Burntisland's Churches - Part 6

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by Iain Sommerville

Part 6 - The Disruption and the Free Church

In 1843, nearly 500 of the 1,200 ministers of the Church of Scotland left their places of worship and their manses for the last time. The events of that year are known as the Disruption, and the town of Burntisland was once again at the forefront - as it had been just over a century earlier, when the church which we now know as the Erskine Church was formed (see Part 5).

As on that previous occasion, the main issue was patronage - the right of the State to force an unpopular minister on an unwilling congregation. The non-negotiable principle behind the mass walkout and the setting up of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843 is summarised by William Anderson: "The fundamental doctrine of the Free Church, as distinguished from the Established Church, is that the State, while bound to provide for the interests of religion, and to protect and defend the church, has no right whatever to interfere ..... in things pertaining to the spiritual province of the church; that patronage is a sin and crying grievance, and that no minister should be 'intruded' on any parish or congregation contrary to the will of the people."

This time the initial split was far more serious - not only did 474 ministers walk out, but they were on the whole the most active and most committed of the clergy; and they took with them about one third of the Church of Scotland's members.

As far as Burntisland is concerned, the story of the Disruption is inextricably linked to two theological giants - David Couper, a Burntisland minister, and Thomas Chalmers, who lived in the town. Both men were in due course to be recognised by the award of honorary degrees, Couper from St Andrews, and Chalmers from Glasgow and Oxford.

The men were good friends, and shared the same views. Thomas Chalmers (see box below) was the man primarily responsible for the mass walkout nationally, and he became the first Moderator of the new church formed by the seceding ministers - the Free Church of Scotland.

It is no surprise that his friend and ally David Couper (see box below) was also one of the seceders. Indeed, such was Couper's stature in Burntisland, that he took with him almost the entire congregation of the Parish Church.

Burntisland's new Free Church congregation very quickly found a temporary home in a building called the Barns in Lothian Street, owned by Messrs Cunningham and later Fisons. And it did not take them long to press ahead with the erection of a new purpose built church in East Leven Street. To add insult to injury, the site was directly opposite the Parish Church, with its now sadly depleted congregation.

The new church was largely financed by the Young family of the Grange, and took shape during 1844. As a church, it had only a short life - some  17 years - but it continued to serve the town in other capacities until 1977 (see box below).

By 1860, the congregation had decided that their status merited a more elegant and prominently located church building. Work progressed quickly and the new church in the High Street (now St Andrew's Court, opposite Delicate Essence) was opened on 1 September 1861. It was much handier for David Couper too, for his manse was in Craigholm Crescent (the terrace on Kinghorn Road which includes the Inchview Hotel).

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Free Church became the leading light in the provision of church and Sunday school services at the Binn village, during the period when it served the shale oil works and was home to a population of up to 600. A church building was erected at the village, and library services were also provided.

In 1900, the majority of the Free Church (including the Burntisland congregation) joined with the United Presbyterian Church to form the United Free Church. From then until 1929, Burntisland had two United Free congregations - the Couper (named in honour of David Couper) and the Erskine. While the Erskine Church opted to remain outside the further union of 1929, between the United Free Church and the Church of Scotland, the Couper congregation took the opposite view and became St Andrew's Church of Scotland.

With the death of the St Andrew's Church minister, the Rev Easton, in 1976, and with the gradual decline in church membership throughout the country, the opportunity was taken to unite the congregations of St Andrew's and St Columba's as Burntisland Parish Church, and the first joint service was held in the St Columba's building on 13 March 1977.

Finding new uses for redundant church buildings can often be a problem. Not so with St Andrew's Church, however. In 1983 it was converted to St Andrew's Court sheltered housing for the elderly. David Couper's Free Church, now with its striking blend of the old and the new, will continue to dominate the east end of the High Street for years to come.

Thomas Chalmers

Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)

Chalmers was one of the greatest Scots of his generation: theologian and philosopher, organiser and manager, and one of the finest orators Scotland has ever produced.

He was born in Anstruther in 1780, the sixth of the fourteen children of a local businessman. After his education at Anstruther School and St Andrews and Edinburgh Universities, he was appointed minister of Kilmany, four miles north of Cupar, in 1803.

His career then took him from rural Fife, via his ministry to the 11,000 souls who inhabited the teeming rat-infested tenements of the Calton in Glasgow, to election as Moderator of the Church of Scotland in 1834.

There then began a period of open war within the church on the patronage question, culminating in the mass walkout by Chalmers and his supporters in 1843 and the formation of the Free Church of Scotland.

Chalmers was elected the first Moderator of the Free Church, and within a year he had organised the building of 500 new churches and the ordination of 100 new ministers. In missionary work, he led from the front - for example, in Edinburgh's West Port, then an area notorious for its physical squalor and moral degradation.

Like a number of the leading men in Edinburgh, he maintained two homes - one in the city and one in Burntisland. He occupied Craigholm, now 85 Kinghorn Road, from 1834 to 1847. The Montgomery family, who live there now, have shown commendable initiative in erecting a commemorative plaque on their historic building.

We can be sure that much of the hard work done by Chalmers in the period surrounding the Disruption took place in his Craigholm study. Much of his correspondence in that period was written there.

His friend David Couper later recalled Chalmers' love of Burntisland: "His liking for the locality was very strong. It was not so bustling then as it is now; but on this account was all the more congenial to his tastes and habits. 'Some people,' he remarked, 'say that this is a dull place; but what they call dull, I call delicious.' His mode of life while here was tolerably uniform and exceedingly simple. The earlier portion of the day he generally devoted to study and correspondence, reserving the afternoon and evening for the society of his family and friends, and for the exercise of walking, in which he took great delight." One of the favourite spots for his walks was the Lammerlaws.

Chalmers died four years after the momentous events of 1843, peacefully in his Edinburgh home. His funeral was a national event, attended by friends and foes alike. He is buried in Edinburgh's Grange Cemetery.

David Couper

David Couper (1809-82)

David Couper was born in Dunfermline in 1809. He served as minister of Burntisland Parish Church from 1834 to 1843; and as minister of Burntisland Free Church from 1843 to his death in 1882.

William Erskine gives us this short and colourful pen portrait of David Couper: "The Rev. David had become a doctor as he advanced in years, and added to his reputation as a gifted preacher. He had come to be revered, both for his faith and work, and looked up to, as others of a different faith regard their Pope.  He became a guide, philosopher, and friend to many, even to those who did not worship under his banner. Not only did he gain the friendship and respect of the elders, but he inspired the youngsters with a holy fear. Bad words and bad manners were laid aside when the 'Doctor' appeared. Wrangling over a game at the 'bools' ceased on his approach."

Free Church site, East Leven Street

The site of the Free Church in East Leven Street, at the corner of Kirkgate, showing the preserved bell tower and entrance. Norman Mackie tells us that, after the congregation moved to the High Street in 1861, the building became Frank Quarton's grain store. It then took on a new life as Burntisland's first picture house, the Palace, which closed in the mid 1920s. After that, it served as a badminton, boxing and athletic club; and latterly as a store, used by James Ferguson. It was destroyed in a fire on 28 September 1977.

The single story building in the centre ground is the Free Church school, built to provide an alternative to the Parish School which was at that time under the control of the Church of Scotland. It became Leven Street Public School on the introduction of state education in 1872. With the opening of the new Burgh School in Ferguson Place in 1876, its future seemed in doubt. However, by 1889, the new school was becoming overcrowded, and the Leven Street school was allocated the children from the landward area of the parish. It was then known locally as the country school. More recently, the building was the meeting place for the Binnend Women's Rural Institute. It is now owned by the local Scouts, who have plans to convert it to a modern hall and meeting place.

  Iain Sommerville 2002

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