Shirra prayed - an' a wind cam' Forth
The Reverend Robert Shirra is remembered for allegedly calling 'Forth' divine protection against John Paul Jones, the Scot who was later to found the US Navy.
Even if we may doubt this particular claim, Shirra was a colourful character with undoubted influence at a time when the clergy dominated local life to a large degree.
In depth written study
Shirra prayed – an’ a wind cam’ Forth
To the younger generations it is probably hard to imagine that the church was once very much at the centre of family life. This did not only manifest itself in large congregations attending services but it is equally true of many aspects of social life. For some, through guilds, societies, groups and classes, churches provided opportunities for friendship, companionship and entertainment, alongside its principal function of preaching the gospel.
However, when looking back at the period following the Reformation of 1560, following religious beliefs has not always been an easy path. It is now hard to believe that, in a Christian country, many individuals and groups suffered death or imprisonment over their beliefs. A minister was also one of the most important, powerful and influential figures, in the community. Robert Shirra was such a man.
Almost from the time of the Reformation the Church has seen itself immersed in arguments, splits, secessions and divisions. These more than once led to the creation of new churches with differing standpoints.
The first secession from the National Church took place in 1731 over the issue of patronage – the right of a patron alone to appoint a minister to his parish church. The fundamental issue was the exclusion of the congregation in playing any role in determining who should preach and minister to them.
When Charles I was executed in 1649 congregations had again been allowed to choose their minister, but the restoration of Charles II saw a 1662 Act of Parliament restore patronage. Worse, was the instruction that any minister appointed after 1649 had to have/acquire a patron. Almost a quarter of the clergymen refused, subsequently being deprived of their living. It was these men who went on to become the cornerstone of the Covenanter movement.
Throughout the 17th century the Presbyterian and Episcopal movements had wrestled to become the established church in Scotland. The glorious revolution of 1689/90 saw the Presbyterian movement secure that position for itself. Patronage was abolished once more and, again, congregations had control of decision making in terms of their choice of minister.
Almost unbelievably, in 1712, Parliament passed a Patronage Act which again restored to wealthy landowners and patrons the sole right to appoint ministers. Annoyance simmered and then exploded in 1731 when the General Assembly ruled that, if any patron or landowner neglected or declined to exercise his prerogative of appointing a minister, then the decision fell to the landowners and elders of the parish. Again, congregations were completely excluded.
This led to impassioned protests by both ministers and congregations and when they fell on deaf ears it ultimately led to the formation of the Associate Presbytery – the first breakaway from the Church of Scotland.
Such a situation arose with Abbotshall Parish Church and subsequently led to the Reverend Robert Shirra being inducted as the third minister of Linktown Associate Church in 1750 where he served for 48 years. Shirra was Stirling born and an apprentice tobacconist before studying for the ministry. His own minister in Stirling was Ebenezer Erskine – a major guiding light in the formation of the Associate Presbytery. Following in his footsteps?
Although primarily known for his ‘encounter’ with John Paul Jones, it would be a mistake to think that Shirra was one dimensional. It is difficult to be accurate over events which took place over 250 years ago and doubly difficult when most of the relevant material was written long after his death. However, the evidence indicates he was an old fashioned fire and brimstone preacher, combining religious knowledge with powerful and passionate oratory. He was something of a wit and also not beyond openly reproaching members of his congregation if he felt the need. He became known for his preaching, eccentricities and sayings, far beyond the boundaries of Kirkcaldy.
In the public consciousness, Shirra will forever be linked with one prayer and one prayer alone! The American War of Independence lasted from 1775 – 1783 and, in 1779, the Scottish born John Paul Jones sailed into the Firth of Forth with the intention of sacking Leith unless a huge ransom was paid. The towns on the coastline were unprotected, their guns having been removed in the aftermath of Culloden. Those living in the towns were in ferment and panic as Jones had developed a notorious reputation as a pirate.
Tradition has it that, in the midst of the crisis, the stoic Reverend Shirra stood on the sands imploring the good Lord to conjure up a wind which would blow Jones out of the Forth. There is little doubt, in fact none, that a strong wind did rise up and Jones was forced to abandon his goal. There are a number of variations to the story and, in the full narrative, these are explored leaving readers to make up their own minds on the power of Shirra’s prayers or otherwise. The variations go from simple remarks and observations to a full-blown prayer delivered on the beach – with some suggesting that unless God drove Jones away – he would sit there and drown.
Above all, the intention of this object is not just to highlight this one incident but evidence there was much more to Shirra than simply ‘a moment in time on Kirkcaldy’s beach’.
He was a well known and respected figure worthy of his place in the spotlight. Please read the full narrative to gain a greater insight into Kirkcaldy’s theological superstar.
How is Shirra remembered in Kirkcaldy - sadly, in the same way as most of her famous sons and daughters, unless they were Adam Smith? It would seem that the highest honour the Council are prepared to bestow is having a street named after the individual. The full narrative discloses how, in the case of the Reverend Shirra, this simple task proved to be beyond their ability.
Is it not possible, when looking at the millions being spent on the upgrade of the Promenade and Esplanade that something could be done to commemorate the man and his story?
Perhaps an information board could be installed both detailing the event and looking out towards the scene of his enduring triumph some 250 years ago