Last week the Herald reported that Falkirk’s two oldest Church of Scotland congregations are possibly merging.
Falkirk Old and St Modan’s and Erskine have been part of the national church since the reunion of 1929 but their separation as congregations takes us back to the early 18th century when the Minister of Stirling, Ebeneezer Erskine, led a breakaway from what was referred to as ‘the establishment’.
He and a group of like-minded ministers thought there was too much interference by the state in church affairs and believed congregations should make their own decisions.
Having walked out of their churches and manses in 1733 they attracted support across the country, including Falkirk. By 1737 there was a ‘society’ promoting Erskine’s ideas and the following December, just 275 years ago, the Falkirk Associate Congregation was formed by seven elders of the Parish Church and new adherents.
It took several years to secure a place of worship or a minister and the Sunday gatherings were held in various farm houses like Lochgreen and Randyford. By 1742 they had the support to build a ‘meeting house’ in Silver Row to hold almost 1000 people which served the Erskine congregation until 1905.
Many Falkirk folk will remember the building in its final days as the Roxy Theatre with the old abandoned graveyard in the Horsemarket Lane. Early records show that the church was successful and despite further breakaways (including the one that created the Tattie Kirk) the building required regular modernisation.
The normal Sunday attendance in the mid-1800s exceeded 1200 with 900 having to pay for their places. The improvement may have something to do with the church installing gas lighting in 1838 and a stove heater seven years later.
By the end of the century, the congregation, by then called the Erskine United Free Church following a series of mergers with other breakaway groups, raised more than £9000 to replace their old crumbling meeting house and the result is the handsome church that now dominates the junction of Cockburn Street, Major’s Loan and Hodge Street.
The architect was William Black, Falkirk’s finest, and the new Gothic building with seating for 745 was opened by Professor MacEwan of New College, Edinburgh who described it as “a beautiful building, handsome in its proportions, cheerful and yet reverent in its tone, a most worshipful and most graceful church.”
A fine stained glass window by Stephen Adam and a ‘tubular pneumatic’ pipe organ proved that the new building was fit for the modern era. The man who inspired this period’s congregation, Rev. James Aitchison, was one of Falkirk’s most eminent Victorians.
Before the end of his 55-year ministry he had witnessed the heavy loss of life by his congregation in World War I and the start of the decline in church membership. On a happier note, in 1929, the year before his death, the centuries old divisions in the church were healed and Erskine Parish Church of Scotland was born.
Whatever the outcome of the present negotiations the contribution of this congregation over three centuries to the Falkirk story will never be forgotten.