The Story of Kirkcaldy's Cathedral
Perhaps only ecclesiastical scholars will be familiar with the details of 'Great Disruption' of 1843, a seismic event in church history.
But few people today will be unaware of the towering presence that is St Brycedale's Church.
Described by Sandford Fleming as 'Kirkcaldy's Cathedral', the church absolutely dominated the town's skyline when it opened in 1881.
As our story relates, its patrons and congregation seem, in their way, to have been no less imposing.
In depth written study
The Story of Kirkcaldy's Cathedral
If the definition of a cathedral in the Christian Church is where a bishop has his seat then Kirkcaldy, in the strictest sense, has no cathedral. The inspiration for this title came from Sir Sandford Fleming’s first glimpse of the then new St. Brycedale Free Church, referring to it as “Kirkcaldy’s Cathedral”. It struck a chord with us, but as we went deeper into the story we discovered that the epithet had been used on the opening day in 181. The full story is told in the attached ‘in depth written study’.
The building was ostensibly for worship, but those behind its design and creation were determined it should also make a statement and bring architectural significance to the booming town. Kirkcaldy was a prosperous industrial town at the time and Provost Swan longed for a dramatic and impressive building to showcase the town’s rising fortunes.
It is hard to imagine now how significant a part religion once played in people’s lives. It was all encompassing and was a serious matter especially for the dour Presbyterians of the time. In 1843 there was a seismic event which shook every corner of Scotland and had a major impact in Kirkcaldy. The event became known as the “Great Disruption” and was probably one of the most significant and dramatic happenings in peacetime up until that point.
There had been simmering tensions in the Church, primarily over congregations having little or no say in the choice of their minister. This choice rested almost exclusively with the local landowner or patron, irrespective of the congregation’s wishes and, all too often, ministers were the sons of these same landowners. The Patronage Act of 1711 had cemented this right, but as times changed there were whispers and then vociferous demands for this to change. Congregations almost without exception wanted the “right to call” a minister of their choice.
To many the status quo was no longer acceptable and attempts were made to bring about change, but with little success. The spark into action was the 1832 Scottish Reform Act where, overnight, huge numbers suddenly found themselves able to vote. This bred confidence and soon the Established Church was facing increasing demands for change which was not forthcoming. The moderates who ran the Church were still happy to side with the powerful – no matter the clamour for change!
At the 1843 General Assembly, there was a mass walkout of ministers and elders and they went on to form the ‘Free Church of Scotland’. The Sunday following saw a repetition in almost every church including Kirkcaldy.
The minister of the Old Kirk, John Alexander, led his followers to the ‘Port Brae Chapel’ where ‘Kirkcaldy Free Church’ was established. Almost two thirds of the members had followed him, including many of the important and wealthy people in the town. The result of the walkout was the formation of six new congregations in Kirkcaldy, all of the Free Church denomination.
After eighteen months a new church was built in Tolbooth Street for those who had left the Old Kirk. Eventually, it could no longer hold the burgeoning congregation, nor did it have adequate space for purposes other than Sunday Services.
In 1876 it was decided to build a new church and Provost Swan offered, free of charge, a piece of his ground at the top of Kirk Wynd as a site. Elaborate plans were drawn up, the best of materials used, and the 200 foot tower with its spire dominated the town’s skyline. When opened in 1881, it was the most expensive building yet constructed in Kirkcaldy with seating for 1,150. The fact that there were many high worth individuals in the congregation certainly helped.
From its high vantage point it dwarfed the townscape including, deliberately or otherwise, the Old Kirk. In its early years, standing in splendid isolation on the town’s outskirts, it must have been a sight to behold – hence Fleming’s description.
1929 saw the Free Church and the Church of Scotland re-unite, but the building remains a testament to great architecture and building skills.