Erskine Church, 1792-1992

The following is taken from a booklet produced to commemorate the bi-centenary of Erskine Church in August 1992. 

Erskine Church of Scotland, Saltcoats, as we know it today, was originally formed from the Burgher and Anti-Burgher congregations of the town. The Burgher congregation who were also known as Seceders originated in Kilwinning. In 1758 they were disjoined from Kilmaurs and a few years later, a section of the congregation petitioned Presbytery to be allowed to form a congregation in Saltcoats but this was refused. A second application ten years later fared no better and it was not until 1790 that the Associate Presbytery of Glasgow eventually approved the establishment of a congregation in Saltcoats.

The first of many meetings took place in the house of John Baillie on 2 June 1790 when it was decided that for the immediate future a tent should be provided for worship until a church could be built. A committee of 7 was appointed to procure pulpit supply.

The original building of 1792 in what is now Countess Street.

Soon a piece of ground adjacent to Goat Land (now 39 – 45 Countess Street) was acquired. This land was 14 falls in size and cost one guinea per fall and a rent of one shilling per fall each year thereafter. A Congregational Meeting held on 31 January 1791 sanctioned the building of a meeting house, 52 feet in length and 36 feet broad with a stair on the outside providing access to an upper gallery. Building commenced in February 1791 and the entire work was completed in early 1793. It supposedly was able to seat 550 people although it is hard to imagine this number being accommodated by the size of the building. It would appear that the cost was a little over £200.

Chapel Street c.1900, now called Vernon Street

The congregation chose as its first minister the Rev. James Borland of Kilmarnock. He was ordained on 1 November 1792 in a quarry in the town but unfortunately he caught cold there and was only able to preach on 6 Sabbaths before his death in April 1793.

It was not until 1796 that the congregation was successful in calling another minister. Rev. Henry Fraser of Auchtermuchty was ordained on 18 February. However, another short ministry was to ensue as Mr. Fraser shocked his congregation one Sabbath by expressing infidel opinions from the pulpit and he was obliged to resign nine months after his ordination.

Fifteen months elapsed before the third minister of the Burgher Church was ordained. Rev. Robert Forrest came from Dunbar but four years later he resigned his charge and emigrated to America where he continued his ministry.

The Anti-Burgher congregation for eight years had no church of their own in which to worship. They usually met in a hall in the town. However, after the ordination of Mr. John Gifford of Edinburgh on 18 March 1800, steps were taken to obtain a suitable site for the building of a church and during the course of the following year, a church was built at the head of Green Street. It was popularly known as the Pea Doo Kirk. This name stems from the large painting of a pigeon behind the pulpit. It was a small church, in fact so small that the minister in the pulpit could almost stretch out to the gallery on either side.

Mr. Gifford resigned in August 1811 and it was not until 25 January 1815 that Mr. David Ronald of City Road, Brechin was ordained as his successor. Mr. Ronald was to serve over 50 years of his ministry in Saltcoats.

Meanwhile, back in Countess Street, Rev. James Elles had been ordained on 21 March 1804. A Glasgow man, Mr. Elles’s preaching was rich with the gospel truth, his manner was energetic and attractive and his sermons were frequently illustrated by the more prominent events of the day.

One day, a relative of Mr. Elles said to him
“Jamie, do you know what the folk are saying about you?”
“No,” he replied “what are they saying?”
“They are saying that the first minister went to God Almighty; the second went to the Devil; the third, the Yankees got him; but they dinna ken whaur the fourth is gaun. ”

However the congregation soon prospered under his ministry. By able pulpit services, by faithful visitation, by sound Bible instruction, by many deeds of Christian benevolence, Mr. Elles made himself a blessing in the congregation and the town.

In 1820, the Burgher and the Anti-Burgher Churches united to form the United Secession Church. A period of 27 years ensued with the congregations consolidating their position. However, a further union was to take place in 1847 when the United Secession Church joined with the Relief Church, which worshipped at Kyles Hill, to form the United Presbyterian Church. The Relief Church then became the East U. P. Church and later moved to a new building in Dockhead Street which became known as Landsborough Trinity Church.

Mr. Elles was in the 49th year of his ministry in Saltcoats when he died in 1852. During this time he had been Moderator of the Synod in 1828 and was for many years a member of the Committee for the Distribution of Preachers. He also took an active part in the politics of the day.

As a result of the union between the two denominations in 1847 there were now three U. P. Churches in the town, so following the death of Mr. Elles, the opportunity was taken to unite Countess Street where Mr. Elles had been minister with the West congregation where Mr. Ronald was minister. The joint congregation agreed to use the Countess Street church for worship.

Presbytery of Kilmarnock, 1867

A Sabbath School was formed in the latter part of 1852 with Mr. Arthur Guthrie of Ardrossan as its leader. During 1857 some 80 members of the congregation who lived in Ardrossan left to form a new U. P. Church there. In 1861, it was decided to appoint a junior pastor to assist Mr. Ronald. The choice fell upon Rev. George Fairgrieve and the two ministers worked together until 1867 when Mr. Ronald retired from congregational work.

Meantime the church premises required repairs and were no longer adequate for the congregation. There was no vestry and it still had the original earthen floor which by now was full of holes. So the congregation decided that a new church, and a manse, should be built. A piece of land in Chapelwell Street was bought, building commenced and in July 1866 the new church building was opened for worship.

This is, of course, the same building which we use today. Having moved from Countess Street it was considered appropriate to change the name of the church to West United Presbyterian Church. It is interesting to note that the offerings at the three services on the first Sunday in the new church totalled £213. Allowing for inflation what would this be worth today?

The manse, which was the first house to be built in Montgomerie Crescent, was completed and occupied in April 1867. The church and manse cost over £3,200 and by 1873 all debt had been repaid – a remarkable achievement. A cottage which had been built next to the church in 1870 was bought by the congregation 10 years later.

In 1889, Mr. Fairgrieve witnessed the installation of the church organ and this still exists today in its original form. It is built in yellow pine. It was necessary for the windows at the back of the church to be blocked up so as to provide suitable space for an upper organ and the pulpit was brought forward a few feet for that purpose. The old pulpit steps can still be seen under the organ. The organ was dedicated to Dr. Peace. It was supplied and installed by Forster and Andrews, Organ Builders, Hull. It is a fine instrument which has performed well over the years. The only problem which seems to have been encountered in the early period was caused by the annual influx of holidaymakers. In July and August especially, the extra number of people in the town caused the water pressure to drop to the extent that it was insufficient to supply the organ, It was often necessary for the organist to enlist “volunteers” to pump the organ by hand.

In 1890 it was considered desirable to appoint a junior pastor to work with Mr. Fairgrieve. Rev. James Brand Scott was ordained and inducted at that time and following the death of Mr. Fairgrieve in 1893 he took over the ministry of the church.

The congregation celebrated its centenary in 1892. To mark the occasion a booklet was published by the two ministers, Mr. Fairgrieve and Mr. Scott, outlining the history of the first 100 years and we are indebted to this publication for much of the information of the early years of the congregation.

Interior of the Church, c. 1900

Centenary Services were held on Sunday 27 November 1892 followed by a meal and a soiree on the Monday evening. Tickets were 6d each. The guest preacher at the morning and evening services was Rev. Robert Whyte D.D., Edinburgh while the afternoon service was conducted by Rev. J. Brand Scott. The texts chosen by the ministers were:
Morning: Hebrews 13 v. 8
“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today and forever.”
Afternoon: Psalm 102
“They shall perish, but Thou shalt endure.”
Evening: Proverbs 20 v. 16
“The congregation of the dead.”

By 1893, the number of members on the Church Roll was 252. A Business and Social Meeting was held annually at which the minister gave a “State of the Congregation” speech and Managers and Office Bearers were elected. Also at this time, the Stevenston Mission had become a church in its own right and Presbytery decided that other churches in the area should give aid to the new church. West U. P. Church gave a Sabbath’s collection.

The hall pulpit was removed in 1895 and a moveable platform was put in its place. The following year a meeting of of fice-bearers and the Woman’s Guild was convened to discuss various schemes for the extension of and alterations to the church premises. The proposals were:
1. Heating the church alone.
2. Building a new Session House and toilets
3. Heating the Church building, new toilets and a Session House.
4. A hall extension, heating the church, building a new Session House and toilets.

It was decided that the heating of the church and repairs to the existing toilets should be started immediately.

Two tablets were erected in the vestibule of the church in 1899, one in memory of Rev. David Ronald and the other commemorating Rev. George Fairgrieve.

The West U. P. Church entered the dawn of the new century in a state of good health. Very soon though, the name of the church was to change. In 1900 the United Presbyterian Church united with the United Free Church and the West U. P. Church was renamed Erskine United Free Church. The name Erskine commemorates Ebenezer Erskine who was a founder member of the movement towards the churches electing their own ministers.

The Manse and beach, c. 1906

Not only did the church change its name in 1900, it also changed its minister. Mr. Scott accepted a call from Hawick and the congregation chose a probationer Rev. James W. Purves to succeed him. By all accounts it seems that his was a successful ministry. A letter of congratulation written by the Kirk Session on the occasion of his semi jubilee recalled his fruitful labours especially among the young of the congregation and which were still held in grateful remembrance.

During 1905 a committee was formed to discuss the possibilities of an extension to the hall. However the matter was temporarily left in abeyance in 1906 when Mr. Purves was called to Stirling. In May 1906 Rev. W. McNeil Biggam was inducted to Erskine and there began a ministry in Saltcoats which was to last 21 years. By the end of the year the hall extension was again discussed and at a meeting of the congregation it was decided to build a room 21 feet square onto the north side of the hall and communicating with it by folding partitions. An entrance with porch would also be built for the extension. The new building could accommodate 80 people. The new layout is still in use today and is commonly known as the “Annexe”.

The congregation was still in good heart in 1913 although records show that many people in the community were emigrating mostly to South Africa, Canada and the United States. Alas in 1914, World War One broke out. It took a heavy toll on Erskine Church as it did on every church in the country. A Roll of Honour of these members of the congregation, or their sons, who were serving in the armed forces was hung in the vestibule of the church. By June 1915 there were 13 names on it. Mr. Biggam in his speech at the Annual Congregational Meeting in 1915 said that the cloud of war hung over the land and that the congregation had been honoured by their own young men who had come forward at their country’s time of need and who now occupied a place on the Roll of Honour. Mr. Biggam himself became involved as in both 1916 and 1917 he answered a call from the Young Men’s Christian Association to help for three months in one of their camps in France. Towards the end of the war church services were only held in daylight due to shortages of coal and gas.

After the war ended the question of a suitable memorial arose. It was decided to erect two brass plaques in the vestibule of the church, one dedicated to those who had served their country and the other in honour of those who lost their lives in service.

Sunbeam Club Oficers, 1919

In the early 1920’s the Town Council agreed to permit public dancing in Melbourne Park and band performances on Sabbath afternoons. The Kirk Session strongly disapproved of this, believing it was against the moral well-being of the community, and a protest was drawn up and signed in the name of the Kirk Session and sent to the Town Clerk.

During 1924 offers were invited for the installation of electric light in the church and hall. In 1925 the Session was asked “Whether in the opinion of this Session the main causes of speculation between the Churches have been sufficiently removed to justify the Church in entering any negotiations with the Church of Scotland with a view to the basis of Union which would in due course be submitted to the inferior courts of the church.” This was approved by Session by 6 votes to 2.

In June 1926 the Session agreed to become affiliated to the Scottish Temperance Alliance and the fee of 5/- was contributed by members.

Mr. Biggam’s health deteriorated in the latter years of his ministry, so much so that he was granted leave of absence to enable him to have a long holiday in Jamaica in the hope that the warmth of the sun would be beneficial. He returned much refreshed but died suddenly in July 1927. His thoroughness as a preacher and pastor won for him amongst other appreciative comments that “he was a conscientious steward of his talents to the end.” He was very musical and was extremely interested in, and concerned for, the praise of the Sanctuary.

A call to Rev. James F. Padkin of St. Mary’s, Govan was accepted and he was inducted to Erskine Church early in 1928. At the Annual Meeting in February 1928 he thanked everyone for the welcome extended to himself and his wife and looked forward to serving Erskine and the congregation. Alas, this was to be of only two years duration. At the same meeting it was decided to restart the Elder’s Prayer Meetings and to introduce the new Church Hymnary on Easter Sabbath.

Picnic Party at Dunure, 1928

In 1929 the U. F. Church united with the Church of Scotland. So the name of the church as we know it today became Erskine Church of Scotland. It was felt that there would be many benefits from the union and so it has proved.

Around this time a decision was taken to erect a Memorial Stained Glass window in memory of Rev. W. McNeil Biggam. The window has the following description:
MUSIC – In this design for a stained glass window a representation of “music” in symbolic form has been portrayed.
KINGLY FIGURE – In the centre of the window the kingly figure of David (the sweet singer of Israel) is shown offering up praise. The circle of blue in the background, while having an auric significance, symbolises the “music of the spheres”.
TWO CELESTIAL SPIRITS – While preserving the rhythmic curve of the circle, two celestial spirits clasping hands are seen above, suggesting figuratively, Unity and Harmony of Spirit.
TWO LITTLE FIGURES – The two little Figures at the base of the window represent “Charity or Goodwill” and “Temperance”. “Charity” holds her flaming heart as an emblem of her burning zeal and devotion for the Faith’ while “Temperance” holds a bridled fish as her emblem.

The window was unveiled by Mrs. Biggam and dedicated at a special service on 1 December 1929.
Early in 1930 the congregation was shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Mr. Padkin. In his brief ministry in Erskine he became so well liked that the congregation decided to erect a Memorial Window in his memory and this was unveiled by Miss Padkin on 9 October 1932. The description of this window is:
This window is based on the subject “The Good Shepherd” . In the centre of the window is shown the figure of Christ as the “Divine Pastor” and Shepherd of the flock. His figure is enclosed in a sheepcot and he stands at the door, adumbrating the biblical truth -“I am the door” etc. Two angels encircle the ensemble. On the left an exultant angel reflects the celestial joy experienced by the restoration to the fold of the lost sheep. The companion angel on the right carries the “mulctra” symbolising spiritual nourishment. Thorns and flames strew the pathway of our Lord, symbolising His great sacrifice.

By July 1930 a probationer, Rev. James Munn, had been ordained and inducted. His was a very successful ministry with increased membership and the expansion of the young people’s events. During this time there was a trial installation of amplifying apparatus in the church but it did not work satisfactorily and was removed. Also during this period the Session decided that elders should wear white ties at Communion services. This was soon changed to black bows and shortly thereafter to black ties.

Mr. Munn accepted a call to St. Pauls, Dundee in 1937 and his successor was Rev. Robert McNeill. Although he was only to be with us for four years he was very popular with the congregation. During the Second World War, the Kirk Session agreed to release Mr. McNeill for a few months to work with the Huts and Canteen Committee in the north of Scotland. In a letter of thanks from Rev. Charles L. Warr the convener of the committee, it was stated that Mr. McNeill had been outstandingly successful as a Hut Leader maintaining a high standard of service which had earned the gratitude of officers and men alike.

In the early stages of the war the Session decided that if an Air Raid Warning went off during a service those who wished to go home were free to leave while those who preferred to remain in church could do so. There is no record of this actually happening.

At the end of 1941 Mr. McNeill announced that he was accepting a call from Kilmacolm Old Church. The Vacancy Committee soon recommended that Rev. Henry B. Meikle, Assistant at St. Giles, Edinburgh be invited to preach as sole nominee. Again a successful ministry ensued. Mr. Meikle felt that the church must be ready to show friendliness and enthusiasm, ready to make changes to the church “set-up” if necessary and must never fail to provide an opportunity for worship and service for returning men and women from the Forces. He also wanted elders to accept greater responsibilities in the church, to be an example to others of Christian living, to support and encourage the minister at Church Services, to share in the pastoral work of the church and to encourage the revival of family prayers in the home.

After the war was over, it was agreed to purchase a Baptismal Font in memory of those members of the congregation who lost their lives serving their country. At the same time it was decided to erect two plaques in the vestibule of the church, one inscribed with the names of those who died and the other with all who served in the war.

In 1946, a third stained glass window was installed in the Church. This window depicts Dorcas and the inscription reads “To the glory of God and in memory of the Misses Kelso, Mary 1830-1910, Jeannie 1835-1913, Joan 1840-1896, Elizabeth 1843-1898. Faithful members in this congregation. Erected by their niece the late Mrs. Mary Goodwin 1946.

Mr. Meikle was chosen to preach the sermon in a radio broadcast from Saltcoats in 1948 and such was the impact of it he shortly thereafter received a Call from High Hilton Church in Aberdeen. To find a successor, the Vacancy Committee headed for Dunblane Cathedral where Rev. Harry Hutchison was serving as Assistant Minister. Mr. Hutchison came to Erskine as a bachelor but before long he married his wife Sheila in the church. He had very good academic qualifications and in later life obtained his Ph.D. and lectured in Education and Pastoral Theology in the Faculty of Divinity at Glasgow University. The congregation continued to grow in strength during his ministry in Erskine which he described as a fulfilling one prior to his translation to Crosshill Victoria Church, Glasgow in December 1953.

During Mr. Hutchison’s ministry a further stained glass window was erected by Alexander Hogarth of Greville, Saltcoats in memory of his parents William and Jane Hogarth, Whitlees Farm. Appropriately the window depicts “the sower of the seed”.

The congregation’s next choice of minister fell on Rev. Hugh Kirkwood, minister at Rerlick and he was inducted in July 1954. An Irishman, Mr. Kirkwood was to serve a long and happy ministry until his retirement in 1981. He was greatly respected, not only in Erskine, but throughout congregations of all denominations and in the community. In 1964 he was elected Moderator of Ardrossan Presbytery. By the mid 1960’s the Presbytery was seeking to reduce the number of churches in Saltcoats town centre from three to one. Several discussions took place but at this stage no progress was made.

This same period saw the retiral of Mr. Robert Bruce who had served faithfully as our organist for many years. He was a remarkable man – he was blind and played all the hymns and voluntaries from memory. He travelled by himself, by bus, to and from Galston twice every Sunday.

6th Saltcoats Boy’s Brigade, 1955

In March 1966, the Managers of Erskine Church prepared plans for a possible extension to the church premises. The suggested extension involved a kitchen, toilets, a new vestry and a Session Room or Small Hall. After being approved by the congregation the proposal was presented to Presbytery, who gave permission so long as the plans were adapted to make it possible for a further extension in future if a union of churches made this necessary. After sufficient funds had been raised by the congregation, building work started in 1969 and the new buildings were dedicated on 22 November 1970. In the event, there was no necessity to extend the premises as Landsborough and Trinity Churches united in Trinity’s buildings in 1969. Back in 1966 the congregation celebrated the centenary of the building of the present church with a special service at which Rev. James Munn was to be guest preacher but sadly he became ill shortly beforehand and was unable to be present. The Rev. Dr. S. Knox of Aberdeen deputised. In September 1970, the name of the church magazine was changed from “Congregational Review” to “Contact”. The new magazine continued to be published on a quarterly basis but instead of being professionally printed it was done by the editor, Robert Brown, on a duplicator.

In 1971 the congregation adopted the Model Constitution of the Church of Scotland to replace the U. P. one in operation. The main reason for proposing the change was to involve more members, especially elders, in the temporal affairs of the church. To this end the Manager’s Court was replaced by a Congregational Board on which both elders and a similar number of elected members served.
During the late 1970’s the membership was beginning to decline and it was quite a struggle to make ends meet financially. However, financial campaigns were very successful with many members giving good increases in their offerings.

Early in 1981, Mr. Kirkwood intimated his desire to retire on 31 October of that year. At his farewell Social held in the Church it was said about him –
“Having put his hand to the Christian plough, to sow for a rich harvest has been of paramount significance to Mr. Kirkwood, and there is no questioning the fact that his ministry has been one of great achievement. ” It was also said that he was “a man completely ded icated to his calling, with a devotion to his congregation which by far transcends the call of duty.”
Mr. Kirkwood now lives in West Kilbride and continues to take an eager interest in all that is happening in the church.

The ensuing vacancy was to be a rather lengthy one, lasting for 11 months. Several meetings with representatives of the Presbytery of Ardrossan were held before permission to call a minister was given. In the interim, work was to be undertaken to the walls of the church which were beginning to “spread”. It was also decided to sell the manse and its large area of ground and purchase a more modern property. However, only the ground was sold and the proceeds were used to renovate the manse.

Once again a probationer was called to fill the vacancy. Rev. Barry W. Dunsmore, assistant at Bearsden South Church was ordained and inducted on 29 September 1982. It was decided that from December 1982 “Contact” should be published on a monthly basis except for July and August so that members could be better informed of events. In 1984, the editor received permission to obtain advertisers for the magazine and the income from this covered the entire production costs. Also, in November 1984, the first edition of “Junior Contact” was published.

A significant event occurred in March 1983 when eight new elders were ordained. Of these, six were ladies, the first in the history of the congregation. This was a tremendously successful move and others have followed with the result that over half of the Kirk Session today is comprised of lady members.

The church was badly in need of redecoration so in 1985 the congregation worshipped in the hall for four months while the work was being carried out. A Re-dedication service was held on 24 November when Rev. Dr. W. J. Morris of Glasgow Cathedral was guest preacher and long service certificates were presented to several members of the congregation by Mr. Kirkwood.

Mr. Dunsmore accepted the chaplaincy of Kyleshill School, Saltcoats and to celebrate the school’s centenary in 1985 the Kirk Session donated a capital sum to the school, the income from which was to provide prizes for religious education and would be known as the “Erskine Church Prize”. Mr. Dunsmore introduced a Midweek Service, which still runs today, on Thursday mornings. This has proved to be very successful with members of Erskine and other churches coming to worship.

Mr. Dunsmore left Erskine in January 1988 having accepted a Call from St. Columba’s, Stirling. He had successfully guided the congregation through some difficult years especially in relation to property matters. In contrast to the previous vacancy this one was relatively short as Presbytery agreed with the congregation’s request that permission should be granted to call a minister on the basis of Terminable Tenure.

Following the successful introduction of women elders the congregation now called a lady minister, Rev. Margaret Thomson, who was Assistant at Mosspark Church, Glasgow and who was ordained and inducted in Erskine on 28 June 1988 in a memorable service in which the church was packed to capacity. Although a late entrant to the ministry, Mrs. Thomson used her years of business experience to bring a common sense approach to her ministry. She initiated a Bible Study Group as well as continuing the monthly Prayers for Healing.

In 1990, after the resignation of the Church Officer, the officebearers decided, on financial grounds, not to replace him with the duties being carried out by the members. The Church Officer’s Cottage was rented out. In the early part of 1991, a microphone system was installed in the church.

And so we now reach 1992 – 200 years on from the founding of the congregation. It was only right that the congregation should celebrate the occasion. Several special events were held and these ended with a Flower Festival on 29-31 October, the theme of which was “The Church’s People”, and a Bi-Centenary Service on 1 November at which three former ministers were welcomed – Rev. Dr. Harry Hutchison, Rev. Hugh Kirkwood and Rev. Barry Dunsmore.

Shortly after the celebrations it was announced that following the retirement of Rev. Gordon Weir at Landsborough and Trinity Church, there would be an appraisal by the Union and Readjustment committee of the General Assembly. Following numerous objections by all parties concerned it was decided that the two churches should unite and be called New Trinity Church.

Former ministers of Erskine / New Trinity / Kirkgate Church:

Copyright © Ardrossan & Saltcoats Kirkgate Parish Church of Scotland. Registered Scottish Charity SC023003.