirk of St Cuthbert". In 875, when Norsemen raided the coast of Northumbria the monks on Lindisfarne had to flee, taking with them their holy relics which included the bones of St Cuthbert. One of their sanctuaries was Kirkcudbright. It is likely that the original building was above the town, where St. Cuthbert's graveyard now stands. A group of yew trees, planted in 1838 in the older part of the churchyard, indicate its likely location.
The Grey Friars or Franciscans, had a friary in Kirkcudbright near the Moat Brae. At the Reformation in 1564 the Friary Church became the Parish Church, which it remained until 1730. During that time there were fifteen ministers, probably the most notable of whom was John Welsh, the son-in-law of John Knox appointed in 1594. Welsh was banished from Britain because of his opposition to the Episcopal form of worship being promoted in Scotland. He was finally allowed to return to live in London where he died in 1622.
At this period in history a struggle was going on in Scotland between Church and Monarchy over the form of worship to be carried out in churches. The details of this struggle are too involved to go into here. Suffice it to say that in 1638 a Covenant was signed throughout Scotland because the King, as part of his policy to create a uniform religion in the land, ordered that the Anglican Book of Common Prayer should be used in Scotland. Scotland had been too long Presbyterian to accept this. This ruling by Charles brought the people into conflict with the Monarchy. During the Covenanting period many of the local ministers were keen supporters of the Covenant and this caused difficulties which involved Lord Kirkcudbright. (This title had been bestowed on Sir Robert Maclellan of Bombie in 1633 by Charles 1 on a visit to Scotland). His support for the Covenanters led to his ruin.
The 1730 Church
In 1730 the old friary church had become so dilapidated that it was demolished and a new church was built in its place. This church was cruciform in shape, with three galleries. One belonged to the Earl of Selkirk, a second was the Magistrates’ gallery, and the third was used by the Incorporated Trades. This body dates back to 1425 and was given Royal Charters in 1425 and 1466. The six trades incorporated are Tailors, Hammermen, Shoemakers, Glovers, Clothiers, and Squaremen. The object was to maintain excellence in the goods being produced and to look after the best interests of the community. Nowadays although the Trades can still make representations to the local authorities, its functions are mainly ceremonial ones.
The first minister of this new church was George Gartshore, who was minister for nearly 40 years. After Mr Gartshore, ministers included Dr Thomas Blacklock, ordained to the pastoral charge of the parish of Kirkcudbright in 1762. Dr Blacklock, a friend of Robert Burns, was a blind poet-preacher who was strenuously opposed by his parishioners because of his blindness and who therefore stayed in the charge for a mere two years. Another minister of this period was Dr Muter, who wrote the First Statistical Account of the Parish. In this he wrote:
"The people of Kirkcudbright are in general, of a pleasant, social and agreeable disposition and their morals are fully as good as those of their neighbours. Few or none are ever incarcerated for crimes or misdemeanours."
Dr. Muter died in 1820. There is a memorial plaque to him in the main vestibule of the present church. The reason that it was erected by only a "few sincere friends" was that the Reverend Doctor had much trouble with the Kirk Session during his stay in Kirkcudbright. It would appear from the records that right was on his side, but such is human nature that by the time of his demise he had only a few sincere friends left.
The New Church
By 1820 the church had become too small for the congregation and it was agreed that a new church should be built. The ground on which the new Church was built was given by Lord Selkirk who also undertook to pay the construction costs of the building and the spire – these amounted to just over £6,582. And so the Parish Church moved to its present site.
Like the previous church at the Moat Brae, it too was cruciform in shape with three galleries. The main entrance, with the Isle gallery above, is known as the Country End because in the old days the nave was occupied mainly by the farming community. What was the Magistrates’ gallery in the old church became the Town Council gallery and this end of the church is known as the Town End, while the Trades’ gallery continued as such, with that transept being known as the Trades’ End.
The minister at that time, the Rev George Hamilton, played an important part in the planning of the new Church but he died before the Church was opened for worship in October 1838. There is a memorial to Mr Hamilton on the wall to the left of the pulpit. A direct descendant of Mr Hamilton is a member of the present congregation The Kirkcudbrightshire Advertiser of October 22, 1938 has an account of this:
"The occasion of the laying of the foundation of the present church was, according to the records of the Clothiers’ Incorporation, an occasion of some considerable pomp, the event being on 22nd April 1836. At precisely 23 minutes to four o’clock in the afternoon, the thundering of cannon and the acclamations of assembled thousands proclaimed far and near that the foundation of the new church to be built here was at that hour laid."
The church was opened for public worship on Sunday, 20th October 1838, when the pulpit was occupied by the minister of the parish, the Rev. John McMillan.
The Disruption and St. Mary’s
The 1843 Disruption
When the Church of Scotland was split in two by the Disruption in 1843, Reverend John McMillan left the Parish Church and became the first minister of Kirkcudbright Free Church, which was afterwards called St Mary’s. The Disruption came about because there was a split between those who maintained that the lairds should have the right to choose the ministers and those who felt it was up to congregations to decide this. After years of dissension the General Assembly drew up a Claim of Right which was presented to the government in 1842. According to this the Kirk had complete spiritual independence and the state had no right to interfere in spiritual matters. The government refused to accept this and so at the General Assembly of 1843 a walk out took place and the Free Church of Scotland was born. In all, four hundred and seventy ministers left the Kirk at this time accompanied by many elders, communicants, and adherents.
History of St Mary’s
At the time of the Disruption in 1843 there was also in Kirkcudbright an Associate Church which had been founded by the Seceders in 1820. In 1847 it became known as the United Presbyterian Church of Kirkcudbright. So at this point in history there were three churches in Kirkcudbright: the Parish Church in its present building; Kirkcudbright Free Church; and the United Presbyterian Church which moved from High Street to a new building in St Cuthbert’s Street in 1880 (the present site of Somerfield supermarket). In 1900 this last Church took the name of St Cuthbert’s United Free Church and amalgamated with Kirkcudbright Free Church to form the United Free Church of Kirkcudbright, with worship being held in the St Mary’s building. Finally in 1929 this Church became known as St Mary’s Parish Church, the same year in which the Parish Church became St Cuthbert’s Parish Church.
In 1929 the minister appointed to St. Mary’s was the Rev Robert R Y B Minto and under his guidance the congregation flourished. Many improvements took place such as the redecoration of the Church and the re-laying of the ground around the church hall. Mr Minto’s ministry was a long one and he remained at St Mary’s until April 1966 when he was succeeded by the Rev James (Hamish) Hepburn.
Mr Hepburn came to Kirkcudbright with his wife and young family after having served for some years with the Presbyterian church of East Africa in Malawi. His ministry was one of quiet, sincere dedication and the wishes of the whole community, not simply those of St Mary’s, went with him and his family when he moved to his new charge in Braco.
More detailed information on the history of St Mary’s can be found in the excellent booklet "St Mary’s Church of Scotland, Kirkcudbright - A short account of its Origin and History" written by Joseph Robison F.S.A.(Scotland) in 1938. There is at least one copy of this in the Stewartry Museum in Kirkcudbright.
Reverend John Underwood
During the ministry of the next incumbent, Reverend John Underwood, to whom there is a memorial plaque on the wall between the pulpit and the Trades’ gallery, anonymous donations came from London to build Alms houses.
The story behind these donations is an intriguing one. An anonymous letter bearing a London postmark was sent to the Kirk Session in April 1869. This letter contained a gift of £200
"sent for the creation of one or more Alms Houses with some of the comforts of Prince Albert’s model cottages.......".
The receipt of this was to be acknowledged in the newspapers "that the donor may thus know that it has come to hand." Further monies totalling £3500 in all were sent anonymously over the years, until 1881. There were problems in finding a suitable site but in 1872 the Earl of Selkirk "intimated his readiness to grant very eligible grounds for the purpose." But there is some about confusion about this, as the Session minutes of 10th May 1875 stated that the Kirk Session had bought property commonly called the "Tannery" for £600 for the building of these houses. However in 1875 the Church houses came to be built in Atkinson Square, so called because the donor was believed to be one Edward Atkinson. It was later disclosed to the Kirk Session that this was indeed the case and that the benefactor had been a native of Kirkcudbright. (He was in fact the uncle of E. A. Hornel, the artist.) Although the first donations towards the building of the houses came in April 1869, the houses were not completed until 1880. The houses today are of course no longer alms houses, but are available for rent at a price more appropriate to the market value. Mr Underwood has been commemorated by a large tablet on the right hand side of the altar.
Rev A D Campbell
The building of the Church Hall was carried out in the ministry of the Rev A D Campbell who came to the Church in 1879, and a pipe organ was also introduced to the Church at this time. The installation of the organ meant the end of the duties of the Precentor who had led the singing of the congregation from the Precentor’s pulpit. There is a stained glass window, portraying Jesus the Good Shepherd, dedicated to the memory of Mr Campbell in the Town Council gallery.
From 1916 to 1964
In August 1914 the First World War began. In that year the Rev William Barclay came to Kirkcudbright as parish minister. During the war he acted as a chaplain to the forces. He left Kirkcudbright in 1926 to take up an appointment in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, where he died in 1969.
He was followed in 1926 by the Rev J E Mothersill, a Canadian, whose ministry was a long and successful one. By the time he retired in 1963 a number of notable events had taken place in the life of the church. Perhaps the most significant of these occurred in 1929 when the Parish Church became known as St Cuthbert’s Parish Church of Scotland. Also during Mr Mothersill’s ministry a beautiful Communion Table was dedicated, bearing the names of Kirkcudbright men who had lost their lives in the two World Wars. The church organ was reconstructed, and many other changes took place including the introduction of the Weekly Freewill Offering scheme and the replacement of the Common Cup at Communion with individual glasses. Also one of the colours of the 5th K.O.S.B. was laid up in the Church in April 1964. Mr Mothersill gave up the charge in this same year.
From 1964 to Merger With St Mary's
The Rev Adam Jack was inducted in October 1964. Under his ministry St Cuthbert’s continued with the stability experienced under Mr Mothersill. In 1965 the Church was honoured by visits from Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. On the first occasion, in June, the Queen was indisposed and the Duke of Edinburgh unveiled a plaque. In August Her Majesty and the Duke made a return visit and an amending vellum celebrating this event can be seen beneath the plaque in the main vestibule. The clock in the tower was installed to commemorate these royal visits.
In January 1965 the Church newsletter began and continues to this day. The Wednesday Club, for Senior Citizens of the town, was founded in March 1967 and is still flourishing, while in 1970 the Church featured in two programmes on BBC Radio: the Sunday Evening Service; and Sunday Half-Hour, a programme of hymn-singing.
In 1976 Mr Jack retired to Crieff and the Rev William Allan was minister till 1978 when he resigned from the charge. His ministry was a period of consolidation and no great changes took place in the life of the Church. There was a delay in setting up the process of choosing a new minister, largely because of the timing of Presbytery meetings, and the vacancy lasted from May 1978 till June 1980. As is liable to happen during a long vacancy, the life of the Church became somewhat stagnant.
In June 1980 the Rev Stewart Wilson became minister. A late entrant to the Ministry - he had previously been an Art teacher — Mr Wilson brought an enthusiasm and vitality to the Church which was very infectious, so that membership and attendances began to increase and organisations to flourish once more.
Among many innovations introduced after Mr Wilson’s arrival was the ordination of the first female Elders in St Cuthbert’s. The suggestion that there might be women Elders had been mooted as early as 1944 by the Presbytery but was rejected at that time by the congregation by a mere 5 votes. So it was not until 1981 that the first women Elders were ordained in St Cuthbert’s (although our sister church of St Mary’s had women serving as Elders for some time before this). The original seven, ordained on 11 January 1981, were soon accepted and their numbers have increased steadily.
Union & Renovation
It was at this juncture, 1983, that the merger of St Cuthbert’s and St Mary’s took place. At first this new united charge was known as St Cuthbert’s and St Mary’s Church of Scotland, but by common consent and by the decree of the Kirk Session the Church reverted to its old name of Kirkcudbright Parish Church. Aother important change took place at the Union, the church became a "quoad sacra" parish instead of a "quoad omnia" parish. This means that financial and architectural matters have passed from the hands of the Kirk Session to the Congregational Board which comprises an equal number of members of Session and the congregation. The Session continues to have the general overseeing of the spiritual and pastoral affairs of the Church.
St. Mary’s Church building and hall were sold to a developer who converted the interior of the church into flats, while the facade of the church remains as it was.
From 1986 to 1989 a three year renovation programme was carried out, and the church was redecorated at a special service on Sunday, 19 March 1989 which included a "Welcome to the Lord in symbols of Bread and Wine". The total cost of this project over the three years was £112,000. Fund raising was a "Real Town Effort" as well as for the Congregation.
The Church Building
The present church building was designed by William Burn, architect also for Penninghame St John's Church building at Newton Stewart, which has a similar pulpit and leaded window moulding designs to Kirkcudbright Parish Church. The foundation stone of the Kirkcudbright Church was laid on 22 April 1836 and worship was first offered in the building on 20 October 1838. The Kirkcudbright building was built at a cost of £6,582 on ground given by the then Earl of Selkirk, who also paid for the building's construction. It was built on a large scale in anticipation that the town's population would grow more than it in fact did. The pulpit incorporates a sounding board and at lower level a Precentor's box from where praise was led before the introduction of the organ in 1886. The church is a category B listed building.
The Country, Town and Trades End
Like the 1730 building it replaced, the present church building is cruciform in shape. The main entrance gives access to the nave with the St Mary's Isle Estate Gallery above, together known as the Country End, underlining the fact that in former years this area of the church was occupied by the Earl and the estate and farming communities. The heraldic arms on the front of the Isle Gallery are those gained in 1918 by Sir Charles Dunbar Hope-Dunbar Bt., descendant of the Earl of Selkirk, with the motto Firmior Quo Paratior — The More Prepared, The Stronger.
To the left on entering the church is the Town End, the Gallery of which was occupied formerly by the Town Council and the pews by the townspeople of Kirkcudbright. The Town End The Town Council was granted the arms on the front of the Gallery by Lord Lyon in 1921. The arms are based on a 15th century impression of the oldest seal of the Royal Burgh, featuring the blue and silver colours of Galloway, with St Cuthbert, patron saint of the town, seated in the stern of a lymphad or galley, holding the head of the martyred King Oswald of Northumbria, slain in battle in 642. Oswald's head ultimately landed at Lindisfarne being buried with St Cuthbert's body and later transferred with Cuthbert to Durham Cathedral. The Burgh has no motto, although the matter was discussed with the Lord Lyon in 1927.
To the right on entering the church is the Trades End, the Gallery of which is that of the Incorporated Trades. This body dates back to 1425 and was given Royal Charters in 1425 and 1466. The six trades incorporated are the Tailors, Hammermen, Shoemakers, Glovers, Clothiers and Squaremen. The Incorporated Trades of Kirkcudbright gained the arms shown on the front of the Gallery in 1953.
The only stained glass in the church is a window by William Meikle portraying Jesus the Good Shepherd, which is dedicated to the memory of the Rev A. D. Campbell. Several other incumbents of the charge, Dr Robert Muter, George Hamilton, John McMillan and John Underwood are remembered by memorial plaques. A minister of the former Kirkcudbright United Presbyterian Church, William Watson, is similarly remembered.
The Church Hall on the opposite side of St Mary's Street from the church was designed by A B Crombie, Architect, of Dumfries, and built during the ministry of A D Campbell, probably also around 1886. It is a Grade C listed building.
MINISTERS SINCE THE REFORMATION
- Thomas Anderson
- Aikman. Killed by a Mure of Littleton, Borgue
- Mr Doddis, Also acted as schoolmaster. Wife brewed ale to supplement earnings as early Presbyterian ministers were scarcely and precariously paid.
- John Welsh 1594. Son in law to John Knox, Banished from Britain for some time, died in London 1662
- Robert Glendonyng
- Rev.Robert McClellane. A leading figure amongst the Covenanters in time of Charles I. He was a celebrated preacher and an acclaimed scholar. He wrote interesting inscriptions on the Ewart(?) Monument in St. Cuthbert’s Churchyard.
- John Jeffry 1664
- Alexander Mortymer 1669
- John Spalding 1689
- Andrew Cameron 1695. When the church was taken down in 1838 and some its stonework used in the building of the gasworks. The tablet to the memory of Andrew Cameron was used on the floor of the gasworks and placed face down.
- George Gathshore 1723
- John Maclellan 1750
- Mr. Thomas Blacklock, 1762. Friend of Robert Burns. Opposition to him forced him give up his charge. He moved to Edinburgh and it was he who first brought Burns
- Rev. William Crombie 1765
- Rev. Dr. Robert Muter 1770. Wrote First Statisitical Account of the Parish.
- Rev. George Hamilton 1820
- John McMillan 1837. Left at the Disruption to become minister of Kirkcudbright Free Church, later Kirkcudbright St. Mary’s
- Rev. John Underwood 1843
- Rev. A.D.Campbell 1875
- Rev. William Barclay 1914 - 1926
- Rev. J. E Mothershill
- Rev. Adam Jack 1964
- Rev. William Grainger Allan 1975
- Rev. William Stewart Wilson 1980
- Rev. Douglas Robert Irving 1998