Ian Scott: A new lease of life for Falkirk’s West Church

Falkirk West,  now People's Church, in West Bridge Street
Falkirk West, now People's Church, in West Bridge Street

Falkirk is by any standard a very old town with a history that goes back beyond the Roman invaders who built their fort here in the second century.

However the town we see today is relatively modern and in this article I want to look back at our oldest public building, the former West Church, which opened in 1799. The building’s other claim to fame is that it has been used continuously for its original purpose, Christian worship, and has been home to the evangelical People’s Church since 1991.

The origins of the congregation go back to the mid-18th century when the Church of Scotland was riven by internal strife which had led Ebenezer Erskine to breakaway in 1733. Now 30 years later came a second secession triggered by the minister of Carnock near Dunfermline, Thomas Gillespie. Like Erskine, he was unhappy about the interference of the state in religious affairs and walked out of his church and set up a new denomination for “the relief of Presbyterians oppressed in their religious practice”. Others followed including Falkirk which was the 12th congregation to join the new ‘‘Relief Church’’ in 1767. At first meetings were held at Mumrills Farm and in the open air in Vicar Street (on the site of the old Post Office) but by 1774 the congregation was strong enough to build a small meeting house on West Bridge Street which served for 25 years. New members appeared from parishes throughout the district and this led, in 1799, to the erection of the present building which had seating for 1500 worshippers. It was a plain building without the elaborate entrance we see today.

During the construction tragedy struck. The roof scaffolding collapsed and the slater James Stirling of Dunblane and one of his workmen were killed. The architect Thomas Stirling of Falkirk was seriously injured and never worked again. Despite this bad omen the congregation flourished and many of the town’s most influential citizens were members. In 1819 a new graveyard was laid out to the west of the building and on Christmas Day that year Isabel Steel of Bainsford granary became the first person buried there. In 1832 a separate session house with hall and library was built on West Bridge Street in front of the church. From 1847 the congregation was part of the new United Presbyterian Church having joined at national level with the former Erskine congregations. The familiar honey coloured entrance in the Italian classical style with its arched doorway and head of King David was added in 1883 and the old session house was later demolished.

The 20th century brought mixed fortunes for the congregation. There were reunions in 1900 with the Free Church and in 1929 with the Church of Scotland and from that date it became the West Church of Scotland. In 1972 the stones were removed from the graveyard to create a garden of remembrance with a handful left around the walls. It is certainly a peaceful place but how much more remembrance we might have enjoyed if we could read the names and recall the stories of past lives? It is also looking a bit the worse for wear at the moment so a little TLC would not go amiss!

Declining numbers hastened the end of the congregation’s independence. Union in 1990 with St Andrew’s and a move to Newmarket Street meant an empty building which was sold the following year to the People’s Church. Their success has meant that its life as a place of worship continues and the future looks bright.