Burntisland's Churches - Part 3
by Iain Sommerville
Part 3 - The Manse in Forth Place
The present Church of Scotland manse in Ramsay Crescent is an attractive enough dwelling, and well suited to a local professional person in the year 2001 - but it's a far cry from the manses of old, which were central to the social fabric of Burntisland. These manses had to big enough to cope with a regular stream of visitors, who were quite often ministers from other parishes - and of course with the Burntisland minister, his often large family, and sufficient servants to run such a household and provide the necessary hospitality.
The Parish Church glebe lands at the Kirkton in 1786. You have to use your imagination to place the map in its present context - for example, there is no Church Street and no road to the Toll. Kirkton Road is labelled "Road from Burntisland". Dollar Road is the "Road to the Meadow". The ruined manse is seen to the south west of the old church. Map reproduced with the permission of the National Archives of Scotland (their reference RHP611).
The map shows the Glebe (parish church lands) of Burntisland in 1786. Although the Kirkton church had long been abandoned in favour of the new one in East Leven Street, the churchyard was still in use, and the income from the glebe lands formed an important part of the minister's stipend - as it still does, indirectly, today.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the stipend was made up of cash of about £800 a year in today's terms (although the purchasing power was much greater), plus the extras - the manse, the use of the glebe, and a supply of barley and oats. The Rev James Wemyss, who was minister of the parish from 1779 to 1822, kept a horse and a couple of cows on the glebe. He also grew flax, which a local Kirkton weaver made into table cloths and sheets.
The map also shows the 'Old Manse in Ruins'. Its foundations now lie forgotten, probably somewhere around the east side of Church Street, opposite the old churchyard. We know little about the Kirkton manse, except its location and that it was in use until 1657.
For the following 200 years or so, the ministers lived in what we now call Forth Place, on the site of the new flats opposite the main dock gates, and with a garden stretching south to the seashore. It's difficult to envisage Forth Place then - without the railway and the East Dock, and with the sea lapping at the rocks close to where the dock gates are now.
But that would be part of its charm in the eighteenth century - and a great attraction for Burntisland's elite, who vied for the properties in the area from Quality Street (now Somerville Square) to the sea. The Charters, Fairfax, Wemyss and Leven families traded properties between themselves, and intermarried as well. All the families had a good sprinkling of clergymen in their family trees, although only the Charters could claim a direct line to John Knox!
Mary Somerville was the product of a Fairfax/Charters marriage. She wasn't very enthusiastic about the doom and gloom sermons of her uncle, the Rev James Wemyss, but she did spend many happy hours in her garden which ran all the way from Quality Street to the sea.
The attractions of the area were that it was close to both the town centre and the seashore, and very handy for the Granton ferry. These well-to-do families usually had properties in Edinburgh's new town, as well as in Burntisland, and the ferry link was important to them. They do all seem, however, to have looked on Burntisland as their main base.
We know almost nothing of the original seventeenth century manse in Forth Place, although it seems to have been a smaller building than the Kirkton manse which it replaced. It appears that the death of the Rev James Wemyss in 1822 was the catalyst for the building of a replacement on the same site. It was intended that the new manse should be "one of the best in Scotland", and a promising young architect, William Burn, was hired to draw up the plans. Burn went on to specialise in country houses, designing about 150 in total, including Falkland House, Balcarres House, Balintore Castle and Tynninghame.
The new manse was ready in 1824, and the first occupant was the Rev Charles Watson. As a manse, the building had quite a short life - just over 20 years. The construction of the railway from 1845 changed Forth Place beyond recognition, and the engineering work and subsequent heavy traffic did not sit well with the minister's need for peace and quiet to write his lengthy sermons. But the elegant manse building would be ideally suited to its new role - as the finest hotel in Burntisland, the Forth Hotel.
The manse was sold to the railway company around 1845. A new east wing was added, and its glory days began. For 45 years it was Burntisland's premier venue. Quoting William Erskine: "The Clarks and the McJanets were among the early 'hosts', but the hey-day of its prosperity was that when the genial, ever-smiling Mrs Horsburgh reigned as queen. In her time, 'The Forth' was a name to conjure with. The 'swells' of the town made it their rendezvous and 'commercials' made it their lodging, because of its comforts and its proximity to the station. Even the heads of the then prosperous colliery companies rented a room where important business was done, and legal gentlemen acting as factors for certain house proprietors gathered in their rents: and 'tax-gatherers', in their season, collected from unwilling taxpayers what Governments considered their due. Even the late Sir George Campbell, M.P., was known to patronise the 'Forth' to find inspiration for his infrequent but lengthy speeches to the electors."
The picture shows how James Louden was promoting the Forth Hotel in 1903. The left hand section is the old parish manse. The extension on the right (with the dormer windows) was added when the building was converted to the Forth Hotel.
The opening of the Forth Bridge spelled the end of the hotel's heyday - although, at the time of the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902, it could still claim to be "the best decorated building in Burntisland - a riot of colour: red, white and blue, all entwined around the door pillars".
The last proprietor of the Forth Hotel was James Louden, who ran it from 1903 until his death in 1914. When the lease expired in 1917, it reverted to the North British Railway Company. They converted it to the Burntisland railway Control, which is how the building is best remembered in the town today. In due course, it became British Rail's District Operating Administrative Office, although to local folk it remained simply 'The Control'.
In 1965 the superintendents, clerks and typists were relocated to Edinburgh, and complete closure followed five years later. Very precisely, at 10.00 p.m. on Sunday 1 February 1970, the Burntisland Control ceased to be - subsumed in the new Edinburgh Waverley Communications Centre.
The building was put on a care and maintenance basis, looked after by the local station staff. In due course it was sold to a building company. Plans were put forward to convert it to flats, but they came to nothing. The fabric was now deteriorating rapidly, and in 1993 the local authority suggested that the site be used for a 'park and ride' facility - this also came to nothing. By 1997 the old hotel had decayed to such an extent that it had to be demolished. And so the old parish manse and Forth Hotel joined a long list of historic buildings, the loss of which have demonstrated the inability of the authorities to protect our built heritage. A new block of flats was recently erected on the site.
Returning to the ministers - the Church of Scotland provided another fine new manse about 1845, this time in Cromwell Road and again with sufficient accommodation to meet the needs of the ministers of the day. It had a rather more pedestrian existence than its predecessor, although as a manse it lasted the course better - for around 140 years. With the imminent arrival of the Rev John Duncan in 1987, common sense prevailed and the Cromwell Road manse was sold. It began a new existence as Grayforth House Nursing Home. John Duncan moved into the far more manageable accommodation in Ramsay Crescent.
© Iain Sommerville 2001
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