‘Disruption’ unleashed passion in Falkirk

Rev. Lewis Hay Irving, formerly of Abercorn, the first Minister of Falkirk Free Church
Rev. Lewis Hay Irving, formerly of Abercorn, the first Minister of Falkirk Free Church

The beautiful red sandstone St Andrews Church in Newmarket Street is one of Falkirk’s most attractive buildings as well as a tangible link to a key event in Scotland’s long history and to one of our town’s greatest men.

In 1843 the Church of Scotland suffered the most catastrophic of many divisions known as the ‘Disruption’. Across the country over 500 ministers walked out of their churches and manses to form the Free Church of Scotland, independent of the ‘established’ church.

Without homes or stipends they threw themselves on the generosity of the thousands who left with them. On paper it was an argument about ‘patronage’, that is who had the right to choose a minister, but in reality it was a struggle for the heart and soul of the church between evangelical churchmen and the moderate of the established church who took a less fundamental approach to theology and were closer to the wealthy powers-that-be.

In Falkirk the parish minister William Begg, although very sympathetic to the breakaway group, stayed where he was. However, many leading members of his congregation left and formed the first Falkirk Free Church, meeting in a small chapel in Cistern Lane behind High Street. From there they called Rev. Lewis Hay Irving, formerly of Abercorn, to be their first minister.

It proved to be a master- stroke not only for the new church but also for the town. In due course Mr Irving went on to be a community leader and champion, playing a major role in bringing about a huge number of improvements to the town, which in turn helped put an end to the scourge of cholera and typhus and lifted many abandoned men, women and children out of abominable social conditions.

In November 1844, just a year after he arrived in Falkirk, Mr Irving, who was a skilled architect, designed a fine new church building for his growing congregation in Garrison Place where the Post Office stands today. He went on to establish a Free Church congregation in Shieldhill (1866) and a few years later started a mission church in Camelon which after his death became the Irving Memorial Church – now Camelon Parish Church.

Lewis Hay Irving’s busy life of service in Falkirk came to an end in 1877 leaving behind a large and influential congregation which in 1896 moved from Garrison Place to the magnificent Gothic building designed by James Strang and built on what had been the manse garden of the Parish Church. The building, with its 130-foot spire, was built by McLauchlans of Larbert at a cost of £8100.

Just four years after the opening, the national Free Church joined in a union with other earlier breakaway congregations to form the United Free Church, which in Falkirk linked the Erskine and the West churches with the Free Church which adopted the name St Andrews. In 1929, along with the Parish Church, they were all once again united as the Church of Scotland.

Despite all the rancour which accompanied the Disruption in 1843 there is no doubt that the zeal and passion for social justice unleashed by the great breakaway served Scotland well and nowhere more than Falkirk where a gifted and dedicated man made our town a better place to live for people of all religions and none.