Rev Finlay McAllister
I have written on several occasions in these blogs about churches and in particular church buildings . Crieff has had over the last two centuries a host of large and small places of worship . Some like the old Relief Church hidden and inaccessible between Addison Terrace and High Street are sad remnants of different way of life . Of all the church buildings in Crieff , two I find unique and worthy of preservation .The Catholic Church in Ford Road is a wee gem having been built in 1871 to the design of Andrew Heaton Jr who believe it or not designed Keillour Castle near Methven some eight years later . My other favourite is the dominant sand stone edifice of the old Crieff Free Kirk and latterly designated the Crieff South and Monzievaird Church . Built in 1881- 82 to the design of JJ Stevenson and Robert Ewan it is modelled on nearby Dunblane Cathedral and is built from Alloa sandstone , a richer coloured and more workable stone than its local equivalent. Sadly it has been lying empty since 2006 and the last Minister ,The Rev Henry AG Tait, better known as Sandy , died last year .
The story about its construction and history is a fascinating tale of Victorian Presbyterian hypocrisy and dissension and not a little skulduggery ! It starts at the time of the “ Disruption “ in 1843 when 450 Ministers walked out of the General Assembly of the Established Presbyterian Church of Scotland – the Kirk as it was generally known .The reasoning behind this was over the rights of the congregation to choose their own Minister and not appoint someone chosen by the local Laird or the person who was seen locally as the “ Lord of the Manor “ in an English context . Known as “patronage “ it was deeply resented by many Scots Presbyterians and it was reason that they all got up and walked away from the Assembly . In Crieff there were at the time , two Established Church of Scotland churches , the Parish Church in what is now Church Street and the West Church on the Comrie Road which was a
“ Chapel of Ease “ or an extension to the main church . The Minister was one Finlay McAlister who had been appointed in 1839 when the church opened . McAlister appears to have been a fairly strong individual if perhaps not a bit opinionated ! We have an account of his demeanour in the little pamphlet produced in 1982 to mark the church’s centenary :
“ He seemed to be at loggerheads with one of his elders Alexander Menteith of Broich House, perhaps because both men were autocratic and unbending. Whether there was any other reason for their antagonism is not recorded but certainly Mr Menteith was not happy until the Minister
McAllister had been born in the Parish of Rothesay in the Island of Bute – incidentally the same place that my maternal ancestors hailed from over many generations . He had quickly determined that the secession from the Kirk and the setting up of an independent Free Church was what had to be done . He must have been a persuasive individual because the vast majority of his congregation supported his decision . This began some four years of vituperative behaviour from both the seceeders and the establishment . McAllister and his followers refused to leave the building . The bitter tension eventually saw the Church of Scotland achieve a valid title to the building and a legal enforcement was enacted to get the keys handed over and the protesters summarily ejected . They did not leave however in a passive mood or indeed in the spirit of Christian fellowship ! Our Victorian Presbyterian forbearers had a pretty strong feeling of “ we are right and you are wrong “! Before departing the building they wrote the word “ Ichabod ! ” on the walls and defaced many of the pews .The term Ichabod was a biblical reference to the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament and indicates that the building was no longer the House of God . The break away congregation did more than just desecrate the building , they took away the Communion Plate and all the Church documents bar one ! It was nearly one hundred years before they were duly returned !
Religion played an important part in the Scottish way of life in the 19th Century . The national or established church , the Presbyterian Church of Scotland had throughout the 18th and into the 19th Century held a strong grip over the morality and general behaviour in most of Scotlands’s 900 plus parishes . The Kirk Session ( the committee of senior members of the congregation or elders ) ruled in a virtual dictatorial manner and could summon members to appear before them or indeed the whole congregation to “ seek repentance “ for crimes ranging from adultery to milking your cows on a Sunday morning ! Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns was a regular occupant of the penance seat in his local church . Burn’ s penned the phrase “ the fornication police “ for that august body of men !
The Church of Scotland endured numerous breakaways and “ disruptions ” or schisms over the years . The first of many occurred in 1733 and it was over the question of patronage an issue that was to raise its head again more than a century later . After 1843 there were more adherents in Crieff of the non Established Presbyterian Churches than the of the original body . The two largest were the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church which were to amalgamate in 1900 . It would appear from the records that many of the town’s leading citizens and local land owners were members of the breakaway bodies .Apart from Menteith of Broich ( Menteith Street iss named after him ) there were others such as Dr Thom of McDuff Lodge , Mrs McDougall who was a Wright of Milnab Tannery . She donated £ 1000 to the Free Kirk plus £ 200 to aid the poor in or around 1870 - a large sum of money at that time . Lewis Miller - the ploughboy who made a fortune out of timber and built Bennachie ( Richmond Hosuse ) when only in his 30s paid for the cost of the steeple to the UP North Church to ensure it was at least 3 feet taller than the adjoining Parish Church !
The newly formed Free Kirk in Crieff had left the old Kirk in a somewhat shaky state . Problems occurred over filling the vacancy in the West Kirk now that Mr McAllister and his followers had departed .The following was written in 1912 in Porteous ‘ History of Crieff :
For some years there was no settled minister , the pulpit being filled by members of the Presbytery or licentiates . Finally one Mr Mucklewraith was chosen , who is only remembered from the circumstance that on one occasion he rebuked the members for coughing in Church . He was succeeded by a Mr Law ,who left in 1856. Both of these were shadowy ministers , whose names are barely remembered “.
After being ejected from the West Kirk the Free Churchers arranged a temporary use of the premises of the old established Crieff Masonic Lodge in Comrie Street . They then procured a site in Commissioner Street and erected a simple structure that today is the Crieff Primary School Dining Hall .
The first Free Church in Commissioner Street
With the congregation expanding a move was made to construct something considerably grander . They had already built a “ mission hall “ and bought a site at th junction of Comrie street and Coldwells Road – very close to their old base of the West Kirk . It opened for worship in August 1882 . The design was imaginative and based on many of the features of Dunblane Cathedral . An impressive feature was the 130’ high steeple which still dominates much of the landscape in this western part of the town. It perhaps was a sign of growing “ women power ” as the Victorian era drew slowly to a close , that the church bell was gifted by the female members of the congregation from monies raised .
A somewhat unique picture showing the Free Kirk under construction in 1881
In 1929 the breakaway was healed when the Free Kirk ( now known as the United Free Church ) at last re-joined the established Church of Scotland . As the years passed Crieff found itself with a multiplicity of church buildings and dwindling congregations . In 2006 it eventually closed as a church and although it functioned for a short while as an antique centre it too eventually shut its doors . This grand building was sadly slipping into the inevitable decay pattern – a malaise that seems to strike small towns like Crieff .
There is however a glimmer of hope on the horizon as a local design and build company have lodged a planning application to transform the building into a 13 bed roomed hotel to include a Hammam-style spa and self-catering accommodation. The church tower, inspired by Dunblane Cathedral will be turned into a VIP guest suite, with a bedroom at the top of the structure. The ground floor would house seven rooms and the Moroccan-style spa .
It would be a great reprieve for a great building . Wonder what old McAllister is thinking about up there !