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  • Tom Reid

Two Parish Churches - Kirkcaldy and Dysart


777 years ago, on Tuesday, March the 21st 1245, the Bishop of St Andrews, David de Bernham, 'maximus episcopus Scotorum' dedicated 'ecclesia de kirkaldin' (Kirkcaldy Auld Kirk) to St Patrick and St Brisse (or Bryce, or Britius). This church was the 119th of 140 churches this indefatigable bishop had dedicated or re-dedicated between 1240 and 1249 in an area stretching from Berwick on Tweed to Deeside - including 28 in Fife. The church was traditionally said to have been erected by St Columba in the sixth century, with the rugged tower dating from the 15th century. By the time of the Reformation it had been disestablished and lay unusedas a church for a long time, being used instead as a workshop and stables. It had been under the control of the Abbey of Dunfermline until 1450, when the whole burgh, harbour, rents, and petty customs were ceded to the Kirkcaldy Burgh Magistrates. They, and the heritors made little attempt to take proper care of the church from then up to the Reformation and beyond with burgh records making frequent references to orders for the cleaning out of the church, with repairs being ordered in 1570, 1604 and again in 1606.

They did not neglect comfort however; according the Kirk Session Records of

the 2nd of August 1625

'Anent order to be taken for reparation of the Kirk with honest seats. It is ordained that all the old seats in the queir shall be casten furth of the Kirk and the auld seats that are of fir shall be changed into seats of wainscott so that thair sall be no seatt of firr in the kirk, and that between this and Martinmas next.'

In 1637 the minister and baillies went to Edinburgh to plead (successfully) with the Lord High Treasurer for money to repair the choir and roof, and five years later the Kirk Session decided that the church should be enlarged to reflect and accommodate the increase in population and prosperity of the town. The elders and Heritors appointed no less an architectthan John Mylne (d 1657), of Edinburgh, the King's formerMaster Mason and Master of Works, to widen and extend the north aisle. By this time he had resigned these high offices in favour of his son and was living in Dundee, but was admitted as a burgess of Kirkcaldy, no doubt on account of 'the building of the Ile of the kirk of Kirkcaldie.' He had previously rebuilt Falkland Parish Church for Lord Scone in 1620; a church described in 1845 as being 'of no architectural beauty' before its demolition in favour of a new 'handsome and commodious type' of church. Mylne'swork created an additional 16 rows of seats and cost a total of £3000 paid in threeequal instalments, althoughthe final instalment; due on completion, which was in the summer of 1644; had still not been paid a year later.

This lack of care for the condition of Kirkcaldy's parish church continued with another century and a half of neglect and indifference, until eventually it was reported at the Session meeting of 10th December 1805 that 'On Saturday last, the day of preparation before the Sacrament . . . part of the slating of the church roof gave way and fell to the ground with a great noise during the time of Public Worship.' The condition of the roof had been giving cause for concern for some time and now the congregation was thoroughly alarmed, with some unwillingto attend communionand others scared away completely. At a meeting of the Town Council and Heritors it was agreed that the old building was beyond repairand so the Edinburgh architectbrothers, Archibald (1760-1823) and James Elliot (1770-1810) were appointed to prepare plans for the rebuilding, with the retention of the old tower. Up until then they had only worked on domestic commissions, although these were prestigious country housesand castles. The Kirk was probably the work of the youngerof the brothers, James, as Archibald was practising in London around that time while James remained in Scotland. Certainly the design, while competent enough, lacks the refinement and sophistication of Archibald's Guildhall in Dunfermline of 1807-11 or St Paul's Church in York Place, Edinburgh of just ten years later. Their plan showed the pews which were to be auctioned off to the highest bidders in order to raise the necessary funds for the new building. This raiseda total of £3,418 and as the estimate for the works was £3,000the contract was immediately put out to tender, and won by Alexander McFarlane of Perth with a remarkably low bid of £2,740 - almost a thousand pounds cheaper that either of the two tenders submitted by Kirkcaldy tradesmen.

The Masonic Lodge of St Brice promptly organised a procession for the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone on 5 February 1807, and Provost Ford was hastily inducted as a Master Mason on the day before in order to carry out the ceremony. A lead case containing a bottle with a golden guinea, half-guinea and a seven-shilling piece; three silver, and three copper coins, and an almanac, newspapers, and a list of the names of the magistrates and masonic office-bearers, remainsin a stone somewhere within the foundations of the church.

Unfortunately the builder'swildly optimistic tendercaught up with him and he was declared bankrupt, and local contractors had to complete the work. This skimping was to have disastrous consequences twenty years later when the gallery collapsed on 15 June 1826, and twenty-eight people were killed and one hundredand fifty injuredin the worst disaster to befall the town sincethe rout of the raggle-taggle army of farm workers, fishermen, and merchants who had believed the Covenanters and marched to their deaths at Kilsyth in August 1679.

The collapse occurred on a Communion Sunday when the famous preacher, Edward Irving, a former schoolmaster in the town and great friend of Thomas Carlyle, who had succeeded him in that post, returned to the town to preach at the Auld Kirk. He had been giving a series of lectures during the General Assembly, with crowds gathering at churches as early as 6am to hear him.

His return was eagerly awaited, and the church was packed to overflowing long before the start of the evening Communion Service. As he entered everyone in the north gallery rose and craned forward. The supports gave way and people both in and below the gallery were hurt in the collapse, and in the subsequent rush to escape. Two people were killed in the fall of the gallery, one a weaver, and the other a woman who was sitting between her sons, both of whom escaped. The other twenty-six were crushed to death in the lobby in the rush to escape. Accordingto a list published in The Scotsman three days later most of the victims were local except for the last: ‘A young lady - a stranger, who had in the first moment of alarm effected her escape, but returned in search of her mother, and perished.’

According to one eye-witness, "The scene that immediately ensued baffles all descriptions, the cloud of dust that arose, the prayers and supplications for mercy, the howlings, the groans and lamentations of the wounded, the frantic and terrific-like appearance of those emerging from the broken beams and rafters, are circumstances not easy to be effaced from the memories of those who were called upon to witness them."

After the accident the gallery was taken down, and rebuilt, and public subscriptions were opened for the benefit of the suffererswith £200 raised in Kirkcaldy, £130 in Edinburgh and £60 from other districts. Irving gave £10 from the collections at his Edinburgh lectures and spent several days calling on the relatives of those who died. This calamitous event made a considerable impression throughout the country, such that when the newly rebuilt churchat Ballingry openedtwo and a half yearslater the ministerwas so fearful of a similar calamity that the opening ceremony was kept as quiet as possible.

Oddly enough, almost exactly ten years earlier, on 20 October 1816, a very similar accident had happened in the relatively new (1802) parish church at Dysart when the minister, George Muirhead, who had accepted a call from Cramond, was to preach his farewell sermon.There was a good turn out and the church was crowded but just as the service was commencing an alarm was given that a part of the gallery was giving way. There was much uproar and people rushed about but fortunately no one was seriously hurt, although many people had their clothes torn. The minister subsequently had his intended sermon printed and distributed gratis among the congregation.

A similar collapse apparently occurred at Bethelfield (now Linktown) Church in 1829 when the overloaded gallery gave way resulting in the deaths of numerous worshippers.

The ministerresponsible for the report on the parishin the Old Statistical Account of 1791-3, the Rev Mr Thomas Fleming, was not particularly complimentary:

'The church ftands on an elevated fituation, on the top of the bank, which rifes immediately behind the town. It is a large unfhapely pile, that feems to have been reared at different times, to fuit the growing population of the parifh, and in the conftruction of which convenience has been more confulted than unity of defign or beauty. The nave or body of the church, is in the antient Gothic, or rather the Norman ftile of architecture; without buttreffes; with low femicircular arches, fupported by fhort thick columns, and having aifles behind them. The choir is fitted up in common with the nave for the reception of parifhioners; and a large wing has been added for their farther [sic] accommodation. Clofe to one end of the church ftands the fteeple; which in its original form was a plain, and not unhandfome fquare tower with a cornice, above which it was coveredwith a roof. But it has been raifed beyond its original height, by the addition of a fmaller, and a very difproportionate tower, terminating in a pyramid.'

A little later he continues:

'The church is old, how old is not exactly known. It is faid to have been dedicated to St Brisse;who in the days of fuperstition appears to have been the tutelar faint of the place, and who has entailed his name on a fmall divifion of the burgh lands, which is called in the fafines St Brisse, or St Bryce's Deal.'

Significantly, he then adds:

'The church is but in indifferent repair, nor could it well be otherwife, when neither the heritors nor town-council for more than 180 years have taken any charge of it. What repairs it has received during that time have been paid for by the kirk-feffion.'

When it came to the New Statistical Account the minister,writing in February 1843 was even less complimentary, and said:-

‘The parish church stands upon the rising ground to the north of the High Street, near the middle of the town, - a convenient situation for the population. It was erected in 1807. It is large and handsome, and Gothic in style. It is oblong, with the pulpit at the end of it, and contains 1500 sittings. The fitting up and finish of its interior are chaste, without any superfluity of ornament; and it has an air of elegance superior to what is commonly met with in churches in Scotland. The building, from it’s style and elevated situation, would be an ornament to the town, were its architectural effect not destroyed by part of an old tower being attached to the west end of it, which is not only in itself devoid of beauty, but is destitute of historical interest, and even of the common attraction of a ruin, which in the estimation of antiquarians, might have justified its preservation, to deface an elegant building, and offend the eye of strangers. It might indicate to strangers either a scarcity of money, or a want of taste in the inhabitants. Its removal, and the erection of a tower or spire, which would form a prominent and commanding object from Leithto the Frith [sic] of Forth, have long been projected and talked of, but have hitherto been prevented, chiefly from the difficulty of raising the requisite funds.’

A guidebook, which dates from c1860, the Handy-Book of the Fife Coast from Queensferry to Fifeness, by the Burntisland-born journalist Henry B Farnie, says that: 'The Parish Church stands midway up the Kirk Wynd, on a terraced eminence. It is a commonplace buildingof the early part of this century,with a heavy steeple-tower, the culminating spire of which the Heritors have postponed. A small grave-yard surrounds it, but with no illustrious dead, so far as we know.’

An altogether more authoritative guide was WilliamBallingall’s The Shores of Fife, published in 1873, and with numerous illustration, by the leading illustrators and artists of the day. all engraved by the author, including a frontispiece by Sir Noel Paton (1821-1901), the Queen\s Limner in Scotland, as well as many by his younger brother Walter H Paton (1848-1895); Sam Bough (1822-1878), Clark Stanton (1832-1894), and others. Ballingall was not only a talented writer, editor and engraver but was also an astronomer and lived in Upper Largo. In the chapter entitled the ‘Historical and Descriptive Notes on the Shores from Leven to Torryburn, including Dunfermline’ written by the Rev James S. Mill, of Leith, alongside an illustration engraved from a photograph, and labeled Kirkgate, Kirkcaldy, we read that:

‘Though old, there are few traces of the antiqueabout Kirkcaldy. Indeed,the only one deserving of mention is the unfinished dwarfish tower of the old church. Here in all likelihood stood of yore the rude, wattled, reed-thatched Culdee Kirk which gave its name to the place, and which eventually, as Culdeeism gradually gave way to Romanism, was supplanted by a more imposing and stately erection, of which the tower is the only part that remains.’

And just to rub it in he adds: ‘The town itself has very little to recommend it.’

The tower is the only part of the pre-Reformation church to remain and was probably built in the mid or late 15th century. It is rectangular in shape (NOT square, as claimed by the Minister in the OSA, and John Gifford in Buildings of Scotland, Fife), and is built of rough ashlar and measures 24 feet by 28 feet (7.3m x 8.3m) and is 55 feet (16.76m) to the top of the parapet and 66 feet (19.81m) overall, with the walls being five feet (1.5m) thick at the base. There is a single stringcourse a little over half way up and slim lancet windows to each face, and it is topped with a corbeled solid parapet within which is a smallbelfry added in 1799. The arched and hoodmoulded deep-set doorways to the tower were inserted in 1807 along with the new body of the church.

The Elliot kirk is essentially Georgian, with rather diminutive crowsteps and tall skinny mini bartizans at the corners and the east gable apex. Under this, and above the session house is a small louvred oculus and below it a larger sunburst oculus. This slim session-house was an after-thought and is slammed awkwardly into the east gable, and another smallflat-roofed session house was tacked on at the east end in 1961. The rather truculent-looking small flat-roofed porches to either side of the nave also look slightly awkward and ponderous. The windows to the church are tall with pointedarches and have hoodmoulds and stained glass of very good qualityand variety with designs by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) to the contemporary artists John Clark (b1957) and Crear McCartney (1931-2016) as well as Alexander Gascoyne of Nottingham (1877-1927). The more modern windows in the west gable were added after a fire in 1986 which sadly destroyed two of the oldest windows, dating from 1839. The Burne-Jones windows are in the east gable and are considered to be possibly the finest examples of his work in situ. Altogether the Kirk with its honey colouredstonework has a significant and attractive visual presence in the heart of the town.


Five days after having dedicated (or re-dedicated) Kirkcaldy Parish Church, Bishop de Bernham consecrated St Serf's Churchat Dysart - 'ecclsia de disarth'. He came from a family of prominent burgesses in Berwick and had been Chancellor of Scotland before becoming Bishop of St Andrews in 1240. His diocese stretched from Berwick-on-Tweed to Deeside and his rule extended through the the last eleven years or so of the reign of Alexander II, and, before he died he crowned the ill-fated Alexander III.

In the year of de Bernhams accession the Papal Legate, Cardinal Otto, was shocked to find that many churches, even including cathedrals, had not been properly consecrated with holy oil. He commanded that this should be done and so Bernham set to with gusto and by the 24th of August 1249 had dedicated, rededicated, or consecrated, a total of 140 of the 234 or so churches and chapels in his diocese, including twenty-eight in Fife.

His servicebook survives in the Biblioteque National in Paris and it describes how, on entering a church he held up the Cross, then slammed it down in the middle of the floor while crying out ”The Cross of Christ driveth out the foe. The Cross of Christ Triumpheth.”

This would be followed by a ritual cleansing by salt, ashes, water and wine, and the ceremony concluded with a Mass, as he satisfied himself the each church was adequately constructed and properly furnished for services. For example, at Auchterderran Parish Church he issued his usual injunctions and ordered that the churchyard should be enclosed and protected against ‘wild animals’ and that the minister was to wear a large and conspicuous tonsure, was not to eat or drink in taverns, except on a journey,and not to play dice, but lead a chaste and devoutlife. He was to reside near his church and not to marry anyone except before lawful witnesses. He could exercise no trade; nor dictate, or write, a sentence of death.

The chancel of the churchwas to be kept in repair by the rector,while the rest of the building was the responsibility of the parishioners.

The site of that original church was probably a little higher up from the shore and close to the Cave of Dysart in the grounds of Dysart House, now the Carmelite Home, and not where the remains of the present 'early sixteenth century' building stood. It was a relatively large church, 142ft (43.3m) long and48ft (14.63m) across,but this was before the north aisle

It was completely removed in the nineteenth century to make way for a direct road for coal wagons from the 'Engine Pit' to the harbour and its new dock. In the Old Statistical Account of 1792, the minister wrote that:

‘The church is old, its date unknown; tradition fays it was built by the Picts. The architect, if he intended it for preaching cannot be praifed for his contrivance. It is dark, the fide walls low, and the encumbrances of pillars, &c. fo many, that it is difficult to make the voice reach it. It does not feat above half the congregation. . . .

About a year ago, the kirk-feffion appliedto the heritors to make it more commodious. An architect was defired to infpect it, who gave in fome plans of alteration, and there the matter refts; but it is to be hoped the heritors will fee the neceffity of doing fomething foon.’

That church apparently emerged relatively unscathed from the Reformation, and it was not until 1747 when 'certain indwellers in Dunnikier' - the old name for Pathhead - broke away to form a Secession congregation, meeting first in a barn near the foot of the Path, and then in 1763 they built a church in Mid Street, Pathhead. In 1852 this became Dunnikier Free Church and in February 1901 they moved to JB Wilson's new church at the corner of Victoria Road and Dunnikier Road (now St Marie’s). They then moved once more in January 1973 to join with the Victoria Road Church, beforetheir latest move when they amalgamated with St John's at Bennochy.

Another secessiontook place in 1772, this time of around 800 or so members of the congregation seeking 'relief' 'for those oppressed in Christian principles.' They became the United Free congregation, and their old church by the harbour remained in use until 1802 when a new church was erected at Townhead, the first public building outwith the burgh walls. This simple classical style building was officially called the Established Church, more usually Dysart Parish Church, and eventually the Barony Church, and was designed by the Edinburgh architect Alexander Laing (d. 1823). He had built the former Dunnikier House (later Hotel, now Osborne House Hotel) and who also added rear wings and a west extension to Dysart House. The new church, built at a cost of between £1,800 and £2,000 with seating for 1,600 was said in the New Statistical Account to be “very plain, but substantial and comfortable. It presents a very striking contrast to the old parish church, which was built in Popishtimes, and was never fittedup in modern style, as a Protestant place of worship.” However, the guidebook, The Handy-Book of the Fife Coast from Queensferry to Fifeness, was again not impressed and noted that: 'The new Parish Church - a most excruciating building - is planted, with a grave-yard, near the railway.’

The Shores of Fife piece was a lot less harsh this time, saying:

‘Ecclesiastically, Dysart must have been a place of some importance. Passing over altogether the traditionary [sic] legends about St Serf and his connections with it, who flourished about the year 440, the majestic ruins of the stately old church close by the shore sufficiently indicate the fact. The great height of the tower, its fine proportions, and compact masonry, the Gothic aisles, the expansive arches, and the massive pillars of the edifice, strong in their very decay, all clearly bespeak it a place of no ordinary ecclesiastical consequence, and point to a time far back in the past when Dysart, religiously, was ‘a city set upon an hill’ to relieve the darkness of the surrounding district.’

The congregation joined with Dysart Parish church in 1972 and that church became a YMCA hall for some time and has now been skilfully converted to provide housing, while retaining the basic simplicity of the overall appearance.

A further, but amicable, breakaway occurred when those members of the church living in Pathheadand Sinclairtown wanted a church nearer home and so Pathhead 'Chapel of Ease' was built in 1823. Then, at the time of the 'Disruption' in 1843, the Minister of the Second Charge at Dysart gathered sufficient support and funds within two years to build a new Free Church at the end of West Quality Street which subsequently became a Masonic Hall.

A new young minister came from Lanarkshire in 1850 and his arrival was around the time that the power loom made its appearance in the burgh, bringing with it a fair amountof prosperity. He worked hard at raisingfunds for a new building to accommodate the increased congregation and chose the architect Campbell Douglas (1828-1910) as designer along with his partner James Sellars (1843-1888).

Douglas had been born at Kilbarchan, the son of the parish minister, and along with the rest of his siblings was educated up to university level by his father. In 1842 he was articled to JT Rochhead(1814-1878), (designer of the Wallace Monument at Stirling), and in the following year he, like his father, 'came out' and joined the newly formed Free Church who were to be among his most important clients in his early years of practice.

He left Glasgow in 1847 and travelled through England and Ireland before returning in 1855 or '56 to set up practice. However, much of his early work was in Fife where an older brother,Robert, had set up in business as an iron- founder and mechanical engineer(Douglas and Grant Ltd.) in Cupar in 1846, and in Kirkcaldy in 1854. Campbell Douglas with AB Morrison came second to Dunn and Findlay in 1894 in the design competition for the Adam Smith and Beveridge Hall.

Inverteil Free Church, built in in Links Street in 1857 (now the Coptic Church) was to be the first of over thirty churches designed by Douglas and his various partners. His North Leith Free Church, won in competition in 1858 brought him considerable acclaim, and he also won first premium in the competition for the Barclay Church in Bruntsfield, Edinburgh in 1861 although FT Pilkington secured the contract. In the same year he designed the Corn Exchangein Cupar, and after St Serf's he and Sellars won the competition for the design of the huge Cupar Free Church which opened in the Bonnygate in November 1878. Another competitive success was with the admirable Pathhead Halls of 1884, beating George Washington Browne, the Edinburgh architect, who went on to design the Swan Memorial building in Kirk Wynd.

The Romanesque-style church was completed in 1874, at a cost of £3500. It has been variously described as of Continental inspiration, either Dutch, Flemish or Italian;or like Aberlady Church in East Lothian,or, more likely,and closer to home, St Monans Church.Any resemblance to Aberlady is hard to detectnow as the Georgian body of that church was recast in 1886. Dysart Kirk is now B-listed, and at the laying of the foundation stone in 1873 Provost Don Swan of Kirkcaldy observed that this was the sixth time he had been present at such a ceremony for a Free Church. It is a particularly compact church built on a tightly constrained site which slopes steeply towards the south-east - and also contains a roofless doocot squeezed between it and the road to Leven. The church is cruciform on plan with a squat tower at the crossing topped by an equally squat broached spire with grey slates. The angles of the tower are clasped by very beefy buttresses.

The church is built of squared and snecked and dressed rubblewith bull- faced dressings, and the windows generally are round-headed.

On the 10th of October 1901, a series of large stencil mural decorations in his characteristic style were added between the aisle windows by the Glasgow architectCharles Rennie Mackintosh. For his labourshe was paid £10 - but they were then painted over in the 1920s and only ‘rediscovered’ in 2004, and the work has been painstakingly brought back into view by conservators. In his definitive and magisterial 1952 book Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement, (chapter VIII, Miscellaneous Projects and Liverpool Cathedral, p.181), Thomas Howarth wrote:

"St Serf's Dysart Fife

'It is most unusual to come across work by Mackintosh far outside the Glasgow area, and yet, circa 1900, he carried out a scheme of decoration at St Serf's Church, Dysart, Fifeshire. . . the exact date is unknown, and all traces of it have long since disappeared. . . The author believes, however, that a picture in Koch's Dekorative Kunst IX (March 1902, p. 210) of which no mention is made in the text, represents the completed work. This depicts a section of wall decorated by stencilled pattern very similar in form and character to that used in the early Tea Rooms. The design symbolised the dove of peace and the tree of knowledge, the latter consisting of three rings representing good, evil and eternity. The illustration naturally does not allow one to estimate the success or otherwise of the colour scheme, but the emblems arranged in groups of three betweensemi-circular headed windows, appear to have been most effective. Unfortunately a schism occurred in the church circa 1922; the original congregation is now scattered and it has not been possible to glean more information from this source.'The book can be seen at Edinburgh Central Library, and a photograph is apparently held at the NationalLibrary. My own copy was bought from Foyles in Charing Cross Road with money from a student vacation job.

Unfortunately it is not permitted to photograph the stencils and so, other than visiting the church, his description will have to suffice. External renovations costing £179,000 were completed in 2009 as part of a major restoration programme for the whole building at a cost of around £400,000, to deal with problems of damp, etc. New lighting and heating and a change in the seating were also included in the works. Some cracking at high level proved to be superficial and the ground beneath, although in the middle of a mining area, seems by test boringsto be sound enough, althoughsubsidence damage has affected the next-door Dysart Community Hall.

In 1929 the church re-joined the Church of Scotland to then become Dysart Parish Church,later Dysart St Serf’s, and, after all its numerouslocations and iterations, is now Dysart St Claire Church.

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