Biggar churches born in response to state ‘intermeddling’

Moat Park...building it 'reflected great credit' on all the members of the dissident congregation in 1886. It now faces a very different future.
Moat Park...building it 'reflected great credit' on all the members of the dissident congregation in 1886. It now faces a very different future.

TWO prominent modern day Biggar buildings owe their origins to religious discord after the 18th century union of the crowns.

Scotland had had its Reformation in 1560 but suddenly the established Protestant church was under threat from “meddlesome” civic authorities.

As William Hunter notes in his 1867 history of the town, Biggar has a “strong disinclination to the undue interference of the state with the established church”.

In Biggar, this “unwarranted intermeddling” led to the creation of two new congregations who each built a large church.

In one case the cause was the Porteous Letter of 1737, issued in the wake of the execution of Captain Porteous in Edinburgh, which required to be read publicly in every church every month for a year.

In May the dissenters of Biggar left the church, initially travelling to West Linton, then forming a separate congregation in Biggar in 1755, worshipping first in the open air and then building a church in 1760. This North United Presbyterian Church in 1866 moved to Moat Park.

Mr Hunter may have been at the 1866 opening, as he gives a very full account of the acquisition of the land from the Rt Hon Clementina Elphinstone Fleming and speaks to the documents and coins deposited in a cavity when the foundation stone was laid in June 1865 and to the opening service on June 27, 1866.

“The collection amounted to £211,” he records, “which, with the sum previously collected, was sufficient to defray the whole expense of the building, amounting to £1400.”

And Mr Hunter comments that the whole proceedings involved in building Moat Park reflected great credit on all the members of the congregation.

The new church, with its neat and tasteful style of architecture and commanding site, “is the theme of general admiration”.

The second piece of meddling involved patronage.

In 1779 Bailie Carmichael appointed the Rev Robert Pearson minister, foisting him on an unwilling parish and there was a virtual rebellion, with the bulk of the parishioners choosing to quit rather than submit to his ministry.

The row rumbled on for months, even reaching the General Assembly and then a meeting of Presbytery was called in November.

There were threats of violence and Mr Hunter reports that several females intended going along with lapfuls of stones to pelt the Presbytery members, while, as a precaution, the authorities lined up a troop of dragoons nearby.

Presbytery members themselves were not keen on the meeting, but it did go ahead. Presbytery upheld the appointment – and the congregation walked out. They later built the Gillespie Church, opened in 1878.

But the decades rolled on and Biggar could not support the number of churches built by the zealous Christians in earlier centuries.

By the 1980s Moat Park was owned by Biggar Museums Trust and squads of volunteers were turning it into a museum, formally opened by the Princess Royal in June 1988, Now it is facing a new life, as the Trust creates a new museum at the Stephens Garage site. Housing is the most likely possibility for Moat Park’s future.

The Gillespie Church too became redundant and it was converted into a community centre, run successfully since 1982.